While the weather is cold and sometimes harsh, hunting and fishing options in Alabama still abound in the winter months.
By Greg McCain
While the winds blow cold across much of Alabama in winter, the hunting and fishing action continues as hot as ever.
A state rich in both hunting and fishing opportunities, Alabama boasts diverse outdoor venues that serve as winter adventures for both hunters and anglers. From north to south, the hunting and fishing options are many.
The hunting season is in full swing with deer season at its peak across much of the state. Not to be left out, anglers adapt techniques to trigger the winter bite, from one side of the state to the other.
TENNESSEE RIVER WATERFOWL
The epicenter of Alabama waterfowl is situated in the extreme northeast corner of the state. That stretch of Lake Guntersville along the Tennessee River in Jackson County has long been a premier waterfowl destination. Located just to the east of Scottsboro, various state wildlife management areas are managed to attract waterfowl, such as Mud Creek, Raccoon Creek and Crow Creek.
"We had a good year last year, and we have high expectations for another good year this year," said Seth Maddox, waterfowl coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. "The numbers always fluctuate a little from year to year, but the areas in Jackson County can be really good."
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Wood ducks remain the top target for Alabama hunters, but Maddox says to expect to see a diverse mix. In addition to the woodies, gadwalls are numerous because of their liking for the abundant aquatic vegetation found in the river.
Maddox also says the region has seen a slight increase in the number of divers, such as redheads and canvasbacks, perhaps due to the proliferation of eel grass in the river in recent years.
The explosion in waterfowl hunters has reached a plateau of about 30,000 hunters, according to Maddox. This number represents an increase of about 65 percent over the past 10 years, so expect a crowd in Jackson County and other sections of Lake Guntersville.
Because of the pressure, a significant change will take place on the managed areas in Jackson County this year. A Tuesday-through-Thursday resting period for the birds will be instituted through most of the year with hunting allowed Fridays through Mondays.
The full waterfowl season — geese and teal are available earlier in the year — runs Nov. 24-25, resumes Dec. 2 and continues through Jan. 28. The midweek, no-hunting restrictions will be lifted for the final two weeks of the season.
"We have the same amount of habitat for an increasing number of hunters," Maddox said. "We've made these changes to take some of the pressure off the birds."
Other changes include a reduction in the pintail limit from two birds to one, and an increase in the black duck limit from one to two birds.
In addition to the areas in Jackson County, Maddox also notes opportunities on another popular Tennessee River WMA: Swan Creek near Decatur. Situated adjacent to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Swan Creek attracts a crowd, especially around opening day and during holiday periods.
SMITH LAKE BASS
Once home to the world record spotted bass, Lewis Smith Lake between Jasper and Cullman remains home to some of the best winter fishing in Alabama. While nothing approaching the former world record has been caught recently, Smith still regularly produces spotted (or Alabama) bass in the 5-pound range, especially in cold weather.
"Cold weather just makes them bite better," said tournament pro Jesse "Crank" Wiggins. "They are more active in that cold water, and spots look for weather changes. It doesn't get too cold for them. They are always eating."
Unlike any other fishery in the state, Smith is a highland reservoir, embedded in the Appalachian foothills of north-central Alabama. An easy destination for visiting anglers just off I-65, Smith is a highly developed lake, but winter fishing is done without the pleasure boats and jet skis of summer.
Wiggins, who lives near Cullman, keeps his fishing relatively simple. His go-to lure is what he calls a jighead and worm, also called a shaky-head. From his years of experience on the lake, Wiggins knows where the big spots — and the occasional largemouth — live. They prefer deep water, which is characteristic of Smith, with depths regularly reaching over 100 feet.
"The big fish will sit up in 5 or 6 feet of water at times, although you need deep water nearby," Wiggins said. "Points, drops, cuts — I'm looking for places that have a depth change. If it's got a little bit of brush on it, the place is that much better."
Floating docks are another dominant feature of the lake and provide sanctuary for spots. Despite the winter drawdown, good depth around and under the docks is not a problem.
Wiggins makes long casts with the shaky-head, inching the rig across a point, down a drop or under a dock. He generally uses hand-poured 1/8th- to 3/16th-ounce heads, with a straight-tail worm up to 7 inches. Almost exclusively, the preferred color is green pumpkin.
Although Wiggins keeps his boat deck relatively uncluttered, he occasionally deviates from the shaky-head routine, throwing a crankbait in some of the same locations. On windy days, he mixes in an Alabama rig.
Moving farther south, deer season takes center stage on Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Area southeast of Tuscaloosa. Part of the Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forest, the 45,000-acre WMA has long been among the top producers of whitetails on Alabama public lands.
"Oakmulgee has a real good population of older-class deer, 3-year-olds and older 8-points," said Michael Perry, who makes several trips each year to Oakmulgee for muzzleloader and gun hunts. "I kill an 8-pointer nearly every year hunting there."
An antler restriction in recent years has made a good property even better, according to area biologist Jeff Makemson. For the last two years, hunters have been limited on parts of Oakmulgee to harvesting bucks with at least 3 points on one side, allowing the young bucks to grow and mature.
"This will be the third year that we've had an antler restriction," Makemson said, "and it has paid off in huge dividends. The restriction has saved most of our 1 1/2-year-old bucks and allowed them to grow and mature to at least the 2 1/2-year-old class. We usually have some pretty nice racks when you get to the 2- to 4-year age classes."
Because of that success, the antler restrictions have been expanded to include all of the management area this year. Makemson expects the quality of the Oakmulgee herd to continue to expand as a result of the regulations.
Hunters visiting the area should expect rolling hills with expanses of long-leaf pines on the ridges, a mix of pines and hardwoods on the slopes and mature hardwoods in the bottoms. Perry prefers the edges of swamps near the bottoms.
Other areas to pinpoint are the abundant wildlife openings maintained by WMA staff. At least 100 exist, almost all behind closed gates. Some are a short hike of about 300 yards, while others require a walk as long as two miles.
Both Perry and Makemson suggest that the muzzleloader hunt held annually in mid-December is a prime opportunity. Exact dates for all hunts had not been set in the summer, but Makemson said to expect them to be the same as last year.
"Oakmulgee is the place to be from the middle of December through about the first week of January," Perry said. "It's awesome at that time. The rut is kicking. Those bucks are walking at that time of year."
MILLERS FERRY CRAPPIE
An Alabama River impoundment, Millers Ferry is a riverine fishery that is isolated but produces crappie in huge numbers. Millers Ferry starts near Selma and winds through south Alabama countryside to the dam near Camden.
"We catch plenty of crappie in December and January," said Gerald Overstreet, Overstreet Guide Service (251-589-3225).
Overstreet frequently encounters a subtle bite in the colder water, but the crappie still hit minnows or jigs on other occasions.
"It is usually fairly cold in December and January," Overstreet said. "The water temps have already dropped into the 50s. The fish seem to go deeper. Usually we will be fishing a minimum of 20, sometimes 30 or 35 feet of water."
Overstreet targets fish on the main river or in creeks with channels at least 15 feet deep. One of the reasons that he likes winter fishing is the simplicity of a one-pole approach, with a drop-shot presentation that he fishes vertically.
After locating fish on electronics, Overstreet hooks a minnow about 18 inches to 2 feet up the line above a weight. He then gets right over wood and drops the bait down. According to him, the fish are usually congregated more to one area of a treetop.
On those days when crappie barely nip at minnows, Overstreet often switches to a tiny hair jig of his own making or weedless jigs produced by B&B Crappie Jigs.
"If you bring that minnow back in and the scales have been stripped off, you know the crappie are not feeding aggressively," Overstreet said. "Sometimes they like those little jigs right in their face. They will inhale those light jigs and you can catch them."
Overstreet typically fishes the area from the dam, upstream about 25 miles. Plenty of quality ramps and accommodations are found in that stretch around Camden.
"On a day's fishing, we usually have 25 or 30 good crappie," Overstreet said. "At this time of year, we will have more fish over 2 pounds. The bigger females are loading up with eggs and feeding pretty heavily, so the chance to catch bigger fish on average is greater at this time of year. They are fat and healthy. It's a great time to be on Millers Ferry."
Whether hunting or fishing is the preference, Alabama offers quality and variety. Actually a combination trip, alternating between hunting and fishing, is a great possibility at this time of year, as there are many places from which to choose.
MILLERS FERRY BASS
Millers Ferry might be best known as a crappie destination, but the bass fishing on the Alabama River impoundment can be equally good at times.
While much of the crappie fishing is confined to the lower end of Millers Ferry, the spotted bass fishing can be explosive the full length of the 105-mile reservoir, with winter providing some of the best action of the year.
Chad Scroggins, who lives in Shelby County, travels regularly to family property near Millers Ferry. While others scour the deer woods, Scroggins often sleeps in and then samples the bass fishing.
The spotted bass fishery is the most dependable in the winter months. Millers Ferry is home to an abundance of 10- to 14-inch spots with the occasional bigger fish in the mix up to about 4 pounds.
Current is often ripping through the river, and the bass set up behind current breaks to ambush baitfish. Favorite lures include spinnerbaits, crankbaits and shaky-heads fished around the abundant laydowns and bluff walls, especially on the upper portion of Millers Ferry.