River Creek Plantation WMA

Georgia's newest public land, also known as Kauka WMA, is rich with big-buck history.

Steve Ruckel | September 6, 2005

If you have ever dreamed of hunting on a south Georgia plantation, but never thought you would get the opportunity, get ready! Your chances have just increased dramatically, thanks to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) recent acquisition of some prime property in Thomas County.

Nestled between the confluence of the Ochlockonee River and Barnett’s Creek, River Creek Plantation WMA rises from the hardwood bottomlands of these two streams to form pine-covered, rolling uplands typical of this area known as the Red Hills Region. It is bordered by Greenwood Plantation on the east and Myrtlewood Plantation on the south side.

This picture was taken the morning after Rolf Kauka killed his 1991 Boone & Crockett buck that scored 202 3/8 non-typical inches. He shot the buck on a Thomas County tract of land less than two miles from the new River Creek Plantation WMA, which was once owned by Mr. Kauka.

The history of the property dates back to the 1930s, when Mr. T. T. Scott, who was well-known in the publishing business, purchased several adjacent small tracts of land totaling 2,421 acres to form the current plantation. Because Mr. Scott was primarily interested in producing cattle and hogs, most of the upland areas were in pasture, hay and grain production at that time. Many of the barns and other buildings still operational today were constructed in those early days of the plantation. However, as years went by the emphasis on livestock diminished and the fields were gradually planted in pines.

In the early 1980s Mr. Rolf Kauka purchased River Creek Plantation. Because of his Bavarian background and his fondness for hunting the European red deer, one of Mr. Kauka’s main objectives from the beginning was to manage for trophy white-tailed deer on the property. He also was concerned that management activities on the land be ecologically sound and in tune with other plantations in the Thomasville area.

Mr. Kauka passed away in 2000. His wife, Alexandra, continues to run the family business and in recent months became interested in selling the River Creek Plantation property. Major concerns of hers were that it not be commercially developed and that it continue to be managed for game and nongame species, particularly those with special needs.

That fit in well with DNR’s desires to acquire land to: 1) protect habitat along and improve water quality in streams such as the Ochlockonee River and Barnett’s Creek, 2) to promote the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem and associated rare and endangered wildlife species such as the red cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise and 3) to provide additional recreational opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation in an area that has little public land for these activities.

Because DNR did not have money to purchase the property when it became available, The Conservation Fund (a private, non-profit conservation organization) bought the acreage in the early part of 2005 and held it until DNR could put together a funding package to purchase it from them. In the end, funds were provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Conservation Plan grants, a grant from a private charitable foundation, and a combination of state bonds and DNR funds derived from the sale of Nongame Wildlife license plates. The purchase should be finalized by September.

The Wildlife Resources Division’s (WRD) Game Management section will have responsibility for managing the area, which will be known as the River Creek Plantation Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  Long-range plans for the area are still in the early stages of discussion, and in addition to traditional game-management issues, they will involve input from the Nongame Wildlife and Natural Heritage Section of WRD to ensure that all ecological concerns are considered when management objectives are contemplated. For example, a small colony of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers had once been present in a stand of large longleaf pines on the property. The potential for the woodpeckers’ return and subsequent establishment of a viable population such as those found on other nearby plantations was, in fact, one of the primary reasons that funding was obtained to purchase the land. Meanwhile, hunting regulations for the area have been approved and hunters will start using the 2,437-acre WMA this season.

Visitors to River Creek will find a variety of habitats attractive to many wildlife species. Lowlands along the 4.2 miles of Ochlockonee River and four miles of Barnett’s Creek sport a mix of mature hardwoods and old-growth pines. Rolling uplands feature pockets of hardwoods on the steeper slopes and planted loblolly, slash and longleaf pine stands of various ages in the sections that were once fields.  Approximately 400 acres of mature longleaf pines are present. Pine stands have been maintained by thinning and regular prescribed burning. Some 50 acres of wildlife openings, including a 15-acre dove field, are maintained by mowing, disking and planting.  Clumps of moss-draped live oaks are sprinkled about the property and along the main entrance road, adding to the overall plantation ambiance.

Jimmy Slater of Thomasville shot this 120-inch buck in December on what’s now River Creek Plantation WMA.

In addition to the streams bordering the area, there are two 15-acre ponds (Lake Alexandra and a cypress/gum pond that is particularly attractive to nesting and roosting wood ducks) and a five-acre pond with a water-control structure so that crops can be planted for waterfowl, then later flooded.

River Creek has a healthy deer population that has been managed for quality bucks since the Kaukas have owned the property.  According to Ken O’Neal, manager of the property since 1990, roughly 20 to 25 does and fewer than five bucks have been harvested annually in recent years.

“When we started out, bucks had to have a minimum of five points on one side, and the spread had to be wider than the ears,” Ken said. “It wasn’t so much about the Boone and Crockett score as it was about age.”

Although those strict standards resulted in few bucks taken, the overall strategy appeared to work. On Chinquapin Plantation (the Kaukas’ other property located less than two miles away), Mr. Kauka downed a spectacular non-typical B&C buck that taped 202 3/8 inches in 1991. In 1998, Mrs. Kauka killed a buck on December 16 that measured 145 and Ken took a 150 4/8 B&C 10-pointer that won Week 14 of the GON Truck-Buck Contest in 2003.

“The deer that I killed two years ago was taken on Chinquapin,” Ken noted, “but he is one that I believe was ranging up and down the river bottom, probably on River Creek, too.”

Ken thinks that more quality bucks would have been downed over the years were it not for restricting many of the guest hunters (for liability reasons) to box stands overlooking established food plots.

“A lot of bucks in the 130 class and a couple in the 140s have been killed on the property,” Ken said.  “Most of the bigger deer kept eluding us, but they were there. We got photos of some of them on trail cameras.  Two or three days after I killed my buck in 2003, I drove into River Creek about 10 p.m. one cold night to check on some water pipes at the barn. Near a small pole barn I saw a buck standing with two does. He was the same frame and mass as the buck I had killed, but he had tines that put my deer to shame. I believe he was a  is destined to become one of the shining jewels in Georgia’s WMA system. Its beauty, solitude, rare habitats and wildlife are sure to impress those who venture down its sandy entrance road, whether they be hunters, nature lovers or simply those who want a glimpse of what a Deep South hunting plantation was like 70 years ago.

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