In the mid-state area, there are a couple of large wildlife management areas that offer public deer hunts. Here's a look at the action on the Hollins and Oakmulgee tracts for this year.
Photo by Michael H. Francis
By Zack Glover
Thirty years ago, a couple of hundred dollars would buy a membership in a hunting club just about anywhere in Alabama. That's when huge tracts of timberland could be leased for as little as $1 per year per acre. Nowadays, joining a club with decent holdings often costs 10 times that amount. Sportsmen's disposable incomes have not kept pace with that rise.
Now is the time to take advantage of the greatest bargain available to Cotton State deer hunters - access to tens of thousands of acres of land for a mere $16. That's the extra cost of a wildlife management area license to go with your regular hunting license. Those WMAs are located in every corner of Alabama, and most can be bowhunted from mid-October through the end of January. Additionally, there are limited opportunities for riflemen as well.
The Oakmulgee and Hollins WMAs, in central Alabama, are two of the most popular of these public hunting parcels.
The biggest news to come out of Oakmulgee in years broke in 1998, when a non-typical whitetail grossing more than 180 inches was shot by a hunter from Vinemont.
Matt Perry and his dad, Ray, left Cullman County shortly after midnight to be among the first in line to get permits from the WMA check station. They arrived about 3 a.m., only to discover that they needn't have forfeited the sleep.
Although it was the day after Christmas, the rain kept most deer hunters indoors. The men saw nary a soul en route to their hunting spot. The WMA spans nearly 45,000 acres in Bibb, Hale, Tuscaloosa and Perry counties, but the Perrys were hunting on the Bibb County side. Their hunt produced the largest buck ever recorded from Oakmulgee.
In 2002 an even bigger whitetail came to light, though no hunter got to claim the honor of downing it.
Jeff Makemson of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has served as Oakmulgee's area biologist for more than a decade. He got a report of a hunter literally stumbling across two dead bucks with their racks locked. The largest taped out at 212 inches of antler, while the "little" one measured in the high 160s. They, too, once roamed the mostly piney woods on the Bibb County side.
"We've got them," Makemson assured. "Of course, that doesn't mean they'll be seen."
This past season was not very good for Alabama deer hunters, and the same held true at Oakmulgee. Although there were more hunters, far fewer deer were taken - 172 vs. 217 the previous year. But it's not because there are fewer deer, Makemson argued.
"We've never had so many deer," he noted. "I know that this is the most we've had in the 11 years I've been here. I blame the low harvest on poor acorn production."
On the bright side, Makemson has been there long enough to know the cyclic nature of the oaks. The coming season should be outstanding, unless there's a drought. The biologist expects the number of deer harvested to jump between 25 and 30 percent.
Of course, acorns are not the only food source within the WMA. The state plants wheat, oats, rye and clover in numerous food plots that are accessible only by foot. Most of these are marked on the maps given to hunters.
"We're sort of famous for our green fields," Makemson said proudly. "If you see a gate, chances are that there's a food plot somewhere behind it. We've planted them as close as 200 yards from the gates, for people who cannot walk great distances, and as far as two miles."
Another favorite food source, particularly in the piney tracts in Bibb County, is honeysuckle. In fact, Matt Perry shot his buck as it munched on the tender leaves.
Since the WMA lies within the Talladega National Forest, Oakmulgee Division, another big plus for hunters is the vast network of roads, most of which are suitable even for cars. Makemson noted that the roads aren't as great as they were five years ago, when the U.S. Forest Service had the funds from timbering to maintain them.
Speaking of timbering, you may notice increased logging in the coming years as the Forest Service steps up its removal of mature loblolly pines but not hardwoods. Makemson said that they're turning away from the fast-growing species in favor of replenishing the forest with the native longleaf pines.
As a rule, the bow season coincides with the statewide season, Oct. 15 through Jan. 31. A one-day hunter's-choice youth gun hunt is held in mid-November, followed by four Friday-Saturday gun hunts in late November, December and early January. You also can expect a couple of midweek two-day primitive weapons hunts, when both bucks and does are legal.
By the way, the rut peaks in mid-December on Oakmulgee.
The deer are fewer in number and run slightly larger at 29,200-acre Hollins WMA, in Clay and Talladega counties. While a 170-pounder is the exception at Oakmulgee, it's more the rule among mature bucks at Hollins. Hollins' bucks also have the edge in antler development. It is not uncommon for one-third of the racks worn by 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks to have eight or more points!
Gene Carver, the DWFF biologist in charge, has kept watch over the Hollins tract for more than a decade. The best buck he's seen come off the place was a 9-pointer with a 24-inch inside spread. He has also seen a couple that tipped the scales at close to 230 pounds.
The deer harvest on this WMA can be directly linked to the number of hunters prowling the woods on any given hunt. But it is not as simple as more hunters equal more guns and more dead deer. On WMAs, increased hunting pressure keeps deer on the move. The fewer the hunters, the easier it is for deer to find refuge.
The number of folks at Hollins is generally influenced by the hunt dates at other WMAs and the weather.
"When ours is the only hunt in the area and it's a nice day, they'll come," Carver said. "The Coosa and Choccolocco WMAs and even the Barbour WMA draw from the same pool of hunters.
"When we do have a lot of folks - like close to 2,000 people - we have had as many as six bucks weighing more than 200 pounds come in on one day," Carver co
ntinued. "The majority of people depend upon hunting pressure to move the deer. First-time visitors should find a place near where a large number of people are hunting, put up a tree stand, and then stay all day. We have a lot of deer killed between 9 a.m. and noon, when hunters are moving around a lot."
Hollins is very popular among bowhunters. Archers account for half the deer taken there.
Bowhunters have plenty of stand options. They can watch one of the 120 food plots on the WMA or set up among the myriad oaks found in the rolling Appalachian foothills. There are both hardwoods and mature stands of longleaf pine, all accessible via 70 miles of roads.
Perhaps the best and most popular time to visit Hollins is during the rut's peak in January. The deer that were stocked in this part of the state originated in southwest Alabama and retain their late-rut instincts.
The gun hunts at Hollins are organized a little differently. Last year, there were two Saturday-only hunts and two seven-day hunts in early December and mid-January. Blackpowder rifle hunters were given a Wednesday and Thursday in December, and they could shoot either sex.
Season-long bowhunting permits and those for the two weeklong gun hunts may be obtained by sending a request and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Gene Carver, P.O. Box 27, Hollins, AL 35082. They're also available at various stores in the Sylacauga area.
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