Alabama's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
September 28, 2010
Deer can be found in every corner of the Yellowhammer State, but some areas produce far more of them than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a whitetail. (October 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr.
Conditions could be shaping up for this to be one of the best falls in years for Cotton State deer hunting.
A late freeze in early April that affected much of Alabama was expected to lead to at least a partial mast failure. Drought conditions also gripped much of the state during the early-summer months.
Those factors could make food scarce in the deer woods this fall, and that generally leads to more deer movement and better hunter success. "It's tough on the deer, and carrying them through the winter," said Chris Cook, the state's leading deer biologist, "but it helps the hunters."
Deer movement also relies at least partially on getting some good cold weather to make the animals stir. "We saw how critical weather is for deer movement last season," Cook noted. "We had cold weather early and late in the season, and the hunting was very good. But we had warm weather in the middle. I talked to several processors, and they saw very few deer brought in during the warm spell. Our deer hunting is more dependent on good cold weather than most people think."
Deer continue to thrive in every corner of the Cotton State nowadays, with folks on the outskirts of Birmingham reporting bucks scraping and rubbing in the woods behind their homes. The overall deer harvest seemed to be up somewhat last year, not least in the state's network of wildlife management areas, and opportunities to harvest deer of either sex continue to abound throughout the state.
The slowing of deer movement by the state's hot weather notwithstanding, Alabama's hunters still have it much better than do their brethren in many other states. Consider the many states that have only one or two weeks of gun hunting and maybe a month or six weeks of bow season: Alabama has three and a half months of deer hunting if you combine the archery and gun seasons.
"It should be another pretty good year," Cook offered. "If the lack of food plays out like it's shaping up, it could be a super year. But we need hunting weather with daytime temperatures at least down in the 50s."
The general health of the herd continues to be good. Biologists continue to test about 800 deer carcasses a year from all around the state for chronic wasting disease, and it has yet to show up in Alabama.
The number of hunters using the public WMA system was up slightly last year; Cook, who believes this to be just normal fluctuation, speculated that favorable weather on days of gun hunts, especially on opening day and Thanksgiving weekend, brought more hunters to the woods.
The state also brought a new WMA on line last year: Perdido River WMA, near the coast. A few of the extra man-days of hunting were expended there, Cook said.
Generally speaking, the portion of Alabama from Birmingham south harbors the most deer -- but that's not one of those hard-and-fast rules. Cook noted that several of the top deer-producing WMAs are actually in the northern half of the state.
The either-sex seasons are set to be expanded in some of the north-central counties this year. Some places will go to a full season of either-sex hunts. "There's no shortage of deer from one end of the state to the other," Cook asserted.
The WMAs continue to be worthy places for plying the art of Cotton State deer hunting, in part because the pressure on the WMAs has tapered off significantly as more private lands now provide opportunities. "Someone may say, 'Well, 500 people showed up for that opening day hunt on the WMA,'" Cook said. "But they have to remember that the size of the property they're talking about may be 45,000 acres. That's less of a hunter density than most private clubs have."
If you're planning on becoming a WMA hunter, Cook advises you to touch base with the area biologist for the tract you plan to hunt. Specific questions to ask: When does the rut occur at the area? And what are usually the best hunting dates?
"Opening day and the Thanksgiving weekend are really good times to be hunting on a lot of these WMAs," Cook said. "A few like Oakmulgee have a December rut, and really good hunts in December. A lot of others such as Barbour and Lowndes have excellent hunting in January. It pays to find out when the best hunting is."
If you're willing to put in some time and effort, you can tap into some great hunting all across the state by making useof the WMAs.
That said, let's look at some of the different areas of the state, public and private, that tend to yield the most whitetails.
The territory overseen by Ron Eakes, the state's district biologist in the northwestern corner of the state, includes Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker counties. This district offers outstanding prospects for public land deer hunting, with some 170,000-plus acres of WMAs and national forests available for hunting.
According to Eakes, the largest deer populations can be found in the southernmost counties of the district: Lamar, Fayette and Marion. "Those counties are also producing some excellent-quality deer," he said. "But our hunters have got to keep up the pressure on the antlerless deer to keep that from changing."
In speaking of the antlerless harvest, Eakes observed that hunters need to be careful about shooting fawns. If you shoot young deer, you inevitably end up killing some button bucks and that has the potential to affect your hunting in the future.
"If you're watching some kind of wildlife opening, the first deer that shows up alone is more than likely a fawn," he cautioned. "Wait until more deer show up before you shoot. Preferably, you'll have at least three deer on the plot so you can shoot the big one."
If you really look closely, Eakes added, fawns have a "puppy-dog" look, with square heads, while mature animals are characterized by long noses and ears.
Public lands in this district that are known for high deer numbers are Sam R. Murphy and Wolf Creek. Eakes said that both have plenty of whitetails.
A tip that Eakes has for hunters targeting the WMAs: Hunt the afternoons. "It has been my observation that a lot of hunters show up, hunt until lunch and th
en go home," he explained. "I think the afternoon is an overlooked time period on the WMAs, especially on the gun hunts. If a deer has been spooked into the thick in the morning, and then things quiet down, he's going to try to sneak out and grab a mouthful of food late in the afternoon."
The freeze in early April hit much of this district, and, in Eakes' view, it may very well have caused a reduction in this fall's mast crop -- resulting, as mentioned earlier, in more deer movement.
The northeastern corner of the state is made up of Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, Blount, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega counties. Randy Liles is acting as supervising biologist following the retirement of Keith McCutcheon last spring.
High-quality private lands here are Jackson County and the counties in the southernmost part of the district such as Cleburne, Clay and Randolph. "All of the WMAs in our district are good," Liles reported. "But the better ones for deer numbers are Choccolocco and Martin-Skyline."
Both of those areas typically rank every year among the top five in the state for numbers of deer harvested. Both have either-sex hunts early in the season that are among the best of the year. "We have a week-long hunt on Choccolocco the week of Thanksgiving that is an excellent hunt," Liles said. "Skyline has an either-sex draw hunt on opening day that is a good one."
And both areas are large: Skyline boasts 40,000-plus acres, while Choccolocco pushes 60,000 acres, affording plenty of room in which to roam in order to find an area that deer are using. "The mistake I see people making is hunting the same old spots they hunt every year," Liles noted. "They would probably be better off finding some new country that is a little rougher."
A good deal of habitat work in the form of timber cutting and controlled burning is taking place at both areas. By opening up the forest canopy and promoting the growth of browse, this work is really helping the herd.
The central-western portion of the state is composed of Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties. This is the part of the state where Chris Cook works.
Most of the region allows either-sex hunting for the full 70 days of gun season, indicating the high number of deer present there. "Our best hunting is probably in Pickens, Sumter, Green and Tuscaloosa counties," Cook suggested.
Landowners or hunting clubs in any area in this district can eventually make their places outstanding deer venues by shooting does, letting young bucks walk and improving their food situations with plantings.
The district has four wildlife management areas -- all of them good, said Cook. But the best ones for deer numbers are probably Oakmulgee and Demopolis. A substantial amount of habitat work continues to be done on the 45,000 acre Oakmulgee area.
Hunters wanting to tap the best hunting at Demopolis will need a boat, since the area is on the Tombigbee River and much of it is accessible only by water.
East-central Alabama is another region that boasts outstanding hunting for high-grade bucks. The counties in this region are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes. Rick Claybrook is the biologist.
"Our deer hunting continues to be very stable," he said. "We had a pretty good season last year, with some cold weather at the end that really helped."
The late freeze that hit more-northernly areas last spring didn't do as much damage here, he added, but they were still dealing with drought conditions going into the critical summer growing season.
Some of the better counties to hunt in here are Montgomery, Lowndes, Macon and Bulloch, all of which contain highly fertile Black Belt prairie areas. Coosa and Lowndes are among the WMAs with large complements of deer.
The southwestern corner of the state has a big deer population, as is evidenced by the need for 70 days of either-sex hunting. The counties in this region are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia, and Steve Barnett is the biologist. "Washington and Mobile counties are my top picks for deer numbers," he said.
The area WMAs that he likes are Scotch, in Clarke County, and Boykin, in Washington and Mobile counties; the new Perdido WMA is also in this district, and though it too hosts quite a few whitetails, the biologist said, it can be hard to hunt because of the thick vegetation there.
Barnett is working closely with private-land managers in this region of the state to assist in efforts to recover from the ravages of 2005's hurricanes. Lots of timber was lost to the storms, and now the new growth is very thick, so he's writing prescriptions for private-land managers to help them reclaim their woodlands for hunting.
The southeastern corner of the state is made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston; Bill Gray is the district biologist. Overall, the district has outstanding deer numbers. The best populations are in the more-rural areas of Barbour, Pike and Crenshaw, Gray said. Blue Spring and Barbour WMAs offer the best public deer hunting.
The entire county of Barbour just completed its second season of quality deer management (QDM), under which a buck had to have at least 3 points on one side to be legal. "It's still early to tell what that is doing for us, but the hunting public seems to like it," Gray remarked.
On the management areas, the best hunts are the first ones in November and then the mid-January sessions. "We have a Thursday, Friday, Saturday hunt Jan. 16-18 on Barbour that should be one of our best," Gray said.
The biologist advised hunters new to the area to arrive a day early to scout out a spot or two to hunt. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen hunters show up on the area for the first time at 4:30 the morning of the hunt when it's pitch black and ask me where's a good place to go," he recalled. "There's no way I can point them in the right direction under those conditions."
Whether you want to travel or stay close to home in the 2007-08 season, plenty of public action awaits all over the Cotton State. If the weather's favorable, good hunting should be just ahead for Alabama's sportsmen on both private and public grounds.