Piedmont Refuge Deer Hunts

Few tracts can match Piedmont Refuge’s long tradition of providing quality deer hunting in Georgia.

John Trussell | August 7, 2002

Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge’s 35,000 acres of rolling terrain in Jones and Jasper counties may be the best public-hunting property in Georgia. My father certainly thought so in 1967 when he applied for a couple of deer-hunt permits and we went on our first deer hunt. Neither one of us had any real idea what we were doing, but we were excited to be deer hunting, because at that time deer-hunting opportunities were limited in Georgia and the “great deer expansion” was just getting underway. My goal on that hunt was just to see a deer.

Luckily, fate smiled on this eager, young deer hunter. To make a long story short, my dad and I went to the end of a road where we walked into a nearby drainage. After splitting up, I sat in that spot patiently for two hours. I finally spotted a deer running down a hill about 100 yards away. Figuring that area might be a better location, and just plain curious, I got up and walked over to that spot.

Imagine my surprise when I heard a noise and looked up to see three does running straight at me from a range of 30 yards! It was a deer-hunting bonanza!

Fumbling with my old Sears “Ted Williams” 12-gauge shotgun, loaded with slugs, I snapped off two rounds but missed cleanly. With only one shot left and the opportunity quickly evaporating, I steadied my aim and sent my last slug, with all my hopes and dreams on its way. Sweet Miracle! Did the doe stagger a bit? Was that actually blood on the ground?

My dad heard the shots and quickly came to my location, and we found the doe close by. We could not contain our happiness as we examined our trophy. If it had been a 12-point buck or even $10,000 dollars we could not be more pleased. But the hunt wasn’t over.

While we were dressing the deer, two more does ran by and stopped at a range of 60 yards to check us out. My dad lifted his .30/06 military Garand Rifle, a souvenir from the “Big War,” and fired a shot.

With a limited number of firearms deer hunting days each year, bucks have a good chance of growing to older age classes and growing bigger antlers. Russell Baxter took this 10-point buck during the 2001 season at Piedmont Refuge.

Dad missed his chance to harvest that deer, and that was as close as he ever got to harvesting a deer in his lifetime. He has since passed away, but I owe him a lot of thanks for taking me on that first Piedmont Refuge deer hunt and instilling in me a love for the outdoors that has sustained me for a lifetime.

Stories like this one and hundreds more are shared by an army of hunters who have visited Piedmont Refuge since its first deer hunt in 1961. Fathers and sons (and, thank goodness, a lot more daughters) return year after year to join in the camaraderie of the hunt and make more great deer-hunting memories. Assistant Refuge Manager Carolyn Johnson notes that there is a strong, long-time tradition among Piedmont’s faithful deer hunters who grew up hunting the refuge with their families. They are among the refuge’s best supporters.

Hunters have also come to realize that while hunting clubs come and go, high-quality deer hunting at Piedmont Refuge has been a constant. Carolyn says that the hunters’ appreciation is even more special this year as the National Wildlife Refuge system is now celebrating its 100th centennial year.

Ironically, the birthdate of Piedmont Refuge was the depression of the early 1930s. This area of Georgia was heavily farmed, primarily in cotton from the mid 1850s to the early 1930s, and the land became unproductive and highly eroded. Much of the topsoil washed away and only hard-pan red clay remained. When difficult economic times hit during the depression, families abandoned their homesteads in droves. But President Roosevelt had a plan to buy this land  and return it to its natural state as a wildlife preserve. The deal was sealed and eventually Piedmont Refuge was formed in 1939.

Robert Ledford shot this 15-pointer during the 2001 buck-only hunt. For many Georgia hunters, Piedmont NWR is the location where they shot their first deer. For another group of lucky hunters, it is the location where they shot a trophy buck.

Looking at the beautiful land and rolling hills today, it’s hard to imagine its humble beginnings, but vestiges of the past remain. Old terraces run through some of the property, indicating that efforts were made to slow the erosion of the soil, but now tall oaks and pines sprout from the ground. Old grave markers and cemeteries dot the landscape reminding us that those who worked the land returned to it. Old beech-tree carvings still remain in lowland bottoms. There are a very few from the late 1800s, but more from the 1930s. They remind us that a whittling knife was sometimes more handy than a pencil and paper.

And where did all those rock piles come from, many a visitor has asked? Some curious minds concluded that they must be Indian graves with some kind of underlying, romantic legend attached. However the answer is much more practical. You’ll notice that most of the rock piles are located near sharp slopes in the land. That’s because as farmers plowed their fields with mules, they would often hit rocks that were a hindrance to farming and they would pause to move the rocks. Those rocks, one by one, became rock piles on the edge of unproductive land — mystery solved! But now lets talk deer hunting.

Taking a closer look at the 2001 Piedmont deer harvest of 584 deer, 65 percent, or 380, were bucks, while 35 percent, or 204, were does. A significant portion of the bucks harvested were 1 1/2-years-old (59 percent) which is typical of middle Georgia. However 100 bucks (26 percent) were 2 1/2-years-old and 25 were 3 1/2-years-old. Four bucks were aged 4 1/2 and one old timer was aged at 5 1/2 years old.

Each year several nice bucks in the 8- to 10-point range are taken off Piedmont Refuge, and the average 2- 1/2-year-old buck will have 6.6 points while a 3 1/2-year-old buck will average 8.2 points.

A bonus during archery season is that no quota ticket is required to hunt Piedmont NWR. Unlike the refuge’s gun hunts, which are limited to 1,250 hunters on each hunt, permits for the archery hunt are unlimited and free. Successful applicants for the gun hunts must pay a $12.50 hunt fee. Still a great bargain, but to get ready for the gun hunts, why not do some serious scouting and perhaps put some early archery season venison in the freezer? All a hunter has to do to obtain a free archery permit for Piedmont Refuge is sign his name on the front page of the current Piedmont hunting regulations pamphlet. The pamphlet is available at the visitors’ center or through the mail.

Archery hunters are required to appropriately fill in their big-game license if they kill a deer, so if you are lucky and drop a deer, it will count against your statewide limit of 12 deer. During the gun hunts a special tag will be supplied by Piedmont personnel, so gun-killed deer do not count against your yearly limit.

This fall, the 2002 archery season at Piedmont runs from September 21 to October 6. This is one week later than the state season. The 2002 gun-hunt dates are:

• Disabled hunter — Oct. 18-19.

• Buck-only — Oct. 31-Nov. 2.

• Primitive weapons —  Nov. 7-9.

• Either-sex — November 15-16, and November 22-23.

On the gun hunts there is a limit of two deer, but on the archery hunt the limit is 12, the same as the state limit. Applications for the gun hunts must be received by August 29 at noon. Successful applicants for the gun hunts will be notified and then they must mail in a $12.50 fee to receive a hunt permit. Note that crossbows are legal for deer on Piedmont, as they are statewide.

Piedmont Refuge Manager Ronnie Shell says that today’s deer-hunting quota system is designed to obtain a harvest to balance the deer herd with the carrying-capacity of the habitat and at the same time provide excellent hunting. The limited number of quota gun permits also helps to ensure that visiting hunters will have a quality hunting experience without too much hunting pressure. Ronnie said a hunter’s chance of being drawn for one of the 2001 permits was excellent at 100 percent if they applied for all four hunts. However, the most popular hunt was the first buck-only hunt, and hunters who listed it as their first choice had a 65 percent chance of being drawn. The next most popular hunt is the first either-sex hunt, and 83 percent of those first-choice selections were drawn. Those percentages may change in 2002, especially if more hunters apply.

According to Ronnie, the area’s deer herd continues to provide outstanding hunting opportunities for Georgia hunters. He says the deer herd is healthy and within the carrying capacity of the land. He estimates that the Piedmont deer herd is still running about 28 to 35 deer-per-square-mile, which is typical of the region. Last fall, hunters harvested a total of 584 whitetails. The yearly average number of whitetails taken on Piedmont from 1995 to 2000 is 579 (see chart on page 48).

This is only slightly below the 41-year average (596) of all hunts held on Piedmont since 1961. The first hunt in 1961 resulted in 47 deer being harvested, and it’s gone up from there. High harvest years were 1973 (983) with the peak years coming in 1986 (1,025) and 1987 (1,050). During those years 10,200 hunt permits were available, and the number of permits has declined gradually down to the current 5,000 available per year for all the gun deer hunts.

On average, 20 to 30 deer are bagged during the archery season. The harvest during archery season is mostly does, but each year two or three nice bucks are taken. Ronnie says for the diligent hunter, Piedmont Refuge is a great place to bowhunt.

Unlike some public-hunting areas that are mostly in various stages of pine regeneration and are so thick they are tough to hunt, Piedmont has abundant hardwood ridges with mature oaks that will make an avid deer hunter’s heart skip a beat. Sure the area has plenty of pine trees and some select-cut tracts to control pine beetles, but generally hunters will be well pleased with the landscape.

The primary mission of Piedmont Refuge is wildlife preservation, with emphasis on endangered species, primarily red-cockaded woodpeckers. The refuge is divided into 34 compartments that are managed specifically for the habitat needs of the site. Timber thinning and prescribed burning are used to diversify and improve the habitat. Pine stands on the refuge are burned on a three-year rotation, with a goal of burning 6,000 to 9,000 acres annually.

The refuge is dissected with numerous clear-running creeks that tumble over rocky shoals. Find an active creek crossing with lots of tracks and you’ll have a good location for an ambush stand. If the crossing is near some red or white oaks dropping acorns, so much the better.

During archery season, the deer will seek out the cooler retreats offered by thick brush and creek bottoms during the heat of the day. A map of the refuge is included in the refuge hunting regulations pamphlet, and it shows the locations of Falling, Allison, Stalking Head, and Caney creeks, plus the refuge has many smaller feeder drainages. As mentioned above, find the groceries (acorns) near water during the warm, early archery season and scout for areas of abundant deer sign.

Bugs and heat are always a problem during the archery season. Although we can’t do anything about the heat, Ronnie recommends that hunters bring plenty of bug dope for the chiggers (red bugs) and small seed ticks.

Okay, but where does Ronnie recommend as the best place to hunt? He says that the deer are evenly distributed across the refuge and most are killed within 200 yards of a road. Carolyn and Ronnie both say that most numbers of deer can probably be located in the areas with the least amount of hunters. Basically if you want to do some serious hunting, get away from the roads and creek bottoms which congregate the hunters. Study the map and look for areas that are less accessible and farther from the road, especially during the gun hunts. Of course this means more walking and more dragging should you drop a deer. But if you are near a closed road and are having trouble getting your deer out, the refuge staff can be contacted and they’ll temporarily open the road for you. Both managers suggest that hunters scout out two or three locations and get to know the area well rather than skipping around the whole refuge.

One tested and true strategy during the Piedmont gun hunts is to make other hunters work to your advantage, especially on the first day of the gun hunts. Since most hunters have not done much scouting and arrive in the woods around sun up, be in your stand early. If you have chosen your location wisely along well-worn paths, funnel areas or creek crossings, these late-arriving hunters may drive a deer by you. I’ve had it happen more times than I can count. “It’s just one big deer drive,” as one hunter said at the checking station last fall.

During one Piedmont Refuge hunt, I had a 4-point buck run by my ground stand at a full gallop, apparently spooked by other hunters in the area. Apparently confused, he ran a full circle around me at 40 yards. When the buck had completed his circle around me and was heading back in the direction from which he came, when he finally gave me a straight-away running shot. My .30/30 bullet caught him in the back of the neck and dropped him. Lucky me, unlucky deer!

It also pays off to take your lunch and sit tight while other hunters make their noon-day exodus back and forth from their trucks. A few years ago I did this and at 2 p.m. I heard some hunters slamming their doors as they returned to the woods.

A minute later three deer — a doe, a spike and a 7-pointer — came trotting down the hill from the direction of the noise. This was a black-powder hunt, so I raised my .50-caliber CVA muzzleloader to my shoulder and put the sight on the big buck’s shoulder. In dramatic fashion, the 300-grain slug caught the buck in the lower neck, killing it cleanly.

Again, lucky hunter, unlucky deer and thankfully I was at the right place at the right time. This brings up another point.

Stalking and trying to walk up on deer is a fine tactic at the right time,  but not usually during a public hunt. Too, Piedmont’s abundant dry oak leaves that crunch like corn flakes when walked upon, so it’s best to just take a stand and wait for the deer, particularly when there are other hunters in the woods. With all of Piedmont’s deer hunts happening in just a few days, the deer get edgy pretty quickly, and this is compounded by lots of hunters walking around in the woods. You are likely better off to just sit tight in a good location.

Also to improve your chances, choose a stand location that gives you good visibility for at least 50 or more yards. I often sit on the ground where I can see 100 yards or farther.

During one Piedmont hunt, I picked a spot where I could sit on a log and see a nice bottom as well as to the next hill beyond it. After a short wait I spotted a spike buck feeding along the ridge and dropped him at 110 yards with a .308 Winchester Model 88. I decided to continue sitting tight and two minutes later I dropped a doe within 20 yards of the spike. My two-deer limit hunt was complete.

Sometimes sitting and waiting for a deer can yield unusual results. A few years ago I had a doe walk up on me that was obviously wounded because it was limping and breathing hard. Thinking that someone else had shot the deer nearby and would be trailing her, I dropped it, intending to turn it over to the lucky hunter that surely would be along soon. But upon closer examination I discovered that the deer had been wounded on the previous week’s hunt and was making a good recovery until, well, you know — lucky hunter, unlucky deer.

Speaking of spots with good visibility, don’t overlook the power transmission lines that run through the refuge. The major one runs north to south along the western boundary and another smaller line, clearly identified on the map, runs from the Round Oak – Juliette Road to Pippin Road. With the rolling terrain, rifle shots of 100 yards or more are possible, but be on the lookout for other hunters with the same idea.

Now let’s look at other hunting opportunities. Small-game hunting on Piedmont Refuge is described as very good for squirrels and fair to good for rabbits, quail, raccoons, and opossum, says Carolyn.

A signed copy of the current hunting-regulations pamphlet serves as your hunt permit. Squirrels are plentiful along the creek bottoms and hardwood ridges while rabbits and quail tend to favor more upon the transitional areas like select cuts, openings and fringes around fields. Night hunts are allowed for raccoon and opossum during weekends in January from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on days listed in the regulations.

Piedmont Refuge was recently noted by the National Wild Turkey Federation as one of the Top-10 national refuges for turkey hunting. Normally several weekend turkey hunts are held in March and April on a quota system. During the spring 2002 season, hunters bagged 70 turkeys. It was the highest number of gobblers ever taken on the refuge. The average adult weight was 18.6 pounds with average beards running 9.6 inches and average spurs being one inch.

The refuge is bisected north and south by Juliette/Round Oak Road, which is paved, and numerous,  gravel refuge roads that are well maintained lace the area so that 4-wheel drive is rarely needed. Ronnie noted that ATVs are not allowed on the refuge, so leave them at home. Bring your walking boots because the exercise will do your body wonders.

If you plan to stay overnight on Piedmont Refuge, Pippin Lake Campground is available in Compartment 19, just off Jarrell Plantation Road, and is identified on the map. Also be aware that hunting is allowed with a Piedmont permit on the 4,000-acre Hitchiti Experimental Forest which adjoins the refuge. Piedmont Refuge is open during daylight hours for public use and foot travel including pre-hunt scouting year round, except during managed hunts when a valid hunt permit is required.

Click here for more information on hunting opportunities at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.

Having hunted Piedmont Refuge for 34 years, each yearly hunt for me is like visiting an old, cherished friend and if you try the deer hunting there, you’ll probably feel the same way.

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