Tips for the start of gun deer hunting season
It appears it will be a tale of two fortunes for deer hunters when gun deer season starts on Nov. 22. With the majority of central and northern Alabama under extremely dry conditions, food availability will be a factor for the 10-week season. In much of south Alabama, where there has been adequate rainfall, the acorn crop will likely affect hunting success, at least for part of the season.
Bill Gray and Chris Cook, wildlife biologists with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said the acorn crop in the hunter’s particular area will dictate hunting tactics at the start of the season.
“Until the acorns are gone, folks need to be concentrating on areas where deer are feeding on acorns,” said Gray, whose territory includes southeast Alabama. “I don’t think the green-field sitters are going to be real happy to start with, at least around here. The soft mast seems to be loaded, as well. We got some good rainfall the last half of October and early November. The people who got their green fields in by October should be in pretty good shape. I’m optimistic we’re going to have a pretty good deer season.
“I would anticipate this will be a little better year in terms of seeing deer and having the opportunity to harvest deer. I think the acorns are going to play out a lot quicker than they did last year. Last year we had acorns when the season went out. People were killing turkeys full of good red oak acorns.”
For Cook’s area of west central and central Alabama, the rainfall has been much more sparse.
“From talking to our people on the Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), as well as landowners and hunting clubs I’ve been meeting with recently, it should be a pretty good hunting season,” Cook said. “The deer are already just wearing out food plots. This doesn’t say much for the future of the food plots if they’re mowing them down before they really get started growing. It’s surprising, considering there are plenty of acorns on the ground, but there are tracks on top of tracks in the food plots and a lot of sign around the food plots. The deer are coming and going and using what little bit is growing right now. It’s been very dry up here. Rain has basically been nonexistent for two months in our area, so the food plots aren’t producing much.
“I was looking at a hunting club the other day and the food plots are struggling. We pulled up to one plot and about 25 doves got up. They were eating the seed that didn’t get covered up during planting. We haven’t had enough rain to even germinate the grain that has been sitting on top of the ground for five weeks.”
Like Gray, Cook’s assessment of the mast crop is good but not great.
“The acorn crop is pretty good, but nothing like last year,” Cook said. “Acorns aren’t going to last through the season like they did last year, so that should help the hunters as far as seeing deer. There’s a good bit of black gum fruits and lots of persimmons, but most of them are gone.”
As with any outdoors endeavor, the weather is the controlling factor. For deer hunting, the colder the better.
“It really just depends on the weather, though,” Gray said. “If we get a cold, dry winter, that’s the best way to go. Even if it’s a cold, wet winter, we’ll be OK. As long as we don’t get a warm, wet winter – that kills you, especially when you’ve got acorns on the ground. You’re not only fighting acorns, you’re fighting browse. A lot of things like honeysuckle and other vines will start right back to growing in a warm, wet winter. And deer don’t have to move at all to feed.”
Cook added: “We need the cold weather. The deer have to increase their food intake when it’s cold to help maintain their body warmth. They now have that winter coat, so they’re not going to move around when it’s 70-80 degrees. If we get traditional winter weather, it should help the deer hunting, especially if the acorn crop gets utilized early on and they don’t have that to lean on through the bulk of the hunting season. Most people spend most of the time on a food plot, and if that’s where the deer have to go to get a big part of their food intake, then there are going to be more deer seen and more deer taken.”
While some people are reporting scrape activity, Gray said it depends a great deal on the deer population on a certain piece of property.
“As far as any rutting activity, on the places where they’ve been doing a good job of managing their deer herd, there are some early signs, said Gray, who teamed with Cook to produce two deer hunting publications available at http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/deer/deerbook.pdf and http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/deer/deerfoodplots.pdf . “I know on my place, we’re already seeing scrapes, which is indicative of having some mature bucks in the population. They begin to make those scrapes a couple of months before the actual breeding takes place.”
While the majority of the state’s deer population has most of its rutting activity in January, there are a few areas with deer stocked from different parts of the country with earlier rutting activity.
“On Oakmulgee WMA, the rut will be full blown in just a few weeks – early to mid December,” Cook said. “You’ve got little pockets of deer like that that will rut up to a month earlier than the rest of the deer in this part of the world. Oakmulgee was stocked with deer from North Carolina, like Choccolocco WMA in Talladega National Forest. I’ve had some calls about finding early scrapes. That’s typical deer activity. Early scrapes and rubbing is just par for the course.”
Gray said Alabama’s deer season depends on a variety of factors because the state’s deer herd is virtually unchanged at about 1.75 million animals
“It just boils down to what drives deer movement,” he said. “For the most part, that means feeding activity and, later in the year, rutting activity. Again, I think this season will be better than last year, when it’s all said and done, because the acorn crop won’t last as long. Of course, if it turns off warm with 75- to 80-degree days with rain, it could be a very poor season.”
With the exception of Barbour County, Alabama will be entering its second season with a three-buck limit, two of which can be any legal buck with bare antlers protruding above the natural hairline. The third buck must have four points of at least one-inch in length on one side. In Barbour County, the harvest of whitetail bucks is limited to those with a minimum of three points on one side. A point is an antler projection of at least one inch in length from base to tip. Main beam tip shall be counted as a point regardless of length. All bucks harvested in Alabama must be recorded on the hunter’s license before the deer is moved or field dressed.
Gray said there has been a great deal of interest in the buck limit, but he likely won’t have any answers for a few more years.
“We’ve only had one year under our belt with a buck limit in place,” he said. “People ask me about it all the time. It takes four-and-a-half years to produce a mature buck. I wouldn’t anticipate seeing any increase in older age bucks being harvested until after year three. That’s because it’s going to take that long to produce these older age bucks. And, a lot of it is going to depend on hunter behavior. Hunters still have the opportunity to take a couple of younger bucks each year, so it’s going to depend on how people respond to the buck limit.”
Alabama offers 35 Wildlife Management Areas for public use. Each WMA has separate hunting schedule and regulations. Hunting deer and turkey on a WMA requires the purchase of a $16 WMA license in addition to the $24 all-game hunting license. Visit http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/wildlife-areas/ for more information.
David Rainer is a gues columnist from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. To read previous columns by Rainer, visit www.outdooralabama.com.