Let’s face the facts — the cost of finding top hunting property is increasing. Fees for land leases and hunting clubs continue to rise.
There are waiting lists for well-managed hunting leases and trophy hunting clubs. And these high-grade deer lands are becoming out of reach for the average hunter. However, hunters don’t have to break the bank to find top quality areas for big bucks.
Some hunting clubs take on a few additional members each year to try to keep the dues affordable. But, this increases the number of hunters in the same sized area and this puts pressure on the deer. Bucks, especially ones with quality racks, become scarce.
But, there is an option for deer hunters seeking quality hunting land on a budget. For fewer than $20 bucks, hunters can have access to 721,000 acres. And a majority of this land is managed for trophy bucks. These areas are known as Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). And many of the top deer WMAs are only a short drive for most deer hunters.
Why hunt WMAs
There are 29 WMAs in Alabama, and a majority of those are set up for quality deer management. Some of the WMAs have had an antler restriction for the past several years, and it is beginning to pay off. Larger body bucks with above average racks are becoming more common on many of the WMAs across the state.
“We have had an antler restriction in place since the 2013 -2014 season,” said Brandon Howell, Area Biologist for Choccolocco WMA near Heflin. “Before then 80 percent of the buck harvest was spikes. Since the implementation of the antler restriction, spike harvest has been essentially cut to zero. This has allowed the 1.5-year bucks to move into the next age class.”
A majority of the hunters were in favor of antler restrictions on WMAs. Before the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division enacted an antler restriction they conducted a survey among hunters.
From the mail survey, 71 percent of hunters were in favor of some type of antler restriction. There were only 13 percent opposed and about 16 percent of hunters were neutral. The results of the antler restrictions have resulted in dividends of larger racked bucks.
Some WMAs have instituted hunting zones. These zones essentially divide the area in half. This allows for better management of deer and other wildlife for a specific zone. On certain WMAs, there are some zones that have different buck restrictions. However, some management areas are removing the zones and using the same antler restrictions area wide.
“We have had zone restrictions for the past two years,” said Jeff Makemson, area biologist for Oakmulgee WMA near Moundville. “This season we are eliminating zones, and the entire WMA will have an antler restriction of three points on one side.”
Oakmulgee WMA is the state’s oldest management area. It was established in 1938. The ADCNR works closely with partners like the U. S. Forest Service to ensure hunters have quality public hunting land. At Oakmulgee there are 98 wildlife openings also known as food plots.
Other WMAs around the state also partner with the USFS in creating a top hunting environment.
Each WMA has different antler restrictions. Hunters will need to have a WMA map/regulation sheet of the area they plan to hunt. These maps are free and are required for each licensed hunter. The maps will indicate roads, food plots, camp areas and check stations.
On the backside of the map are the hunting dates for all game and the regulations. Here the dates for zones (if applicable) and antler restrictions will be detailed. Also, archery, primitive weapon and guns seasons are listed. Maps are available at each WMA at check stations and kiosks locations.
Planning a hunt
The past two seasons Choccolocco WMA has had a special opportunity gun deer hunt at about the first weekend in November. This gives deer hunters a chance to get a jump on the deer firearm season. At the time of this writing, there is a proposal of two days for a special opportunity hunt on Choccolocco WMA.
The early gun hunt on Choccolocco allows hunters to take advantage of the rut. This season, the special opportunity deer hunt is Nov. 4-5.
Deer hunters report they can plan different hunts throughout the season based on the dates for different WMAs.
Planning different hunts on various WMAs allows deer hunters to take advantage of the rut throughout the season. Here in Alabama the peak of the rut can cover several weeks, depending on the region of the state. Management area maps and schedules are available online at outdooralabama.com/hunting.
“We usually plan a late season hunt to Barbour WMA,” said Luke Wright of Munford. “Several of us will head down for weekend of hunting and camp out there.”
Wright mentioned there are a couple of late hunting dates they can schedule around weather. Since Barbour WMA has had antler restrictions for the past several years there is a good chance to take a nice buck. He says it is worth the four-hour drive down there.
As mentioned earlier, the success of the antler restrictions on WMAs have paid big dividends for deer hunters. Larger rack bucks are being killed and hunters are enjoying watching youngers bucks on the WMAs. The ADCNR, WFF biologists work hard to maintain a healthy and viable deer herd.
Makemson said there have been several nice racked bucks taken from Oakmulgee in recent years.
“In the 2016-2017 season, there was a 12-point buck taken,” said Makemson. “It had a 22¼-inch beam length with a 3.6-inch basal circumference and a 14-inch inside spread.”
Also harvested last season at Oakmulgee WMA, there was a nine-point buck with a 20¾-inch beam, 4½-inch bases and a 14 3/8-inch inside spread.
Over in Choccolocco WMA last season, Howell reported there were a couple of 12-point bucks with 4-inch bases and around 19-inch inside spread.
With the antler restrictions younger age-class bucks have a chance to mature. As noted above. the potential for big bucks on WMAs exists.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.