Dukes Creek Conservation Area: The Jewel Of Preservation 2000
This outstanding tract of state-owned land offers Georgia's only quota squirrel hunt. Here's the author's account of a wet opening day for bushytails.
I couldn’t tell if the roar came from the creek or the rain pelting trees and leaves around me. It was raining that hard.
Saturday, Nov. 11: A sky as soft gray as my son’s stuffed dog rained without mercy on Dukes Creek Woods Conservation Area and the rest of northeast Georgia. The downpour raised Dukes Creek to levels dangerous for fishing and washed out opening day of the area’s first small-game hunt. Only two people showed.
Regardless, Dad — Bailey Lavendar of Lenox, Ga.,— and I decided to slog through fog and rain to see the sights, even if none were squirrels. We made the right move. The hunt proved to be an eye-opener to an outstanding piece of property.
Gov. Zell Miller has called Smithgall Woods—Dukes Creek Conservation Area near Helen the jewel of Preservation 2000.
For once, the hype fits.
From terrain to game, the area is awesome.
The state paid $10.8 million for the 5,562 up-and-down acres (now grown to 5,602) in 1994, part of the ongoing land acquisition program that hunters and anglers helped bankroll. Former owner and media magnate Charles A. Smithgall Jr. sold it for half the appraised $21.6 million value. In exchange, he got a 30-acre life estate on the area and a promise that Dukes Creek would be protected as a heritage preserve for environmental education and low-impact recreation.
It was a personal thing. Smithgall had invested years and dollars restoring the property from the ravages of mining and returning its forest to a more native mix, such as logging Virginia pines and planting white pines, oaks and poplars.
The results, even seen in A November downpour, are impressive.
The slopes and bottomlands are thick in hardwoods, white pines and mountain laurel. Leaves colored rust, mustard and red crowd ankle deep on the forest floor.
Much of the road system is fit for the family care, as long as Dukes Creek runs low at its two crossings. Roads are asphalt—narrow but smooth—or gravel, with banks that are grassed to stem erosion. My small Mazda pickup tackled the Tower Road’s slopes without a problem.
For the convention-minded, there is a cabin complex including Smithgall’s former get-away cottage overlooking Dukes Creek. Limited development, such as parking, restrooms and a visitors center, is planned. The hope is to finish by spring of 1996, site manager Billy Moore said.
The namesake stream features line-snapping, year-round trout fishing.
Even a deluge didn’t stop anglers from showing up Nov. 11. And no wonder. with catch-and-release trophies such as 28-inch rainbow and 27-inch brown laying low for the right fly or spinner. All of which is fine, even admirable. But the big draw for hunters is obvious: game. Abundant game.
That Saturday, as warm rain gave way to leaf-stripping gusts and the chill hints of an arctic blast that would bring a freeze by night, we spotted two does, a young buck, a group of turkeys and two squirrels scurrying from (I kid you not) a food plot.
Squirrel sign was not hard to find. We had to leave. But you can go back. Remaining small-game hunts for mainly squirrels, rabbits and grouse are scheduled for Jan. 6-7, 13-14, 20-21 and 27-28 on the 4,000 acres east of Ga. Alternate 75. The roughly 1,000 acres open to hunting on the west side falls under Chattahoochee Wildlife Management Area regulations.)
Reservations for the small-game sport are available by telephone, (706) 878-3087. The limit is 25 hunters per day. Point and flush dogs can be used, though trailing dogs, such as beagles for rabbits, aren’t welcome, Moore said.
Foxes, bobcats, raccoons and opossums are fair game Dec. 1-2, 15-16, 22-23 and 29-30. For these hunts, the daily maximum is 10 people, with reservations opening Dec. 1. Again, call the Dukes Creek office to secure a spot. Dogs can be used.
Moore judged the Dukes Creek population of grouse as “low to moderate.” Hot spots will be along creeks and tributaries, he pointed out.
Rabbits are scarce, while raccoons and foxes are plentiful. Squirrels rate “excellent,” though concentrations are scattered, Moore said.
For the bushytails, credit two straight autumns rich in acorns. This year, white oaks are spotty but red oaks aren’t. Moore’s advice was simple: Hunt the oak draws and mid-ridge areas thick in red and white oaks.
There is plenty of sign. Dad and I saw a smattering of squirrel nests as we drove up Tower Road, soaking up the mountain view scenery, and down Shackleford Road past Helen’s backside and toward Dukes Creek. Leaving the dry truck and gloomy radio weather reports, we picked our way through woods veined with wet-weather creeks, down old mining gullies slick in mulched leaves and up ridges tangled with laurel.
We stopped often, Dad scanning treetops as rain dripped from his hat brim and onto his eyeglasses.
We were walking when we saw the first squirrel. I surprised it as we topped a ridge. The gray was scratching in the forest litter oblivious to me and the rain that waffled between a sprinkle and a cranked-open spigot. Once warned, the squirrel shinnied up a thin tree. Then it stopped and looked back. Wrong move.
The male was plump and thickfurred. Moore’s message is there are plenty more like him at Dukes Creek. Plus Moore’s message is there are plenty more like him at Dukes Creek. Plus plenty of elbow room. A small game hunt had yet to fill as of mid November. Even if one did, 25 people makes for thin ranks on 4,000 acres.
Some hunters have come with more than small game in mind. Some arc scouting for deer; a Dec. 8-9 primitive-weapons hunt, its 100 quota already filled, is the last deer hunt scheduled for the 1995-96 season.
By mid-November, hunters on this area that supports from 20-40 whitetails per square mile had bagged 18 deer — none a regulations quality buck, four or more points on a side — in a mix of limited either-sex archery and gun hunting. (Yet to come are the results from a Nov. 24-25 firearms hunt.)
Some other hunters, some like Dad and I, also will come simply to see the conservation area on foot. Though the state offers guided van tours and bicycling the roads is OK if a hunt isn’t going on, hiking is off-limits at Dukes Creek until trails are developed, Moore said
If numbers such as 25 squirrel hunters or 10 fox hunters a day sound too restrictive, you may be right. State parks and wildlife officials will review the rules after this year. First, though, Moore and company want to gauge demand, make sure that the roads can stand the traffic and preserve the quality of hunting experiences at Dukes Creek.
Quality is a key word here. That’s why trout fishing is catch-and-release. That’s why only 15 anglers per day are allowed in and for only twice a week in winter. That’s why hunting, be it for turkeys or deer, is regulated by the number of people and what they can do.
Said Moore, “We decided we’d start out conservative and see how much interest there is.”
Unlike the small-game hunts, Moore predicted greater interest and good turnout for the three spring turkey hunts. “We have a good turkey population,” he said.
Biologist estimates peg the turkey population at about 10 birds per square mile. Of the six turkeys we spotted in the food plot on November 11, at least two were gobblers. One boasted the beard of a mature torn. The turkey hunts are April 6-7, 13-14 and 20-21. The quota: 20 people per day.
In the meantime, sample one of the open hunts. And bring along your tackle. The trout fishing can be fantastic, regulars say. Artificial lures, catch-and-release and big fish are the rule.
“We’ve had several 26s and a lot of 24s,” said staffer Gretchen Stroh, describing the length of Dukes Creek trout reported.
Call the conservation area for details and a spot on the stream. To reach Dukes Creek, take Ga. Alternate 75, which is reached from U.S. 129 just north of Cleveland to Helen. Turn at the stone pilings and totem pole. The check station is the second driveway to the left.
Hours for small-game hunts are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. You’ll need a hunting license and a WMA stamp. (Anglers, not hunters, must pay the $2 ParkPass fee.)
Visitors can expect friendly faces from the staff, beautiful hill-country woods (there’s only one mountain on the area east of Ga. Alternate 75) and easy-riding roads. But don’t expect to camp out. Primitive camping is in the planning stages. For now, no camping is allowed on Dukes Creek.
Oh, and one last tip: Even if a small-game hunt has yet to book, you might want to call ahead for reservations, especially when it’s not raining.
Seventeen people put their name on the list for Nov. 11. Fifteen never came. But the two who showed were happy they did.
For more details on Smithgall Woods — Dukes Greek Conservation; visit gastateparks.org/SmithgallWoods.
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