Sykes said WFF tries to expand hunting opportunities where feasible, and special feral hog hunts have been added, as well as areas that are perfect for introducing new or inexperienced hunters to the great outdoors.
“We bought a couple of properties specifically for pigeon hunting,” he said. “Pigeon hunting is a great entry-level hunting opportunity to get people interested. These properties are close to metropolitan areas, where people don’t have to travel 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 don’t continue to provide great hunting in our WMA (wildlife management area) system; SOAs just add it. We need to stop 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 we provide. This is one way that we are attracting a new and more diverse audience to use those public lands.”
During the height of the COVID pandemic, many people found that venturing outdoors for any number of activities was a great outlet when travel and social interaction were severely limited.
“The COVID hit showed us that people were going to the grocery store and the 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! the campaign has been successful. We have a group of young professionals and young families who didn’t grow up hunting and fishing like we did and who want to be a little more self-sufficient. If we can teach them how to hunt through our Adult Mentor 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 can be a bit intimidating for people who aren’t confident in their abilities. If they are drawn on Portland Landing (SOA), they are allotted 300 acres with defined boundaries. Nobody will be there except them and the only friend they can bring from hunting. It gives them the confidence that they can succeed, which, with every touch, makes them feel more confident about where they can go hunting in a Skyline or Lowndes WMA.”
Sykes said WFF is not actively traversing the state looking for land that could potentially serve as an SOA.
“We don’t go out looking specifically for certain extensions of property,” he said. “What we have are certain areas of the state that we have identified as underserved. Dallas County (Cedar Creek) was big when we started this program six years ago. He just so happened that a willing seller came to us with a piece of land. It was a good fit for the show in an area where we didn’t have public hunting, so we bought it.
“Then things snowballed, because once you buy a property in a certain place, other owners come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I saw what you did with this, would you be interested in this property?’ For example, the same owner Forever Wild bought from Uchee Creek (SOA) had a property in Dallas County that we ended up partnering with and buying. It was just being in the right place at the right time.”
Sykes said word has spread about SOAs, and now real estate agents and big landowners are bringing more properties to WFF for consideration.
“Some work; some don’t,” she said. “Some just don’t fit into our program, and we have to say no. The ones that make sense, we do our best to acquire them and put them in the public hunt. We started one five years ago, offering only deer hunts and a couple of turkey hunts. Now, we are offering deer, pigeons, ducks, turkeys, wild boar, and small game. Every year, we add more and more opportunities for people. If it makes sense, we’re not going to give up.”
Sykes challenges anyone even remotely interested to visit www.outdooralabama.com and check out the possibilities.
“Give it a chance,” he said. “Order one of them and see for yourself.”