Being out in the woods after a long, hot summer is good, but bagging small game makes October hunting even better.
The darkness of the night is turning grey as the woods slowly come awake. Bird cries and other sounds herald the day’s arrival. Not so far off, the excited barking of small dogs at the base of an old oak tree tells the hunter why he’s out in the woods this misty October morning.
It takes only a moment’s scanning of oak tree limbs for the hunter to find the squirrel’s location as it scampers to avoid the wildly barking dogs. The squirrel is so busy evading the dogs that it doesn’t pay attention to the world around it.
With a single shot, the hunter ends the squirrel’s twisting around the limb. The small dogs celebrate the kill. This squirrel, along with a few others, will become a fine supper for the hunter, and that’s another reward and reason for an early season hunt.
“For hunters in South Alabama, a prime place to find first-rate small game is on the lands of the Upper Delta.”
After the small crack of the hunter’s .22 dies away in the stillness of the massive swamp forest of the Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area, the sound of a pack of beagles hot on the trail of a cottontail comes ringing through the quiet of the woods. The considerably louder boom of a pair of shotguns signals the completion of the circle by the rabbit trying to escape the beagles. It’s the start of a wonderful day for small game hunting in the delta.
Even though the early season quarries for Alabama’s hunters are classified as “small game,” the satisfaction hunters receive from outsmarting or out-waiting a mess of squirrels, or from hearing a pack of beagles circling a rabbit around, can’t be classified as anything but big-time fun. Small game hunting in the delta is a prime place for hunters in South Alabama.
Conditions This Year—Lots of Water
The Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area is a massive area of more than 45,000 acres of mixed hardwood trees and other lower and upper-story vegetation growing on river-influenced bottomland lying between I-65 and Tensaw, Alabama, up State Hwy 59 from Bay Minette.
The area is really quite close to the city of Mobile and to the growing population of central and south Baldwin County, so many hunters and potential hunters have only a short drive to be in truly wild hunting lands with some great small game hunting in the delta in the early season.
Last year’s acorn crop in the area was a poor one. And since all of the game species in the swamps of the Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area largely depend on acorns for fall and winter forage, that poor acorn crop hurt last year’s hunting.
However, this year is another story. “This year looks good for acorns,” says veteran hunter Nick White. “I’ve been out checking them already, and there are lots of acorns this year.”
Chris Nix, Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area biologist, agrees. “The acorn crop so far this year is good. All of the different species of oaks look good. We don’t know how they’ll hold into the fall but right now all oak species are having a good production year.”
Of course, the one major factor in planning small game hunting in the Delta Wildlife Management Area is simple: the water. Everything that happens in this hunting region is influenced and even controlled by the water level of the rivers. Hunters have to be aware of what the rivers will and won’t allow hunters to do. The word for this year is lots of water.
This past spring and summer recorded some far-above-average rainfall all over the state. And since most of Alabama drains into the rivers, which feed into five rivers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, water levels down here have been higher in the woods and swamps nearly all year. Since levels have been high all year, they will probably be high in October, too.
Chris Nix, biologist of the Upper Delta Area, says, “We closed the gates (drive-in access gate) last December 19. They are still closed. We have the highest water since 1990. Most of the Upper Area is boat-accessible only.”
What this means is unless the water levels drop severely before October, most hunters will be boating into the area. This situation is not entirely a bad thing. One positive that high water does is concentrate the small game on the higher ridges of the area. This makes finding game for hunting quite a bit easier and allows hunters to focus their efforts on a more limited area.
How to Access the Area—What to Look For
Nick White of the Crossroads community in northern Baldwin County spends a lot of time fishing and hunting in the Delta, and he has some very good advice for hunters who want to get into some first-rate early season small game hunting in the Delta.
He has this advice: “To drive in to the Upper Delta area, go up Hwy 59 to Latham, and then start looking for signs that will direct you to the Drive-In Area. The signs will be on the right side of the road, but you’ll turn left onto a dirt road and go thirteen miles to the Wildlife Management Area.”
If the water stays high into October, hunters may have to use small portable boats rather than cars and trucks when accessing the area from this side.
When accessing the Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area by river, which may the only way to get to some of the hunting areas this year, Nick White advises hunters to put in at Hubbard’s Landing and go upstream to Stiggin’s Ridge, which is the highest point in the swamp. The Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area is the kind of place that newcomers should probably not approach alone. Hunting with an experienced hunter who knows the area and the best places to hunt and access the area is a very good idea.
It goes without saying that it’s not enough to just get into the Management Area for hunting. This is some rugged territory, and there are few if any landmarks for a hunter to get a good visual fix to help find the way back to the boat or truck. Carrying a good GPS unit with a backtrack feature will help a hunter get back to the truck or boat for the ride home before dark. Spending the night lost in the Management Area without shelter might be a very long night, for sure.
At any time, regardless of the river water conditions, hunting the oak trees on the higher swamp ridges is probably the most reliable way to find some great bushytail hunting action. With high water conditions such as we have now, cottontails should be concentrated on the ridges, too.
“We take our short-legged beagles,” White says, “and hunt the power line and gas line cleared areas; thickets in and around them. There are lots of rabbits this year.”
Although it’s possible to successfully hunt squirrels on the Management Area by still-hunting, using dogs in the thick cover and heavy growth of early-season leaves is a good idea. Besides, watching a squirrel dog or two work is a lot of fun.
For squirrels, White says, “I use two feist dogs—a sight hunter and a scent hunter—for squirrels. I hunt the oak ridges, and I look for white oak and oval cup oaks.”
Rules and Regs
To keep up with the regulations for hunting the Upper Delta Wildlife Mangement Area, hunters can access the rules and requirements by going online and looking at the state maps of the area and the specific rules. All regular state hunting regulations apply, but there are some Management Area specific rules that hunters need to be aware of.
When asked to outline the most important rules, Chris Nix says, “Remember that to hunt the WMA, you’ll need both a WMA small game license and WMA license. The cost is $17. Next, remember that small game hunters can use shotguns; #4 shot or smaller or .22 or smaller rimfire rifles.
Small game hunters are reminded that during special days—gun, primitive weapons, and youth hunts—small game hunting is not allowed.
The squirrel and rabbit seasons run from October 1 to February 28, and the limit is eight each of both squirrels and rabbits.
A common question for many when small game hunting in the delta, is whether or not hunters can legally hunt from a boat in the Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area. Hunting squirrels from a boat is a very effective way to operate, and it’s likely that hunters will use the quiet of the water to get close enough for a good shot at squirrels in shoreline and overhanging trees. For some reason, squirrels don’t seem to be as aware of approaching danger when it comes by water. However, hunters have to be aware of certain restrictions.
“Yes, it is legal to hunt from a boat,” Chris Nix says. “But there can be no motor used, gas or electric.”
“Yes, it is legal to hunt from a boat,” Chris Nix says. “But there can be no motor used, gas or electric. There can be no forward motion of the boat except from paddling or drifting. Hunters working from a boat should have both motors out of the water.”
Advice for Small Game Hunting in the Delta Wildlife Management Area
When asked his best advice for small game hunting in the Delta, Chris Nix has this to add. ”You’ll need to find dry areas. Pay attention to the game animals’ food sources. Sometimes acorns fall early in the season. We’ll know more about this when October 1st rolls around.”
As to whether early or late in the season is best, Nix says, “Early in the season is good because hunting pressure will be lower and the animals will not have been worked very hard yet. Later in the season is good for squirrels because the cooler weather cuts down on some of the parasites that often infest squirrels.”
Nick White’s best advice for small game hunting in the Delta is simple: Hunt early morning up until about nine o’clock. Overcast days with moisture on the ground are best for tracking, whether rabbits or squirrels.
Another bit of good advice might be to come properly equipped with footwear. With all of the water we’ve had this year and going into the fall, a good pair of waterproof boots might be a good idea for Upper Delta hunters, too.