There is a point at the end of every summer where you can feel a certain crispness in the air. The days are getting shorter, and the leaves on the trees are starting to show a hint of brown. This time of year signifies a number of things to me, such as football, crankbait fishing on Guntersville, chili, and last but definitely not least, bow-hunting. Without fail, the first morning when I feel the crispness in the air, I think back on my younger years deer hunting with friends on the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, or “the Refuge” as my friends and I have always called it, and smile.
The Refuge is approximately 35,000 acres of woods, swamps, creeks, and farmland around the Tennessee River between Huntsville and Decatur. While most people have heard of the Refuge, many do not know that you can bow-hunt the vast majority of the Refuge or that there are a lot of deer on the Refuge. In North Alabama, we are extremely fortunate to have the Refuge. However, it is a resource that is underutilized and one that could be enjoyed by many more people in North Alabama.
On several occasions, I have heard that someone didn’t hunt because he or she had never hunted and would not know where to start. It is much easier to get into bow-hunting than most people realize. If you are interested, one of the first things that you will need is a bow. There are a number of outdoor stores and archery shops in North Alabama that can help fit you with a bow in a price range where you are comfortable. I purchased the bow that I am currently using (and the one that my wife is currently using) from George at Custom Archery Center.
Once you have a bow, you will need to practice. There are several indoor shooting ranges in North Alabama (Custom Archery Center, Gander Mountain, and Academy Sports, to name a few), as well as several excellent outdoor ranges (such as the Athens Community Archery Center). You can also buy a target and practice at home or on the Refuge.
Get your bow tuned and sighted in, and then all you will need is a set of hunting clothes. Purchasing the latest boots and scent free, windproof, and waterproof camo is expensive. However, contrary to what I may tell my wife, it is absolutely not necessary to spend a fortune on your hunting clothes. You can generally hunt early season in North Alabama in light camo pants, a light long sleeve shirt, and light boots, all of which can be purchased for a relatively small amount online or from most local outdoor stores.
If you plan to hunt from a tree, which is generally preferable on the Refuge, you will also need a climbing treestand and safety harness, both of which are also available at most local outdoor stores. There are numerous companies that offer outstanding treestands and safety harnesses, including local companies such as Summit Treestands and Hunter Safety Systems.
Once you have your bow and all of your clothes and equipment, you will need a hunting license (which may require completion of the hunter safety program), a permit to hunt the Refuge (which is available free of charge here), and a hunting spot on the Refuge. At that point, you are ready to go. Bow-hunting may not be for everyone, but it is an accessible and affordable option for those who enjoy the outdoors and are looking for ways to enjoy the outdoors.
While you can absolutely take deer from the Refuge with practice, time, and patience, hunting on the Refuge is about much more than deer. Many of my fondest memories growing up revolve around the Refuge. Every summer, we would spend countless hours shooting thousands of shots with our bows in preparation for the upcoming season on the Refuge. In the afternoons, we would often drive gravel roads on the Refuge around Muscle Camp in Summerville looking for deer or, if it ever got too hot, swimming in the river.
In late September, we would start walking through the woods looking for the perfect spot to hunt. We referred to this tradition as “going scouting,” even though we usually hunted the same areas each year, which were always the best in our eyes. Without fail, before sunrise on opening day of bow season on October 15 (or, if the 15th was a Sunday, the next day), we would walk to our favorite trees with treestands on our back, bows in our hands, and smiles on our faces. After opening day, we would spend as much time as possible hunting and scouting on the Refuge, looking for things like this:
Every year, we would see multiple deer while hunting, and we would generally have several opportunities to shoot. The vast majority of the time, we would decide not to shoot for one reason or the other. At the time, we would say it was because the deer was too small, that we didn’t want to drag the deer to the car, that we didn’t really want to skin the deer, or that we wanted to save the spot for the next hunt. Looking back, I now realize that our hunting traditions were really about friendship, comradery, and memories much more than hunting.
In fact, the memories that I treasure most do not even involve taking a deer. I recall explaining to state troopers at 4:30 AM that we were not out drinking; waking up a friend in his treestand to tell him that he could have shot a large 8 point buck that walked right under his tree had he stayed awake; trying to fit our stands and hunting gear in my friend’s small two-door Saturn; skipping the homecoming bonfire to hunt; trying to sneak back into school in full camo to grab my friend’s hunting backpack; and watching the sun rise over the river a few days after my grandfather passed away and feeling close to him as the fog lifted. These memories are more meaningful to me than any deer I could ever shoot.
We all left North Alabama after graduating from high school. After leaving, we would often talk about getting back together to hunt the Refuge. For the first few years, we were able to occasionally meet to continue the tradition on weekends and holidays. However, as time passed and obligations and priorities changed, it became more and more difficult to coordinate schedules, and the Refuge became a fond memory from our pasts.
Several of us have now migrated back to North Alabama with our families. A few years ago, I was having lunch to catch up with a dear friend that spent the most time with me on the Refuge growing up. After reflecting on our favorite memories on the Refuge, we decided that we were way past-due for a trip to the Refuge. A few hours later, we were walking down an old and familiar gravel road towards one of our favorite ridges where we used to hunt. Being that we were both more interested in reminiscing on the past than hunting, we decided to sit together that day to enjoy the outdoors and the company. After sitting less than 20 minutes, two deer walked out and stood less than 20 yards from us. We both immediately grabbed our bows and prepared to shoot. We both ended up watching the deer instead of shooting. Apparently, we thought it was better to save the spot for our next hunt, whenever it may be.
I encourage you to go out and find your own spot on the Refuge, and start making memories that will last a lifetime. If you have questions or would like more information, feel free to contact Corey.