By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Hunting in Alabama will move into mostly uncharted territory soon when much of south Alabama enjoys its inaugural February deer season.

Last year, a portion of southwest Alabama swapped 10 days of deer hunting in December to be able to hunt the first 10 days of February. It was a popular move.

After analyzing additional data from the deer reproductive studies conducted throughout south Alabama, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division recommended that most of the property south of Montgomery, except for several locations along the Chattahoochee River, be included in the south zone with the February deer season.

“I’m personally excited about the February deer season because my farm missed it last year,” said Chuck Sykes, WFF Director and native of Choctaw County.

“Despite the fact I was very confident the deer in the rest of this area were rutting like everybody south of us, we did not have the data to implement the February season at the time.

“Our (WFF) guys got the information needed, and we got the line moved to where it is now. The December shutdown everybody was worried about came out perfectly, because the weather was terrible. That’s why we picked the first 10 days of December. That’s usually not a good time to be deer hunting in the South. You’ve got the opening weekend before Thanksgiving until the end of the November. Then it’s usually hot and nasty early in December. It worked like a charm this year. I’m hoping, with some good weather, that it’s going to be an extremely successful February season.”

Sykes expects participation in the February deer season is going to be high, which makes participation in WFF’s Game Check program so important.

“Let’s face it, this is one of the latest deer seasons in the nation,” he said. “There are some states with late antlerless seasons. From our biological data, you’re going to be hunting the peak of the rut the first week in February. I don’t know of any other place in the country where you can do that, so I’m expecting quite a bit of participation.

“With last year being a pilot project in southwest Alabama, and this year’s expanded area, I want people to understand how important it is for hunters to give us their harvest data in these counties with the February season. We need to see what the participation is and what the harvest is so we can tell if we are still headed in the right direction. I’m talking about Game Check.”

Sykes admits that participation in the Game Check program, which has been voluntary in the first two years, has been disappointing with less than 5 percent of the hunters reporting their harvests.

“Last year, our guesstimation was three to four percent of hunters reported their kills,” he said. “We are watching the numbers closely this season and are hopeful the participation will end up being higher.”

Sykes said he’s puzzled by the reluctance of Alabama’s hunters to participate in Game Check.

“Look, anybody who runs a business on a three-percent data set isn’t going to be in business long,” he said. “If a banker only looks at three percent of what he’s got coming and going, I’m going to bet he won’t be running a bank very long. That same goes at home when you’re balancing your checkbook. If you’ve only got information on three percent, you’re missing the boat.”

Sykes estimates the number of hunters in Alabama that will be affected by a February season at “better than half.”

“And I’m expecting a huge economic boost to the state on these 10 days,” he said. “Commercial lodges can hunt later. I think it’s going to be good for a lot of people.

“But we need that biological data to make sure we’re not hurting the resource. We don’t think we’re going to. We think we’re going to be fine. That’s why we have the buck limit. We just need to know.”

The statewide buck limit is three per person per season. In all counties except Barbour, one of the three bucks must have four points at least 1 inch in length on one side. Barbour County has a special antler restriction with a minimum of three points on one side for all three bucks, except on the statewide special youth deer hunting dates.

Although the effort required to participate in Game Check is minimal, the information the Game Check system provides will give WFF officials a much better picture of the deer herd, especially the impact of the February season.

There are three ways to participate in Game Check: Smartphone app, online at www.outdooralabama.com or by toll-free telephone at 1-800-888-7690. Smartphone apps are available for iPhone and Android and can be found at outdooralabama.com.

Game Check will prompt hunters to answer a few simple questions during deer season: county of harvest, whether it is a buck or unantlered deer, and whether the harvest occurred on public or private land. The process only takes a few minutes. After completing entry of the harvest data, hunters will receive a confirmation code. That code then can be entered in the corresponding blank on their harvest record, which must be in their possession while hunting.

For several years now, the “Note It Before You Tote It” regulation has been in place, requiring hunters to record their buck and turkey harvests before the animal is moved.

“With the Game Check app, it takes me less than three minutes to report my kill,” Sykes said. “I would encourage everybody to report their harvests on the computer or Smartphone app. We get more accurate information that way. When you’re talking to that computer on the phone, there are more opportunities for errors. The app is by far the easiest way to go.

“The hardest thing about the whole process is entering your license number. Other than that, everybody knows whether it’s a buck or doe, whether you’re on public or private land, and which county you’re in. That’s it.”

Because the deer season in the north zone will end on Jan. 31, the WFF’s Enforcement Section will have the flexibility to make staffing changes for the February season.

“With the north zone’s season being out, things will simmer down up there before it does in the south zone. We will have the opportunity to ship some personnel to hot spots across the state,” said Kevin Dodd, WFF’s Chief of Enforcement. “For those areas that are snowed under with night hunting or deer-hunting complaints, we’ll be able to shift some extra personnel and respond to those complaints. And it will free the local officer to respond to other complaints.

“We’ve never had this opportunity before because we have never had this kind of deer season before. We’re not saying where the officers are coming from or where we’re sending them, but that’s the general concept.”

Although officers will respond to complaints, Dodd said there will be an increased effort to check for proper licensing during the February season.

“We’ve been trying to focus on routine license checks for the last couple of years,” he said. “Hunting without a license is still a huge violation problem. We look at it as Alabama residents being robbed by people hunting without a license.”

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