Time to Head for the NC Mountains

Pisgah National Forest

Deer and black bears are the two main big-game animals for hunters in the Pisgah National Forest, which spans 508,847 acres of the Appalachian Mountains’ central-to-northern section.

Its sheer size makes big-game hunting a daunting task.

“People need to do their homework, especially bear hunters,” said David Stewart, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “They need to go to (www.ncwildlife.org), locate bear sanctuaries, go to a county’s website, pull up GIS maps and overlays, plus read the regulations digest.”

Hunters harvest 70 percent of mountain bears with the aid of dogs. Some counties only allow dog-hunting by permit at Mount Mitchell and Daniel Boone bear sanctuaries.

Ruffed grouse are found mostly at higher elevations in the Pisgiah National Forest.

Deer numbers have grown on western game lands.

“Hunters take a lot of nice bucks,” Stewart said, “but you have to scout, based on (acorn) crops. If it’s a good year, deer tend to stay in the woods.”

Grouse hunters can find birds at higher elevations or at lower areas near US 64.

Hardwood forests hold “plenty of gray squirrels with red squirrels at higher elevations,” Stewart said.

Rabbits favor wildlife openings, plus “a big series of fields off NC 281,” he said.

South Mountains Game lands

Paul Thompson, management biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission on the 21,760-acre property in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties, said it has a stable deer population.

“I’ve found some big sheds (antlers) in the past, but hunters have got to be willing to do their homework,” he said. “Remote places often aren’t explored.”

Fields on South Mountains Game Land provide rabbit hunters with mountain-hunting opportunities.

Some black bears use this game land, although Thompson said “it’s not a big hunting destination.”

Food sources for deer and bear include acorn-producing oak trees.

As for small game, South Mountains has natural habitat and planted fields.

“(The Commission) has done a lot of active management, including timber harvests and burns, plus a lot of mowing,” Thompson said. “It has a good component of early successional habitat.”

Nine dove fields have a mix of corn, millet and sunflowers.

“Hardwood ridges are good for finding gray squirrels,” Thompson said. “South Mountains has habitat around fields for rabbits.”

Nantahala National Forest

Macon County is the jewel of this national forest in North Carolina’s southwestern corner, according to biologist Stewart, who oversees the Nantahala’s 533,190 acres in Swain, Jackson, Transylvania, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Macon counties.

“The Macon Ranger District has more wildlife openings than any other ranger district,” he said. “It’s got more (logging roads) and regular openings at higher and lower elevations, sanctuaries and wilderness areas. Macon has a little of everything.”

Black bears are plentiful.

The Nantahala National Forest in western North Cadrolina is full of black bears.

“Like Pisgah, it’s got three bear sanctuaries (Wayah, Standing Indian, Fires Creek) and is hunted by Tennessee dog hunters,” Stewart said. “Most bear hunters know where the sanctuaries are because they’ve been hunting for years. There’s also a lot of still-hunting.

“Cherokee and Macon counties also are hot spots for whitetails. I’m starting to hear of nice bucks being taken.”

The national forest areas in Macon County have a few fields and openings that attract doves and rabbits.

“Grouse hunting is good,” he said. “Hardcore Grouse Society guys around Franklin hunt them at old logging roads and cutovers.”

Gray squirrels are plentiful at hardwood stands, while red squirrels are at higher elevations.

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.