Magic Of Hunting Sapelo Island WMA

This Georgia barrier island hosted the top two WMA rifle quota hunts last season. Surprisingly, it’s not that hard to get an invitation.

Mike Bolton | August 1, 2023

Here’s a nice piebald buck from Sapelo WMA. Don’t be surprised if you see one of these brown-and-white deer while hunting on the island. They are not uncommon.

Those who are not hunters have trouble comprehending that it is the experience of going hunting that motivates hunters. They wrongly assume that if no game was taken, hunters consider the trip a failure.

Once they get to know a hunter better, they often become confused. It seems many hunters are like baseball players who don’t really care if they win or lose. They are perfectly happy just playing the game. They also learn that should a hunter have a unique hunting experience, they never shut up talking about it.

Sapelo Island WMA provides hunters with the opportunity to make memories, and the excellent chance of taking game is just extra gravy to them. More often than not, hunters leave a Sapelo Island WMA deer hunt downright giddy and vowing to return.

Sapelo Island is a barrier island located about 60 miles south of Savannah on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The WMA takes up 9,000 of the island’s 16,500 acres. It is reachable only by boat. Hunters can make reservations on a state-owned ferry to reach the island, or they make the trek on private or chartered boats.

This season the WMA will offer  two firearms quota hunts, a quota primitive-weapons hunt and a non-quota youth hunt. There will also be expanded, non-quota archery hunting on the
South End of the island this year.

Talk to anyone who has hunted Sapelo WMA and it won’t be long before the name of Blaine Tyler pops up. Blaine is the area manager of Sapelo Island WMA. He took over the management of the WMA seven years ago, and hunters say the changes have been dramatic.

“We’ve made a few changes for the upcoming season,” Blaine said. “We used to have a youth hunt that was a quota hunt. We’ve changed that to a (non-quota) bonus deer hunt, so youth don’t have to use any of their priority points trying to get drawn.

“That hunt is our first hunt of the season (Oct. 6-8), so the deer really haven’t been disturbed at that point. All the youth hunters are placed on the same route so the activity will get the deer moving.”

Blaine hopes that the change, along with the success rate of last year’s hunt, will encourage greater youth participation.

“On last year’s youth quota hunt, we only had 11 youth hunters, but they killed seven deer,” Blaine said. “That’s a 63% success rate.”

The Sapelo Island WMA quota hunts are several of many quota hunts held across Georgia each season. Their purpose is to control hunter numbers and manage wildlife, which would not be possible if hunters had unrestricted access to certain WMAs throughout the season.

“To be possibly chosen for a quota hunt at any WMA, you need to sign on to and you create an account,” Blaine said. “On the site, you have the opportunity to view all the quota hunt opportunities. You select what hunt you are interested in. Each time you apply (and are not selected), you receive a priority point. You are putting points in a bank, basically. If you have at least one priority point, you normally stand a pretty good chance for being selected on a quota hunt on Sapelo Island.”

The application deadline to apply for WMA quota hunts is Sept. 1. There is no cost to apply. If selected, the selectee is notified by email.

A total of 125 hunters are chosen for each quota hunt on the WMA, but only 55 to 65 show up for one reason or another, Blaine said. That’s strange considering the incredible success rate of hunters on quota hunts. Last season, 47 hunters on the primitive-weapons hunt killed 41 deer for an 87% success rate. On the first firearms hunt, 57 hunters killed 27 deer for a 47% success rate. On the second firearms hunt, 68 hunters killed 65 deer for a 95% success rate. The two highest success rates were actually the top two most successful WMA quota hunts last season.

“Hunters are allowed two deer,” Blaine said. “That can be any combination. Two bucks, two does or one buck and one doe. They can also take as many hogs as they can. Some just come to kill hogs. The deer and hogs eat the same thing. We’ve killed maybe five to 10 hogs that weighed 250 pounds.”

For the first time ever, this season will host non-quota archery hunting for the entire archery season on the South End of the island. So, if you have a stick and string or a crossbow, hunting from Sept. 9 to Jan. 14 is available on a portion of the island where no gun hunting will take place. Blaine says archery hunters hunting on the South End of the island can stay in a private campground, or they may take advantage of houses or trailers that are for rent. A call to the Visitor Information Center at 912.437.3224 can provide details on those rentals.

“You can stay at the campground for like $10,” Blaine said.

Unlike the quota hunts, no transportation is provided. Hunters can ride regular bikes or e-bikes.

Blaine said hunters should understand the invisible asterisk attached to the large harvest numbers.

“We’ve killed some big deer on the island, and by big, I mean deer in the 110 to 120 class,” he said. “That may seem small, but those racks look huge on these small-bodied deer.

“When I arrived, the bucks were averaging about 70 pounds (total weight). We’ve raised that to about 86 pounds by burning more habitat and planting some summer and winter food plots, but hunters need to understand that hunting at Sapelo Island is really a meat hunt. They need to come for the overall experience.”

That overall experience is special, and Blaine says he enjoys being a part of it. The experience begins by just getting there.

“You can get here several different ways,” he said. “You can schedule a ride on the state-owned ferry by contacting the visitor’s center. There is a $20 per person charge to ride the ferry, and the ferry can hold 20 people. Others choose to come over on one of the boats operated by local captains. The information on how to contact those captains is also available by calling the visitor’s center.

“Others choose to come over on their own boats. You can launch at the Blue N Hall Marina, and it is about a 5- or 6-mile trip over. You need to understand that it can get rough in the Sound some days. I know some who come over on small aluminum boats, and I know some who have said that they would never do that again.”

Quota hunts are three-day hunts on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and the ferry begins transporting hunters on Wednesdays. That allows hunters to set up camp, then scout that day.

“The ferry runs every day of the weekend, so those who tag out and want to leave can leave, and for people who have to leave if something comes up,” Blaine said.

Packing for the trip is an art.

“You have to bring everything,” he said. “All we provide is water, power and toilet paper. Definitely bring bug spray or a ThermaCell. Bring your hunter’s orange and bring snake boots. Rifles must be transported in a case. Bring tents and chairs. A lot of hunters now sleep in hammocks. There is plenty of scrap firewood on the island, so you don’t have to worry about that. Each hunter is allowed a 48-quart cooler, or a pair of hunters are allowed a 98-quart cooler.

“No ladder stands are allowed. Only climbing stands. You can bring propane, but not kerosene.

“Bring any ice that you need. We allow hunters to put their coolers in our deer cooler to preserve the ice, but they must remove them when the deer start coming in. That cooler stays a constant 42 degrees.

“You’ll want to bring a tote that is stackable. The best one is the Husky one that has two wheels. It’s about $60, I think. That one is stackable, and it is weather-tight and easy to move around. No four-wheel carts are allowed, and you can’t bring the big rolling trash cans from home. The totes must be stackable to save space on the boat and where they can be secured on the boat

“You also need to bring any fishing tackle if you plan to fish. Many fish from the hunting camp docks where they catch speckled trout, sheepshead and redfish.

“Once at the dock, the hunters unload and head to the check station where they pick an area where they want to hunt. They can switch areas after hunts if they don’t like the one that they first chose. The hunters then gather for a safety meeting, and then they vote on what times they want to be dropped off and picked up on the hunts.”

The hunters then head out to set up camp. There, the reunion of old friends begins.

“The campground turns into little cities,” Blaine said. “I’m with them from 4 in the morning until 9 at night, so I get to know them well. I enjoy watching the groups grow. I see a lot of fathers and sons.”

George Palaima, of Albany, uses the quota hunts to reunite with old friends.

“I’ve been coming for nine straight years,” he said. “We have a group made up of people from North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Pennsylvania. I think it’s the combination of camping, boating, hunting and fishing that makes it so special. There’s something special about having to go out of your way to get there. It’s not wake-up-and-hunt and then meet you a 9 a.m. at Hardees like most people are used to.

“The best part is the whole island experience is learning the history of the island. You get to reunite with the same people who you haven’t seen in a long time. There’s a lot of camaraderie. And you can’t beat the best sunrises in history.”

George says someone in his group always takes a deer or a hog.

“Things have gotten better since Blaine has taken over,” he said. “The deer are bigger and better, but it is not a trophy hunting experience. I use the hunts to fill my freezer. If I want to trophy hunt, I go somewhere else.”

At the camp, hunters find seven skinning racks, three tables and running water where they may cut up and debone their deer and hogs. The dressed deer and meat may be kept in the cooler until the trip’s end.

If you check out the, there is a percentage of hunters who earn a quota ticket to the Sapelo hunts using zero priority points. Using just one point meant a guaranteed spot—at least for the 2022 hunts. For the experience and an added bonus of an island experience, you may want to consider a hunt to Sapelo this fall.

Travel to Sapelo Island is by boat only. Packing for such a trip is quite the art.


Sapelo’s Season-Long, South End Bow Hunts

Brand new this year! Sapelo Island WMA will offer a season-long bowhunting opportunity on its South End, a 1,300-acre block that is not open to any gun hunting. The archery season will run from Sept. 9 to Jan. 14, and hunters must provide their own transportation to and from the island.

Sapelo Island Area Manager Blaine Tyler says archery hunters hunting on the South End of the island can stay in a private campground for around $10 or take advantage of houses or trailers that are for rent. A call to the Visitor Information Center at 912.437.3224 can provide details on those rentals.


Sapelo’s Rich History Dates Back 4,500 Years

In addition to being an incredible hunting experience, a visit to Sapelo Island WMA is a step back into history.

Archaeologists have traced human inhabitation on the island back more than 4,500 years. A large Native American population lived there then, and the name Sapelo is of Indian origin. The Native Americans were joined by Spanish missionaries in 1573. A Franciscan mission was eventually constructed on the North End of the island.

When the English began colonization of Georgia in 1733, it led to an agreement with the Creek Indians in which the Indians were guaranteed hunting lands on several barrier islands, including Sapelo. In 1757, another treaty with the Creeks turned those barrier islands over to the English Colony.

Early in the 1800s, the island was purchased by three men who introduced sugar cane, and they manufactured sugar. Cotton was also planted, which would eventually drastically change agriculture on the island. The planting of cotton eventually led to an Antebellum plantation with 358 slaves.

Following the Civil War and the freeing of slaves, many black people continued to live on the island. In 1912, Detroit, Michigan automotive engineer Howard Coffin purchased the entire island, except for the black communities, for $150,000.

Coffin left quite a legacy on the island. He initiated large-scale agriculture, a sawmill and seafood harvesting. He also built roads, drilled artesian wells and added other improvements to the island. Coffin entertained many distinguished guests on the island. They included presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, and aviator Charles Lindbergh.

By 1934, the Great Depression had evaporated Coffin’s wealth. He sold his holdings on the island to North Carolina tobacco heir R. J. Reynolds, who lived on the island part-time for 30 years. Reynolds established the Sapelo Island Research Foundation on the island and provided facilities and support for the University of Georgia Marine Institute. Reynolds’ widow sold the island to the state of Georgia in transactions in 1969 and 1976.

Today, the state of Georgia owns about 97%, or all but 135 acres, of the island. The Sapelo Island WMA was created in the early 1970s.


Sapelo Islands Top Bucks

David Stevens, of Darien, has nearly a 30-year-old record with this Sapelo Island buck that he killed with his bow in 1994. David is a good friend to GON and has been in the Truck-Buck Shoot-Out.

GON only has four officially scored Sapelo Island bucks on its Triple-Digit WMA Bucks list. Keep in mind that bucks must net more than 100 inches to make the list, which is a really nice buck for the barrier island. However, we know there are some island bucks out there that haven’t been scored yet.

If you’ve got a WMA buck that you believe will net at least 100 B&C inches, get it scored by an official scorer, send us a copy of the score sheet, and we’ll add it to the list. Copies may be emailed to [email protected]. Scores below denoted with a “b” represent a bow-kill, “m” means muzzleloader kill and “p” means pick-up.

1115 4/8 David Stevens1994McIntoshBowView 
2105 4/8 Brandon Miller2022McIntoshMuzzleloaderView 
3105 2/8 Bruce Bartlett2007McIntoshBow
4104 2/8 Michael Evans2010McIntoshFound
5102 5/8 Terry Kiser1997McIntoshMuzzleloader

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