Great Success, Tough Draw For Quota Hunt At Hard Labor Creek State Park

They require priority points, but state park hunts are a solid public-land option.

Eric Bruce | June 29, 2023

Chad Smith with an 11-point buck he killed during the 2019 quota hunt at Hard Labor Creek State Park.

In the central Piedmont section of Georgia about an hour east of Atlanta near Rutledge in Morgan County is Hard Labor Creek State Park. The 5,800-acre park is known for its golf course, riding trails, campground and lakes. But it is also known now for a two-day deer hunt.

DNR, through coordination between the State Parks Division and Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), began quota deer hunts at Hard Labor in 2005 in response to a gross overpopulation of deer there. As on other state parks where hunting had been prohibited, deer had overcrowded Hard Labor. The population was estimated to be as high as 78 deer per square mile before the first hunt. That first year, during two quota hunts in November and January, 250 deer were killed.

As with any area that hasn’t been hunted, the first hunts had scores of deer seen and killed. Stories of hunters seeing dozens of deer and easily bagging their limit abound from the early years of hunts at Hard Labor. Now, the deer herd has come down and leveled out, but this state park is still an excellent place to hunt for the ones who are selected in the quota.

To hunt Hard Labor, a sportsman must apply online and be one of the 250 selected. In Georgia’s WRD quota hunt system, there’s a separate category for state park deer hunts. At Hard Labor, there is now one two-day firearms hunt held in early November, and it takes several years of applying for points-only applications and using priority points to get chosen.

I was first selected for a Hard Labor State Park quota hunt in 2014. Knowing how public hunts can be, I scouted the area a few days prior and found several promising spots. The first morning I was settled in my climbing tree stand a full two hours before daylight. With two hours until first shooting light, I got comfortable and snoozed.

About an hour later I heard the footsteps of a deer coming in to feed on acorns. Then another one, and in the dark I listened to two deer walking around munching. As it got closer to dawn, I could hear other hunters’ trucks rumbling down the dirt road.

As the sky began to lighten, the deer were still feeding under my stand, and I realized that I had not yet loaded my rifle. With slow-motion stealth, I inserted one cartridge into my Ruger .30-06 as quietly as I could. When shooting light finally arrived, I picked out the larger doe, 15 yards away, and popped her. Welcome to state park quota deer hunting.

Last season (2022), a total of 2,653 applicants applied for one of the 250 spots in the Hard Labor deer hunt. Of those, 1,410 put Hard Labor down as their first choice. (You have no chance of being selected if you do not put it down as your first choice.) No one was selected with zero or even one priority point. One hundred percent of applicants with three priority points (173 of them) were selected. Of those with two priority points, 31% of the 252 applicants were selected. At Hard Labor, you’re likely to get selected every three years, possibly every two years if the odds fall in your favor.

Selected hunters must pay a $30 hunt fee to participate in the Hard Labor deer hunt. Additionally, a $5 state park entrance fee is required. An annual park pass will suffice, or, you can check out a daily pass at most local libraries. Hunters are also required to attend an informational pre-hunt meeting.

At the meeting, the rules, safe zones and property lines are discussed.  The speaker emphasized, “This is a resource management hunt, we want you to kill deer. Do not pass up deer!”  In turn, hunters are granted the opportunity to harvest five deer. And the best part, the state tags each deer and they don’t count toward your state season total. The deer limit for the Hard Labor hunt has fluctuated over the years, but last season it was five deer, only two could be bucks—and again, the state tags them all, they don’t go on your harvest record.

The state park contains the 18-hole golf course, the 274-acre Lake Rutledge, the 48-acre Lake Brantley, campgrounds, cabins, 24 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, and several safety zones that you need to know. See the map below or view it online at the Hard Labor Creek State Park website:

The wooded areas of Hard Labor are typical Piedmont terrain with mixed hardwood and pine trees and rolling hills with creek drainages.

The 2022 Hard Labor deer hunt had 144 of the 250 hunters selected show up to hunt. They killed 140 deer for a success rate of 97%. Of those 140 deer, 71 were bucks and 69 were does. I attended that hunt and was able to contribute to the success rate.

The day before the hunt I scouted the land looking for fresh sign and put up my stand. The first morning I was in my stand very early and watched a few flashlights walk past. I flashed them with my light and fortunately they continued on with no issues.

Shooting light—30 minutes before sunrise when you can legally shoot—was at 7:26 a.m. Minutes prior, I heard footsteps of an animal walking toward me. I could see the figure of an animal about 10 yards away. After waiting a few minutes until shooting time arrived, I raised my rifle and put the crosshairs on its shoulder and fired. One minute into the hunt, I had a deer down.

My buddy texted me, “Did you shoot?”

“Yep, got a doe,” I replied.

About 15 minutes later, another doe nervously eased into sight. Since it is a ‘resource management’ hunt and they want you to harvest deer, I put my rifle up and touched it off. This deer bolted out of sight.

The rest of the morning I heard plenty of shots but did not see any more deer. I got down at 10 a.m. and met my buddy. He went to get the cart while I tracked the second doe. After about 100 yards, I found my second deer.

Typically, most of the deer killed on these types of hunts are taken the first morning and the first day. The second day sees a drop off in hunter participation and subsequently a lower deer harvest. After the onslaught of hunter activity in the woods, many deer go into hiding. Despite those stats, I headed for my same stand the second morning. After all, it took three years to get drawn, and I was going to hunt.

About 15 minutes into the hunt, I used my can call to attempt to lure in a deer. Moments later I heard footsteps and turned to see a nice buck heading my way. I was standing up with my rifle still hung on a hook when the buck stopped at 40 yards and was alertly searching the area. I dared not move and stood still waiting on him to look away, and then I saw a couple does come up behind him. When he turned to move to the left, I grabbed my rifle, put the crosshairs on his shoulder and pulled the trigger. He bolted out of sight.

‘Man that was exciting,’ I thought, ‘I think it was a decent 8 pointer.’

Then about 10 minutes later another buck came walking up from my left. The limit is five deer, and I’ve only shot three at this point, so up goes my rifle again and I shot the second buck. He staggered off and fell within sight about 60 yards away.

I later got down and checked out the second buck, a 3 1/2-year-old, 116-lb. deer with a 6-point rack. Then I picked up the blood trail of the first buck, which led into a pine thicket. After about 70 yards, I found my buck. He was a 4 1/2-year-old 8-pointer that field-dressed 147 pounds.

After a three-year wait to use three priority points, the author’s hunt last season at Hard Labor paid off with four deer, including an 8-pointer and 6-pointer.

I must say that was one of the best two days of hunting with me taking two does and two bucks. The state also tags the deer, so it didn’t affect my state buck tags. But be aware, this was a rare hunt—most hunters do not experience this type of success. My buddy hunted not far from me on this hunt and did not see a deer. I spoke to other hunters who also had little to no deer sightings. But that’s hunting, sometimes you have luck, sometimes you don’t, and nothing is guaranteed.

During the 2021 hunt, 114 hunters killed 100 deer (33 does and 67 bucks) for a success rate of 87%. In 2020, 112 hunters harvested 100 deer (again) for an 82% success rate. The 2019 hunt had 98 deer killed by 121 hunters for an 81% success rate.

As you can see from the aforementioned statistics, not all the hunters selected in the quota show up to hunt, which is a mystery to many of us. Typically, more than 100 selected hunters do not participate in the hunt. The other notable statistic is the success rate. The last four hunts saw hunter-success rates of 81, 82, 87 and 97%! And more than 100 hunters don’t show up after waiting three years to get selected?

Chad Smith, a fishing guide on Lake Oconee, got to hunt Hard Labor in 2019. Like many hunters, he did some pre-hunt scouting.

“My friends had hunted there before and gave me some areas to look at, and they advised me to find multiple spots,” Chad said.

Chad found a hot rub and scrape line while scouting, and while making some noise a nice buck literally ran up to him to investigate, he said.

“That told me that I needed to hunt there,” he said.

But unfortunately another truck was parked there on the first morning, causing Chad to go elsewhere. His first day of hunting was frustrating as he continually came across other hunters and trucks. He even had one hunter set up in a tree beside him.

“Some hunters have no courtesy,” he said, shaking his head.

After talking to some hunters dragging a deer out in one spot, he learned where they were hunting and found a spot away from them for the second morning. Right after daybreak, he saw and shot a deer he thought was a doe but turned out to be a button buck. He decided to stay and hunt a while longer.

Chad then tried a sequence of grunting, bleating and rattling, and moments later a doe came running in followed by a nice buck. Smith whistled to stop the buck and took a 60-yard shot with his .243 and dropped the buck. It turned out to be a 127-inch 11-pointer and was the heaviest buck taken that year. His persistence and scouting eventually paid off with two deer including that trophy buck. His story also points out the need to be flexible, tolerant and to make adjustments based on the current conditions.

Another hunter who has hunted Hard Labor successfully several times is Brian McIntyre, of Mansfield. He has hunted the park three times and has taken five bucks, including a 6-pointer, two 8-pointers, an 11-pointer and a three-beamed 10-pointer. On one memorable hunt, he and his son bagged three bucks in one morning—a spike, 6-pointer and 8-pointer. They have an interesting photo of all three strapped to cart with brown legs and antlers sticking out all over.

The Park Manager at Hard Labor for the past four years is Carol Sanchez.

“The goal of the deer hunts is to protect the resource, to improve the vegetation and deer health,” Carol said. “It helps all visitors by reducing the deer herd size which reduces deer-car collisions. Before there were hunts, the deer had no fear. The hunts keep the deer more wild.

“We provide incentives to taking deer,” Carol said. “We want does taken out, we encourage hunters to take many deer and hogs.”

Her advice to hunters is to read all the information the state provides and ask questions by calling or emailing the Hard Labor staff before the pre-hunt meeting with any questions.

While she doesn’t necessarily know all the best places to hunt, she relates a story from a few years ago.

“There were a couple guys lined up along the driving range.  They were laying there like snipers and they tagged out. They told me ‘the deer just kept coming out!’ I find it entertaining to see how some guys tag out and others don’t see a deer. It’s like golf, it’s the golfer not the gear. You’ve got to get out and do your homework,” Carol said.

Brian Nichols is a DNR Program Manager for State Parks and attends the hunts. “We’ve received many positive comments from the hunts. Most hunters liked the increased bag limits to five deer and the ability to take more deer.”

Not surprisingly, hunters really like the fact that the state tags each deer taken at Hard Labor like on other managed park and WMA hunts. It’s kind of like “free” deer.

Charlie Killmaster is the state deer biologist with WRD. He says, “Typical objectives for a park would be to decrease or stabilize the population.”

After the adjustments made a few years ago, the objectives are being met by the hunts, Charlie reports.  For the next two seasons, the limit will remain at five deer (two bucks) until it is reevaluated on the next regulation cycle. Charlie studies factors such as deer-vehicle collisions, damage to vegetation and hunt-harvest metrics including body weights, age ratios and other data.

The quota deer hunts at Hard Labor Creek State Park are a great opportunity for Georgia hunters to experience some great hunting. By applying for the hunts online, you may get to hunt there in two or three years. Like any public-land hunting, you’ll have to deal with other hunters, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll see or get a deer. But you just might have great success like I have had—but only if you show up to hunt.

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