By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Hank Williams Jr. is not the only one with a family tradition in Alabama. Count Chuck Sykes and his dad, Willie, among those with a lengthy family history in certain activities, but this one involves the great outdoors.
Chuck was only 6 years old when he started heading to a certain deer stand on a 4-acre food plot with his father. He observed for a few years as Willie harvested
“Every year since I started sitting with him when I was 6, we have hunted together in that field,” Chuck said. “One or the other or both have harvested a deer together in that one field. This year made the 38th year we’ve done that.”
Chuck, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said the success of the harvest was not measured by antler size.
“It’s just a deer,” he said. “We were just enjoying the company and enjoying the hard work and killing a deer. One year, I think it was ’07, I killed a 130-inch eight-point, which is the biggest deer that ever came off the place. Most years we’re shooting does. It’s the just the tradition of keeping things going.”
Sykes said deer hunting has changed a great deal in 38 years. Among those changes is the use of wildlife openings for food plots. When the father-son team started hunting their food plot there wasn’t another wildlife opening within 3 to 4 miles. Chuck said there are now 10 food plots surrounding their farm within a quarter-mile of the property lines.
“It just shows you how deer numbers have changed, management practices have changed and just the way deer hunters hunt,” Chuck said. “Everybody has a food plot now. We were planting food plots when it wasn’t fashionable to plant food plots.”
Sykes said food plot management has also changed dramatically since their food plot was planted in the ‘70s.
“It started out as a grass patch,” he said. “It wasn’t called a food plot because it was mostly ryegrass that was planted. Then it went to being called oat patches, and you progressed to planting oats. Now, we’ve progressed to everything under the sun. The food plot we planted this year has a mixture of Durana clover, wheat, oats, rye, triticale, chicory, winter peas and even some brassicas, a smorgasbord.”
Even planting techniques have changed over the years. In the early days, there was plenty of tractor time disking, leveling, scattering seeds and then covering the seeds.
“Now, we simply mow it down low, take a Firminator in there, plant in one pass and go about our business,” Sykes said. “The time it takes to plant that field now is about 10 times less than what it took 20 years ago. That includes labor time, tractor fuel, fertilizer and seed because everything is metered out so precisely. So I’ve seen a lot of changes down there.”
Sykes, whose previous jobs include hunting guide, plantation manager and wildlife management consultant, said the changes to the deer herd in Alabama have been similarly dramatic.
Sykes said the management practices on their farm couldn’t have made that big of a difference. It had to be more widespread.
“It was the mentality of hunters in general,” he said. “There weren’t many deer in the early ‘70s so you did not shoot a doe. So by the late ‘80s, it had gone completely too far, and we had to start shooting antlerless deer. We may have gone a little too far the other way, and now it’s leveling back out.
“The age structure of the deer is much better because of the three-buck limit. And it is also because of hunters maturing. When I was a kid, there might be 20 does in the field and if one little spike came in, you shot the spike so you could say you killed a buck. Now people are more educated on what it takes for a quality deer herd, and yeah, it’s OK for a kid or first-timer to shoot a little buck. But then you mature as a hunter and try to do better each year. Now we have better age structure, so the quality of the herd is better.”
For the first time, the Sykes farm in Choctaw County was included in the deer season with 10 days of hunting in February. Chuck said the WFF biologists had verified through a reproductive study what he had suspected for years – that rutting activity in that area peaked early in February.
“Dad and I had our traditional hunt on February 6,” Chuck said, although the method of harvest was far from traditional. “The doe I harvested this year was taken with a .357 caliber Benjamin air rifle. Who would have thought 20 years ago we could harvest a deer with a pellet gun.
“From all indications, the February season was a huge success. I know it was on my part. Many of my friends in Choctaw County were killing 4- and 5-year-old bucks chasing does even though the weather wasn’t that good. The bucks were still running because it was the peak of the rut. I saw big deer being killed from
Sykes may have started a new tradition on February 10th with fellow Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources employee, Jennifer Weber, who had never hunted before this season.
There were plenty of deer in the food plot for Weber to watch, and Sykes gave her tips on spotting deer moving through the timber and identifying deer by body characteristics. That aforementioned 5-year-old buck came zipping across the field, but Weber wasn’t able to get a shot. As the light started to fade, Weber put the crosshairs on a mature doe.
“Throughout my career, I’ve put a lot of people on their first animal, either a deer or turkey,” Sykes said. ‘Those people had either grown up hunting or were passionate about it. This was much different. Jennifer had never been exposed to hunting.
“Before this year, she had never seen a deer outside of a zoo. While we were in the stand, we talked quite a bit about how to identify button bucks from antlerless deer. It was a neat process. Because of her legal background, everything was analytical. It was getting late and there were a number of antlerless deer within 120 yards. We talked about where and how to shoot. She picked a mature doe and made a tremendous shot. It was as awesome of an experience for me as it was for her.”
“All of this was new coming into the department,” said Weber, because nobody in her family or any of her friends hunted. “I felt like I needed to experience the hunting lifestyle to better understand the ADCNR’s mission. This was a new experience for me and very interesting. I really enjoyed it.”
With a young son, Weber plans to continue to add to her outdoors experience so she can share with him when he gets older.
“I’d like to introduce my son to hunting someday,” she said. “I hope I can build on it and have something to share with him. It really does feel like a bonding experience.”
Sykes added: “Hopefully, we just started a tradition for Jennifer and her family.”
PHOTOS: (Chuck Sykes) Chuck Sykes used an unconventional .357 caliber air rifle to extend the family tradition of harvesting a deer in the same field for 38 years with his father, Willie. The Sykes men show off the largest buck ever taken in the food plot, a 130-inch eight-point. Sykes was also able to help Jennifer Weber harvest her first deer, a doe taken on the last day of the 2014-2015 season.