Cumberland Island Deer & Hog Hunts
Daylight, 35 degrees and a big sow was well within rifle range. It was an exciting start to the Cumberland Island youth deer and hog hunt on Dec. 19, 2020.
It had probably been a decade or better since I’d spent a few days on a Georgia barrier island looking for deer and hogs. In fact, Ossabaw Island had been my only island hunting experience, and I’ve created fond memories and formed friendships on Ossabaw that I’ll take with me to the grave. However, Georgia’s barrier island experience doesn’t stop on Ossabaw.
I had been eyeing the Cumberland Island youth hunt for a number of years as a great excuse to check out a new hunting place off the coast. Cumberland Island National Seashore is owned and managed by the National Park Service, established by legislation in 1972. Total acreage is 36,000 acres, which is split between 18,000 acres of upland and 18,000 acres of wetland.
The island conducts six managed hunts, and the youth hunt is by far the most uncrowded of them all.
“Participation on the youth hunt is usually low,” said Doug Hoffman, Cumberland’s wildlife biologist. “Looking at my data for the last five to 10 seasons, youth hunters have ranged from two to eight. Historically, the youth hunt was scheduled in December, usually the weekend prior to Christmas. I did move the dates for two Georgia hunt cycles to October around opening of firearms season to see if I would get more participation, but no luck.”
From a hunter’s perspective, the low numbers had my interest piqued.
“The few number of youth hunters makes it pretty nice from the point that you don’t really worry about running into others while hunting,” said Doug.
However, Doug’s vision is for more hunters to enjoy the island. In that effort, Doug said the next two years of youth hunts will likely have hunters traveling to the island on the Sunday before Christmas, hunting on Monday and Tuesday and returning back to the main land on Wednesday.
Cumberland hunts don’t fall under the state-operated WMA regulations, and some of the federal regulations are different. For example, there’s not a two-deer limit on Cumberland like you see on WMA check-in hunts. In fact, Doug informed hunters the day before the hunt that there was no limit on the number of deer the kids could kill. He added that he would provide kids with a tag for each deer they killed so it wouldn’t count against their state limit.
Did I bring enough cooler space?
Before you get visions of loading 150-quart coolers with hams and backstraps, the island doesn’t boast near the hunter-success rate like you see at Ossabaw or Sapelo island WMAs. Cumberland simply doesn’t have a deer population like you see at those state-run islands.
“No (deer population) surveys have been conducted in the Cumberland hunt zone since Dr. Warren was doing research here in the 1980s and 90s. My educated estimate from a deer biologist standpoint is likely around 10 per square mile,” said Doug.
Although regular population counts aren’t conducted on Ossabaw and Sapelo islands, WRD Coastal Region Supervisor with Game Management David Mixon estimates those populations around 50 deer per square mile.
“Deer harvest in the last 10 years has ranged from four to 26, with most years around a 20 harvest,” said Doug. “Data includes multiple years of cancelled hunts due to (storms) Matthew, Irma and the government shutdown.
“For deer, the low harvest gives most bucks a chance to advance to adult age classes, so hunters always have a chance of harvesting a deer that is between 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 years old. Antler development is very nice here since the hog population is low. Some antler measurements have been in the 115- to 120-inch range here. Live weights of adult bucks will always be around 125 pounds as the deer are barrier island animals with smaller body frames.”
My Cumberland hunting research started in June 2020 before the July 1 registration date on www.pay.gov. Fortunately, I was quickly routed to Doug, who graciously answered question after question that allowed me to develop a pretty solid plan for the hunt.
This article is designed to get you packed and ready for a Cumberland hunt. In addition to the youth hunt, Cumberland offers one archery hunt and two primitive-weapons deer hunts. The island also offers two January hog hunts. The number and types of hunts are expected to remain about the same in the foreseeable future, although the archery hunt is likely to be moved to the first week of October to hit the peak of the rut. All hunts operate under a quota system.
Ages for the Cumberland Island youth deer and hog hunt are 12 to 17. Youth younger than 16 must be accompanied by and under direct supervision of an adult at all times during the hunt.
Originally I had planned to bring my daughter Chloe on this hunt, but a scheduling conflict meant the Lord had different plans for which kid would be joining me Dec. 19-20. My young hunter ended up being a local youth, Jackson Steverson, of Eatonton.
Before I ever applied for this hunt, I recruited an additional father-and-son to join us for the weekend. With some island hunting experience under my belt, I knew that tackling a new island alone wasn’t the best idea. Extra hands, extra minds and someone to enjoy time around the campfire is a better option on any island hunt.
Joining us would be Shannon Chastain and his son, Grant. They are also from Eatonton, and Grant and Jackson are friends at Putnam County Middle School. We were set with a great group.
Once we decided to put this hunt on the calendar, we went online to www.pay.gov in July. When I arrived on this page, I had to search “Cumberland Island National Seashore Managed Hunts” in order to pay my hunt fee. The cost was $35 per adult/child pair. Hunt fees are pretty standard on some federally owned properties and go toward helping pay for the supplies used to conduct the hunt.
The next order of business was to figure out which campground we were going to be pitching our tents and setting up shop. The only two options are the Plum Orchard Hunt Camp and the Brickhill Bluff Campground. They are drastically different in what they offer.
Brickhill is located on the northwest side of the island along the Brickhill River roughly 2 miles south of the Cumberland River. There is no dock or ferry drop-off to this camping area, so it is accessible only by private boat. There is a clean, sandy area for beaching boats. However, don’t forget the 6-foot-plus tide swings, so during low-tide periods, your boat will be completely out of water. Take a boat you don’t mind being completely beached. Before going back home, you’ll have to wait on high tide.
Brickhill has no bathrooms, power or potable water, and there are no campfires allowed at this site.
Despite its primitive experience, Doug said there are some regular hunters to the island who prefer staying at this site because it allows access to hunting areas that hunters staying at the more popular Plum Orchard Hunt Camp really can’t access. If you look at a Cumberland map below, you’ll see a large swath of land located between the North Cut Road and the South Cut Road that offers the adventurous hunter plenty of exploring options. That chunk of land is simply not accessible for most hunters staying at Plum Orchard to reach and hunt during the same day.
Without our own boat, we had no other option but to make a appointment with the folks at www.cumberlandislandferry.com and pay for a ferry ride over to the Plum Orchard Hunt Camp. The cost for us was $50 per adult/child pair.
When you book your ferry reservation, make sure you tell them you are going over on the Cumberland hunt and need to go to Plum Orchard Hunt Camp and not the Sea Camp Ranger Dock on the south end of the island, which is the dock where those touring and hiking for the day are headed. Doug said to tell them you want the “hunt ferry” instead of the “regular ferry.”
The Plum Orchard Hunt Camp is located in the middle of the island and about 4 walking miles south of Brickhill Campground.
Plum Orchard is known for the Plum Orchard Mansion, a 20,000-square-foot home built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son, George and his wife, Margaret Thaw. Doug normally offers the hunters a tour of the mansion, but COVID had it shut down when we were there. The mansion is located several hundred yards north of the campground.
Our ferry ride was aboard the Cumberland Princess, a large diesel-powered boat that provided plenty of room for our hunting and camping gear up front and lots of inside seating, which was nice because it was 35 degrees outside. It’s hard to say what the schedule will be during next year’s hunts on Cumberland, but our ferry powered off from the dock in St. Marys at 10 a.m. on the dot, and the captain allowed us to start loading our gear at 9:30. You’ll need to note that when we were there, the return ferry wasn’t scheduled to show back up to the Plum Orchard Dock until Monday morning, the day after the hunt.
The ferry ride was about an hour long, and we tied off to a well-constructed dock where we off-loaded all of our gear onto carts and made the 100-yard roll inland to find a campsite. On our way into camp, we passed a group of hunters on the right who elected to set up their tents near the water’s edge. They had brought their own boats, another option for those who prefer to enjoy all the amenities offered by Plum Orchard Hunt Camp but don’t want to mess with the ferry ride. Most hunters who choose this route put in at Crooked River State Park ramp and come straight across to the island.
“As long as the weather is good, the boat ride is great. There’s not much open water to get rough coming across,” said Doug.
When you walk into camp, you’ll see a walk-in deer and hog cooler where you can quarter up and hang your game. Just east of the walk-in cooler, you’ll find a well house that has an ice machine inside just for hunters to use on their quartered-up meat. There’s no charge for ice. It comes with that $35 hunt fee you pay. To me, that was one awesome amenity! We knew about the ice machine ahead of time from our research phase, so we knew there was no need to haul over 100 pounds of ice to get us through the hunt, much like you will have to do on another island trips. However, it still wouldn’t hurt to pack some ice if you plan to attend one of the other, more popular hunts.
“The ice can be scarce on the last day if there is a good harvest and lots of coolers are getting filled. The machine is good but can’t keep up with extreme demand,” said Doug.
Situated behind the walk-in cooler is the Plum Orchard Camphouse, where you’ll find four private inside rooms with toilets and hot showers. You also have the option of plugging up cell phones and flashlights to keep them charged up. If you’re a coffee drinker, Doug keeps coffee and sugar in the Camphouse. The building is heated and stayed 72 degrees all weekend, which made for a good spot to sit in the morning after rolling out of a cold tent.
There was a log splitter in the campground with some freshly split wood just waiting for our pair of eager boys to get a fire started in one of the fire rings scattered throughout the campground. There were other things that made the stay easier. Plenty of trash cans around meant we didn’t have to haul our trash off the island. There were plastic gloves, toilet paper, flagging tape, meat saws, hoses and potable water. It was camping on an island, but I don’t think we could categorize our stay as roughing it, something that gets very appreciated later in life.
The four of us met Doug on the covered porch of the Camphouse for an orientation meeting at 1:30 on the Friday before the hunt.
“Orientation is always at 1:30 at Hunt Camp the day of arrival,” said Doug. “That way hunters have the remainder of the day to scout and not worry about returning later in the day to attend orientation.”
Doug shared some history of the island, went over a number of safety and hunting rules and fielded some questions. He also made sure we each had his cell phone number in case we needed him for anything during the hunt. In fact, I’d later learn that Doug would return each evening to camp to make sure everyone had safely returned from the woods.
After our meeting, we laced up the hiking boots to seek out a spot to be at daylight the next morning. There are no assigned hunting areas on Cumberland. Just look at a map and strike out on either foot or bike for an area. The federal folks won’t trailer you out or provide rides to hunting areas, so expect some good exercise when you attend a Cumberland hunt.
Before the trip, I printed off several maps of the Cumberland Wilderness Area, which is the 9,000-acre swath of land in the middle of the island that is open to hunters and closed down for all other users during the hunting days. The best map I found was one created by The Georgia Conservancy’s Cumberland Island National Seashore Trail Map. I had a copy of it on my phone, and I carried a print-out version with me during the hunt.
Some of Cumberland is so thick with palmettos that it’s nearly impossible to hunt, at least with kids and from the ground. We asked Doug about some more open areas where we could try some spot-and-stalk hog hunting. With only seven kids signed in for the hunt, we felt confident we’d be alone in the direction we headed.
In addition, Doug gave everyone color-coordinated biodegradeable flagging tape to mark their hunting areas on the road. We never saw any flagging tape during the hunt, so we were sure we were alone in our area.
After saying our good-byes to Doug for the evening, we committed to a 2.25-mile walk from Plum Orchard Hunt Camp. We took our time on that Friday afternoon as we enjoyed walking down a woods road shaded by tall oaks draped with Spanish moss. We got sidetracked on our way as we watched a pair of horses feed 20 yards off the road in a group of green palmettos. Cumberland horses are descendants from horses the Carnegie family brought when they moved to the island in the 1880s. They used horses for pulling carriages, riding, hunting and other recreational activities. Expect to see or hear them neighing in the distance during your hunt.
“We survey the feral horse herd annually and have done so for decades,” said Doug. “Based on the surveys, I estimate between 150 and 160 individuals at any given time. The data shows a very stable population with natural mortality being the primary limiting factor. We do no management of the herd—no feed, vet care, nothing.”
About 4 p.m., we had arrived in an area of open terrain located off one of the many hiking trails you’ll find on the island. Jackson and I split off from Shannon and Grant and agreed to meet 45 minutes later. We’d each leave the hiking trail and head into an area of woods with no trails.
Since Cumberland is flat, it’s easy to get turned around. For that reason, I carried a compass with me, although I never needed it. My No. 1 navigation tool for the hunt was a hand-held Garmin Oregon 450 GPS unit, along with several sets of extra AA batteries. The unit gave me the confidence to venture farther from the trails, which opened up additional hunting areas. This was a huge bonus since part of a trip to Cumberland is being able to explore and see a new place. Of course, be smart. GPS units can fail, which is where a compass and a good print-out map comes into play.
There are several cell-phone apps, as well. I used AllTrails and Shannon opted for Avenza. Both are good apps, but personally I found myself mostly referencing The Georgia Conservancy’s Cumberland Island National Seashore Trail Map I carried in my pocket and my GPS throughout my hunt. I’d occasionally look at AllTrails on my iPhone to verify my location, so it was nice to have.
When you hunt Cumberland, cell service is spotty. I could actually call my wife in the campground, but I found it difficult to even get a text to go through where we hunted. Shannon and I had to revert back to the old-school way of hunting and make a designated meeting spot and a time to meet for lunch.
Jackson and I didn’t get off the road 100 yards before we knew where we’d be the next morning at daylight. We found hog rooting that was maybe a day or two old, along with several pretty fresh buck scrapes. Finding acorns was not a problem, except there were billions of them. Deer and hogs on Cumberland can choose from live oaks and laurel oaks.
“Live oaks are a white oak variety, and laurel oaks are red oak species,” said Doug. “The live oaks are very finicky in production, and it is rare to get a banner crop of acorns on Cumberland more than once every five to six years, which I can’t explain exactly. Live oaks are preferred by everything here.
“Laurel oaks produce more frequently, but if they are present during live oak years, animals will eat them later in the year once most of the live oak acorns are gone. The laurel oak acorn is very similar in appearance to the water oak most hunters are accustomed to seeing in Georgia.”
We hit one of those years where live oaks were everywhere, which makes deer harder to pinpoint. Still, we located a spot with food, sign and an area we could see maybe 60 yards in all directions and had a thick bunch of palmettos in front of us. These thicker edges are good places to be watching since deer and hogs like to weave in and out of these transition zones.
Arriving back in camp, the four of us enjoyed baked potatoes and Lake Oconee catfish wrapped in foil with butter, salt and pepper cooked over a bed of coals from the fire. There were six groups staying at the Plum Orchard Hunt Camp and one adult/child pair was staying north at Brickhill. Before bed we loaded our four backpacks with the essentials for the next day. Since we’d be hunting more than 2 miles away, we elected to just stay in the woods all day and return to camp after dark.
We loaded the boys down with Vienna sausage, Beanee Weenees, crackers, apples and water. Shannon and I decided we’d carry all the hunting gear in our packs. Even with a pair of strong sixth-grade boys, dragging an animal back to camp simply wasn’t an option. I carried a portable gambrel, rope, knives, a pulley and heavy-duty trash bags for meat hauling. Doug had no concerns with anyone quartering up an animal in the woods and backpacking the meat out. He said the island’s healthy population of vultures would clean a carcass in no time. There’s also a small population of bobcats and a few coyotes on the island that would enjoy the leftovers if they stumbled across them.
“All I need is the species, sex and the approximate live-weight to go on the harvest record,” said Doug.
Daylight the next morning was a refreshing 35 degrees and stunningly beautiful as the oak flats began to lighten. We walked single file down the last 100-yard stretch of trail before we’d stop, say our final “good-lucks” and depart until an 11 a.m. lunch meeting back in the road. It was still cracking light. Shooting light just barely.
I turned around to give Shannon and Grant a thumbs up and heard a soft, single grunt. I whipped my head back around and looked at maybe a half-dozen piglets scurrying into a cluster of palmettos less than 40 yards away. Before we had time to think about trying to chamber a round and put a rifle in one of their hands, the pigs had disappeared.
“Big sow,” Shannon said.
I hadn’t seen mama, but that was certainly her that smelled or saw us in that woods road and offered up that grunt as she retreated from the open woods. It was great confirmation that our scouting had paid off. It was daylight and we were already into hogs. Anymore would be icing on the cake. I was loving the Cumberland life.
Jackson and I left and set up for a few quiet hours in the area we had found the afternoon before but decided to spend the second half of the morning exploring. It was still a cold morning in the 40s, and we needed to get some blood pumping.
“I think a big part of the allure of this place for all hunters is the fascination of being able to explore an undeveloped barrier island all while hunting at the same time,” said Doug.
The game sign was easy to spot—scat, wallows, rubs and scrapes—as we hugged the thick-palmetto edges in order to stay in the more open oak flats where we could see.
By 10:15, we found ourselves following a heavily used game trail that led through a palmetto thicket and down to the edge of a large section of marsh. Low tide was 6 a.m. that morning, so whatever game was using the marsh had already retreated back to the thickets. I watched Jackson whip out his cell phone and snap a few photos. I took a few of my own.
Our big excitement for the morning came just a few minutes before 11 a.m. as we neared our meeting spot for lunch when we heard two quick shots.
“That was Grant,” said Jackson.
With two shots, we thought he likely was slinging lead at hogs. We were hopeful he had connected on some midday pork.
“In the 20-plus years I have managed hogs on Cumberland, I have noticed during cold, windy days that hog movement is very predictable between around 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (rough estimates, mainly noting late morning to mid afternoon),” said Doug. “Our hogs are not accustomed to really cold weather, so this might explain why they are less active early and late on those days. This is all based on my hunting observations and number of hogs seen/taken during those times periods.”
Listen to what Doug says about hunting hogs on Cumberland. Part of his job is to remove them from the island.
“For Cumberland, my personal harvest figure is right at 2,600 confirmed hog kills since 2000. Most of those are from hunting. I only trap specific situations,” said Doug.
Got your attention yet? I label this guy as a genuine professional hunter, even without a T.V. show or podcast. He’s done his job very well, and the health of the island speaks for itself.
“I would say there are likely 100 to 150 (on the high side) hogs currently on the island,” said Doug. “I state this based on what I know things were like when there were a lot of hogs on the island, what is not there now and animals I know exist currently that I have not taken. The annual public hunt harvest also reflects an extremely low population.”
In the last 10 years, hog harvest for all the combined hunts on Cumberland has ranged from 32 to 96, with an average of about 50 pigs killed by hunters per year, and you’re looking at about 250 hunters across the six island hunts. These hunts are a great additional tool for keeping the population in check.
“The population can change literally overnight if several sows give birth. Our sows average six fetuses per pregnancy and usually have two litters each year,” said Doug. “I know this based on data taken from hundreds of reproductive tracts from pregnant sows I have taken here over the years. Evaluation of reproductive tracts shows the potential for extreme population increases that pigs have throughout their range.”
Doug said that just because a sow gives birth to six pigs doesn’t mean they will all survive. In fact, in the majority of cases, they won’t.
“Very few of them survive the first few weeks after birth,” said Doug. “The island is a harsh environment for newborn pigs. Hog management is truly just a numbers game where you must continually remove hogs to stay ahead of the potential for an effect very similar to compounding interest.”
A few minutes later we arrived, and Shannon and Grant were looking for blood. No dead hog upon our arrival meant Grant had a story to tell.
“The scope was on 12 magnification, I had to use iron sights,” said Grant.
Shannon and Grant had almost reached our lunch meeting spot when a pair of big hogs headed right at them with a number of piglets in tow. By the time Shannon got the 30-30 lever-action off his shoulder and into his son’s hands, the hogs were right on top of them. When Grant looked down through the scope, the lead hog was 5 yards away. With the scope turned up, Grant made a snap decision to drop down to the iron sights and squeeze of one round and then another as they skirted away.
“He hit the hog, it squealed,” said Shannon.
At the time I thought it was a great sign that the hog squealed, but Doug says different.
“Normally if you shoot a pig, hit it, and it squeals, the shot is not lethal,” said Doug. “I suggest getting another round into the animal quickly if it is floundering around squealing. It is common to hear hunt stories from hunters saying they hit one and thought they killed it, only to have it disappear. I very rarely make a non-lethal hit, but when I do they usually squeal a lot. A few lethal shots I have made resulted in a very brief grunt-type squeal at impact, but no continuous squealing.”
As we looked for blood, Shannon was beating himself up a little bit for not checking the scope’s power when we arrived on the island. He still had it dialed in for a long Morgan County food plot. As someone who enjoys introducing young people to hunting, I knew just how he felt. I know I’ve had some moments in my “teaching” career I would like to re-write. However, it was another opportunity to teach Grant a lesson.
“OK, now it’s your responsibility to always check the scope when we go hunting, no more blaming me,” said Shannon.
Nice play, Shannon.
That would be the last shots fired for our hunting trip. Jackson and I never saw another critter after witnessing the sow and piglets at daylight that morning. Shannon and Grant ended up seeing three deer but couldn’t get shots. Our hunt was cut in half because we needed to get home early and had made some additional arrangements to get picked up that Sunday and go back to St. Marys.
When we arrived back in camp an hour after dark on that Saturday, my GPS had recorded 12.8 miles between the scouting and hunting days. Another man in camp reported that his son took his first-ever shot at a deer earlier that morning, and they had walked 15 miles during their hunt. It turns out his son just kept wanting to explore, which is certainly understandable when you see the island.
The only dead animal from the hunt was taken by Trey Thomas, 14, of Marietta. He and his dad Dave were about 5 miles from camp when he dropped the big sow. They quartered it up on site and packed her out.
One of my takeaways from a Cumberland hunt is not to expect everyone to hunt within 200 yards of camp. The folks who go to the trouble to hunt there seem to have an equal passion for walking and exploring such a unique place.
I’m in that boat. With good navigational tools and a heart for exploration, you can’t beat Cumberland Island as a place to visit and hunt. Take a kid along with you next December who doesn’t mind putting some miles on the boots. I found it a great way to kick-off my Christmas break.
For more information on the 2021-22 hunts, be watching https://www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/managed-hunts.htm.
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