by Josh Raley
The Christmas trees are up, the gifts are wrapped, and hunters in the deep south are getting ready for the peak of the rut. As many hunters in the north and midwest consider hanging up their bows for the season, the best is yet to come for many of us here in the south. If you are tagged out at home, or if your season didn’t turn out like you hoped, there is still plenty of time for you to head down and hunt the southern rut.
In recent years, many have tried to tie rutting dates of whitetails to particular phases of the moon. Those studies have shown somewhat reliable for hunters north of the 37th parallel, but for those in the south, anything goes! Rut dates vary considerably depending on in which state, and which part of that state, you find yourself. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida each have rutting dates ranging from very early to very late in the season. In my new home state of Louisiana, a bow hunter willing to travel can hunt the rut for practically the entire season. Louisiana’s Area 3 bow season opened up September 15 this year, just in time for local hunters to capitalize on the late September/early October rut of the southwestern parishes. Where I hunt in St. Tammany parish, hunters should begin seeing some chasing in the coming week. Head west or north from there and hunters still have three to four weeks to wait for rutting action. So where does the out of state hunter have the best chance of catching rut crazed bucks in the deep south? The answer may surprise you.
With mild temperatures, extremely high deer densities, over the counter licenses for out of state hunters, and over 775,000 acres in state maintained Wildlife Management Areas, Alabama is sure to be a breath of fresh air for the hunter looking for a reprieve from the cold temperatures further north. In November, when other parts of the country are deep in the throws of the whitetail rut, many in Alabama are still hunting bucks on early season bed to feed patterns. It’s often not until mid-November that bachelor groups of bucks even think about splitting up. This translates to late season rut opportunities for those who are willing to make the drive down to the Heart of Dixie.
The north and central portions of Alabama begin to see rutting activity on a large scale around mid-December, with many areas reporting the two weeks after Christmas as their prime time. In addition, the region’s sprawling public lands see little pressure outside of the gun hunts a few weekends per year. Because Alabama’s rifle season extends from November to February, encompassing the peak of the rut, those chasing whitetails with a stick and string will often have large portions of public ground all to themselves. A few notable public lands in this region include the Cahaba River WMA and the Oakmulgee WMA. Both see heavy pressure on gun hunts, but I’ve often ventured out onto these properties without the slightest sign of another hunter. For a solid population of older age class bucks sporting nice headgear, the Cahaba River WMA is hard to beat.
As things begin to slow in the northern part of the state, things are just heating up in Alabama’s famed Blackbelt region. Good soil quality, high deer numbers, and many quality clubs and land managers have combined to make this area quite special. Some of the best outfitters in the state, as well as some of the largest bucks, call the Blackbelt region home. There are also many public land opportunities in the Blackbelt, including a good bit of land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers open only to bowhunters. The firearm restrictions will keep the hunting pressure at bay on these lands, providing excellent opportunities for bowhunters. And just as the rut peaks and begins to taper off in the Blackbelt region, there is still more action to be had for those who are able to head even further south.
While the rest of the country shovels snow and takes shelter from the February cold, there is nowhere I’d rather be than deep, deep south Alabama. Several years ago, a statewide study revealed that a strong majority of the does in the southern portion of the state were not bred until well after the hunting season ended. This discovery confirmed observations locals had been voicing for years. Prompted by the results of the study, the state added ten days to the end of the rifle season in certain regions. Hunters are now allowed to hunt until February 10 statewide. The additional days have made all the difference in areas such as Mobile, Baldwin, Clarke, Washington, and Wilcox counties. Hunters who had previously only rarely had the chance to see rutting activity now have the opportunity to hunt the peak of the rut. Chasing in these areas usually begins the last week of January and can be expected to stay strong through the end of the season. I have personally benefitted from the season extension in Alabama, shooting bucks on February 7 two consecutive years.
For those who would make the trip to hunt the southern rut, you would do well to prepare yourself and do as much online scouting as possible, using tools such as Google Earth. The inside corners of clear cuts are a good place to start looking. Hunting the large pine plantations of the south can leave hunters scratching their heads. But deer on the run during the rut will often congregate around recent clear cuts as they offer food, cover, and easy travel. Bucks will often skirt the inside corner or enter the clear cut at an inside corner in order to cut the distance between point A and point B.
Finally, put in a call to the local biologist before you come to find out what you can reasonably expect for the area. In the northern part of the state and the Blackbelt region, deer above the 120″ mark are good deer, but there is a possibility of deer in the 140-150″ range. For those in the sandy soil of the far southern counties, any deer pushing 100″ is a wall hanger. Anything over 110″ is a true trophy. Though deer in the south cannot match the size of those in the midwest, they sure are a ton of fun to hunt. So if December has got you feeling the blues, or November nostalgia has you longing for rutting bucks, head south this winter. Mild temperatures, vast amounts of public land, and rutting bucks welcome you to sweet home Alabama.