2015-16 North Carolina Game Lands Preview

Public hunting areas in eastern North Carolina are chock full of whitetail deer. Some offer restricted, permit hunts; others don’t.

More habitat management by the state is providing hunters with more and better public-land hunting opportunities around North Carolina.

Scouting before a hunt for deer or other game species can be an exciting pursuit all its own. Finding that out-of-the-way honey hole where the ducks pile up as soon as dawn breaks or where a huge black bear lounges the day away is a memorable experience, even if no shot is taken.

Scouting for land is not the same as scouting for game. Trying to find a place to hunt in 21st century North Carolina is as difficult as anywhere in the country. Many hunters have seen their favorite hunting areas posted, their ancestral lands turned into grocery stores and the family farm bulldozed for condominiums. Deer can make their homes amidst the concrete jungle, but a hunter can’t pass a bolt, arrow or bullet through the un-neighborly neighborhoods.

Thankfully, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission doesn’t just set aside land for the public to hunt — it manages it to give the public exceptional hunting experiences.

North Carolina’s public game lands are getting progressively better as the Commission continues to plant, cut, burn and otherwise manage the various fields and forests that make up each property. The 2015 season looks to be a good one across all three of the state’s geographic regions. Here’s a sample of the best game lands for different species in different regions:

Coastal Plain

Doves

Doves are a tough animal to hunt on game lands — not because they don’t frequent them or the Commission doesn’t manage the land for them, but because they’re incredibly popular. Obtaining a permit is the best way to hunt the cultivated fields on an eastern game land.

“On White Oak River Game Lands, we have a permit dove hunt there that’s a really good dove hunt,” said Tommy Hughes, a supervising biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Croatan National Forest, the first two days of the season are permit hunts. That particularly is a really good dove hunt. Roanoke River Game Land is another permit-hunting area that is really popular. It usually has a lot of doves.”

Permit hunts aren’t the only way to get a limit of birds on public land, however. Reserve a spot via permit for the opening day, and then branch out to non-permit lands as the season progresses.

“Another spot that’s not a permit hunt is Lantern Acres.… That one usually has doves a little later in the season,” Hughes said.

Deer

Doves are a Labor Day staple, but they’re merely the appetizers for many hunters. The main course comes when bow season opens and deer become legal after a tortuously long offseason. Hughes said the east has plenty of opportunities for hunters to run into big bucks.

“Roanoke River is really popular — lot of deer up there. They tend to kill some nice bucks up there. It’s a permit-hunt area, and one a lot of people apply for,” Hughes said.

Whitehall Plantation in Bladen County has had good results in the past.

“That is a good place to hunt. People have a good opportunity to kill a deer there. Kind of a unique situation because it’s permit-only,” he said.

The thick cover of the east make the coastal plain’s game lands a dog-hunting paradise. Dog hunters benefit where still-hunters would be at a disadvantage in the thick brush.

“Holly Shelter Game Land, that is a popular hunting area for deer, particularly for dog hunters because it’s large. It provides a lot of hunting opportunity. That’s something that some people take advantage of along with Croatan National Forest,” Hughes said.

Hughes said Chowan Swamp also offered good odds for both dog and still-hunters. Dog hunting is very feasible on those tracts because they are large enough to allow the dogs to run without crossing onto private property.

Waterfowl

No area in North Carolina has as high of a waterfowl density as the coastal plain, and few areas are better than game lands like Suggs Mill Pond and Whitehall Plantation.

“People think of Suggs Mill Pond for waterfowl. The pond is a permit-only hunting area — a good opportunity to kill a variety of birds. Early on, it is wood ducks and teal; later in the season, primarily ring necks,” Hughes said.

“At Whitehall Plantation, you’ve got a bunch of natural sloughs that are adjacent to the river. Really get good hunting there. They kill a little bit of everything: wood ducks, mallards, gadwall and widgeon. When they’re flooded — and most of the time they are — it’s a real good hunting opportunity. It’s a permit-controlled area.”

Another area for permit hunts is the brackish water of Goose Creek Game Lands in Beaufort and Pamlico Counties.

“We’ll get different species of ducks on Goose Creek. They’re generally widgeon, gadwall, green-winged teal, pintails and an occasional black duck,” Hughes said. “You’re killing some ducks there, particularly pintails, that a lot of people don’t get opportunities to kill. And you do have some tundra swans there, too.”

The Catfish Lake Impoundment on Croatan National Forest is a non-permit hunting area that offers a high chance of success, according to Hughes. There are restrictions on which days of the week can be hunted, but waterfowlers can typically find woodies, teal and ring necks there.

Roanoke River and J. Morgan Futch offer permit hunts for a wide variety of birds. Roanoke River offers standards like woodies, mallards and teal, while J. Morgan Futch features everything from ring necks to tundra swans.

What would North Carolina’s duck hunting be without the mecca of eastern waterfowling?

“We’ve got some blinds on Currituck Sound that you can apply for,” Hughes said. “Those are two-day hunts. They’re scattered from Corolla all the way up to Mackie Island. We cooperate with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on their lands for some of these blind hunts. People can look into that and see how those work.”

Bear

Bears grow famously fat on the Carolina coast, but getting into their favorite haunts can be tricky. The thick cover that draws them in keeps hunters out. The best bet for public bear hunting may lie in the eastern part of the state where the use of dogs is popular.

“There’s dog-bear hunting on Holly Shelter and Croatan. Both of those areas are usually hunted pretty heavily for black bear.” Hughes said.

The state also offers bear hunting opportunities for disabled sportsmen.

“We have a disabled bear hunt that we’re moving this year from Gull Rock to a new piece of property we own called Texas Plantation, which is part of J. Morgan Futch. Probably a greater opportunity to kill a bear there maybe.”

Turkey

Where can’t a hunter shoot a turkey in the east? Picking a game land comes down to how far a hunter is willing to walk — and not much else.

“We’ve got really good permit turkey hunting opportunities,” Hughes said. “There’s Suggs Mill Pond, Bladen Lakes State Forest down on the Singletary Tract, White Hall, Roanoke River…. Lantern Acres is a really good turkey hunt. All those are extremely good turkey hunting areas.

For those who choose not to get a permit:

“We also have some areas that are not permit-only. Croatan National Forest has pretty good turkey hunting. There are a good number of turkeys on Croatan. They’re hard to kill sometimes because they get pressured, but there are quite a few turkeys here.  Chowan Swamp up in Gates County has quite a few turkeys.

“Van Swamp is on the Washington-Beaufort line. It’s about 5,000 acres, and basically the road systems are closed off during turkey season at the request of the turkey hunters, so there’s not a lot of disturbance. If hunters don’t mind hiking or riding bikes to where they’re hunting then there’s really good turkey hunting opportunities there.

Small Game

Hunters with the appropriate permits can hunt Suggs Mill Pond for quail, squirrels and rabbits. Roanoke River Wetlands offers quality squirrel hunting with minimal restrictions.

“That’s a permit hunt, but it’s one that’s fairly wide open, and it’s not really restricted,” Hughes said. “If you want to squirrel hunt it you can, there’s just some day-restrictions when you can hunt it and when you can’t.”

Lantern Acres is a good choice as well, but changes to the forest structure may have lessened its appeal.

“It’s grown up a little bit more, but still, it’s popular with bird hunters hunting quail,” Hughes said. “There are quite a few quail around it.”

Whitehall Plantation is an area to consider if a person is a pure squirrel hunter.

“We’ve got a lot of squirrel hunting opportunities on the river bottoms for a person who wants to take time and squirrel hunt.”

Piedmont

Dove

The Piedmont presents a number of quality public-land opportunities for dove hunters. If he had to pick, biologist Chris Teague would say Butner-Falls of the Neuse, Sandhills, R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell, and Jordan Game Lands offer the best chances, but it’s a very tough call.

“In the Piedmont, we’ve got dove fields on all of our game lands,” Teague said. “All the depots in the Piedmont have public dove-hunting areas that we manage as a dove-hunt area.”

For sheer size and, subsequently, most opportunities, Teague said one game land does stand out.

“Butner Falls … is our largest area for public dove hunting in the Piedmont. I can’t answer for the state as far as how many acres they’ve got, but I can for Butner,” Teague said.

Deer

Deer are everywhere in the Piedmont, including the game lands. The 2014 mast crop was very strong, meaning the cyclical acorn drops will likely be less this year. Teague said the harvest records indicate one game land averages better than others on a regular basis.

“[It would] probably be Caswell; you know it’s always one of the leading counties in the state,” Teague said. “Caswell is always a hotspot, of course, it is in a dog-hunting spot as well.”

Teague said other areas for consideration are Butner-Falls of the Neuse, Shocco Creek, and Jordan.

Looking past the harvest data shows an up-and-comer for game land success.

“Shocco Creek is starting to come in on its own. It’s starting to get a lot of use. Of course, it is still in a dog-hunting county, so the harvest is a little bit higher on those game lands than they are on ones that are still-hunting only.”

Teague is most familiar with the northern Piedmont, but his second pick after Caswell Game Land would be a southern option.

“You can’t rule out the Uwharrie (National Forest) for deer, that’s for sure.”

Waterfowl

Dry conditions will likely drive ducks to larger bodies of water this season. Game lands like Jordan, Butner-Falls of the Neuse, and Harris are the best bets for Piedmont waterfowl.

Butner-Falls of the Neuse has some general-access areas for hunters, but some posted waterfowl impoundments require a permit.

Jordan and Harris have day restrictions but do not require permits. Jordan is available to hunt Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the opening and closing days of the waterfowl season. Harris is open to waterfowlers Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and the opening and closing days of the season.

Harris offers its best odds during the late season when the migration is in full swing and bigger ducks are winging south. It’s also a popular spot for hunters, so those interested should plan to get there as early as possible.

Bear

Bear seasons are now available in the central part of North Carolina, but harvests haven’t been especially high. Teague said the best bet for bears rested in the northern Piedmont, where bruins are constantly trading back and forth with neighboring Virginia.

“To be honest with you, we opened up that bear season last year, and the harvest wasn’t out the roof. We had a few around the Person County game land, Vance County, those little blocks in there, I don’t know, there seemed like there might have been a bear killed there.”

To the south, Uwharrie Game Land offers a solid shot at bears. The six-day-a-week area had bears harvested in its rugged forests across Davidson, Montgomery, and Randolph Counties.

Tillery and Shocco Creek also offer good possibilities.

Turkey

Turkey hunting opportunities are readily available across the Piedmont.

“I don’t know that you can pick one that’s going to be bad for turkeys,” Teague said. “Caswell definitely gets hunted the most, so probably the harvest rate is a little bit higher up there.  Caswell would probably be my top.”

No permits are required for turkeys, but hunting is restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays for Caswell. The area is part of the CURE on Public Lands program, which works to promote early successional habitat for small-game species. The management for species like bobwhite quail has likely helped turkey populations.

Teague said Sandhills, Butner-Falls of the Neuse and Uwharrie are also good locations for turkey hunting.

Small Game

Thanks to the CURE program’s efforts to promote early successional habitat, Sandhills Game Land looks like the best destination for rabbit hunters in 2015. Butner-Falls of the Neuse is a close second.

“I would probably say Sandhills and Butner-Falls of the Neuse just because of the amount of open land on those two projects,” Teague said. “I was just on Butner-Falls this morning, and the rabbits are running everywhere — good opportunity there for rabbit.  Sandhills has got a lot of open land with edge.

Squirrels enjoy a lot of acreage in the Piedmont as well. Game lands like Uwharrie offer many stands of hardwoods for acorn production, but Teague said a rabbit locale might be the best for both species.

“Probably Caswell,” Teague said for his bet for squirrels. “They’ve got a lot of hardwood mast up that way. Butner Falls isn’t bad. They’ve got squirrels everywhere too.”

Teague said Shocco Creek isn’t too shabby, either.

Mountains

Doves

It didn’t take Commission biologist Kip Hollifield long to give his opinions on dove hunting in the mountains, where only two public-hunting areas are managed for the birds.

“John River Game Land and South Mountain Game Land,” would be Hollifield’s recommendations. Johns River is by permit only; South Mountain is not.

Drought conditions in early 2015 left the mountains’ dove predictions up in the air. Rainfall will be the determining factor for dove numbers.

“We’re okay right now. If we get adequate rainfall the rest of the summer I think we’ll be fine,” Hollifield said. “If the drought continues or it worsens, then all bets are off. We set the table for them, and we hope they show up, but all we can do is set the table for those birds.”

Deer

Acorn production will be the deciding factor for deer in the mountains this year. Last year’s mast production was high, but the heavy tree densities on mountain game lands could make up for lower production per tree.

“It’s a little too early to assess the acorn crop. We had a really good mast year last year, so you kind of expect it won’t be quite that good this year,” Hollifield said. “My recommendation for deer hunting in my work area: Three Top Mountain Game Land up in Ashe County; Johns River Game Land in Burke County (and) Green River Game Land, which is down in Polk and Henderson counties.

“They’ve generally had good harvests the past several years. Pretty good habitat on all of those game lands for deer.”

Bear

Coastal bears are heavier, but the mountains have more bears. One game land stands out as a clear favorite for Hollifield, and setting up anywhere inside its boundaries could lead to a bearskin rug.

“Pisgah Game Land would be the top recommendation there,” Hollifield said. “There’s no particular place that is really any better than the next. That whole game land is pretty good for bear.”

There are two bear sanctuaries on Pisgah Game Land, Sherwood Bear and Harmon Den, but don’t let the sanctuary title fool you. The areas are not completely off limits to hunting but do require special permits.

“We do allow bear hunting on those by permit only, those might be good areas, especially if (hunters) want to still-hunt.”

Ducks

If a duck is to be had in the mountains, the best place to throw decoys out is Johns River.

“The Johns River Game Land is really the only one in my work area that I could even halfway recommend,” Hollifield said. “There is some habitat on Johns River for ducks. There’s really no habitat on any of the other game lands in my work area for waterfowl.”

Turkey

The mountains’ hardwood forests make for incredible turkey terrain. Hollifield said two game lands present good opportunities for hunters in 2015.

“My preference would be Pisgah or South Mountain,” he said. “There are turkeys on all the game lands. They’re all pretty good, but those would be my picks just based on past harvests and the amount of birds I see out there.”

Pisgah and South Mountain are six-day-per-week areas and does not require a permit to hunt there.

Small Game

The forests that make for great turkeys make wonderful habitat for small game species as well.

“Pisgah is for squirrels — little bit of grouse hunting on Pisgah. South Mountain, Green River — just about all of them are pretty good for squirrels,” Hollifield said.

The heavy canopies and late successional habitat don’t make for excellent rabbit country. Hollifield said South Mountain offers the best chance for the mountain game lands.

“South Mountain would be my choice for rabbits,” he said. “We burn there quite frequently” as part of the state’s CURE program.

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