Whitetail Wonderland

Like an old sweet song, Georgia's always on my mind in November. More specifically, the Georgia rut. And as in so many places in the South, it gets underway between November 1 and 21. For a few wild weeks, bristle-haired bucks scrape, grunt, fight and slobber their way through the annual whitetail lovefest with gusto, providing the best chance of the season to bag a trophy-grade deer.

This should be an exceptional year for Southern hunters for two reasons. First, rainy weather across much of the Southeast early last year kept hunters out of the woods and dropped the harvest significantly. That means more deer of both sexes survived. Second, states such as Georgia are now starting to reap the benefits of quality deer management (QDM).

MANAGEMENT PAYS OFF

Beginning last year in Georgia, one of the two bucks hunters were allowed had to have at least four points on one side. The doe bag went to 12, allowing hunters to trim overall herds and also improve the buck-to-doe ratio.

Hunters typically take about 450,000 deer annually from a herd estimated at more than 1.2 million. More important for rack hunters, some 70,000 mature bucks 2 1/2 years old or older were taken last year.

Even prior to the QDM efforts, Georgia had produced far more Boone and Crockett bucks than any of its neighbors, with the all-time tally at 93. Archers have also done remarkably well, taking over 200 Pope and Young bucks since 1980--more than any other Deep South state except Mississippi.

GEORGIA WALL-HANGERS

I usually hunt a friend's lease in the rolling hills of Spalding County along the banks of the Flint River; the clear-cuts and bottom country here rarely fail to produce a shooter. The area is also loaded with turkeys, so it's good for scouting for the spring season. (I once had 17 longbeards lined up like circus elephants strolling under my stand.)

Like much of Georgia, the land sports thought-provoking remnants of its past--you'll find flint arrowheads left by hunters who shared your passion 500 years ago, and you may choose to set up a stand over an antebellum family cemetery where the vines trace the history of pride and honor and loss. Look hard at counties where special antler restrictions will generate a disproportionate number of nice bucks this fall. These include Hancock, Meriwether and Troup in the north zone, where all bucks must have at least four points on one side to be legal.

Of the WMAs, if you want to bring home some venison, the low-country quota hunts at Ossabaw Island and Sapelo Island are always tops, though the deer here aren't as impressive as in the piedmont counties. You'll see better bucks in the foothills; some of the top producers include Rum Creek, Joe Kurz and J.L. Lester. All of these are quota hunts.

Ray Charles had it right about Georgia as far as I'm concerned. Especially come November.

BUCKS IN THE BLUEGRASS

If Georgia's not on your radar screen for deer season, hopefully Kentucky is. The state has seen an explosion of big--make that gigantic--bucks in recent years. Also benefiting from antler restrictions and increased limits for does, Bluegrass hunters are putting more and more bucks in the record books.

In the east, the expansive 60,000-acre Daniel Boone National Forest offers a whole lot of land and plenty of deer to boot. The area around Lake Cumberland WMA is fast becoming a trophy spot along the southern edge of the state. For the real bruisers, though, turn to the west, in such places as Peabody WMA and the Land Between the Lakes.

SWEET HOME ALABAMA

If you can take time off from chasing whitetails, this month is also a great time to start hitting big stripers on lakes throughout the South. One sleeper is Alabama's Lewis Smith Lake, northwest of Birmingham. Perhaps the clearest and deepest fishery in the state, the 20,000-acre impoundment has produced stripers to 40 pounds, and as water drops into the mid-60s during the fall, these fish will feed on shad over main river points and submerged islands. Your best bet is to net a few shad and fish them live, but you can also do plenty of business with big wobbling plugs like the Bomber Long A, white bucktails, vertically jigged chrome spoons and big topwater lures when the fish are busting bait at the surface.

If you can't make it during deer season, go during spring turkey season instead. Bankhead National Forest provides great access, and mid-March through early May is also prime time for striped bass.

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