Carolinas’ national wildlife refuges provide plenty of good small-game hunting opportunities

The Carolinas offer plenty of good small-game hunting on public lands. Here are a handful of spots to be considered for squirrel, quail, rabbit and the like.

Across the Carolinas, small-game hunting seasons are in full swing. While many hunters seek these opportunities — beyond those hours-long still hunts for deer or a morning-long session in a boat or blind waiting for ducks — most small-game hunters still make a big mistake by hunting only on private lands.

For hunters who are willing to drive a few miles and adhere to an additional layer of regulations, the reward of visiting public land, especially a vast, national wildlife refuge, can be a heavier game bag at the end of a day, plus a ton of extra Fitbit paces. 

Try these big public tracts out for size and see if things don’t work out.

At Carolina Sand Hills NWR and Pee Dee NWR the daily bag limit for bobwhite quail is two. This helps promote a quality hunting experience.

Pee Dee NWR

Primary species: quail

Other species: rabbit, gray squirrel

Located near Wadesboro, N.C., the 8,400-acre Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to hunt bobwhite quail. Greg Walmsley, the refuge manager, said intensive management of the pine forest habitat, balanced with low hunting pressure, has improved quail numbers.

“We have seven days of quail hunting on alternating Wednesdays and Saturdays,” Walmsley said. “Limiting the pressure has created a better hunting opportunity, and I would say we have low to moderate participation. Limiting hunting dates also decreases competition between other users. We call them the ‘Big Six’ — hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, environmental education, interpretation and photography.”

Walmsley said that, over the past 10 years, rotational burning of a good component of the refuge’s longleaf pine forest, as well as thinning cuts that have opened up the canopy to improve the quality of “wet longleaf flatwood.” It is a rare, but significant habitat type that is extremely beneficial to quail and other upland game.

“We also have a cooperative farming program for planting corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres,” he said. “Many of those farmed areas also have field borders that benefit quail. Observational information from officers in the field show our quail numbers are higher than they are on other similar properties nearby. We have a strong, sustainable population with good numbers of coveys of wild birds.”

The author walks up on a point behind Face, an English setter. Working a pointing dog in early successional habitat is the trick to finding quail on NWRs.

Pocosin Lakes NWR

Primary species: rabbit

Other species: quail, raccoon

Located near Columbia, N.C., the 10,000-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent place for rabbit hunting. Wendy Stanton, the refuge manager, said work to provide early successional habitat is key.

“We have a lot of rabbit hunters,” Stanton said. “While we see coveys of quail, we have fewer quail hunters than rabbit hunters. To provide early successional habitat, we mow the east-west roads on a rotational basis. The roads not open to vehicle traffic, as well as the shoulders of roads open to vehicles, provide good hunting access and cover for upland game.”

Recently, the refuge has experimented with herbicide applications to reduce woody vegetation. About two miles of one road comprising 50 acres have been treated. In the future, more of these herbicide-managed areas should increase rabbit- and quail-hunting opportunities. Hunters should look for areas that have abundant broom sedge, goldenrod and panic grass.

Non-toxic shot must be used in the designated non-toxic shot area west of Evans Road. While the cooperative farming areas of the Pungo Unit are open for deer hunting, they are not open for small-game hunting. Raccoon/opossum hunters must obtain a free permit at the office. 

Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge has good hunting on cooperative farming areas. Rabbits and quail are abundant along the edges.

Carolina Sandhills NWR

Primary species: quail

Secondary species: woodcock, rabbit, raccoon

Located near McBee, S.C., the 46,000-acre Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge has excellent hunting for bobwhite quail. In fact, it is so good, Lyne Atkins, the refuge manager, said it is one of South Carolina’s Bobwhite Quail Focal Areas.

“Four areas in South Carolina participate in the national Bobwhite Quail Initiative,” Atkins said. “These properties are designated where quail habitat can be enhanced and populations increased. We believe that goal is compatible with our other field activities. However, rather than a buckshot approach, we concentrate our quail habitat-enhancement activities on about 2,500 acres in the Mays Lake area. The area is designated by blue-and-white signs.”

Other areas within the refuge also have good quail habitat, manipulated by timber-management practices and prescribed burning. At one time, the refuge also had 1,200 acres of cooperative farm fields. However, that has declined to 60 acres because the sandy soil types could not support economically sustainable farming.

“The remaining 60-acre area is planted in various types of millet year-to-year, with 25% of the millet remaining in the field after harvest,” she said. “It is located near the refuge office on Wildlife Drive. We also have wild plum thickets all around the refuge and established them in the Quail Focal Area. Wild plum thickets provide excellent cover for quail.”

Quail hunting dates are spaced every 10 to 14 days; they attract a core of faithful hunters. Atkins expects the number of hunters to increase as the hunting improves and word gets around.

Carol Marsh used a .22 rimfire rifle to take these gray squirrels.

Waccamaw River NWR

Primary species: gray squirrel

Secondary species: woodcock, snipe, raccoon 

Located near Conway, S.C., the 55,000-acre Waccamaw NWR has some of the best squirrel hunting in South Carolina. Craig Sasser, the refuge manager, said flooding can lead to poor squirrel hunting access; however, this year, the water has been low.

“This year we are in good shape, but we have been underwater for several seasons in a row,” Sasser said. “Our mast production is hit or miss, but in the upland areas of the refuge this fall, laurel, white and water oaks are really dropping acorns. One of the best places, if not the best, for hunting squirrels in South Carolina is Bull Island. The downside is that it is only accessible by boat.”

Port Harrelson Landing on Bull Creek and Yauhannah Landing on the Pee Dee River provide excellent water access. Several parties have taken limits of gray squirrels despite refuge regulations that allow only one squirrel dog per hunter.

At Yauhannah Landing, trails running on both sides of the highway provide good access for squirrel hunting,” he said. “Squirrels there don’t see a lot of humans, so they are not as wary as they are in other areas, and that makes for some great still-hunting. While anywhere along Bull Creek and the Pee Dee River that has oak trees is a good place to hunt, another top tract in that area is near the Yauhannah Lake Bridge between Yauhannah Lake and the Pee Dee River. A portion of that tract is open only to youth hunts and is marked on the hunt brochure map. At Waccamaw NWR, we are gearing up to increase youth participation, and small game is a great way of doing that.”

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHERE TO GO:

The Pee Dee NWR’s office is at 5770 US 52 North, Wadesboro, N.C., 28170. Telephone: 704-694-4424. Website: fws.gov/refuge/pee_dee. A hunting brochure must be downloaded or obtained in person at the office and signed and carried. No refuge fee is required for small game hunting.

The Pocosin Lakes NWR office is at 205 South Ludington Dr., Columbia, N.C.; the mailing address is PO Box 329, Columbia, N.C. 27925. Telephone: 252-796-3004. Website: fws.gov/refuge/pocosin_lakes. A $15 refuge hunting permit is required for hunters age 16 and older. It can be purchased by mail, online or in person at the refuge office. Brochures may be requested by a note accompanying a mailed check. 

The Carolina Sandhills NWR office is at US 1, McBee, S.C., 23734. Telephone 843-335-8350. Website: fws.gov/refuge/carolina_sandhills. No refuge fees are required for hunting small game. A hunt brochure can be downloaded at or obtained in person at the office and must be signed and carried. Hunters are asked to complete a voluntary small game hunting survey. No refuge or WMA fees are required for small game hunting.

The Waccamaw River NWR office is at 21424 N. Fraser St., Georgetown, S.C.;  the mailing address is P.O. Box 1439, Georgetown, S.C., 29440. Telephone: 843-527 8069. Website: southeast.fws.gov/waccamaw. No refuge or WMA fees are required for small game hunting.

WHEN TO GO:

The Pee Dee NWR is open for quail hunting in Anson County only, Nov. 4, 2021, Dec. 4, 15, 25, 2021, and Jan. 5, 15 and 26, 2022. The daily bag limit is two quail, and no woodcock may be taken. Other small-game seasons include gray squirrels, Nov. 22-Dec.11, 2021 and rabbit, Jan. 29, 2021-Feb. 12, 2022.

The Pocosin Lakes NWR is open for small-game hunting during seasons established by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

The Carolina Sandhills NWR is open for quail hunting Nov. 26, Dec. 8, 17 and 29, 2021, and Jan.  7, 19, 28 and Feb. 9 and 18, 2022. The bag limit is two quail. Woodcock may be taken during quail hunts when South Carolina’s woodcock season is open. Other small-game seasons include rabbit — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during December 2021 and January 2022; raccoon/opossum — Dec. 6 and 11, 2021, Jan. 3, 8 and Feb. 7 and 12, 2022. The refuge has no squirrel season because it has little gray squirrel habitat and a desire to protect fox squirrels.

The Waccamaw River NWR is open for squirrel hunting Oct. 25 2021, to Feb. 19, 2022, except during deer or hog hunts. No fox squirrels may be taken, and no hunting is allowed on Sundays or from watercraft. Woodcock and waterfowl hunting is allowed Wednesdays and Saturdays until noon on Unit 1 tracts along the Great Pee Dee River only. Snipe hunting is allowed on Unit 3 on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Feb. 2 until the end of Federal season. Non-toxic shot is required. Raccoon/opossum season is open Wednesday and Saturday nights Feb. 2-26.

MAPS:

Maps of refuges and hunting areas within them are available on the refuges’ websites, along with hunt brochures.

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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