Public-Land Deer Hunting

From Worthington State Forest to Winslow Wildlife Management Area, plus three other top choices, here's where to find great late-season deer

hunting on public land

(January 2008).

Photo by BillKinney.com.

Most folks who are either non-hunters -- or perhaps, are merely unfamiliar with New Jersey -- often view the Garden State by what they see when landing at Newark International Airport. Unfortunately, such views are probably responsible for all the state-specific jokes, such as, You're from New Jersey? What exit?

It's often difficult to convince resident and non-resident hunters alike that such a demure state has a wealth of public land available to hunters, and deer hunters especially. Many of these lands often comprise literally thousands of acres.

To top off such large parcels of land, the deer hunting found in the state's forests is just a shade short of fantastic. That's not to say the state's wildlife management areas (WMAs) are second-best.

That's not the case at all. In fact, we'll cover one such WMA that offers prime deer hunting as well. Nonetheless, you'd have to travel a long way to find deer and deer habitat to beat state-forest deer hunting during the late-winter season.

To show you a few examples of just how great it can be, let's take Wharton State Forest for starters.

Of the 500,000 acres of public land on which deer hunters may tread in the Garden State, Wharton SF comprises a whopping 115,111 acres. This fantastic parcel is located in what New Jersey deer hunters know as Deer Management Zone 23.

That places it squarely in the heart of South Jersey where its vast acreage covers two counties -- namely, Burlington and Camden.

Back in the old days, state parks were just public lands that allowed camping, fishing, hunting, canoeing and a host of other outdoors endeavors, but did not allow timbering. But things have changed and now, especially in New Jersey, the term "state forest" is nearly synonymous with "state park."

If you check out New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Web site at www.NJfishandwildlife.com, you'll see that Wharton State Forest is, indeed, listed as a state forest. But it is also listed as one of many tracts of land in the state's park system.

Why is this important, especially considering that little, if any, commercial timbering is conducted in New Jersey? One reason, and one reason only: If a state forest is contained within the boundaries of a particular Deer Management Zone, the rules and regulations of that DMZ apply equally to the state forestland.

There are no extra, or special, rules and regulations other than those proscribed in the DFW's hunting edition of the Wildlife Digest that applies to the specific DMZ in which a state forest may be located.

Conversely, some state parks are also bound by the regulations of the DMZ in which they exist, but some are not. Some state parks allow only permitted hunting (permit required) and have their own special regulations as to when that particular state park may be hunted and where.

Consequently, you must factor in the same tired old admonishment: Carefully check the regulations contained in the current edition of the DFW's Wildlife Digest, especially those that deal with hunting in state parks.

Wharton State Forest is the largest, single tract of land within the state's system of parks and forests. This tract supports large numbers of wildlife from wild turkeys to eagles, squirrels and much more. It is known for its large herds of white-tailed deer, many of which are either large-bodied does, or wall-hanger racked bucks.

In addition, Wharton SF is one of those "borderline" areas where rich, dark soils of agricultural inland New Jersey mix with the loamy, sandy soils commonly attributed to the state's shoreline areas. It's here, within this so-called soil borderline, that bucks have a tendency to grow exceptionally big headgear.

Biologists have said that areas where soil changes from sandy to dark, arable soil often offers the best of both worlds for whitetails, especially concerning the nutrition they need to grow large antlers and big bodies.

And that's what you'll find at Wharton SF, where the area features the hardwoods one would commonly find in a North Jersey state forest, but also includes large expanses of pines and scrub brush.

In short, Wharton has just about everything a whitetail needs to grow a large body, in addition to a wallhanger rack.

Are all of those deer wandering around Wharton SF sporting hatrack antlers or tipping the scales at extremely heavy weights? Certainly not, any more than any other WMA or SF in New Jersey would offer only record-class deer. But Wharton SF offers more than its share of those trophy-class deer and for hunters, it's an excellent bet.

As to the deer harvest numbers for Wharton SF, Larry Herrighty, chief of the division's Bureau of Wildlife Management, said it's tough to estimate the harvest in one particular section within a specific public land.

"That's a tough thing to do. We keep what I consider a rather accurate count of deer harvests within each of the state's DMZs," Herrighty said. "But to narrow harvest figures down further to a specific area within a particular DMZ is nearly impossible. We just don't do that unless there is something unusual happening."

By "something unusual" within a proscribed area, he means -- for instance -- hunters complaining of a lack of deer compared to previous years. Were that to occur, DFW biologists would conduct a deer harvest count within just that particular area, or region.

"That's the only time we conduct harvest counts that zero in on site-specific regions or areas within a DMZ," Herrighty said. "Other than that, we rely on the harvest figures derived from the entire DMZ."

However, he pointed out that there are two additional positives about state forest hunting: "First, let's address late-season deer hunting. Places like Wharton SF, as well as others, offer prime deer hunting when there's far less hunting pressure than, say, as during the traditional six-week firearms season. Essentially, only a handful of hunters just about have the run of large tracts like Wharton and other state forests. And the deer are not nearly as spooked.

"In addition -- and unlike most of the state's WMAs -- some state forests offer camping opportunities.

"We have non-resident hunters who come here to hunt our state forests because, one, there's a lot of deer available. And two, they can often camp in trailers or tents during the late season."

Of the 500,000 acres of public land on which deer hunters may tread in the Garden State,

Wharton State Forest comprises a whopping 115,111 acres.

The overall or total harvest data won't do us much good, considering we are focusing on the late season.

Consequently, let's look at overall harvest, and then concentrate on only the late-season numbers for Wharton. Last season, hunters downed 1,082 whitetails from Wharton SF. However, that is the total for all seasons. During the late seasons, including permit muzzleloader, permit shotgun and winter bow, the tally was 311 for muzzleloader, 30 for permit shotgun, and four for winter bow -- not a shabby count, by any means!

Wharton SF is easily accessed by U.S. Route 206 as it runs through Burlington County, or by secondary Route 563, due north of the towns of Herman and/or Green Bank.

There is no entrance charge during the winter months, and some campsites are available through mid-December at a nominal cost. For additional information, hunters can call Wharton SF at (609) 268-0024.

BELLEPLAIN STATE FOREST
Belleplain SF, located in Cape May and Cumberland counties, is one tract that shouldn't be overlooked. That's especially true if you hail from parts south and don't particularly relish the drive to Sussex County to do your deer hunting.

Belleplain SF comprises some 21,320 acres and could conceivably be one of the state's most underrated deer hunting regions. If not underrated, then it's probably at least one of New Jersey's best-kept secrets, for within its acreage lies a healthy and prospering herd of whitetails. Some of these deer are worthy of being called trophy-class.

Harvest data for Belleplain is much the same as in any other state forest or specific WMA. Harvest tallies are not site-specific to Belleplain only, but take into consideration the entire DMZ -- in this case, DMZ 34.

Again, using only the data from the late-winter seasons last year, permit muzzleloader hunters downed 236 whitetail while permit shotgunners accounted for 122, and winter bow hunters felled 32 deer.

The total deer harvest for all seasons last year was 896.So if you've never hunted this far south -- and it is south; point the old deer-hunting jalopy generally south for a few miles, and you'll be fishing saltwater rather than hunting.

Belleplain consists primarily of old-growth hardwoods like oak, among a lot of young stands of pine, white cedar and other conifers.

There are no entrance fees after Labor Day. But there are numerous camping facilities, should you be making the drive for any considerable distance. In fact, if you're going with a bunch of buddies, you might want to divvy the cost of the so-called "group cabin" that will host most any hunting party with two bunkrooms with double bunks, a shower and a bathroom.

The cost is a bit on the prohibitive side, at $155 per night. But divvied up among friends, it's not bad, really.

Despite the cost of the group cabin, Belleplain also has available several yurts, round tents built on a wood frame with wooden floors. The cost is only $30 per night. If that's still too steep for your hunting budget, there are group campsites with fire rings, picnic tables and chemical toilets.

But keep in mind, this is late-winter deer season, and such sites are for only the hardiest of souls.

Despite some rather expensive facilities for those who wish to convert their hunt to an overnighter, the whitetail harvest at Belleplain is not exactly chopped liver.

Belleplain is easily accessed by taking the Garden State Parkway to exit 17, which leads to state routes 9 and 550. Highway signs are provided to guide motorists to the SF.

For additional information, call the SF at (609) 861-2404.

WINSLOW WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
Winslow WMA comprises 7,615 acres of prime deer habitat that are located in DMZ 65 in South Jersey's Gloucester and Camden counties. This area is certainly worth a look. In fact, the boundary between Gloucester and Camden nearly splits the Winslow WMA in half.

Winslow WMA is one of South Jersey's most popular deer-hunting WMAs, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a lot of hunting pressure. Keep in mind, we're focusing on the late-winter season, and given that, Winslow offers just about everything a whitetail hunter could want concerning habitat and a healthy and growing deer herd.

Some of these deer, by the way, are large-racked bucks.Like other areas in southern sections of New Jersey, winslow's terrain offers a bit of everything, from hardwoods to pines and pin oaks, and the deer thrive here.

Last year, hunters in DMZ 65 bagged over 100 deer during the winter season. Yet the winter season's take made this a choice among traditional state forests. During the permit muzzleloader season, front-end loader fans took 31 whitetails, while permit shotgunners downed seven and winter bow aficionados harvested two deer.

The season's total tally was 115. That may not sound like a lot. But remember, this is the late season, and hunting pressure has decreased substantially.

Winslow WMA is easily accessed by taking the Atlantic City Expressway to exit 33 on Winslow Road.

Once you're on the Expressway, signs will take you into the WMA. For additional information, go to the DFW's Web site and click on the link for WMAs.

WORTHINGTON STATE FOREST
Located in Warren County, much farther north than the above mentioned state forests, Worthington SF offers 6,584 acres of some of the best deer habitat in the Garden State. Here you'll find those traditional hardwood forests and plenty of elbowroom, especially during the late season.

Worthington offers some great deer country, but be prepared. This is rugged terrain that will test the fittest of men, though not all of it is steep rocky inclines. There's enough rolling hills and some flatland geography on which one needn't be an Olympic-class rock climber to hunt.

Worthington offers some great deer country, but be prepared. This is rugged terrain that will test the fittest of men, though not all of it is steep rocky inclines.

In fact, if you're up to it, the famous

glacial lake called Sunfish Pond is located in Worthington SF, but it's a long trail up to the so-called "pond." Nevertheless, this is an area that will remind you what the country used to be like, long before developments, malls and super highways.

Worthington is part of DMZ 4, whose annual deer harvest tallies indeed reveal just how good this country is for producing a healthy and prospering whitetail herd.

During the 2006-07 seasons, the total count for all seasons in DMZ 4 was 834. Late-season permit muzzleloader hunters accounted for 280 of those whitetails, while permit shotgunners nailed down 24 and winter bow hunters downed 27 deer. Not a shabby count by any means!

Worthington SF is easily accessed by taking Interstate 80 west to the last exit in New Jersey before crossing into Pennsylvania. The exit is marked as "Millbrook/Flat Brookville." At the bottom of the exit ramp, turn right, and you're into Worthington -- which, by the way, offers ample pull-off parking as you progress through the SF. For additional information, hunters may call Worthington at (908) 841-9575.

JENNY JUMP STATE FOREST
Finally, let's take a look at what could be called the proverbial dark horse in the race for state forestland deer hunting. That would be the 4,288 acres of Jenny Jump SF, which is also located in Warren County.

Like Worthington, Jenny Jump can be tough, though not impossible, country to negotiate. This SF is named for the famous mountain range of Jenny Jump, which continues on into Pennsylvania. Essentially, it's a glacial-created land comprised of hardwood forests and some hills and meadows.

Jenny Jump SF is also located within DMZ 4. For this particular DMZ, the late-season tally for permit muzzleloader hunters was 280; for permit shotgunners, 24; and for winter bow hunters, 27. Not bad by anyone's standards.

As to camping at Jenny Jump SF, the traditional campsites close after Oct. 31. Near the top of Jenny Jump Mountain, however, there are eight of what Jenny Jump SF officials call "shelters" that are open year 'round.

These shelters consist of a furnished living room with wood-burning stove, plus two rooms each with double-deck bunks, showers and flush toilets to the tune of $10 per bunk, per night.

That's an excellent deal. For additional information on an overnight stay, call (908) 459-4366.

To access Jenny Jump SF from Interstate 80, take exit 12 to the town of Hope, then turn right onto SR 519 north at the only blinking light. Take the third right and turn onto Shiloh Road. After approximately one mile, turn right onto State Park Road.

If you, like many deer hunters in New Jersey, have lost some of your prime deer-hunting lands due to development or local or municipal ordinances, check out one or more of these SFs or WMAs.

I think you'll like what you find, especially in the form of a nice set of antlers -- or at least some great-tasting venison.

Find more about Mid-Atlantic

fishing and hunting at

MidAtlanticGameandFish.com

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