A Guide To Federal-Land Deer Hunts
There is a lot of public opportunity on federal tracts of land.
Most Georgia hunters are familiar with the 1 million acres of public land hunting available on the state’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). But did you know there are also hundreds of thousands of acres of public hunting available on the many properties owned by the federal government in Georgia?
These federal lands also offer good hunting opportunities, but most are lesser known than the state WMAs. Within these federal lands are a wide variety of game populations and habitats, and most have at least decent hunting. Others offer really good hunting. Some of these lands are open to any licensed hunter during the season, while others have detailed stipulations and may require fees, applying for quotas in advance, or a boat ride to access a tract.
The federal lands we’re going to detail in this article can be categorized into coastal islands, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) and military installations.
Hunts on the coastal islands are unique in their own way with the flat marshy terrain and plentiful palmettos. Deer are generally smaller than their mainland brethren, but the hunts are still exciting and challenging, even those doing turkey hunting for beginners. Being islands, most will require a boat trip to access by using your own boat or a ferry. Be aware that these areas also have their share of mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. You will encounter fewer critters by going later in the fall or winter when it’s cool.
The Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex is a group of National Wildlife Refuges that are islands along the coast of Georgia and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They include Harris Neck, Wassaw and Blackbeard Islands. The complex also includes Pinckney Island and Savannah NWR, but those are in South Carolina. For hunters interested in crossing state lines, Savannah NWR has a non-quota, no check-in, month-long archery season in October, a month-long firearms season in November and a 15-day feral hog hunt in March on its 20,000 acres. All of these refuge island hunts require a $25 Annual Hunt Permit. Most of these hunts have a five-deer limit, and only two can be antlered. Feral hogs may also be taken with no limit.
Blackbeard Island NWR has 4,500 acres available to hunt and is connected to the same land mass with Sapelo Island. A boat is needed to access the island as there are no roads or bridges to the island. Blackbeard has two three-day, non-quota archery hunts on Oct. 13-15 and Dec. 1-3. Check-in is required for hunters and their harvested deer, and there are no firearms hunts. No transportation is provided to, from, or on the island; however, hunters can use bicycles (except on wilderness areas) or boats to travel. There is a designated campground with potable water, flush toilets, showers and a deer cooler. Five deer may be taken, only two may be antlered, and state bonus tags will be issued for two deer.
For info on Blackbeard Island, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/blackbeard_island, or call (843) 784-2468.
Harris Neck NWR is accessible by a road, but no camping is allowed. Hunters must check in at specific time and stay on their stands during certain hours. There is a non-quota, three-day archery hunt on Sept. 15-17, and a one-day firearms hunt on Nov. 18. On the firearms hunt, only muzzleloaders, bows or shotguns with slugs may be used. There is 2,400 acres available to hunt, and Harris Neck has the same deer limit as Blackbeard Island. For info, visit www.fws.gov/harrisneck.
Wassaw NWR is a 2,000-acre barrier island between Tybee and Ossabaw, and it is accessible only by boat. Wassaw has a three-day bow/primitive weapons hunt Oct. 20-22 and a three-day firearms hunt Dec. 8-10. Both hunts are non-quota with a required check-in. Similar to Blackbeard Island, there is a primitive campground with chemical toilets and a deer cooler, but no showers or potable water. Transportation is not provided, boats must be moored, and hunters must stay in their stands during designated hours in the mornings and evenings.
Justin Pernell has been taking the boat ride over to Wassaw for most of his life.
“I really enjoy hunting over there. I’ve been going since I was a kid,” said Justin. “I killed my first buck on Wassaw Island on my first trip. My dad put me up in the stand right off the beach and dripped a few drops of deer urine on a bush out in front of my stand. Just after daylight, a 5-point buck came running in and sniffed the scent, and I shot him at 30 yards. I love hunting there because it’s different hunting deer on an island and hearing waves crashing while you’re hunting,” said Justin.
A few years ago Justin was hunting the same area where he and his dad hunt every year when an 8-pointer came in just after daylight munching on acorns.
“I shot him, and he fell. And 20 minutes later a small doe came running by, and I whistled and stopped her and took a shot. That afternoon I killed another doe, and the next morning I killed another doe. It was a good trip,” Justin fondly recalls.
For info, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/wassaw.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is not part of the Savannah complex but is a Georgia coastal island with a rich history including wild horses, Carnegie mansion ruins, the Grayfield Inn and Little African Baptist Church. The island is 36,480 acres, or 57 square miles, although not all of that is dry land, 19,000 acres of it is upland habitat. All three of its hunts are by quota, require a $35 hunt fee, and have many strict regulations to know and follow. They host a three-day archery hunt on Oct. 3-5, a three-day primitive-weapons hunt on Nov. 7-9 and Dec. 5-7, and a firearms adult-child hunt on Oct. 22-23 with only youths doing the shooting. There are also two three-day hog only hunts in January.
Hunters can register beginning on July 1 and the registration will continue until the quota is reached. So if you’re interested in going to Cumberland, apply now and don’t wait. Check-in is mandatory at the Plum Orchard Hunt Camp, and the DNR will tag your deer. Transportation to the island is by private boat or the passenger ferry out of St. Marys, where advance reservations are needed. The camp is plush by hunting standards with bathrooms, showers, a walk-in deer cooler, potable water, cleaning station, scales, first aid station and electricity to charge electronics.
Check the website for additional details at www.nps.gov/cuis, or call (912) 882-4336.
A note of caution is warranted for those unfamiliar with boating around Georgia’s coastal islands. A quote from the USFWS website states, “Coastal waters are subject to extreme tidal fluctuations of 6 to 10 feet. Hunters should be familiar with tide tables, and monitor coastal weather conditions before navigating to the barrier island refuge(s).”
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has land open to hunting located around large reservoirs in the state. These include lakes Seminole, Walter F. George/Eufaula, G.W. Andrews, West Point, Allatoona, Carters, Hartwell, Richard B. Russell and J. Strom Thurmond/Clarks Hill. There are state-operated WMAs around many of these lakes in addition to corps property. The distinction can be confusing, so it may be best to contact the local corps office or obtain a map before hunting.
Lake Seminole is a 37,500-acre reservoir in the southwest corner of the state. There is the state-operated Lake Seminole WMA, but there are also USACE lands around the reservoir available for hunting. The corps website says, “Hunting is allowed on all corps managed lands and water if they are not expressly closed. Examples of closed areas are developed recreation areas, marinas, and operational areas.”
Call (229) 662-2001 for details.
Lake Walter F. George/Eufaula allows hunting on specific corps-managed areas during state seasons. All hunting is by bow only and excludes crossbows. Hunting areas are divided into four sections. Gravel Point is a 100-acre tract. The North Area has four tracts, the 265-acre Hannahatchee Creek, the 85-acre Hannahatchee South, the 51-acre Hatchehubbee North and the 55-acre Hatchehubbee South. The South Area includes the Dam Site at 180 acres and the 359-acre Highland Hunting Area. The Central Area consists of a 122-acre tract. Maps are available online, or contact the Natural Resources Site Office in Fort Gaines at (229) 768-2516 for details.
Lake Andrews is about 30 miles south of Lake Eufaula on the Chattahoochee River. The lake is riverine in nature, meaning more like a wide river than a lake. Contact the office in Fort Gaines at (229) 768-2516 for details.
West Point Lake has 10,000 acres managed by the USACE for hunting. This is different from the state-operated West Point WMA. The West Point corps land requires a $20 hunting permit, prohibits centerfire rifles and is open for the entire season. For more information, contact the West Point Management Office at (706) 645-2937.
Lake Allatoona has 400 USACE hunting permits available to hunt 2,777 acres of corps land around Lake Allatoona. They are available being May 1 on a first-come basis, and a Special Activity fee of $20 is charged. Requests must be made by mail with a SASE and the fee. Only archery hunting is permitted, and it’s open for the entire state deer season.
For information, contact the Allatoona Lake Project Management Office at (678) 721-6700. Mail permit requests to 1138 State Route 20 Spur SE, Cartersville, GA 30121.
Carters Lake has corps land in northwest Georgia with terrain typical of the southern Appalachian foothills with steep valleys and ridges. The Coosawattee WMA at Carters Lake is open for deer hunting for the state season using archery gear only. The Coosawattee WMA is separate from the corps land and is to the west across Highway 411. Call (706) 334-2640 for more details.
Lake Hartwell on the Georgia/South Carolina border has four corps areas open for archery deer hunting. These include the 399-acre Paynes Creek Recreation Area, 410 acres at the Hartwell Dam Quarry Area, 34 acres at New Prospect and 31 acres at Jenkins Ferry. All access is walk-in or by boat, and a permit is required for the Quarry Area. Call (706) 856-0337 or (888) 893-0678 for details.
Lake Richard B. Russell is situated between Lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill. The Richard B. Russell State Park and the Elbert County WMA are also located around the lake. The USACE lands available for hunting are a rim of public land around the lake that extends at least 300 feet from the shoreline. The corps boundary line is marked with orange/redwood colored paint. For additional details, go to www.sas.usace.army.mil, or call (800) 944-7207.
J. Strom Thurmond/Clarks Hill Lake is on the Savannah River along the Georgia/South Carolina border just north of Augusta and is one of the largest reservoirs in the state at 70,000 acres. There are 19 tracts of USACE land available for hunting on the Georgia side ranging from the 216-acre Soap Creek tract to the 2,550-acre Bussey Point tract. There are five tracts that are more than 1,000 acres each, so there is plenty of hunting land here. Nice maps are available online at www.sas.usace.army.mil, or call (800) 533-3478. Be aware that there is also the Clarks Hill WMA, Keg Creek WMA, Mistletoe State Park and Soap Creek WMA around this big lake.
Lake Lanier has archery-only hunting on the islands around Buford Dam. There are limited quotas, and you must apply by letter by Oct. 15. The island hunts are spread over three four-day hunts, and you’ll need a boat to access the islands. The Buford Dam hunt typically has a high success rate on the three-day November hunt, but it only selects 14 hunters. However, each hunter selected can bring one other hunter to accompany them.
My son was selected in 2012, and since every hunter can bring along one other, he graciously picked me. I harvested a doe the first morning, and my son saw a big 8-pointer that stayed out of range. We saw numerous deer on that two-day December hunt. The dam hunt is now a three-day November hunt, and each hunter group is assigned an area of about 30 acres to hunt. Harvested deer are tagged for you, which is another perk, but chances of being selected are very low.
Probably the best known of all federal lands in Georgia are the Chattahoochee and Oconee National forests. The seasons coincide mostly with the regular state deer season, except that national forest deer managers have reacted to dropping deer populations by shortening seasons. In 2016, the deer season on the Chattahoochee National Forest closes on Dec. 26 instead of the statewide closing date of Jan. 8. No quotas or check-in is required for general national forest land, but check the regulations for specifics and either-sex days. Together, the two forests total 866,560 acres, and they are the largest public hunting areas in the state. They can offer good hunting, especially to those willing to scout and get away from the crowds.
The Chattahoochee National Forest stretches across the north Georgia mountains and has many steep ridges and mountains. The Oconee National Forest has thousands of acres of rolling Piedmont property primarily in the middle of the state. It is best to obtain an accurate map to know where to hunt and make sure that you’re on national forest property.
Call (770) 297-3000, or visit www.fs.usda.gov/activity/conf/recreation/hunting.
NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES
There are several NWRs scattered around the state, in addition to the Savannah complex NWRs already discussed in the Coastal Islands section of this article. The NWRs in Georgia vary widely in their location and type of terrain, and all have their own regulations and seasons.
Piedmont NWR is located in the center of the state north of Macon with 35,000 acres of rolling Piedmont habitat. Piedmont NWR routinely affords fine hunting including some decent bucks. The area is large and hosts an open archery season and either-sex primitive weapons and firearms hunts with quotas of 1,250 hunters. Refuge Manager Andrew Hammond estimates the area has 25 to 30 deer per square mile.
The Piedmont staff keeps excellent data on their hunts, and for the last five years Piedmont has averaged 439 deer killed per season. Of those, the largest group were 1 1/2-year-old bucks comprising 26 percent of the harvest. Bucks that were 3 1/2 years old or older made up 13 percent of the total harvest. During the 2015 season, 3 1/2-year-old bucks averaged a dressed weight of 120 pounds, 4 1/2-year-old bucks averaged 122 pounds and 5 1/2-plus year olds averaged 141 pounds dressed weight. There were 3,750 hunt permits available in 2015 and 2,874 issued, meaning more hunters could have participated. Hunters are charged a refuge permit fee, and you need to apply by Aug. 26. If there are slots still available after the draw, they go up for sale on a first-come basis. Call (478) 986-5441 or visit www.fws.gov/piedmont/hunting.html.
Bond Swamp NWR is 7,764 acres near Macon along the Ocmulgee River, and much of it is wetlands and floodplain. There is an early archery hunt, a youth-only hunt (quota 50), and two two-day firearms hunts with quotas of 100. Apply by Sept. 23 through the Piedmont office. A signed brochure serves as your permit for archery hunts. There is a two deer limit, and all deer must be checked in at the check station using your own tags. This area also contains hogs, and you better wear tall boots and plan on tackling some thick wet habitat.
For info, visit www.fws.gov/bondswamp or call (478) 986-5441.
Eufaula NWR is 3,231 acres located on the upper end of Lake Eufaula and has either-sex archery hunting the entire season plus two one-day, either-sex firearms hunts with quotas of 10. A $20 user fee is required, and applications need to be submitted by Aug. 15. Call (334) 687-4065 for particulars.
The Okefenokee NWR is divided into the Suwanee Canal Unit, Cowhouse Unit and the Pocket Unit. The Suwannee Canal Unit has one two-day, either-sex firearms hunt with a quota of 30. There is a $15 permit fee on a first-come basis. The Cowhouse unit offers three either-sex archery hunts, two either-sex primitive-weapons hunts, two buck-only firearms hunts and three either-sex firearms hunts. The Pocket Unit has one archery-only hunt.
Randy Vick, of Pavo, hunted the swamp back in the 1980s with good success. Hunting primarily the Pocket Unit, he usually bagged a deer every year.
“I took a deer with every weapon they allowed,” Vick recalls. “One certain tree I killed a buck out of three years in a row.”
His biggest buck was a 126-lb. live weight 8-pointer, which is considered a pretty nice buck for the area.
For info on hunting the Okefenokee Refuge, go to www.fws.gov/refuge/okefenokee.
Fort Gordon is in Richmond County and west of Augusta. The fort offers two either-sex quota archery hunts, an either-sex quota primitive weapons hunt, and a long buck-only quota firearms season, which is essentially the same as the state season. All hunts are by quota and require a NCIC background check. Firearms hunting is with shotgun (slugs only) or primitive weapons. Hunters not associated with the military must apply May 1-15, so remember this one for next year. Visit www.fortgordon.com/programs/leisure/outdoor/outdoor-rec/hunting or call (706) 791-2397.
Fort Stewart and the Hunter Army Airfield is an enormous area west of Savannah encompassing about 250,000 acres and has been open for hunting since 1959. There is about 400 acres of wildlife plantings and 90,000 acres of wetlands. It is bisected by the Canoochee River splitting Bryan and Liberty counties. It has archery, primitive weapons and firearms hunting that are similar to state seasons, but the either-sex days differ. There is a five-deer limit, and only three can be does and only two can be bucks. The hunting fee for non-military is $15 day or $60 for one year. During the 2014-15 season, 707 deer were harvested. There have been some excellent bucks taken from Fort Stewart, and the website has photos of some real trophies.
The qualifications for hunting can be involved, and the open hunting areas can change, so some research may be needed to confirm details. The website at www.stewart.army.mil/info/?id=448 is the best place to start or call (912) 767-4354.
Fort Benning near Columbus also allows hunting, but unless you’re military or related, you have to be sponsored as a guest to hunt. So find someone who works there, and get to know them. Visit www.benningmwr.com for more information.
As this article shows, there is plenty of public land deer hunting is available all across the state for those who know where to go and who can follow the regulations. Do some research, and you may find some good hunting that others may have overlooked.
Be aware that many of these areas have WMAs by the same name. For example, there is an Allatoona WMA and USACE hunting land around Allatoona Lake. So be sure to read and understand the regulations and know where you’re hunting, the season dates, rules, weapons restrictions and boundary lines.
Many of these areas may have additional details and requirements not listed here, so it’s a good idea to call or do some online research before planning a hunting trip.
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