Whitetails In The Redlands

This east Georgia wildlife management area near Watkinsville offers prime Piedmont terrain and a strong deer herd. Let's take a closer look at this great resource.

Photo by John Ford

The phrase "the old red hills of Georgia" is never more appropriate than when applied to the 37,500 acres of the Redlands Wildlife Management Area. Located largely in Green County with portions extending into Oglethorpe and Oconee counties, the WMA contains numerous tracts of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service adjacent to the Oconee and Apalachee river drainages.

Rolling hills descending into river-bottom flood plains provide a variety of habitats for deer and other wildlife. Often, antebellum plantation fields have given way to large tracts of planted pines, although some old fields have been preserved and are planted as food plots. The river bottoms have been largely revegetated by hardwood forests and rank growths of native cane and privet hedge -- an exotic escapee from plantings around old plantation houses.

Portions of Lake Oconee extend up both rivers north of Interstate 20, providing boat access to bottomlands on the Oconee and Apalachee arms of the lake and opportunities for waterfowl hunting.

Although old cultural sites are now largely covered by re-established forests, a significant pre-Civil War industrial site with the ruins of brick factory buildings remains at Scull Shoals. The largest structures were mostly used for textile manufacture. During the War of 1812, some were temporarily converted into a mill to supply paper when imports from Europe were cut off by British warships. Excavations of the site are continuing. The most recent discovery was that several buildings, one on top of the old foundations of the others, had been constructed along the former town's main street.

MANAGEMENT

The area is administered as the Oconee National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service and as the Redlands WMA by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, and a cooperative management program exists to enhance habitat, preserve existing important cultural resources, and manage wildlife. For its part, the Forest Service is seeking to combine scattered parcels of land into continuous blocks by swapping parcels with private owners. This process has enabled important land consolidations to be completed.

This area has witnessed the near extinction of deer in post-colonial times, extensive cultivation, the collapse of Piedmont cotton farming, regeneration of forests, and the re-establishment of huntable populations of white-tailed deer. The WRD manages hunts for various species to provide recreational opportunities and prevent environmental damage by wildlife, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy deer population.

Many deer hunters living in the Athens, Greensboro and Watkinsville areas take advantage of the non-quota hunts on the WMA during the archery, primitive weapons and gun seasons. The large area of the WMA with its numerous camping facilities also appeals to hunters from other parts of the state. The WMA provides a relatively inexpensive hunting excursion to an area that has not only deer, but also hog and waterfowling possibilities.

HUNTING SEASONS

An either-sex archery season typically begins the second week in September and extends until the start of primitive weapons season the second week of October. Hunters may continue to take bucks or does until the opening of regular gun season a week later, when the buck-only firearms season begins. Buck-only hunting continues through the first week in November, when either-sex hunting resumes and runs until the end of the first week in December. At that point, deer hunting is closed for about two weeks. Either-sex hunting resumes after Christmas and goes until the end of the Northern Zone firearms deer season in early January. For exact dates, refer to the Georgia 2005-06 Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet.

According to WRD wildlife biologist Nick Nicholson, this near-continuous deer season was designed to provide an alternative to WMAs that have quota hunts and fewer hunting days.

"Redlands is available to Georgia hunters most days of the Northern Zone deer season while retaining the December break to allow access for small game hunters. This approach was taken because this is about the only way to design an overall management program for the many parcels of this WMA. When a guy and his buddies decide 'Let's go hunting,' this is one WMA that they will almost always have available."

There is a demand for this general approach. Forty-nine percent of hunters responding to a recent WMA hunter survey preferred non-quota hunts, and 49.5 percent preferred hunts lasting most of the season, Nicholson noted. He reported that this policy has been successful, and the Redlands has one of the highest use rates of any WMA in the state, second only to Cedar Creek. In 2004, 2,476 hunters reported harvesting 147 deer. Usually the number of deer hunters ranges from 2,500 to 3,000 a year.

This relatively high hunting pressure has enabled the deer population to be kept under control at a healthy population level.

"In recent years, we haven't had the manpower or money to do a deer count, but all observations indicate that we are maintaining the population at near-optimum levels," the biologist offered.

Check station data were collected during the 1990, 1992 and 1996-2000 deer seasons. For bucks that were 1 1/2 years old, dressed weights ranged from 79 to 85 pounds, antler-beam lengths were 6.1 to 7.4 inches, and the number of points averaged 2.8 to 3.5.

"These data," Nicholson continued, "suggest a deer herd in fair to good condition.

"Harvest pressures should be maintained or increased to ensure that deer numbers do not exceed carrying capacity."

BIG DEER OPPORTUNITIES?

Because all of the dates on Redlands are sign-in hunts, deer taken on the WMA count towards the allowed deer on a hunter's tags. State-wide antler restrictions also apply. One of the two antlered deer taken must have a minimum of four points, 1 inch or longer on one side. One reason for the establishment of these regulations was to reduce the harvest of young bucks and increase the size of the bucks in general.

High hunter use during deer season and the large number of hunting days argues against bucks living the three to five years necessary to grow a big rack. The majority of the bucks taken are spikes, up to small 6-pointers, according to the operators of local deer coolers. During the 2004-05 season, fewer deer were brought into the processors, but the number of larger deer remained about the same.

ONLINE WMA MAP
To access a map of the Redlands WMA on the internet, visit www.georgiaoutdoors.com. From the menu at the left of the page select Hunting. On this page, again look to the left and click on Wildlife Management Area Maps. Finally, scroll down the list of areas and open the link to Redlands WMA.

"Deer," Nicholson said, "move freely from private land into the WMA and from the WMA to private land. There is always the possibility that a buck has been able to find a refuge and live long enough to grow some respectable horns. The fact that Redlands does produce a few nice deer each year is a testimony that these refuge areas exist."

HUNT STRATEGIES

Although setting up on food plots allowed some hunters to harvest deer this past season, there was not nearly as much daytime activity in the plots as usual. A heavy acorn crop coupled with warmer weather during the deer season helped keep the deer closer to home, and they had no need to venture far from their thick, swampy bedding areas.

"All last season I received complaints that 'we aren't seeing any deer.' The deer were certainly there," Nicholson countered. "They just had no need to move. Hunters were generally more successful hunting heavily used trails in the thick stuff and white oaks rather than sitting over the food plots. In short, our hunters just needed to learn how to hunt again."

Although not employed by many hunters, a sometimes-useful option is to use a boat to deploy hunters at spots on the Oconee River and Lake Oconee that are too remote for most foot hunters to try.

One of the appeals of the Redlands WMA is that there are enough different tracks of land that a hunter could work a new part of the WMA each year for a decade and still not cover it all. New hunters sometimes spin their wheels attempting to hunt numerous parcels during a single season. A better approach is to do pre-season scouting and pick an area to hunt. Then concentrate on that area for the entire season and resist the temptation to bounce from place to place.

During the past few centuries, land use, human occupancy and wildlife numbers have dramatically changed on the area now partly occupied by the Redlands WMA. This area was first utilized by Native Americans for hunting and agriculture. Then came settlers who harvested the virgin forests, followed by the development of large-scale plantation farming. Now, with the general decline of intensive farming in the Piedmont and under forest management programs, a new type of wild and cultured forest habitat has emerged.

Deer like diversity, edge habitats and a variety of potential food sources. These will continue to exist on the Redlands WMA, and hunters can look forward to the challenge of harvesting deer from Georgia's red hills for the foreseeable future.

HOG HUNTING

Hogs are mostly taken on Redlands as "targets of opportunity" when pigs are seen during deer hunts. The general state of the pig population is characterized as poor.

Porkers, according to Nicholson, are mainly found in the river bottoms adjacent to the Oconee and Apalachee rivers and Turkey Creek.

"This is not the place I would go specifically to hunt hogs," Nicholson remarked. "However, we have an increasing population of hogs on this WMA, as well as on many others in the state. Hogs are a destructive species on food plots. They consume natural mast and prevent other plants from rooting that would provide additional food for deer, turkeys and other wildlife."

From a wildlife management point of view, hogs are an unwanted exotic species. Nonetheless, the lean meat from wild hogs is appealing to many Georgia hunters who want some ribs, loins, hams and sausage for the table. Nationwide, hogs are conjectured to have become one of the most commonly hunted big-game animals, second only to the white-tailed deer.

Hogs may be taken with archery equipment and deer guns during the deer season and with muzzleloaders and small-game guns during the small-game season. Breaking out the muzzleloader and going hog hunting has become an increasingly popular option after deer season closes at many WMAs, including Redlands.

GEORGIA HUNTING SEASONS
For the exact dates of hunting seasons on the Redlands WMA and other public areas in the state, pick up a copy of the Georgia 2005-2006 Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet. These are available from all WRD regional offices or wherever hunting licenses are sold.

You can also find the information online at www.gohuntgeorgia.com. Follow the links for Hunting Seasons & Regulations.

SMALL GAME

An abundant population of squirrels in the river bottoms is the area's most underutilized recreational wildlife resource. Bushytail hunting can begin as early as Aug. 15. Small game season is closed during the scheduled deer hunts, reopens in December and closes again to reopen in early January after the end of deer season.

This late session gives small game hunters another month to try for squirrels, rabbits and quail. Rabbits are present on the WMA but were not commonly seen during the 2004-05 season. The WMA has the capability of supporting rabbits on many of the parcels, and generally the population is considered good.

Some years woodcock may be found in the bottoms and wet swales, but few birds appeared during the 2004 season before the season closed in mid-December. In better years, woodcock hunting is also considered good. The potential for quail on the WMA is rated fair.

ACCESS

Well-maintained all-weather Forest Service roads combined with state and county roads provide access to the WMA. In addition, there are also hiking trails, which allow foot hunters a comparatively easy way to get to some of the more distant areas. Some roads are closed during hunting season, and ATV traffic is prohibited except on designated trails.

A report by the Chattahoochee Conservancy quoted a Forest Service official as being cautionary regarding ATV use.

"All-terrain vehicles are useful for hunters to access hunting areas and to remove game. Responsible users stay on trails. However, we are constantly rehabilitating hiking trails only to see our signs pulled out or bypassed by irresponsible ATV users. If this continues, the obvious alternative is to prohibit all ATV use on Forest Service lands," the report stated.

Overnight camping is permitted at Redlands, and each of the larger parcels have established cam

ping areas. These include Penfield, Magnolia Tree, Cold Springs, Moon, Cloverfield, Oconee River, Village and Turkey Creek. Camps are located adjacent to all-weather graveled roads that are easily accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles.

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