By John N. Felsher
The Black Belt, a swath of fertile, alluvial soils, extends across 23 counties of central Alabama between the Appalachian foothills and the coastal plain.
About 160 years ago, people could have called it the “White Belt” because of endless acres of cotton growing in the rich black soil that gives the area its name. Farmers used the rivers that flow through the region and numerous artesian wells to water their cotton fields. Those rivers, including the Alabama, Tombigbee and Black Warrior, deposited highly fertile soils across those lands for millennia and now create incredible wildlife habitat.
“The Black Belt is a unique part of the state,” says Chris Cook, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division deer studies project leader. “Historically, the Black Belt was a very good area for farming and has been known as an area that produces quality deer, especially the portions in west central Alabama. Classic Black Belt soils grow a lot of grasses and forbs. Along the fringes where it starts running back into the coastal plain, we see good quality, nutrient-rich soils that are very productive for agriculture and wildlife habitat.”
That nutrient-rich dark, loamy soil that gives the region its name and led to the cotton boom also grows incredible habitat for such game birds and animals as whitetail deer, wild turkey, squirrels and rabbits. Parts of the Black Belt also hold good populations of dove, quail and ducks. The rivers and lakes teem with largemouth bass, crappie, catfish and other fish.
“The black belt soil is rich, dark soil that creates good habitat to support an abundance of wildlife,” says Pam Swanner, project director for Black Belt Adventures in Montgomery. “The Black Belt consistently produces some of the best hunting in Alabama. The area produces numerous whitetail deer with great weights and excellent antler growth. Deer is the most popular game animal, but the best turkey hunting in the state occurs in the Black Belt Region. Alabama has the largest population of eastern wild turkey per square mile of any state.”
With the abundance of game found in the Black Belt, people might redub the area the Green Belt or the Gold Belt because excellent hunting opportunities in the region bring money into the state. Sportsmen coming into the Black Belt to hunt deer, turkey and other game species or to fish, contribute millions of dollars each year to the state economy.
Big bucks in the state can bring in big bucks to the state. In Alabama, more than 707,000 hunters and fishermen spend about $5 million a day or about $1.7 billion per year. In the Black Belt Region alone, more than 456,000 sportsmen spend $3.22 million a day. Hunting and fishing create more than 30,500 jobs in Alabama, with more than 11,000 in the Black Belt Region.
Economic impact tops $1 billion annually
“The economic impact of hunting and fishing in the Black Belt Region is about $1 billion a year to the state,” Swanner says. “People who come to Alabama to hunt must buy licenses. In addition, they buy food, gasoline, supplies and souvenirs. They eat in restaurants. They might stay at one of the hunting lodges in the Black Belt or in a motel in town. In addition, many sportsmen bring their families who enjoy other attractions the area has to offer.”
Although the 23 Black Belt counties comprise about one-third of the state, the region contains more than 80 percent of the hunting lodges found in Alabama. About 56 percent of all Alabama sportsmen hunt in the Black Belt each year. About 69 percent of all out-of-state sportsmen who come to hunt in Alabama visit the Black Belt Region. About 80 percent of those non-resident sportsmen spend at least one night in the Black Belt Region. In all, sportsmen spend about 3.9 million days hunting in the Black Belt and another 3.3 million days fishing in the region each year, Swanner says.
To keep those sportsmen coming into the state, Black Belt Adventures promotes the region as an outdoors destination. When someone calls about planning a hunting or fishing adventure, the BBA staff help match up sportsmen with lodges that can accommodate their wishes or make suggestions about other places to visit.
To better promote the region, the nonprofit marketing organization enlisted the help of two prominent Black Belt natives, Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters, and Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman’s Society. These two legendary sportsmen help carry the message about the great hunting, fishing and facilities found here through various public and media appearances across the country.
“Jackie Bushman and Ray Scott grew up hunting and fishing in the Black Belt,” Swanner says. “They created two internationally known sporting organizations and have been very supportive of this initiative from the beginning. Our main objective is to collectively market the region as an outdoor destination, not promote any specific lodges. When people call to inquire about hunting opportunities, we try to determine their needs and send out that information to various lodges that meet their requirements. We promote more than just the lodges. We also represent the public lands available in the Black Belt Region.”
While the lodges of the Black Belt Region offer excellent hunting, not all sportsmen can afford to stay at such places or hire guides. The Black Belt also offers some public lands for the do-it-yourself sportsman. Two public areas in the Black Belt really stand out for deer hunting — David K. Nelson Wildlife Management Area and Lowndes WMA, Cook says. Near the confluence of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Black Warrior River, David K. Nelson WMA covers 8,308 acres of mostly bottomland hardwood habitat in Sumter, Hale, Marengo and Greene counties near Demopolis. Along the Alabama River, Lowndes covers 13,962 acres in Lowndes County near White Hall.
Both owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lowndes and David K. Nelson WMAs were primarily agricultural lands before they became wildlife management areas. The state replanted them in native hardwoods. Both properties consist primarily of swampy flat bottomlands rich in hardwood trees. Deer thrive in such habitats.
“A lot of lands in the Black Belt offer just as good or better deer hunting opportunities as anywhere in the state,” Cook says. “David K. Nelson and Lowndes WMAs both offer excellent hunting. Barbour WMA on the fringes of the Black Belt is another good deer hunting property. Barbour is one of our older WMAs and produces better than average quality deer.”
In the transition zone between the Black Belt Region and the coastal plain in southeastern Alabama, Barbour WMA covers 28,199 acres of Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton. The area consists mostly of mixed pine forests with some hardwoods strands. Field and Stream magazine once named the property one of the top whitetail destinations in the nation. The state manages the area for trophy deer with antler restrictions on buck harvests.
“With the antler restriction, we wanted more bucks to move into the 2.5-year old and older age class on Barbour WMA,” Cook says. “Because of the antler restriction, the age structure of the deer herd is better on Barbour than most WMAs. It has a good blend of numbers and big deer. In 2012, the area produced more deer exceeding 200 pounds live weight than anyone can recall ever seeing. Along with that, the antler quality has also steadily improved.”
Other game, recreation activities abound
While many people come to the Black Belt Region to hunt deer or turkeys, the area offers much more in outdoors recreation. Many sportsmen also visit the region to hunt squirrels, rabbits, quail, doves, ducks and other game. In addition, many outdoors enthusiasts also enjoy canoeing, horseback riding, bird watching, hiking and other activities.
“There are a lot of big private hunting lodges in the Black Belt Region,” Cook says. “The Black Belt is well known for its deer hunting, but the area also has a lot of good turkey hunting. Along the river drainages, people can find some good squirrel hunting. Some areas offer good rabbit hunting opportunities.”
The region also offers more than outdoors adventures. Rich in history, the region also contains many places connected to the Civil War and civil rights struggle. Visitors can also explore many historical homes or enjoy the diverse sports, musical and art legacy of the region.
“The Black Belt Region is a great resource for the state,” Swanner says. “We are beginning to see some success from our efforts in promoting the region. The cultural heritage of this region is as rich as the soil. We want people to come to Alabama, spend their money and have a good time doing whatever they enjoy doing.”
For more information on Black Belt Adventures, call 334-649-3788. To see a list of the lodges in the Black Belt Region and other things the region can offer the traveler, see www.alabamablackbeltadventures.org. For information on hunting in Alabama, see outdooralabama.com.