Long after most deer hunters across the country have left the woods and packed up their gear for the long off-season, long after the last buck has chased a doe in an attempt to breed her, hunters in Alabama are just climbing into their stands with dreams of scoring on a big buck in the throws of a wide-open rut. Alabama’s late rut is no secret inside deer hunting circles, but not many people realize that the action starts heating up in late December and can run all the way into February.
In fact, there’s even a move afoot to extend Alabama’s season, which closes at the end of January, into that February time frame.
“There are a lot of hunters interested in extending the season,” said Joe Hamilton of the Quality Deer Management Association (QMDA). However, doing that has both pros and cons that Hamilton and state biologists are examining before any laws are changed. One concern is that pushing hunting into February would result in too many bucks being killed, leaving more does without bucks to breed them. That, in turn, means many does will stay in estrus until they are bred, which could lead to a lot of fawns being born later, when the hot, dry summer is well underway. This could mean more stress on fawns and nursing does, and ultimately poorer health for the budding deer herd.
Of course, until the season is extended, it still remains the latest rut option available to sportsmen and women seeking to hunt whitetails during the hottest action of deer season. But Alabama isn’t the only place late ruts occur, and for the rut junky who loves to travel, there are rutting deer to hunt from November right through Alabama’s late season.
While the traditional rut in most areas of the whitetail’s range occurs in November, there are several areas in the South where prime action doesn’t begin until late November. Chief among these are the southeastern portion of Texas and along the Florida panhandle. In fact, there two zones—Zone B, which encompasses parts of Polk, Orange, Lake, Sumter, Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough, Osceola and Pinellas counties all surrounding the Tampa Bay area and Zone D, which runs from Tallahassee west along the panhandle—where the regular firearms deer season runs until Feb. 17. Zone D even has a muzzleloading season that runs Feb. 18 to 24, boasting what may well be the latest season to hunt whitetails in the country. Indeed, less than two weeks later, spring turkey hunters in the southern part of that state are taking to the woods. In fact, it is interesting to note that Florida offers the longest stretch of rutting of any state—and along with that, the longest season—with deer in the southern extant of the state starting to rut as early as July and as late as February in the panhandle.
Key late-season public land opportunities on the panhandle occur on Joe Budd WMA, which offers higher-quality archery and muzzleloading quota hunts into late January, as well as Apalachicola, Apalachee, Econfina Creek and others. Both Tyndall and Eglin Air Force bases also offer some public hunting, with Tyndall boasting around 14,000 acres for sportsmen and women seeking deer and Eglin offering a whopping 280,000 acres.
There are also a number of outfitters in the region that boast extremely affordable hunts when compared to whitetail excursions in other parts of the country. In fact, one outfitter, Southern Arrowhead Outfitters, offers five-day hunts that allow you one buck, two does and a hog.
While few big buck hunters are going to journey to Florida to take a swing at the comparatively smallish deer, the fact that you could combine a deer hunt with saltwater fishing in the nearby gulf or some other mild-weather activity makes it an intriguing proposition. Mixing in species such as hogs, like the aforementioned outfitter, makes this an intriguing option as well.
Texas is another story. While various regions of the Lone Star state have seen rut behavior drag well into December and even January, the region with the latest peak breeding according to Texas Parks and Wildlife is the South Texas Plains region, which sees peak breeding into the last week of December with some breeding running through to February 1.
The region is known for some legendary sized bucks, at least where racks are concerned, providing quite the draw for big buck hunters. Contrary to popular belief, while Texas is short on public land, some tracts do offer opportunity in the region. Chaparral and James Daughtrey WMAs, Choke Canyon State Park and McMullen County Ranch are all possibilities. There are quite a few quality outfitters to choose from in the region as well, though you can expect to spend quite a bit more than the going rate in Florida.
The Heart of Late Season
Alabama remains the gem of late-season rut hunting with nearly all of the state open for action throughout the month of January. For both the budget hunter and the hunter willing to invest in some adventure, the state offers a great mix of public land and outfitted opportunities. There are a number of hunters who also lease land for the express purpose of hunting the late rut after things have cooled back at home.
The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries operates 37 wildlife management areas that cover more than 760,000 acres and that span the state. A 10-day All Game license is only $177.65, while a 3-day one will run you $125.40. The ability to hunt the entire season will run you $287.45.
Some of the largest public land choices that might allow you the opportunity to escape the crowd by going deep include Black Warrior near Moulton at more than 91,000 acres, Choccolocco (56,838 acres) near Heflin, Freedom Hills (31,734 acres) near Cherokee, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta & W.L. Holland (51,040 acres) near Spanish Fort—which is more known for its waterfowl, but still provides habitat to plentiful deer—Oakmulgee (44,500 acres) near Moundville and Upper Delta (42,451 acres) near Stockton. The season in some capacity—either with firearms, muzzleloader, archery or even spear—is open through Jan. 31 in every part of the state to allow hunters to capitalize on the late rutting deer.