Tuesday, August 21, 2018
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WMA Special
A look at the WMA data from the 2017-2018 deer-hunting season
By Mike Bolton
Originally published in the August 2018 issue of AON
Alabama’s 35 WMAs produced 3,046 deer for hunters last year. Those deer ranged from wall-hangers to does that fed families hearty meals. The annual AON WMA Special shows data from almost 600,000 hours of WMA deer hunting last season.
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It is August, and the brutal summer heat no doubt has you dreaming of crisp fall mornings sitting in a tree stand. Chances are that you attended the World Deer Expo last month, and all that did was make you long for the deer season even more. Even watching those deer hunting shows on the Outdoor Channel this time of year adds to the agony.

What’s an Alabama deer hunter supposed to do this time of the year when the season is still months away?

Doing your deer-hunting homework is a good start.

Every year in August, AON provides WMA hunters with a cheat-sheet of sorts that makes doing that deer hunting homework much easier. This cheat-sheet, called the WMA Special, provides detailed data on all the deer hunting that took place on every Alabama Wildlife Management Area from the previous season. It is information that you just can’t find anywhere else. It will do much more for your hunting success than any television show.

Smart WMA hunters will carefully study the charts and use them as part of their planning for the upcoming season. Even though many WMA hunters choose the closest WMA and hunt only there, these charts may reveal that your best opportunity for hunting success might be found with a slightly longer drive.

Hunting success is a relative term. For one hunter, success may mean taking a trophy buck. For another, success may mean filling their freezer with venison. AON’s WMA Special provides valuable information for hunters of both thought.

Hunters looking for that wall-hanger should look carefully at the Best WMAs For Quality Bucks chart on page 13. That chart provides details on which WMAs are known producers of what most would consider a quality WMA buck. AON presents the data from WMA check stations on all the 2 1/2-year-old and older bucks taken on each WMA. To that, circumference and beam measurements on all 2 1/2-year-old or older bucks were added to our equation. Using a formula developed by AON, the results are presented in an easy-to-understand format.

There are plenty of hunters who hunt WMAs that will quickly tell you that you can’t eat antlers. Their hunting goal is to fill their freezers with venison to feed their families. For those hunters who are just looking to take a deer—a buck of any legal size or a doe—the Best WMAs For Venison chart on page 14 is beneficial. That chart lists the total number of bucks and does taken on each WMA.

That chart also lists the number of hours of hunting it took to take a deer on each WMA. That is important because the total number of bucks and does killed on a WMA is not always a good measuring stick in itself. Skyline WMA, for instance, saw 274 bucks and does taken there last season, the third most of all WMAs. That might make you believe it is a can’t-miss WMA if you want venison on the dinner table.

On closer inspection, however, you will see that it had by far the largest number of man-days of hunting (6,720).  When you divide the man-days by deer killed, you’ll see that Skyline ranks only 24th best as a place to kill a deer, based on success rate. A rate of more than 24 man-days to take a deer puts it in the bottom third of the WMAs.

That chart also gives some insight into how much hunting pressure a hunter is likely to encounter on each WMA. A hunter can do a little work on his own and divide the acreage of a WMA by the man-days of hunting and get a pretty good idea of what kind of hunting pressure he will face if he deer hunts on a WMA.

Take Barbour WMA for instance. With 23,381 acres, it’s the 12th largest WMA in the state, but the man-days of hunting there (4,976) were the third most of all WMAs. On the other hand, the 7,000-acre Boggy Hollow SOA may seem too small to hunt, but it received only 53 man-days of hunting, far less pressure than Barbour WMA.

How does the WMA where you hunt stack up against other WMAs in the state? Are you considering branching out and maybe hunting another WMA or two? The Man-Days Per Kill chart on page 13 is excellent for helping you make some decisions. That chart shows you how many days of hunting were needed to take a deer on each of the WMAs last season.

The WMA Special now includes data from each of the WMAs that host youth weekend hunts the weekend prior to the start of the regular season. Parents, relatives and guardians want the hunts to be a positive experience for the kids. There’s no better way for a kid to have a better experience on a hunt than to take a deer. The WMA Youth Hunts chart on page 15 provides data from each WMA youth hunt last season. It shows how many youth hunters participated in each hunt and how many were successful.

Here’s some tidbits from the data from hunting on WMAs last season:

Best WMAs For Killing Quality Bucks: What exactly is a quality buck? That differs among hunters. If you just began hunting, chances are your first small 8-point is going on the wall. If you have been deer hunting for decades, chances are a quality buck is like one you see on a magazine cover.

Regardless, the main factors that usually determine what deems a quality buck is age, tine length and mass. WFF determines the age and measures the antlers on all bucks brought to the individual check stations. They record that data. AON takes those numbers and uses a formula it created to rank the top 16 WMAs for those factors. AON’s Best WMAs for Quality Bucks chart is shown on this page.

To create the rankings, AON allowed each WMA a maximum of 100 points. We graded each WMA in three areas: percentage of 2 1/2-year-old and older bucks in the 2017-18 antlered-buck gun harvest (50 maximum points), antler-circumference measurements on 2 1/2-year-old bucks (25 points) and beam-length measurements on 2 1/2-year-old bucks (25 points).

The numbers this past season were somewhat odd in that the top 8 WMAs for Quality Bucks saw scores significantly lower (68.1 average) than the previous season (76.0 average), but the second eight (53.1 average) saw scores significantly higher (45.3) than the previous season.

The good news here is that Lauderdale WMA, which usually ranks first and second in this category, was back at No. 1 after failing to even crack the Top-16 two seasons ago.

Freedom Hills WMA, which seems to be ranked No. 2 or No. 3 every year, was in the No. 3 spot for the second year in a row. The 34,500-acre WMA is located near the town of Cherokee in Colbert County.

Barbour WMA, which usually takes advantage of its antler restrictions to land a Top 5 spot, fell to 8th last season. Black Warrior - Zone B, which was No. 1 two seasons ago on the heels of some truly monster bucks, fell to No.  6 this past season.

Best WMAs For Venison: If your idea of deer hunting success is backstraps on the grill and ground venison chili, the chart on page 14 is for you. It pinpoints your best opportunities to take venison.

AON uses the Man-Days Per Kill number as the starting point for its Best WMAs For Venison chart. The chart has the best WMAs ranked from best to worst.

Most noticeable is that three of the new Special Opportunity Areas —smaller WMAs all 7,000 acres or less—were in the Top 8 for best WMAs to take venison. In fact, the 7,000-acre Boggy Hollow Unit, located within the Conecuh National Forest, easily placed No. 1 with only 3.5 man days needed to take a deer. The Uchee Creek SOA located in Russell County, finished fifth in the category, and Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County finished in the No. 8 spot. All three needed less than 11 man-days to take a deer, well below the state WMA average of almost 20 man-days.

Another tidbit is that the deer killed on those three SOAs were confirmed kills. On many of the WMAs less than 5,000 acres, the kills are often estimated.

To hunt one of these SOAs, you must register for one of the random draw permits. The deadline to register is Aug. 21. To register for an SOA hunt, visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/special-opportunity-areas.

The smart WMA hunter uses the WMA Special to look for trends and this chart reveals a good one. You will notice that beside the name of each WMA is a number in parenthesis. This number denotes the place that the WMA finished in this category the previous season. Six of the Top 10 WMAs in 2017-2018 were in the Top 10 the previous season. Three of those that did not make the Top 10 again were replaced by the new SOAs. Two of those WMAs that failed to make the Top 10 last season—Upper Delta Zone B and Sam R. Murphy—only fell to 11th and 12th. All are obviously much better than average WMAs to take deer.

One regrettable omission from this chart was the numbers from Swan/Mallard Fox Creek WMA. The data from there was not available by the deadline. That WMA landed in third place in this category in 2016-17 after a first-place finish the season before. Whether this WMA is still one of the top WMAs for venison is only a guess, but it’s be a good bet.

One WMA worth watching is the 12,531-acre Lowndes WMA in south-central Alabama west of Montgomery.  The numbers show it is definitely a WMA to watch. It jumped from 14th in this category three seasons ago, made a pretty good jump to 4th two seasons ago, and settled in for 7th this past season.

Another notable WMA for venison is definitely Upper Delta – Zone B. It continues to be the darling of southwest Alabama WMAs. It finished 11th in this category last season, but that is a bit misleading because it was kicked out of the Top 10 by the three new SOAs on the list. It posted Top 5 finishes in the two prior seasons. That’s a pretty good three-year run.

How man times have you heard a meat hunter say that he prefers meat for the freezer, but he would take a big buck if the opportunity presented itself? If you believe in the numbers, check out Oakmulgee WMA. It made the Top 10 both in Best WMAs to Take a Quality Buck and Best WMAs For Venison.

What is the magic man-days number to scratch a WMA off your list if you are hunting for venison for the freezer? There’s no such thing, but common sense says meat hunters may want to avoid any WMA that has a man-days-per-kill number larger than 20.

Top WMAs For Youth Hunts: The data from all the youth deer hunts should help those who take youth on one of the 2018-19 hunts have at least have a better idea of where to start.
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