Public land turkey hunting in the Carolinas

Hunters must research the appropriate game lands but excellent hunting is found on many public lands. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Plenty of good public land is available to Carolina turkey hunters.

Public land hunting offers turkey hunters a huge selection of lands and habitats to hunt in the Carolinas. These lands are a fantastic resource. The public land opportunities in both states will offer excellent turkey hunting in 2022.

Hunting on public lands in either state does come with responsibilities for the hunter. Hunters must ensure they meet all license requirements and know all specific rules and regulations for the land being hunted. Different public lands can have vastly different rules and regulations. They’re not all the same. Private lands adjoin these public areas so hunters are responsible for knowing exactly where they are when hunting public lands. Commercial maps and apps for phones are one option to explore for detailed mapping.

The bottom line is the hunter is responsible. But it’s not difficult and all the information required is available from the appropriate state agency.

North Carolina Game Lands are managed by the NCWRC (www.ncwildlife.org). South Carolina’s public lands are managed by SCDNR (www.dnr.sc.gov).

Calling a gobbler into gun range on public lands is often the result of lots of scouting combined with good calling. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

North Carolina

South Mountains Game Lands

The South Mountains Game Lands consist of 22,575 acres in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties.

Paul Thompson, the Southern Mountains Wildlife Biologist for the NCWRC, said the South Mountains Game Lands has a bit of everything in terms of habitat for wild turkeys.

“For openers we’ve got steep mountain terrain and closed canopy hardwoods,” Thompson said. “But a lot of habitat diversity exists with substantial acreage on a regular controlled burn rotation. Burns provide excellent turkey habitat and many small openings exist too. Some are planted food plots and others are fallow fields.”

He said plenty of creeks and drainages are found in the bottoms. And high ridges serve as hunter travel routes while listening for gobbles. 

Thompson said access is good. And opportunities exist to enable those seeking to get far from other hunters that opportunity.

“We have major roads through the area lending to overall good access. And one area I’d like to point out is Roper Hollow Road off of Hwy. 64,” he said. “Hunters need a good map, of course. But this road leads to the access of the CCC Road, providing gravel road access for many miles. Along this road hunters can park and hunt on foot in the northern part of these game lands. For hunters wanting to get into less pressured lands, this is certainly an excellent option to consider.” 

Good calling skills are crucial on public lands because gobblers hear lots of calls from other hunters. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Croatan Game Lands

The Croatan Game Lands (Croatan National Forest), comprise 162,220 acres in Carteret, Jones and Craven counties in the coastal sector of the state. 

Chris Kent, District Two Wildlife Biologist, said the last 2 years have produced high harvests for turkey hunters. And the outlook for 2022 is good.

One big plus is that along with the large size of the property, the Croatan Game Lands has tremendous habitat diversity,” Kent said. “The land has lots of creeks and swamps throughout. In the east and southern portions, pine plantations offer plenty of open areas.”

Kent said that the west and north areas are made up of mixed hardwood and pine stands and have plenty of the bottomland turkey hunting habitat favored by many hunters.

“Compared to some of the game lands in the western portion of the state, not a lot of topographical change exists. Hunters can find some topographical relief, but usually only a few feet,” he said. 

He said access is good but the impact from the 2018 Hurricane Florence is still creating some access issues in certain designated areas. 

“I’ve noted that the first part of the season turkey hunters pressure the area hard. But the last couple of weeks much less hunting pressure exists,” he said. 

Use the natural cover to help hide when hunting public lands. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Sandy Mush Game Lands 

Sandy Mush Game Lands consists of 2,795 acres in Buncombe and Madison counties. 

David Stewart is the North Mountain Region Wildlife Biologist working the Sandy Mush Game Lands. This productive game land area features excellent turkey hunting habitat, he said.

“A good population of turkeys are found at Sandy Mush,” Stewart said. “A lot of unique habitat features exist including a considerable amount of early successional growth that includes controlled burn areas as well as lots of planted openings.

“The turkey harvest at Sandy Mush on a per square mile basis is excellent, although the overall size of the area is small compared to some game lands in the mountains,” he said.

Stewart said Sandy Mush is made up of several different tracts of land in the general area.

“It’s spread out. And that means hunters must rely on maps more than usual because private lands exist between the various segments of the game lands,” he said.”

Stewart said another positive habitat situation for turkey hunters is that when this land was acquired by NCWRC as game land property a lot of open farmlands were nearby.

“The goal is to keep that open land open. So plenty of fallow fields with native warm season grasses are found throughout the area,” he said. 

Locating the right habitat, such as open fields, is often the key to success on public lands turkey hunting. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Uwharrie Game Lands

Uwharrie Game Lands comprises 52,252 acres in the Piedmont region of the state and lies in Davidson, Randolph and Montgomery counties.

Greg Queen is the Troy Team Leader for the NCWRC that oversees the Uwharrie and other game lands in this area. Queen said the property offers a blend of habitat with the southern part of the game lands being flatter with some sandy areas and longleaf pine vegetation. In the northern portion, the forest is an oak-hickory hardwood forest, and that region is much steeper with more topographic relief.

“A good population of turkeys are found throughout the Uwharrie game lands. And we have about 100 food plots ranging from 1 to 10 acres each scattered throughout the area,” he said. “In addition, 3000 to 4000 acres are managed with controlled burns annually.” 

Queen said two major rivers flow through the lands: the Uwharrie and the Little rivers.

“These two areas provide the bulk of the permanent water sources of the area and are highly productive and popular with turkey hunters,” he said. “It’s important to know that some of the northern areas have only wet-weather water available. So in some years dry conditions will limit game species availability.

Queen said Uwharrie consists of scattered tracts of land of various sizes, giving hunters plenty of options.

Access is good and he said campgrounds from rustic to modern are available for hunters to use. 

Gobblers are hunted hard on public lands, but by putting in extra effort hunters can get close to a longbeard. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

South Carolina 

Liberty Hill WMA

Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the SCDNR, said Liberty Hill WMA is one of his top picks for turkey hunting because of its size, ease of accessibility and land diversity.

“Liberty Hill WMA is an 8000-acre tract of land that’s literally ideal for turkey hunting,” Ruth said.

Ruth said the property is comprised of a combination of SCDNR owned and leased properties located on the Kershaw/Lancaster County line from Singleton Creek on Lake Wateree to the Cedar Creek Boat Access Area on the Catawba River.

“The property is dominated by mature loblolly and shortleaf pines on the upland ridges, mixed pine-hardwoods along the lower hillsides and mature hardwoods along the creeks and coves of the shoreline,” Ruth said. “Several acres of wildlife openings exist on the property, all providing habitat for numerous wildlife species, including turkeys. 

Ruth said the topography is hilly, rising from an elevation of 225 feet at the shore to 500 feet on the hilltops. 

“Selective timber harvests and prescribed fire are the primary management tools utilized to improve habitat conditions and this is ideal management for wild turkeys,” he said. “Management activities include managing the openings and meadows to provide early successional habitat and supplemental wildlife forage.”

Ruth said access inside the area is good. But hunters have the opportunity to back into areas that are not hunted frequently if they are willing to put boots on the ground and go.

“With the diversity in terrain and excellent turkey habitat, it’s an ideal place to hunt turkeys throughout the day,” he said. “Plenty of land exists from the lakeshore to the ridgetops to locate gobblers any time of the day.”

Fant’s Grove

Fant’s Gove WMA consists of 8540 acres and the vast majority of the property is owned by Clemson University, with one other private landowner part of the WMA. Primarily located in Anderson County with smaller portions in Oconee and Pickens counties, this WMA provides an excellent turkey hunting opportunity in South Carolina’s upstate.

Fant’s Grove is favored by Ruth because of the size and diversity of hunting opportunities at this WMA, which lies around Lake Hartwell.

“Mature hardwood ridges and bottoms are common along with mixed hardwood and pine. And plenty of openings and clearings exist providing an excellent diversity of habitat types for turkeys,” he said.  

Ruth said turkey hunting opportunities vary on this property and hunters can drive by vehicle to gated areas by road, then park and walk in to hunt. The use of boats to reach some of the remote peninsulas of the WMA around the lake is permissible.

“Some gates on the property leave only a short walk to prime turkey habitat. But these are usually hunted hard early in the season,” he said. “With a little research hunters can find areas that require long walks. Those willing to hoof long distances can find less pressured areas.

As is always the case when hunting WMAs, Ruth said due diligence is required to study the WMA maps and know exactly which lands are open for turkey hunting and the boundary lines to private property. 

Webb Center Complex

Ruth said the Webb Center Complex is a huge area with a wide diversity of potential turkey habitat. 

“When referring to the Webb Center Complex we’re talking about the three separate WMAs of Hamilton Ridge, Palachuacola and Webb as a package,” Ruth said. “They are contiguous properties and comprise a large tract of prime public hunting for turkeys.”

Ruth said the three WMAs combine to offer 25,000 acres of diverse turkey habitats.

“The habitat varies significantly and includes bottomland hardwoods, creek drains, oxbow lakes and various types of wetlands as well as numerous pine stands,” he said. “Several miles of Savannah River frontage are part of the property. Wildlife openings and food plots are scattered throughout the WMA. This habitat diversity creates some of the best overall public land habitat in the state for turkeys. And the large size offers ample opportunity for hunters to hunt.”

Ruth said for hunters to be consistently successful they need to do their due diligence in scouting and be prepared to put in legwork. 

Francis Marion WMA

The Francis Marion National Forest consists of 258,000 acres of lands segmented into five WMAs to manage the highly diverse habitats. 

Ruth said the five sub-units are the Santee, Hellhole, Northampton, Wambaw and Waterhorn WMA’s. 

“Different areas of this property may have special uses. So always check the regulations,” Ruth said. “But the overall habitat situation for turkeys is excellent and the population is good. But with an area this large, the individual turkey hunter has to put in the legwork and scout to be consistently successful.” 

Ruth said while a lot of the timber management activities are good for turkeys, hunters can’t rely on old information to be accurate from one year to the next. Habitat conditions change quickly with clearing, thinning and controlled burns all part of the management process.

“The prescribed burning practices now employed at the Francis Marion property significantly enhance turkey habitat,” he said. “These controlled burn sites change annually. So hunters need to find them via windshield tours on open roads as well as walking into remote areas.         

For questions about the Francis Marion National Forest, Ruth said the Dennis Wildlife Center in Bonneau at 843-825-3387 is an excellent source.

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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