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Great Deer Hunting on WMAs in January
Region-by-region guide to public-land deer this month
 
By Nick Carter
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of AON
 
Jumin Sunde killed his WMA trophy last year. This impressive 4 1/2-year-old 10-point was killed on Cahaba River WMA during a gun hunt last year. Its G2s stretched the tape to more than 12 inches!
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January is the month Alabama deer hunters dream about all year long. Food sources are diminishing as rutting activity peaks across most of the state, and bucks are ripe to fall victim to hunters in well-placed treestands. For hunters not willing to fork over the big bucks to join a hunting club, for those who need a change of scenery or for those who are lured by the prospect of matching wits with a wily old public-land survivor, there are WMA hunts across the state timed perfectly to catch deer when they are most vulnerable.

The following district profiles are designed to give you the upper hand in choosing which January WMA hunts to attend. Armed with the harvest data from last year’s January hunts, which is bolstered by this year’s conditions on the ground, biologists with intimate knowledge of the WMAs and their deer herds tell you, the hunter, where you are most likely to fill the cooler or come home with a hefty taxidermy bill. Use this information to plan your January public-land hunts, and let us know how the hunts went. Send photos and caption information from your hunts to <letters@AONmag.com>.

Northwest Alabama Dist. 1:

Because of its Michigan strain deer, Black Warrior WMA in Lawrence and Winston counties receives a lot of attention for big bucks. Black Warrior may not, however, be the best public-land choice for deer hunters in January. Black Warrior’s bucks rut early, and the deer are typically in post-rut patterns by the time January rolls around. Ron Eakes, DCNR’s supervising biologist for District 1, said his top pick for big January bucks would be Sam R. Murphy WMA in Marion and Lamar counties, with Freedom Hills WMA in Colbert County taking a close second.

“The rut!” Ron said when asked why he would suggest those two WMAs. “And the primary age structure has improved on those two areas. Murphy has always produced some quality bucks, and Freedom Hills is getting better.”

Ron attributed the rise of better bucks on Freedom Hills to the fact that the area was one of the first to implement quality deer management (QDM) regulations of three points on a side or better. In the six years those regs have been in place, Ron said the bucks have gotten older, producing better racks.

A mid-January rut also coincides with the three January hunts on Freedom Hills and Murphy. Ron said 50 percent of all bucks taken on these two areas last year were harvested in the last week of January.

AON ranked Murphy the No. 1 WMA in the state for venison in the August issue’s WMA special, and last January’s hunts on Murphy were very good in terms of hunter success. According to last year’s WMA data provided by Chris Cook, WFF’s deer-studies project leader, Murphy had man-days-per-kill (MDPK) numbers of 11.1 and 9.8, respectively, on the Jan. 3-5 and Jan. 18-19 hunts, some of the lowest in the state. The results on Freedom Hills were decent, but not quite as impressive. Freedom Hills hunters produced MDPK numbers of 25.8 and 24.7, respectively, on the Jan. 11-12 and Jan. 26-30 hunts.

Another northwest Alabama WMA that has been under QDM regulations for six years is Lauderdale WMA in Lauderdale County. Ron suggested hunters check this area out, but not for its quality bucks. He said bucks don’t get big without adequate antlerless harvest, and Lauderdale is overrun with deer, making it another great choice for a hunter who just wants to put some meat in the freezer.

“Lauderdale is absolutely eaten alive with deer. It needs a lot of hunter pressure,” Ron said. “It actually needs some antlerless deer harvest to go along with the QDM.”

Ron said Lauderdale has a rut that peaks around Christmas, so hunters might not witness much rutting activity unless it’s on one of the two early January hunts, but it’s still a good place to pop a doe for the freezer.

Wolf Creek is the place to go if you want some room to breathe. Ron said hunter numbers at this Walker County WMA are typically low, and the hunters historically do well. Last year’s late-January hunt was a good one, with 12.5 MDPK.

For any of the late-season District 1 hunts, Ron said the secret to killing deer is to spread out away from the areas already heavily pressured. Most of the acorns are gone by January, so primary food sources will be browse, like honeysuckle and greenbriar.

“If you’re going to kill a good quality deer, you’ve got to hunt heavy cover, especially on public land,” Ron added as a final bit of advice. He said there are good cutovers, pine-beetle sites and other areas of heavy cover on all the District 1 WMAs.

Northeast Alabama Dist. 2:

By January, District 2 public-land deer have been pressured pretty hard, and Supervising Biologist Randle Liles said the hunting can be good if you’re willing to get back into some of the unpressured areas of the WMAs.

“All of the areas have already had a number of hunts by then, and (the deer’s) patterns will change according to the hunting pressure,” Randle said. “There are usually a few areas people like to hunt, and by January, the deer will be pushed out of there.”

At 56,000 acres, Choccolocco WMA in Cleburne County sees a lot of hunters throughout the season, and there are good hunts on the WMA, with MDPK numbers ranging from 14 to 16 in November. However, January is a tough month on this WMA because the rut has passed for the North Carolina strain deer on the area, said Randle. Post-rut coupled with a buck-only hunt pushed MDPK up to 35 for last year’s early January hunt.

Randle said both Little River WMA in Cherokee and DeKalb counties and James D. Martin-Skyline in Jackson County are better bets for January hunts. The January hunts at both areas are timed to coincide with mid-December through early January rutting activity.

On Little River, the best hunts last year were held in November, and the two January hunts had high MDPK numbers, but Randle attributed that to lax hunting styles as opposed to deer numbers. He did say that big bucks are hard to find at Little River, but the numbers are there.

“Due to habitat change over the last several years, the food sources just aren’t there like they used to be,” he said. “But there’s a lot of deer on that area.”

Skyline, because of its steep and mountainous terrain, may be the best bet for an unpressured bruiser buck. Skyline’s January hunts are buck only, and last year’s MDPK numbers were pretty good for buck-only hunts. The early January hunt produced an MDPK of 27.3, while the late January hunt tallied 17.6 MDPK.

“There’s very little hunting pressure on some areas of Skyline because it’s so steep. There are probably areas there that have never seen humans,” he said. “If you want to kill a quality deer, your chances are better at Skyline.”

Acorns will be sparse on District 2’s WMAs by January, so Randle suggested targeting browse, and he said the wildlife clearings, both planted and unplanted, on any of the WMAs would be good places to find deer.

West-central Alabama Dist. 3:

Chris Cook said the peak rutting activity on District 3’s larger WMAs occurs in December, so January hunts on Cahaba River, Oakmulgee and Mulberry Fork WMAs are typically not the best hunts of the year.

“Even though most of the rest of this region has a typical Alabama rut, these areas tend to rut a little earlier,” Chris said. “The January hunting typically isn’t that good because the rut has passed.”

However, District 3 WMAs still have some of the best hunting in the state, so even after the rut you can kill a quality buck by targeting late-season food sources.

“The rut’s over, but I would still go to Oakmulgee or Cahaba River,” Chris said when asked where he would go to kill a big buck in January. “The big bucks are there. They’re going to be in more of a feeding pattern.”

The reason Shelby County’s Cahaba River produces numerous quality deer each year is a function of deer density, Chris said. There aren’t many deer, so the bucks get bigger. For the same reason, Cahaba River may not be a great place to go if you just want to see deer. Last year’s MDPK number for the Jan. 4-5 either-sex hunt was 21.

On Oakmulgee WMA in Bibb and Hale counties, the deer herd is composed mostly of deer brought in from North Carolina, so the peak rutting activity occurs in mid December. However, despite the early rut, there are some good bucks taken on Oakmulgee in January. Chris said that can be attributed to the limited access on the nearly 43,000-acre Forest Service property.

“There are a lot of gated roads on Oakmulgee. The limited access there makes people a little reluctant to pull the trigger on lesser deer, which leads to a better age structure,” Chris said. “So, if you’re willing to do some walking and get back in there, you’ll improve your chances.”

Last year, Oakmulgee was rated the No. 2 WMA in the state for filling the freezer by AON, so it’s a great place to go on a hunter’s-choice hunt. Even in January, which didn’t have the best hunter success of the season last year, hunters tallied 11.4 MDPK on a mid-January hunt.

Mulberry Fork, in Jefferson County, typically has an early January rut, said Chris, and that showed in last year’s Jan. 4-5 primitive-weapons hunt, which produced 9.7 MDPK. However, it was all downhill for the rest of the season. The mid-January either-sex hunt tallied 18.8 MDPK, and the late-January buck-only hunt saw only six bucks killed for 396 man days spent in the field, or 66 MDPK.

On any of these three areas, Chris said to target food sources in January. He said it’s been a good acorn year.

“There’s still going to be some acorns on the ground that are good in January. So find a pocket that still has some acorns,” he said. “And, all of these areas have clearcuts on them. So they’re going to be eating some Japanese honeysuckle and greenbriar. Find the food, and you’ll probably see some deer.”

If you’re looking for a rut hunt, Kinterbish WMA in Sumter County or Demopolis WMA in Marengo County are good places to go. Both areas have mid-January rutting peaks, but they are not known as big-buck hot spots.

Kinterbish is small, at only 2,900 acres, but hunter numbers are small also. AON ranked Kinterbish the No. 4 WMA in the state for venison last year.

On Demopolis, you will need a boat to get to most of the prime hunting areas, but Chris said that makes it a good place to just ride in and shoot a deer. An added bonus is that you have a pretty good chance of seeing a good buck because of adjacent tracts of managed private property.

East-central Alabama Dist. 4:

District 4 Supervising Wildlife Biologist Rick Claybrook said the January hunts are the best time to kill a buck on any of the district’s WMAs. January hunts on all District 4 WMAs will be buck-only this year, but historically these hunts have produced some suprisingly good harvest numbers for buck hunts.

“The rut for all three areas in our district will be mid January,” Rick said. “The deer are starting to be more active; the food sources are dwindling. We’ve had a real good acorn year, but I expect the acorn crop will be getting a little lower, and hopefully those deer will have to get up and move. I expect it will be some pretty good hunting.”

Under QDM regulations, Lowndes WMA in Lowndes County is the best WMA in the district to kill a trophy buck.

“The kill is generally a little better quality than on the other areas,” he said. “It’s one of the better areas. They’re mostly in the 2 1/2-year-old range, but there are some older ones in there.”

Last year, hunter success on Lowndes during January was very good, with MDPK numbers of 8.1 and 13.8 on the Jan. 11-12 and Jan. 25-26 either-sex hunts. This year, the hunts will be buck only.

Rick said the riverbottoms that were replanted in hardwoods 12 years ago are growing up thick, and that transition zones between those areas and a food source such as late-falling red-oak acorns or a planted wildlife opening will be the best places to ambush a quality buck in January on Lowndes.

As for Coosa WMA in Coosa County and Hollins WMA in Clay County, last year’s hunter success for buck-only hunts in early to mid January was astounding. Coosa’s Jan. 5-11 hunt last year produced an MDPK of 9.8, which is incredible for a buck-only hunt, and Hollins’ Jan. 12-20 buck-only hunt tallied 10.4 MDPK. Hunter success dropped off steeply for the end-of-season hunts on both areas. Rick said this could have been the herd’s reaction to the hunter pressure.

If you want to kill a quality buck on either of these areas, Rick suggested doing some scouting prior to the hunts.

“Some good bucks have already been killed this year, so they’re there, but not in great quantities,” he said. “They’re there for the hunter who knows how to hunt... or gets lucky.”

Southwest Alabama Dist. 5:

With a typical mid-January peak of the rut, any of the District 5 WMAs are good choices for late-season hunts, said District 5 Supervising Biologist Chuck Sharp. Of note is the Jan. 19 youth hunt on Fred T. Stimpson Community Hunting Area. This is the first year of hunts on the area, and Chuck said it is overrun with deer, making it a great place to take a young hunter.

For hunters without kids, there are also other very good options to pack away some public-land venison in the southwest region of the state. Frank W. & Rob Boykin WMA in Washington and Mobile counties and Scotch WMA in Clarke County both had some of the best hunter-success numbers in the state on January hunts last year.

“It’d be one of those two,” said Chuck when asked where he would go to fill the freezer. “We don’t get a lot of mast production like you do on some of the other areas. They don’t have a lot extra to eat. It’s quantity rather than quality, although there are some good bucks there.”

The Upper Delta hunts on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are also great options for meat hunters, if the area’s not flooded. Last year the mid-January hunts had fantastic MDPK numbers of 6.0, while the late January hunt held on Zone B tallied a MDPK figure of 30. You can’t hunt if there’s no dry land, and even when there is dry land, most of it is accessible only by boat.

“Usually about four out of five years, by January it’s under water,” Chuck said. “Seventy-five percent of the rain that falls in Alabama comes through the Delta.”

For bagging that elusive public-land trophy buck, Chuck said your best bet in District 5 is Perdido River WMA in Baldwin County. With rolling hills and deep sand along the river, this area has a thick understory that makes for perfect big-buck cover. It’s also tough hunting.

“They’ve got some good deer, and it doesn’t get the same kind of pressure some other areas do,” Chuck said.

As a result, hunter success at Perdido is low, but hunters also take some impressive bucks.

On any of these areas, Chuck said the rutting activity should be peaking, and the acorn crop should be about gone in time for the January hunts. Clearcuts and other sources of browse will be the only huntable food sources.

Southeast Alabama Dist. 6:

Supervising Biologist Bill Gray said everything is on track for a typical southeast Alabama rut. Which means the peak rutting activity will coincide with January hunts on the District 6 WMAs.

“It should be good from about mid January all the way through,” Bill said. “You’ll see most of the chasing and bucks moving around looking for does from after the first week of the month through about the 20th.”

This rut timing holds true for all of the district’s WMAs, but if you want to kill a big one, that’s exactly what Barbour WMA in Barbour County is known for — quality bucks. This month will also be your best chance at shooting one.

“It’s better soil. Generally speaking, better habitat leads to better quality deer,” he said. “It’s also managed for older age-class bucks.”

Rut hunts on Barbour are some of the most popular WMA hunts in the state. In its ninth year of QDM regulations, the area is showing good results, Bill said. However, Barbour may not be the hunt for you if you are looking to fill the freezer. Last year, Barbour tallied an MDPK number of 11.6 during the early January hunt, which dropped to 35.5 for the last hunt of the season.

If you just want to kill a deer, go to a January hunt at Blue Spring WMA hunt in Covington County. All the January hunts at Blue Spring produced single-digit MDPK figures last year.

“There’s a lot of deer,” Bill said, “and there are no restrictions.”

Geneva State Forest is also a good place to fill the freezer, Bill said, but it is under QDM regulations for bucks.
“On average, they don’t produce the same quality deer as Barbour. Of course there will be some good deer,” Bill said of both Geneva and Blue Spring.

Bill said the acorn crops on all three WMAs were good this year but not quite as good as last year’s, which left acorns on the ground through the end of the season.

“It’s starting to play out,” Bill said. “We’re really starting to see the deer hitting the food plots.”

Wildlife openings have been planted on all three WMAs, and Bill said to watch for does bringing bucks to these openings. Other good January food sources in District 6 will be browse like smilax (greenbriar) and honeysuckle.
 
 
 
 
 
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