By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division continues to expand its unique access to the great outdoors with five new Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) around the state.
The SOA concept was born six years ago with the purchase of 5,894 acres in Dallas County that became the Cedar Creek SOA in 2017.
The most recent acquisitions into the SOA program include four properties ranging in size from 165 acres to 4,000 acres. Blackwater SOA in Baldwin County is a 3,500-acre tract with coastal wetlands, oak hammocks and longleaf pine savanna along the Perdido and Blackwater rivers with hunting for deer and small game. Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge SOA in Choctaw County, a cooperative venue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a 4,000-acre area with bottomland hardwood forest along the Alabama River that will offer primitive weapons deer hunts only. Thigpen Hill SOA is a 3,500-acre tract in Butler County situated along the headwaters of Cedar Creek with rolling hills, hardwood/pine upland forest, bottomland hardwoods along creeks, a few cedar-glade areas and rock outcroppings that offers hunting opportunities for deer, turkey, feral swine and small game. Prairie Glades SOA is a 165-acre area in Montgomery County made up of Black Belt prairie with agricultural fields that will offer dove hunting.
Available in the 2022-2023 season will be the Little River State Forest SOA in Monroe County. The 3,000-acre tract has upland longleaf pine and loblolly pine, braided creek drains and sandy rolling hills with deer, turkey and small game hunting.
The other properties in the SOA system are Upper State and Fred T. Stimpson in Clarke County, Cedar Creek and Portland Landing in Dallas County, Uchee Creek in Russell County and Crow Creek in Jackson County.
With the new areas, hunters can apply for the limited quota hunts on 11 SOAs with opportunities to hunt white-tailed deer, wild turkey, waterfowl, feral swine and small game. Registration for several SOA hunts opened September 1. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/articles/soa-hunt-registration-begins-september-1 for the full SOA registration schedule.
For those not familiar with SOAs, each area is divided into hunt units of about 300 to 500 acres. Each SOA has specific hunts, typically two to four days in length, for a collection of game species including deer, turkey, waterfowl, feral swine and small game. Applicants select desired hunt dates on the specific SOA. If chosen by a random, computerized selection, the successful applicant and one guest will be assigned a specific hunt unit for the selected dates. The hunt unit will be for their sole use throughout the hunt dates assigned to them. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/special-opportunity-areas and click on the link to register for hunts.
WFF Director Chuck Sykes said the Division has several ways to procure land to use in the SOA system, with a partnership with the Forever Wild Land Trust as the most frequent and largest contributor.
“Ninety-seven percent of the land in the state is in private ownership,” Sykes said. “A good portion of hunters in Alabama only hunt private land. There’s a stigma about hunting public land. Setting up these SOAs the way we did, we sort of made it like a hunting club for those selected permit holders. It was something that private land hunters could relate with. It would let them stick their toe in the water on public land hunting and let them see that these SOAs are great places to hunt and are managed well. The properties are game-rich, and they are not hunting in a crowded situation, like some people think.
“Several years ago, we surveyed our SOA participants. We thought it was going to go over well. It exceeded our expectations. Now our limiting factor is enough opportunity for everybody to be able to participate. The more of these properties we can add, the better off we’re going to be.”
Sykes said WFF attempts to expand hunting opportunities when feasible, and special feral swine hunts have been added as well as areas that are perfect for introducing new or inexperienced hunters to the outdoors.
“We bought a couple of properties specifically for dove hunting,” he said. “Dove hunting is a great gateway hunting opportunity to get people interested. These properties are close to metropolitan areas, where folks don’t have to travel too far and can have a good experience. It gives them a positive perception of hunting and a positive perception of us (WFF) and the opportunities we provide.
“It’s not that we’re not continuing to provide great hunting on our WMA (wildlife management area) system; the SOAs just add to it. We’ve got to quit preaching to the choir and start preaching to a different audience that doesn’t necessarily know who we are, what we do, or the public land opportunities that we provide. This is one way we are attracting a new, more diverse audience to utilize those public lands.”
During the height of the COVID pandemic, many people discovered venturing outdoors for any number of activities was a great outlet when travel and social interaction were severely limited.
“The COVID bump showed us that people went to the grocery store and shelves were empty,” Sykes said. “They got to thinking about what they were going to do if it happened again. That’s why our Adult Mentored Hunting Program (www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program) has been successful. That’s why our Go Fish, Alabama! campaign has been successful. We have a bunch of young professionals and young families that didn’t grow up hunting and fishing like we did that want to be a little more self-sufficient. If we can teach them to hunt through our Adult Mentored Hunting Program or teach them how to fish with our Go Fish, Alabama! program, then they can transition to traditional WMAs.
“Going to a WMA like Skyline with 60,000 acres may be a little intimidating for people who don’t feel confident in their abilities. If they get drawn at Portland Landing (SOA), they are assigned 300 acres with definite boundaries. Nobody will be there but them and the one friend they can bring hunting. It gives them the confidence that they can be successful, which, with each touch, makes them more confident where they can go tackle a hunt at a Skyline or Lowndes WMA.”
Sykes said WFF doesn’t actively traverse the state searching for land that would possibly serve as an SOA.
“We don’t go out specifically looking for certain tracts of property,” he said. “What we have are certain areas of the state that we have identified as underserved. Dallas County (Cedar Creek) was a big one when we started this program six years ago. It just so happened that a willing seller came to us with a tract of land. It was a good fit for the program in an area where we did not have public hunting, so we acquired it.
“Then things kind of snowballed, because once you acquire a piece of property in a certain location, other landowners come to you and say, ‘Hey, I saw what you did with this, would you be interested in this property?’ For example, the same landowner Forever Wild purchased Uchee Creek (SOA) from had a piece of property in Dallas County that we ended up partnering with them and buying. It was just being at the right place at the right time.”
Sykes said word about the SOAs has spread, and now real estate agents and large landowners are bringing more properties to WFF for consideration.
“Some work; some don’t,” he said. “Some just don’t fit in with our program, and we have to say no. The ones that make sense, we do everything we can to acquire them and put them in public hunting. We started with one five years ago, offering just deer hunts and a couple of turkey hunts. Now, we’re offering deer, dove, duck, turkey, feral pig and small game. Each year, we’re adding more and more opportunities for people. If it makes sense, we’re not quitting.”
Sykes challenges anyone who might be the least bit interested to go to www.outdooralabama.com and check out the possibilities.
“Give it a chance,” he said. “Apply for one of them and go see for yourself.”