North Carolina is shrinking for wildlife.
If habitat is the key for their survival, there’s less room for wild creatures in the Tarheel State each year. Forests and fields are yielding to chain saws, bulldozers, housing developments, city and town expansion, more roads and parking lots.
The state’s human population boom requires living space. Last summer, North Carolina was home to 10,146,788 residents, making it the ninth most-populated state. Our annual population growth rate of 1.1 percent is much higher than the national average. Because many newcomers don’t have access to private hunting lands, public-use property is becoming more important — and more valuable.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources manages around 2 million acres on 88 public lands, with half the acreage in western North Carolina split between the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. The remaining million acres are scattered across the piedmont and eastern North Carolina, from tiny (191 acres) Sampson Game Land to the sprawling national forests.
All have deer, rabbits and squirrels — a few eastern counties have fox squirrels — with black bears plentiful in eastern and western zones. North Carolina boasts the world’s largest black bears with 600-pounders not uncommon.
A basic state hunting license doesn’t cover game lands or big-game hunting. Hunters must purchase additional permits to hunt big game or at game lands. An annual sportsman’s license grants statewide hunting and fishing privileges, including game lands. Waterfowl stamps are federal fees and must be purchased at post offices. Some game lands require permits to hunt any species, but wildlife-cooperator agents sell them for $5. At a few popular game lands, hunters must enter a permit lottery (www.ncwildlife.org/Licensing/Permit-Hunting-Opportunities).
If you’ve never had access to private hunting land or lost your lease or spot in the hunt club, public land isn’t a bad option, especially these top-drawer options, divided by region.
Eastern North Carolina
The Roanoke River Wetlands and National Wildlife Refuge are different from any other public lands in North Carolina. Sectioned into 13 parcels spread across 35,457 acres in Bertie and Martin counties, with parcels on the north side of the river being federal land and property on the south side belonging to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Hunts for all species require a permit. Some permits are for special, draw hunts, with entry deadlines from July 1 to Oct. 1, depending on site and species.
Roanoke River’s hardwood forests, man-made openings, food plots and dove fields make it a great destination for hunters targeting big game and small game. Hunters took 114 deer last season on the Lower Roanoke Wetlands Game Land.
“They have large hardwood bottoms that provide a lot of acorns for wildlife, particularly deer,” said David Turner, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commissions. who also likes dove-hunting opportunity on the game lands.
“Permit dove hunts are good at Roanoke River’s Conoho Farm tract’s 40 acres of fields,” he said, “especially the first couple of days. They’re planted in millet, a little corn and sunflowers.”
Biologist Brady Beck of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said the Upper Roanoke River Game Land is excellent for gray squirrels.
The Croatan National Forest covers 162,217 acres in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties. Hunters tagged 411 deer there last year, and it led game lands in the eastern third of North Carolina with 23 confirmed bear kills in 2016.
The Croatan also has two designed dove fields — Brice’s Creek and Hill Field — where permit-only hunts are held the first two days of the season, Sept. 2 and 4.
Dog hunting for deer is allowed on the Croatan National Forest, and on Holly Shelter Game Lands, which covers 63,494 acres in Pender County,
“From Pamlico Sound down to Cape Fear, it’s probably a toss-up between Croatan and Holly Shelter because they’re big and deer have plenty of places to hide,” said Richard Clark, another Commission biologist. “If you can get in there during archery and muzzle-loader seasons, you’ll have a better chance. But there’s always a problem with bugs and snakes. You’ll probably want to wear knee boots or snake chaps and have a Thermacell.”
Holly Shelter hunters (Pender County, 63,494 acres) bagged 87 whitetails in 2016. Squirrel hunting is good there, and Holly Shelter also features even public dove fields.
“Every game land with a dove field also becomes a rabbit hot spot,” biologist Turner said.
The Buckridge Game Land covers 18,000 acres in Tyrrell County, between two bear sanctuary sections of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Hunting dogs with bears is permitted, and it’s one of the best public bear-hunting areas around.
“Buckridge allows dog hunting, and we try to maintain roads but they get tore up pretty easy, so you can’t access all of it,” Turner said.
Goose Creek and J. Morgan Futch are tough to beat for public waterfowl hunting; biologist Clark said Goose Creek is probably the best public waterfowl spot in North Carolina, with 11 impoundments, including four on Beard Island’s Pamlico Point.
“It has a lot of gadwall, late-season green-winged teal, pintails and wigeon,” he said.
J. Morgan Futch has 15 side-by-side impoundments covering 600 acres and featuring 20 blinds, managed with permit-only hunts for early and late-season waterfowl.
“Some of the J. Morgan Futch impoundments are used as dove fields until they’re flooded for waterfowl season,” Turner said. “Non-toxic shot is required.”
Central North Carolina
Almost all of North Carolina’s major population centers are in the state’s Piedmont, and the Commission has some of its best public hunting lands in close proximity to the Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte areas.
The Butner-Falls of Neuse and Jordan Lake game lands surround the Raleigh-Durham area, north and south, respectively. They’re both great spots to target deer, waterfowl, small game and doves.
“Jordan and Butner-Falls are always going to be at the top of the list for deer (in the region),” said Chris Baranski, a Commission biologist.
Hunters tagged 341 deer last season on Jordan and 298 on Butner-Falls of Neuse.
Jordan and Butner-Falls each have excellent hardwood tracts for squirrels. They each feature eight public dove fields that also double as rabbit-hunting areas. The Brickhouse Road tract on Butner-Falls of Neuse may be the Piedmont’s top public rabbit habitat.
Butner-Falls of Neuse and Jordan both have waterfowl impoundments, some reserved for permit hunts, some not. Get there early.
The Uwharrie National Forest covers 51,849 acres in Davidson, Randolph and Montgomery counties; hunters took 332 deer there in 2016. It also boasts five public dove fields.
The R. Wayne Bailey/Caswell Game Lands is wholly in one of North Carolina’s best counties for wild turkeys: Caswell covers 17,995 acres and offers hunters in the northern Piedmont some excellent deer hunting (165 killed in 2016), plus eight public dove fields.
Sandhills Game Lands is as good a small-game hunting area as North Carolina can offer, with good hunting for small game, including fox squirrels, plus 21 dove fields.
“On good years Sandhills has some really bang-up hunts at fields planted with corn, sunflower, milo, millet and more,” said Rupert Medford, a Commission biologist. “Competition for hunting spots is intense.”
Hunters took 121 deer off Sandhills’ 64,068 acres in Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties.
Western North Carolina
It’s hard to talk about public-hunting opportunities in the western third of North Carolina without keying on the 1.1 million acres in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, especially for deer and bears.
David Stewart, a Commission biologist whose headquarters are in western North Carolina, has advice for public-land deer hunters.
“Food plots are scattered all over Pisgah and Nantahala,” he said. “The best idea is to do your homework with county GIS, Google and Forest Service (maps) to find and hunt them. Most (forest service roads) have linear wildlife openings. We plant for deer, turkeys and grouse.”
Hunters tagged Pisgah 531 whitetails in 2016, while Nantahala hunters tagged 510.
“If you pinned me down, I’d say Madison and McDowell probably were the best two mountain deer game-lands counties,” Stewart said.
Hunters took 216 bears on Pisgah properties and 206 on Nantahala properties last season.
“We get a lot of visiting bear hunters from Tennessee,” Stewart said. “Ninety-nine percent of our hunters are dog hunters.”
The South Mountains Game Lands cover 21,700 acres in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties, and outside of the national forest areas, it’s probably home to the best public-hunting opportunities in the state’s western third.
“South Mountains has 30 acres of dove fields,” said Kip Hollifield, a Commission biologist based in the mountains who explained that it also has planted fields to hold rabbits.
Gray squirrels “are everywhere,” Hollifield said, “but most of our game lands don’t have a lot of rabbit habitat. You can find them where there were old fires that are now regenerating cover. Those are the best places to find grouse, too.”