By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) continues to expand its unique access to the great outdoors with five new Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) across the state.
The SOA concept was born six years ago with the purchase of 5,894 acres in Dallas County that became Cedar Creek SOA in 2017.
The most recent acquisitions in 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 expanse of coastal wetlands, oak hammocks, and longleaf pine savannah along the Perdido and Blackwater rivers with deer and small game hunting. The Choctaw SOA National Wildlife Refuge in Choctaw County, a cooperative site with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a 4,000-acre area of lowland hardwood forest along of the Alabama River that will offer only deer hunting with primitive weapons. Thigpen Hill SOA is a 3,500-acre parcel of land in Butler County situated along the head of Cedar Creek with rolling hills, upland hardwood/pine forest, lowland hardwood forest along creeks, some areas of cedars, and rocky outcroppings that offer hunting opportunities for deer, turkey, feral hog, and small game. Prairie Glades SOA is a 165-acre area in Montgomery County comprised of Black Belt prairies with agricultural fields that will offer pigeon hunting.
Available in the 2022-2023 season will be the Little River State Forest SOA in Monroe County. The 3,000-acre stretch has upland longleaf pine and loblolly pine trees, braided creek drainages, and rolling sand hills with deer, turkey, and small game.
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 limited-quota hunting in 11 SOAs with opportunities to hunt white-tailed deer, wild turkey, waterfowl, wild hog and small game. Registration for various SOA hunts opened on September 1. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/articles/soa-hunt-registration-begins-september-1 to see the complete SOA registration schedule.
For those unfamiliar with SOA, each area is divided into hunting units of around 300-500 acres. Each SOA holds specific hunts, typically two to four days in length, for a collection of game species including deer, turkey, waterfowl, wild hog, and small game. Applicants select the desired hunt dates in the specific SOA. If chosen by computerized random selection, the selected applicant and one guest will be assigned a specific hunting unit for the selected dates. The hunting unit will be for your exclusive use during the hunting dates assigned to you. 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 acquire land for use in the SOA system, with a partnership with the Forever Wild Land Trust being the largest and most frequent contributor.
“Ninety-seven percent of the land in the state is privately owned,” Sykes said. “A good portion of hunters in Alabama only hunt on private land. There is a stigma about hunting on public land. Setting up these SOAs the way we did, we made them like a hunting club for those selected permit holders. It was something land-deprived hunters could identify with. It would allow them to stick their toe in the water on hunting on public lands and it would allow them to see that these SOAs are great places to hunt and are well managed. The properties are rich in game and they are not hunting in an overcrowded situation as some people think.
“Several years ago, we surveyed our SOA participants. We thought it was going to work out. It exceeded our expectations. Now our limiting factor is enough opportunity for everyone to participate. The more of these properties we can add, the better off we are.”
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.”