Five of the Top Game to Hunt in the Southeast

Growing up in rural northeast Alabama; hunting and fishing were an integral part of life; as natural as breathing. Nearly every pickup you saw had a hunting rifle or fishing pole behind the seat. And it wasn’t uncommon for kids to run into the classroom late because of spending the first light of morning out in the woods – still dressed in their camo and smelling faintly of doe urine.

For Southerners, hunting is more than a tradition or past-time – it is a part of the people, almost as much an arm or a leg. Hunting in the South is, in part, fierce pride in being able to provide food for your family and with your own hands. It’s a beautiful song where the hunter works with the land by responsible wildlife management practices, tracking and “readin’ signs” are all a part of the harmony. For hunters in the South – the land they own and work is almost like a precious member of the family.

The Southeast, particularly in the ridges of Southern Appalachia, is world renown for its prime hunting habitats and pristine conservation environments. Within a relatively small area, you can encounter hardwood forest, pine woods, wetlands, limestone caves, and swamps. The South is the most biologically diverse region in the entire United States. Home to the raccoon, opossum, waterfowl, cougar, bear, deer, fox, bobcat, rabbit, and weasel. Not to mention some of the rarest salamander and minnows in the world.

Five of the Top Game to Hunt in the Southeast:

 

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White-Tailed Deer

Are by far the most common game animal to hunt. The White-tailed deer are all over North America – its range is from Canada down to Peru. They are one of the widest distributed hooved animals in the world. They are timid creatures, with a keen sense of smell and hearing.  Their night vision is much better than ours, but they don’t see extremely well during the daylight hours. Their eyes can’t see green, orange, or red – it appears as hues of grey. Bucks can weigh up to 300 lbs and does up to 200. White-tailed deer are very fast, running up to 30 miles an hour.

During the spring summer months, a buck will grow a set of antlers. During these months, the antlers are covered in velvet. This velvet is a living tissue that supplies blood to the antlers. During the summer, their fur takes on a reddish hue, while in the winter it becomes grayish. In the fall, around September, the velvet is rubbed off. Just in time for mating season, called the Rut. On each antler can grow a number of points, or “tines.” The number and length of the points can help to determine a buck age. Nutrition and genetics do play a factor in their antler build too, however.

White-tailed deer are crepuscular, meaning they are most active around sunrise and sunset. They can live alone or in herds. Typically, a deer will only have a home range of around a square mile. Does will be pregnant during the winter and fawn in late April or early May. The Fawn are born with white spots that disappear after a couple of months. Fawns are able to run within 24 hours after birth and are weaned around 6 months. They typically will stay with the doe until she has another fawn. Around 18 months of age, a doe will begin mating. Her first fawn will be a single birth around. But each season after, she will give birth to twins.

A white-tailed deer can live up to 11 years old in the wild, though many don’t live past the age of 5. They have been known to eat up to 600 plant species. Their four-chambered stomach allows them to eat vegetation that is very difficult to digest, including several varieties of mushrooms that are poisonous for humans to consume.

When tracking white-tailed deer, remember that they prefer to feed at dawn and dusk. They like to bed down near a source of water. White-tailed deer are extremely cautious, if they detect human scent on some underbrush days after the hunter was there, they will avoid the area for weeks.

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Wild Turkey

This upland bird species is easily the second most hunted game in the Southeast. Adult Toms can weigh as much as 30 lbs and the Adult Hens weighing around 12 lbs. Despite their weight, turkeys are agile fliers. Their legs can be a reddish yellow to a greyish green hue. The body can vary in color from a copper to a brown, with the adult Toms pattern becoming more varied as he ages. Adult Toms also has red waddles on his throat and his reddish head. Tom turkey’s head will change color, depending upon his mood. His head is covered in carucles, which are fleshy growths. The long fleshly growth over his beak is called a snood.

Wild turkey prefers a habit that is either primarily hardwood or a mix of conifer and hardwoods that have occasional openings into a pasture, field or even occasionally a marsh. They seem to prefer woods filled with white ash, cherry, oaks, and hickory. The wild turkey is omnivorous. They eat not only a wide variety of seeds, berries, and nuts (pine nuts, hickory, hazelnut, acorns, chestnut etc) but also insects, lizards, and even snakes.

There are four major sub-species of Wild Turkey in North America (seven total, technically, including a hybrid.) Two of these sub-species are found in the Southeast. Eastern Wild Turkey lives in the eastern half of the country as far north as Maine and as far south as northern Florida. Some Eastern Wild Turkey can be found as far west as Missouri. They can get up to four feet tall and weigh as much as 30 lbs. The Osceola Wild Turkey, which is the smallest of the North American sub-species and weighs only an average of 16 lbs. It was named after the famous Seminole leader Osceola.

Eastern Wild Turkey are very prone to getting leery if they hear the same turkey calling over and over. So when scouting, especially prior to Opening Day, try to use a Crow Call or a Barred Owl call – these turkeys will gobble up to just about any sort of call prior and you don’t want them getting used to the sound of your turkey call.

Hen’s don’t like another hen talking to her tom. Sometimes you will need to call in your hen, and the tom will follow her – mimic her call, only a little more aggressively and see if she will come right on up to you.

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Wood Ducks

Are the most stunning of the North American waterfowl species and are extremely abundant in the Southeast. They are a medium sized, perching duck and smaller than a mallard. Both drakes and hens have a crested head. Drakes are iridescent chestnut brown and green with distinctive white, in contrasting markings, and red eyes.  Hens are a muted brown and grey with an elegant white pattern around the eye. Unlike most ducks, they have sharp claws which help them to perch in trees. They are extremely agile fliers and excel at weaving in and out of trees – which makes them difficult to hunt.

Wood ducks prefer a habitat of wooded marshes, sloughs, forested backwaters, creeks, shallow inland lakes, beaver ponds, and wooded swamps. Mainly, they prefer primarily deciduous woodland and places where large trees overhang the water. If there are too few natural wooded cavities in which to nest, they will happily nest in a wooden nesting box.

Wood Ducks forage in the water by taking food from the surface, a technique called Dabbling. They will also submerge to feed completely underwater, and will also forage on land. They eat primarily seeds and aquatic plants but will also eat insects and crustaceans. In some regions, waste grain is a preferred food source. Wood Ducks love acorns – which gives them a very earthy taste.

The Wood Duck has a brilliant display of courtship that highlights the drake’s colorful plumage. There is an average of 9-15 eggs laid per brood, and they are the only North American duck to have two broods in a single season. The hen will stay with the young and watch over them until around six weeks. Wood Ducks will “egg dump” occasionally. This is when the hen will lay eggs in another hens nest. Some hens will catch on to this trick and will destroy the dumped eggs. The ducklings will remain in the nest only for a single day. The morning after they hatch, the young will climb up the ledge and jump to the ground – where their light fluffy bodies allow them to bounce for safety.

When decoying this waterfowl, make sure that you use ONLY other Woodies.  While other duck species will decoy with mallards, wood ducks prefer their own species. They tend to be hard to decoy – they don’t like to veer far outside the destination they already have in mind. They are extremely location oriented birds. So Scouting beforehand is key to a successful hunt. Don’t bother with the usual “C” or “J” decoy formation – just a light spread of a dozen or so.  Motion is critical to a wood duck decoy spread.

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American Black Bear

The American Black Bear is widely distributed and is the smallest of the North American Bears. They are the worlds most common bear species, some biologist claim that the black bear is twice as numerous as any other bear species. Interestingly, black bears are not closely related to polar bears or brown/grizzly bears. They are more closely related to sun bears and Asian black bears.

Black bears prefer territories that have a lot of dense undergrowth, and what would normally be considered inaccessible terrain as well as a forest with a large number of oaks and hickory.

The skull of the black bear is wide and has a narrow muzzle. Males tend to have wider set faces than females. Their feet can be up to 9 inches long. Their weight will vary greatly depending upon the season of the year, for example, in the fall their weight will be 30% more than it is in the spring.  Adult males will typically weigh between 125-550, and the largest recorded weighed just over 1,000 lbs. Despite their name, only around 70% of all black bears have black fur. Some can be white some brown and some in between.

Even though they are a very large animal, they can run quickly – up to 30 miles an hour. Black bears are extremely intelligent. They have excellent hearing ability. Their sense of smell is seven times greater than that of a dog. They can be active any time day or night but tend to do most of their foraging at night. American black bears tend to be extremely territorial, with a dominant male getting his choice of feeding locations.

They will feed on acorns, hazelnuts, berries, yellow jackets, bees, ants, larvae, trout, catfish, just about anything they can forage. While there are records of black bear hunting deer it isn’t very common.  They tend to be solitary animals, except for sows with cubs. Two is the most common number for cubs, but a female can have up to 6 in a litter.

While American Black Bears don’t hibernate in the true sense, they do reduce their metabolism drastically for a few months. Here in the Southeast, it tends to be about 3 months.

A lot of hunters will bait a black bear, in the states where it is legal. Baiting gives you the opportunity for a better identification as to the age and health of the bear. Some hunters bait with trail mix and a few pastries like honey buns or twinkies. Just don’t feed them chocolate – it is toxic to a bear just like it is to a dog. Set your bait up where the bear will have to go through some thick cover to get to it. Also, make sure it is near water.

Also, keep in mind that you want your tree stand to be about 15 feet away and about 15 feet high with dense vegetation behind you. Any higher and you’ll be less likely to get that double lung hit. Your goal is not only penetrating both lungs but to also have an exit wound. The exit wound is important for getting him dropped quickly, humanely, and safely.

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Mourning Dove

Dove hunting is a highly social event – whole families will gather in the field to enjoy a day of shooting, picnicking, and fall weather. Mourning doves are slender-bodied birds with tiny heads that fly very quickly when startled – up to 55 mph.  They have a long pointed tail, which is a unique trait with North American dove species. While there are a number of other dove species in the Southeast, they will not be discussed in this article. Mourning doves coloring will vary slightly depending upon the region. They can be a light dainty brown to a greyish tan overall with a few black spots on the wings. They live all across the continental United States and they are the most abundant game bird in the country. You can even find mourning doves in the desert, which is due to their ability to drink water with saline content as high as sea water and not become dehydrated.

During courtship, the male will fly up noisily, and glide in a circular pattern. This is followed by a chest feather display on the ground. During the mating season, you will often see mourning doves fly in a line of three. The first one is the mated male, followed closely by a rival unmated, male. The rival is attempting to run the mated male away. The third is the mated female, who is just along for the show. In warmer regions, a mourning dove can raise up to six broods a year – which is far more than any other native bird species in the country.

When a mourning dove feeds, he is swallowing seeds as fast as he can. These seeds get stored in a special pouch in their esophagus called a crop, along with a few pieces of gravel. Once the crop has been filled the dove will fly to a perch and digest it. They have to consume 20% of their body weight a day in food, which is roughly 70 calories.  The record for the most seeds stored in a crop is a little over 17,000 blueberry seeds. Seeds make up for 99% of the mourning doves diet.

Doves are creatures of habit, which make them a great game to hunt. You want to scout out a place that is between their food source (such as a harvested field, preferably sunflower or corn) and their water source.  Doves respond well to decoys, just set out a few stationary decoys and you’ll be set.

Using a modified choke is a wise move when dove hunting. Most hunters give the birds a long lead – by about 6 feet, which ends up being about 6 inches of a gap between the front of your barrel and the bird. If the bird is flying away from you, let the bird appear to be floating on the top of your barrel before you shoot. And if the dove is coming in for a landing, wait until your barrel just hides the bird before you pull the trigger. Remember, a proper shotgun mount is critical to shooting well.

Unique Game in the Southeast

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Alligator

An American alligator can grow to an impressive 13 feet long and 800 lbs. They are typically black or a deep olive green with a light colored underside. There have not been any reliable records kept for how long an alligator will survive in the wild. The oldest in captivity is 80 years old.  Although alligators walk rather slowly, they can leap, climb, and run quickly on the dry ground.

American alligator can be found along the coast in the Gulf of Mexico and South Carolina. They prefer freshwater environments such as ponds, swamps, backwaters and can thrive in brackish waters as well. In Louisiana especially, alligators have been rather beneficial ecologically since they feed on the coypu and muskrat both of which have caused extensive damage to shorelines.

Remember to bring soap and a squeeze bottle of water with you. Alligator tend to have bacteria on their skin and you don’t want to get any in a cut or on your food. Hunting gator can be a safe sport – if done correctly. Below is a short synopsis I have compiled of how to conduct a safe gator hunt. Amazingly, a .44 mag if shot to the head of an average 10-foot gator will not kill it – only spray lead and bone up. They are incredibly designed creatures with thick armor-like skin. Gators are exceptionally good at hiding – you would think that a 10-foot long creature in a relatively small body of water would be easy to spot. But it’s quite the opposite. Gators are stealthy, and they can remain unseen when they choose to.

Hunting alligator is typically done with first casting a rod and hooking one. Don’t pull to set the hook – almost always the hook doesn’t penetrate and jerking it will make the alligator go a little crazy. Then a harpoon pole (with a dart line, attached to a float) and a bangstick are used to bring in and dispatch of the large gator. You want to harpoon him in the back of the head, thick part of the tail, or neck. Never in the head or back. The harpoon needs to be thrown or heavily jabbed. You can’t just push it in.

Never keep a loaded bangstick in your boat – always wait to load it when the gator is thoroughly exhausted from wrestling with the line and harpoon. It must be shot underwater and it must be to the back of the head. If you hit the top of the head, or not in enough water, you will spray bone and lead everywhere. You will know it is a thorough shot because you will see blood and you gator will drop limp.

This isn’t the end! Now, the real work begins. You have to find a way to get the gator out of the muck. Sometimes this has to be done with a wench and steel cables or a tractor! Pulling in a massive gator is as much a mental challenge as it is an immense physical one. Each gator hunt will be different.

One common method is this: You have to use your gaff and hook him under the bottom jaw to bring him in. If he starts to fight, pull out the gaff and use the bangstick again. Once you have him in close, pin him to the boat with his belly out and secure his jaws with electrical tape. Then use your knife to cut into the neck at the back of the head and sever the spine.

Important to remember to place your tag on the tale just as soon as you have him completely dispatched and secure.  Make sure he is dead and tied up securely before bringing him into your boat. A gator wallowing around can sink a boat quickly.

It’s very important to make sure his hide stays clean. Bug spray, oil, gas etc can damage it. Also, it’s good to bleed your gator for improving the taste of the meat – if you place his head in and then roll the body on his side it will help to bleed him.

Honorable Mentions

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Feral Pig

The wild boar or feral pig has become quite a detrimental nuisance in the Southeast. Pigs will destroy well-maintained farmland in no time. Hunters often find acres and acres of land utterly destroyed by pigs. In some areas, farmers will pay hunters to reduce the number of pigs from their land. They are highly aggressive animals that breed rapidly. There are over 5 million feral pigs in America. Some scientists speculate that 70% of the population needs to be eradicated in order to prevent further growth.

Wild boar is an invasive species, their numbers and territory range have increased rapidly over the last 50 years.  They are also causing a lot of trouble with native species – killing fawn, destroying nests, and even killing young domestic livestock. Wild boar are host to at least 20 parasite worm species, many of which can infect humans too.

Wild boar are incredibly strong and agile. They can dig 10 cm into frozen ground and flip rocks weighing over 100 lbs. They have long protruding canine teeth that can be up to 5″ long. Adult males can weigh an average of 250 lbs and can jump an amazing 5 feet. The largest on record is from Alabama. It was over 9 feet long and weighed over 1,000 lbs.

Feral pigs feed on roots, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, seeds, nuts, berries, earthworms, insects, leaves, bark, bird eggs, lizards, frogs, and even carrion and garbage. Pigs will eat just about everything.

Texas, Florida, and Louisiana are top places to hunt wild hogs. Wild boar are notoriously aggressive and hunting them is dangerous even for experienced hunters. Using predator calls is a good way to bring them out into the open – they are always ready for a fight. Another way of bringing them out is to play recordings of piglets in danger. Sows are very protective. It is a wise idea to invest in a kevlar vest for your hunting dog – a tusk can kill a dog in the blink of an eye.

Pigs prefer dawn and dusk but will venture out at just about any time. They prefer to travel around in small groups called Sounders. They have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, but their eyesight is relatively poor. Even the sound of a hunter clicking his safety off can be enough to spook a hog.

The vital target area on a pig is much smaller than that of a deer – and you need to have enough distance to be able to do a follow-up shot… or three or four. Pigs have a lot of energy and many hunters find it is hard to drop them on the first shot. One professional hunter, Jim “The Hogfather” Matthews, who publishes the California Hog Hunter Newsletter, has been quoted in saying “Imagine a 700 lb elk compressed into the body of a 250 lb animal” – you’re going to want some heavy duty ammo. One of the most important things about hog hunting is accuracy in shooting. Accuracy is everything in hog hunting, you can’t be a little close and call it good enough.

 

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