North Carolina’s best public-land deer hunts

(Photo by Craig Holt)

Check out these half-dozen public-hunting areas if you don’t have access to private land and you love venison.

Last season, North Carolina hunters tagged 169,973 whitetails, most of them on private property.

Deer live in a variety of habitats in the Tarheel State: the coastal plain’s pocosins and swamps, large farms from the northeast to the southern Piedmont, oak ridges in the northern Piedmont, the Foothills and all sides of the Appalachian mountain ranges. They also haunt suburbs, small towns and the edges of large cities.

Weed fields are good places to seek mature bucks looking for does during mating season. (Photo by Craig Holt)

With whitetails spread across the state, hunters might be tempted to think public lands aren’t needed. That assumption would be wrong.

Last season, hunters tagged 5,642 whitetails on public hunting lands. Although that figure represents only 3.3% of the total harvest, it’s important.

Deer live where other wild animals live and are a vital part of public-lands ecosystems. Moreover, half of North Carolina’s Game Lands (1.2 million acres) are inside federal properties such as national forests, where the best way to preserve floral habitat is by allowing hunters to control deer numbers.

Another reason Game Lands are good choices is they offer places where, for an inexpensive state permit, hunting is open and not banned by private-property restrictions. Also, whitetails use Game Lands as de facto sanctuaries, especially those near large urban centers. Finally, two game lands, the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, are so large (500,000 acres each) they appeal to hunters who prefer “back-of-beyond” challenges where competition for venison or trophy racks isn’t intense.

Here are profiles of six of North Carolina’s top Game Lands for deer. Plan a visit this fall.

Jordan Game Land

Nearly 2.2 million people live inside the Triangle — Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — along with whitetails.

With the state’s largest human population, you might think the Triangle’s Game Lands wouldn’t offer decent deer hunting, but that assumption is wrong.

Jordan Game Land encircles a lake of the same name at the Triangle’s southern end. With Jordan Lake’s 13,940 watery acres at its center, whitetails roam across the remaining 32,828 public acres.

Last season, hunters bagged 332 deer on Jordan, the state’s fourth-largest public-lands total.

“Jordan is an interface between the urban-development build-up around the edges of cities,” said Chris Baranski, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“Lots of its boundaries include creeks that feature edge habitat for deer where they move from the Game Land to private land and vice versa. Deer also feed in agricultural fields, then return to (Jordan) for acorns, rest and safety.”

Commission work crews maintain food plots for doves and rabbits at Jordan, along with waterfowl impoundments that are designated archery zones.

“We also plant some open land with clover or turnip patches,” Baranski said.

Jordan has 10 archery zones for hunters, including seven around waterfowl impoundments along the lake’s northern end near Chapel Hill and three near Old Chapel Hill Road, Herndon and Panther creeks.

Butner-Falls Game Land

With similar habitat and close to the same sizes, Butner-Falls of the Neuse and Jordan Game Lands are peas in a pod, with just 20 miles separating the two public lands in the northern Piedmont.

Both have lakes of similar sizes at their centers, surrounded by oak ridges, pine forests, thickets and enough private agricultural land to provide forage for whitetails. Butner-Falls hunters bagged 375 whitetails in 2020-21, second best among state public lands.

Butner-Falls runs northwest-to-southeast, following the contours of the 12,000-acre lake — the upper-third open, the rest riverine, snaking from north of Durham to northwest of Raleigh. The Game Land covers 28,670 acres, with farms and rapidly growing developments encroaching on its borders.

“Butner-Falls has more fields (than Jordan) at its upper end,” Baranski said. “As you go farther down the lake, it’s got miles of woods boundary.”

Archery and firearms deer hunters often use boats to reach hardwood ridges around Falls Lake, but access is limited to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land — the Commission manages the Game Land’s wildlife, while the Corps owns the property — and private land creates another barrier.

“Some parts of the Game Land are only a couple hundred yards deep (around the lake),” Baranski said, “and private property runs right up to Corps land.”

Hunters who scout Butner-Falls have the best chance to punch a big-game tag. Boat-ramp parking lots are favorite access areas for scouting and hunting sessions.

Croatan National Forest

Hunters who chase deer at Croatan National Forest find totally different habitats and hunting experiences than at public lands in the Piedmont and mountains.

At 162,220 acres, the national forest lies between the Neuse River and Bogue Sound and sprawls across Carteret, Craven and Jones counties.

Croatan is the state’s third-largest public-use property. It gave up 386 whitetails last season, ranking No. 1 among medium to large Game Lands.

“Croatan has lots of roads, probably the reason harvests keep growing, because it has good dog-hunting access,” said Richie Clark, a Commission biologist. “Besides civilians, it gets hunters from Camp LeJeune (Marine Base) and Cherry Point (Naval Air Station).

“Its habitat is pocosins, hardwood regions, creeks and drainages, so it has lots of forage for deer. Deer also use food plots. We manage Catfish Lake waterfowl impoundment, a good place to deer hunt before it’s flooded. We flood the lake about the time muzzleloader season ends. Deer eat smartweed planted for waterfowl.”

No special permits are required for hunting Croatan, and deer seasons follow the Commission’s Southeastern zone regulations. Hunters must wear blaze orange, including archers.

“It’s a wide-open game land, and dog- and still-hunting is permitted the entire gun season,” Clark said. “Legal weapons include archery, muzzleloaders, rifles and shotguns.”

Hunters should carry a compass, because getting lost in such a large region is a possibility, and cell-phone signals can be problematic.

Early in the season, heat, biting flies and mosquitoes can make life tough, along with poisonous snakes.

Nantahala National Forest/Macon County

Although hunters dragged 606 deer out of the Nantahala National Forest last season, this area of the southwestern North Carolina mountains is so vast (526,870 acres), only one county stands out as a best spot.

Macon County’s portion (153,121 acres) yielded 201 whitetails, about one-third of the harvest for the entire national forest, which is spread across six counties.

“I’d say the best explanation is habitat,” said David Stewart, a Commission biologist who helps manage the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests’ combined 1,046,720 acres.

Nantahala and Pisgah game lands offer trophies for hunters willing to put in extra time scouting remote areas.

Stewart said Mike Wilkins, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger for the Cheoh, Tusquitee and Nantahala areas, is probably the other best explanation.

“He did as much active management as he could,” Stewart said. “He stayed on schedule with projects that produced habitat improvements, including controlled burns, and he cut a little timber. Macon County has more wildlife openings than any (federal land) in the mountains, which greatly benefits wildlife.”

Wilkins’ work crews created 350 acres of wildlife openings, including planted (linear) road openings, during his 29 years on the job.

Stewart said Macon County hunters who want to target trophy bucks must put in their time and effort to scout, walking miles to find deer sign near maintained trails.

“Those hunters don’t advertise their spots, but they kill some big bucks,” Stewart said. “I’d say edges of planted and maintained openings often draw deer and are better places to hunt.”

Stewart recommended hunters who plan to hunt mountain lands study maps available at or check National Forest Service web sites.

“Mountain (Game Lands) are so big, hiking maps and county GIS maps can help,” he said. “Hunters on the ground often use Avenza and onXmaps. You’ll have to pay for some map downloads — or if you want to upgrade — but the onXmaps base program is free. If you’ve got a map App on an IOS, Android smartphone or tablet, you can open the program, and a blue dot on the screen will show your exact location.”

Uwharrie National Forest

At 52,352 acres, Uwharrie is the state’s fourth-largest national forest and a top deer region since the 1950s.

Hunters tagged 352 whitetails last season, No. 4 behind three much-larger national forests.

With sections scattered across Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties, Uwharrie’s Burkhead Mountains terrain resembles Jordan and Butner-Falls — except with steeper hills.

“The geographic range is huge, with longleaf pine habitat near the Sandhills in the south to flood-plain forests, hardwood bottoms and hickory and oak ridges,” said Brady Beck, a Commission biologist. “Access is good, with many roads.”

Beck’s work crews annually plant food plots of millet, wheat and corn.

“The wildlife openings go through rotations, and some may be fallow or mowed,” he said. “But some have small grains for birds or native warm-season grasses for small game, and some (are) in corn. Most plots are 1/3- to 1/2-acre in closed-canopy forests.

“Hunters annually shoot some big bucks at Uwharrie.”

The Game Land draws hunters from Charlotte to Fayetteville, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Camping is allowed in designated areas.

“This Game Land gets a lot of use,” Beck said. “There are regulated camping and hunting-camp areas, public campgrounds and fee areas. The (U.S.) Forest Service handles camping inside the Game Land.

“ATV and UTV riders use it, along with hikers, horseback riders, hunters and nature watchers. It’s kinda wide open and not unusual for hunters to see people riding vehicles or horses near where they hunt, so folks should be aware of that.”

Beck recommended hunters visit the Commission’s website ( to find active GPS maps and try apps such as Avenza. The U.S. Forest Service website also features maps of Uwharrie.

Sandhills Game Land

This 65,028-acre Game Land is scattered across Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties. Hunters downed 194 whitetails there last season.

“Deer-dog hunting is done in larger blocks, while still-hunters like the smaller blocks,” said Lee Criscoe, the Commission’s crew leader at Sandhills Game land. “Permits aren’t required to hunt, except during either-sex deer seasons.

“Hunters should check the regulations digest to see special regulations and closures that apply to Sandhills, which is a 3-day per week hunting area.”

Wildlife crews actively manage food plots for deer and other wildlife at Sandhills.

“We plant 125 acres of corn, which are close to milo and clay-peas food plots,” Criscoe said. “But 95% of the Game Land is longleaf pines and wire grass. Hardwood pockets can be found along the creeks, so preseason scouting is a good idea.”

Still-hunting isn’t easy at Sandhills.

“The success rate for deer is pretty good if hunters scout and find the right places,” Criscoe said, “but they need to check the regulations book because seasons can be different depending on which county they hunt.”

Permanent stands aren’t permitted, but ladder and climbing stands are legal, as long as no nails are driven into trees.

“If I were going to hunt for deer at Sandhills, I’d look for grain-field edges, food plots and little stands of hardwoods,” he said. “The area has very few red oak but has lots of turkey and black jack oaks.”

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply