Alabama’s Black Belt Region for Hunting, Fishing and Football
By Max Hartshorne
Alabama is a state that many travelers don’t know much about. It’s just not on our radar, not in the direct line of sight.
It’s a wonderful place for a vacation that I was planning….a Man-cation, with my old friend Paul Shoul.
Paul likes to say that we’re like an old married couple, who bicker and jab but generally mean each other no harm. No harm no foul, so we have a great time especially when we travel together.
In Alabama, we were about to visit the heart of today’s GOP. Former democrats who now love Sarah Palin and who ask us with a sniff…”What do you boys up there think of Mr. O-BAMA?
Hmm, let’s not talk politics. Better to focus on the great activities that our Alabama retreat offered us.
Roll Tide vs War Eagle
Our first stop was in Birmingham, then on to Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama where we were just in time to watch the biggest game of the year, against the Auburn Tigers.
This rivalry is fierce, I had heard about it on my last visit in 2009, but there we were. Paul and I climbing ring after ring of a circular pedestrian entry to way, way, way up high in the stadium that seats 101,000.
It was exciting and a great way to break into being in Alabama.
The City of Birmingham
We spent a few days here in Birmingham and enjoyed arts, shopping and scenery, mixed with tasty barbecue and a legacy of redemption. That’s because the city was once the epicenter of the racial struggle in the sixties and was considered Martin Luther King’s prime target to create racial attitude change.
We went to the Vulcan Center museum, home of a giant iron sculpture placed on a tower high above the city. Inside, we learned that the Depression hit the city harder than anywhere else in the US. A whopping 100,000 out of 108,000 people here were unemployed. But the city’s steel mills ramped up during the war and saw thousands of women go to work making armaments and bombers
MLK in Birmingham
A park in the city has a statue of MLK with an inscription that described how Birmingham was freed from itself to break the bonds of racist attitudes, and embrace reconciliation and equality.
The people here were honest about being on the wrong side and today own it all, and demonstrate a much more tolerant attitude than many cities in the Northeast.
There are many memorials to the civil rights struggles here; including statues of vicious attack dogs used on blacks and a plaque memorializing the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. I much prefer a city that admits previous wrongs than ones that deny there was ever a problem.
We took in the 18th Street shopping area in Homewood, just outside the center of the city, and scarfed down Chicken with white sauce at a new place SAWS BBQ that has already gained quite a following
SAW’s stands for Sorry Ass Wilson, in honor of Mike Wilson, the proprietor. In a town with lots of barbecue to sample, this was the best we tried in Birmingham.
We popped in and out of locally owned stores that offered hot mulled cider and friendly staff checking out antiques, one-of-a-kind artwork, and toys.
We visited a farmers market in the parking lot of a former Dr. Pepper plant where we found potholders made like tiny quilts. The kinds of things you buy that people really remember. All in Birmingham, Alabama, or as they like to say down here, Sweet Home Alabama.
Time for Speed at Barber Motorsports
Though shopping was fun, it was time to go back to our man-cation itinerary, so that meant zooming down the highway to a privately-owned temple of speed…Barber Motorsports.
Where else would we find a collection of 1200 motorcycles in mint condition, and behind the giant museum, a 2.38 mile state-of-the-art racetrack? It’s heaven for anyone who loves speed, chrome and unusual motorized vehicles.
Barber’s Race Track
This temple of speed was created by George Barber, whose family made lots of money in the ice cream business in Birmingham. Barber loved racing Porsches and he began collecting classic sports cars in 1989.
Then he became more interested in motorcycles, and so far has amassed an amazing 1200 beautifully-restored bikes–from 1902 to current year production. How nice are these bikes? Most of the models on display have 0 miles on them, they are purchased from the factory and never driven…just placed on display.
We were able to ogle the world’s fastest production motorcycle…the Suzuki Hayabusa, with a top speed of 194 mph! In addition to elevators that display different bikes at different times, there are four floors of bikes, racing cars, and even vintage outboard motors.
If you’re really serious about racing, you can take a course with the Porsche Driving School, driving either your own car or one of their ten different models used for teaching driving techniques on their own racetrack.
Let’s go Hunting
We’d enjoyed a rousing football game, gotten our adrenaline flowing thinking about speed, and we’d sated our appetites with SAW’s incredible barbecue…now it was time for us to chase game and hunt like the real men we are. It was time to visit the Great Southern Outdoors Wildlife Plantation in Union Springs.
This 6,000-acre low country former plantation is made for hunting, with a sporting clays course, lots of open habitat for deer, and special areas for turkey hog and quail hunts.
Despite the fact that neither of us had done any hunting, we were up for the challenge and the first thing we did was grab 20-gauge shotguns and take a drive out to the sporting clay course.
Unlike regular clay pigeon shooting at gun clubs, sporting clays present flying targets in the woods or in an open field, in a series of 12 different stations. It’s much more fun than simply blasting away in an open field.
Neither one of us was much of a shot, but it felt good to practice shooting a shotgun and warmed us up for a quail hunt the next day.
The proprietor of Great Southern is Rex Pritchett, who fits the perfect image of a good-old-boy and is damn proud of it. We learned that he thinks the aforementioned Sarah Palin would be his ideal presidential candidate, and that he, like many of his fellow Alabamians, isn’t happy with the current Democrat in the White House.
But he was civil to us and our discussions were wide-ranging, over the copious amounts of chow cooked up by the African-American cooks in the lodge.
I for one, was delighted to feast on grits, and one night’s menu included fried quail and collard greens. Southern eatin at its finest!
Hours of Silence
The next morning at 4:30 am, we were coffee’d up and ready to join our guide in a tree-stand far into the underbrush of the huge former plantation.
There we would wait with our guide up in the stand, making no noise at all for a full two hours when the sun would finally creep up, a little before seven.
Many of my friends have extolled the virtues of silent meditation retreats, where they spend days not speaking and instead, meditating on great principals. Here, we just remained silent and watched a flock of turkeys scratch the ground. It was harder than it sounds….no movement, no noise, no nothing until sun-up. I actually loved it!
“Over there, on that road, that’s where the deer will walk, they are heading this way to feed,” whispered our guide, Josh. The turkeys scratched, and we waited and waited, but no deer ever made it down that road.
By a little after 7:30, it was time to reply to a text message–another hunter named Joe had shot a deer; we had heard the report from two shots.
The guides take care of all of the details of getting the deer out of the woods and back to the lodge. Hunter Joe from Florida, a retired policeman, was giddy about getting his first buck. The does, female deer, are not taken, everyone wants the animals with the antlers.
The sport of quail hunting is pretty much rigged in the hunter’s favor. A rolling open meadow with knee-length grass and lots of briar patches is stocked with the small birds, which are purchased by the case.
To keep the critters from simply flying away, they are put into bags and turned around, making them dizzy and willing to stay put until the hunters and dogs show up.
The hunters march side by side, being careful to keep their guns pointing up in the air. One breed of dog, English pointers, stand stock-still with their tails straight back and their noses pointed when they smell the quail.
Then Josh gives a signal to the hunters and releases his hyper springer spaniel, who heads straight into the prickerbushes and flushes out the bird. A quick shot takes down the little bird and it is retrieved with gusto by the springer. Walking through the field with only the sound of the dogs and the commands of the guide was part of the appeal, so was the adrenaline rush from firing at the bird as it flew away.
Time for Fishing
Our man-cation would not be complete without a final sporting challenge. For this we drove to the small Alabama village of Pintlala and met a legend in these parts.
Ray Scott, who founded the Bass Angler Sports Society, is a wealthy man today, after building up this organization since 1969 and seeing it sold off to ESPN. Scott is the one who pioneered putting fishing on television with his earliest shows.
Today Ray commands an empire built upon his passions…one company sells seeds that grow into leafy meadows that attract whitetail deer, another enterprise sells Alabama made food products, and others publish magazine, books and videos about bass fishing and deer hunting.
Roy is proud to be close friends with former president George HW Bush, and he’s spent a few nights sleeping in the White House. One of the first stories he told us was about when his idea to use airhorns to bolster the notion of making GHWB the choice for the vice president under Ronald Reagan. He’s even hosted two former presidents in one night at his home.
Another of Scott’s ventures is his Trophy Bass Retreat, where anglers can fish for the biggest bass in the world. The property is set around a 55-acre purpose built lake, called President’s Lake. There are two other bass ponds on the 200 acre property, and in their depths, bass of up to 13 pounds lurk.
Since most bass fishermen would be thrilled with a mere 2.5 pound fish, getting the chance to catch and release five, six and seven pound bass is the thrill of a lifetime. Scott hosts fishermen for three-night and one-day fishing visits.
Besides the world’s best bass fishing, spending time with Ray Scott affords a chance to hear stories involving the former president and a world of other interesting topics. One of the things Paul and I enjoyed about our stay in Alabama was people’s willingness to engage in political discussion, and to share views about what’s going on in the world.
We felt this way when talking to the hunters at the lodge (with whom we disagreed for the most part) and we felt this way at dinner with Ray and his two assistants, Jim and Jim. There is something satisfying about civil discourse, and we had a lot of it during our stay in Sweet Home Alabama.
Find out more about hunting and fishing in Alabama’s Black Belt region.