3 Top Public Lands for New Jersey Deer

From the Water Gap's expansive acreage to Wharton State Forest's sizable chunk of real estate, plus one other pick, here are places you should consider this deer season.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By J.B. Kasper

Whitetail hunters in New Jersey enjoyed another good season last year. Taxidermists were kept busy working on big-buck mounts. While biologists estimate our deer herd at between 170,000 and 200,000 animals, the places to hunt deer are growing proportionately. With ever-shrinking woodlands, thanks to the state's bourgeoning human population, more hunters are turning to the state's managed wildlife management areas (WMAs) and state forests for their pursuit of that illusive trophy buck.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) currently manages close to 300,000 acres of prime land. In addition to the WMAs, the state has 39 parks and 11 state forests that contain thousands of additional acreage for hunters.

The Water Gap National Recreation Area is available to sportsmen and many county parks are now open to hunting on limited basis for deer management purposes. So here are three of the top public areas that consistently offer whitetail hunters good hunting, while annually serving up some of the better bucks taken each season.

WORTHINGTON STATE FOREST & DELAWARE

WATER GAP NATIONAL RECREATION AREA

Located in the northernmost portion of the state (Warren County), the 5,878 acres of Worthington State Forest are located smack in the middle of the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. One of the earliest roads in the region, Old Mine Road, skirts the forest along the Delaware River and is your main access to the area for hunting purposes.

Worthington lies within Deer Management Zone (DMZ) 4, which has traditionally produced some of the better and tougher deer hunting in the state. While the number of deer taken in Worthington is not as high as in some other areas, the rough terrain often produces some big bucks. A good part of the deer population found in Worthington and the Water Gap are transient, some migrating from Pennsylvania to New Jersey by swimming or crossing the Delaware River in low-water areas.

If you like out-of-the-way back- country hunting, Worthington State Forest will be to your liking. Make no bones about it, you'll have to be in good shape to hunt this mountainous region, which is part of the Kittatinny Mountain Range. Most of the better hunting is along the hills and in the valleys that are rocky and tree-lined.

Much of the better hunting here takes place in the afternoons, along the west side of the mountains, when the deer move into open areas and fields to feed in the late afternoon sun. Worthington, because of its hilly terrain, is a particular favorite of muzzleloader hunters who like to hunt mountain man-style, walking through the woods and tracking down that big buck.

The Water Gap Recreation Area is also home to Walpack and Flatbrook-Roy WMAs and Stokes State Forest, which are also popular with deer hunters. Here, too, the hilly terrain is a challenge to most hunters, but one of the main reasons some hunters prefer to hunt here.

WHITTINGHAM WMA

Another popular public area found in the northern portion of the state is Whittingham WMA. Located in Fredon and Green townships in Sussex County, this WMA's 1,917 acres are located in DMZ 5, which is one of the most productive deer management zones in the state.

A lot less rugged then the previously mentioned Worthington State Forest and the Water Gap Recreation Area, a good part of Whittingham is managed for upland game. This in itself is a valuable asset for deer hunters, since the upland game areas offer plenty of places for deer to browse and sun themselves.

Whittingham WMA is a blend of wooded areas, swamplands, fields and hedgerows. It is a favorite of fall bowhunters, with only the permit shotgun season sportsmen taking more deer then fall bowhunters. In fact, Whittingham hosts the annual Appalachian Bowmen's Spring Archery Rendezvous.

Whittingham is located on the upper reaches of the Pequest drainage system. Most of the better hunting takes place to the north of the stream, which is found in the lower eastern part of the area. In recent years, the northern portion of Whittingham has been expanded and some of the better hunting areas are found in this wooded region.

WHARTON STATE FOREST

In the last several years, an interesting trend has developed concerning deer hunting in the Garden State. While most of the better hunting has always been in the northern mountainous portion part of the state, recent years have seen an increasing number of deer, and some decent racks as well, being taken from the lower portion of the state.

Burlington County, in particular, has become increasingly popular among deer hunters, and for good reason. The 2003-2004 season saw a decent number of trophy bucks being taken on public lands in the county, especially among the bowhunter ranks.

Three of the biggest expanses of public land in the state, Lebanon State Forest, Greenwood Wildlife Management Area and Wharton State Forest, are located in whole or in part in Burlington County.

While all three are open to deer hunting for deer management purposes, the most productive is Wharton State Forest, on the border of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic counties (the bulk of the forest is located in Burlington County). Wharton State Forest is the largest single tract of land within the New Jersey State Park System with over 110,000 acres. Wharton is located in the heart of south Jersey's Pine Barrens.

The state forest is located in two DMZs, 23 (encompasses the larger part of the forest) and 24. Zone 23 traditionally is one of the finest deer management zones in the southern portion of the state, one that is seeing increasing numbers of deer each season. And a good part of its annual deer total comes from the scrub pine and brush of Wharton State Forest. The forest is mostly flatland and as part of the upper reaches of the Mullica River, it has plenty of marshlands and small streams running through it.

Hunting in Wharton State Forest is like taking a step back in history, as the bulk of the forest has changed little in the last century. In recent years with the preservation efforts in the Pine Barrens, the deer herd, which at one time was small physically, has regained its health and is once again producing good-sized bucks.

The forest is crisscrossed by miles of unpaved, sandy soil roads, which give hunters excellent access to all reaches of the fores

t. While bow- hunters fare well in the Wharton, the bulk of the deer taken from this state forest are bagged during the muzzleloader and six-day firearms seasons.

Wharton Forest, with its numerous unpaved roads, is ideal for deer drives. Deer drives are a traditional way of pursuing whitetails in the Pine Barrens. Many sportsmen's clubs hold their annual deer drives the week of the six-day firearms season, a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the previous century. Deer drives are the most popular way of hunting the deer in this area of the state.

There you have it, a look at three of the top public lands that are open to hunters and produce some excellent deer hunting in the Garden State. All three have different types of terrain, but all three annually produce good hunts and some good-sized bucks as well.



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