Deer Hunting The Pisgah

The Pisgah National Forest has always been a big piece of public land where you can find back-in-the-hills hunting. With the longer season, it deserves a second look. (December 2005)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The Pisgah National Forest stretches from the western edge of Watauga County in the northwestern corner of North Carolina all the way past I-26 to the west and almost to the South Carolina line, including land in 10 different counties.

Deer concentrations won't knock your eyes out, because there aren't nearly as many whitetails as there are along the Coastal Plain and in the river bottoms of the Piedmont, but there are surely more than in the extreme western end of the state.

So that adds up to half a million acres of public-hunting land with some decent deer hunting.

The question facing many Tar Heel State hunters is how to find those little hotspots where there is a chance at filling a deer tag, perhaps with a bragging-sized buck.

Robert Potts of Yadkin Valley Outfitters has hunted the Pisgah National Forest for years, and he offers semi-guided hunts for deer in areas he has discovered through trial and error.

He said that the national forest has a big enough deer population so that hunters have a reasonably good chance to score, but perhaps the biggest plus is that lowered hunting pressure is allowing bucks to put on some age and antlers.

"There are some monster deer up there," Potts said. "There aren't as many big numbers of deer, but they can get big.

"The herd is not overpopulated by any means, but there are certain places that have enough food and the right amount of cover, so there's a good chance the older deer in the herd will be real nice. The 4 1/2- and 5 1/2-year-old bucks will have massive horns and long tines."

Potts said it is his experience that deer numbers are fairly stable across the national forest. Finding them doesn't take a genius or a seasoned old mountain man -- just knowledge of deer and their habits.

"They're the same everywhere you go. They need food, water and bedding areas," Potts said (336/624-2120). "In a national forest, the majority of what they eat is going to be browse and mast, but if you can find any fields, those areas will be good. Most of them will be on (neighboring) private land, but the wildlife commission is doing a lot of habitat manipulation up there."

Actually, biologist Don Hayes of State Road, who up until a few years ago worked on habitat improvement on the national forest and other public lands, said that the U.S. Forest Service isn't doing as much timber cutting as it used to.

"We need timber harvests to keep a good deer population going," Hayes said, "and over the past few years, that has been dwindling. All of the timber sales on U.S. Forest Service land have to go up for public comment, and without fail, any sale is opposed. And the USFS winds up not doing anything."

Hayes said that the "early successional" covers that result after any timber harvest aren't showing up every year, but that the USFS has available for interested hunters localized maps that show where timber has been cut and where suitable cutovers may be developing.

"You can go to Asheville and find maps (at the Pisgah National Forest headquarters) and locate that critical habitat," he said.

"As a rule, probably the farther east you go in the national forest, the higher the deer numbers should be," Hayes said, pointing out that some of the forest service land is actually close to the western edge of North Carolina's Piedmont, where habitat for deer is generally excellent -- better than in the mountains proper.

"I'd look at the Burke and McDowell (counties) side of the forest, the eastern edge, because the farther east you move, the better the numbers should be."

Potts said that he breaks down prospective areas by finding big blocks of land that appear to have the kind of habitat deer prefer, then really concentrating on specific areas.

"What I do is take a topographic map and find saddles in between higher ridges or flats in lower elevations because those are good places to find deer," he said. "I'll take on any chunk of 4,000 or 5,000 acres that has good habitat, then I'll go out in the woods and really study it. I try to go after a rain and walk old logging roads looking for tracks and trails.

"If you find a cutover, you can sit on it for a week, and you'd probably get a look at a buck that will score pretty good."

Joe Scarborough of Clyde is a former state wildlife enforcement officer who has hunted from one end of the Pisgah to the other. He agrees with both Potts and Hayes, first, that there's some awfully fine hunting to be had if a person puts in his time and effort, both before and during the season, and second, that declining timber cutting has hurt deer populations in the national forest.

"There are thousands and thousands and thousands of acres -- some of them hunted hard, some not at all," Scarborough said. "There are hotspots and cold spots -- it's big country. There are places where, when I leave at the end of the season, nobody goes there until I come back the next year. My favorite place is 1 1/2 hours from where I leave my vehicle.

"But if you do your homework with a topo map and aerial photo, you can find areas that are hard to reach, or places that are close to a road that for some reason, people won't hunt there -- either a rock cliff or a huge laurel thicket or a creek that's a little too wide to cross.

"It takes dedication, perseverance and desire. Without any one of those things, you might as well go somewhere else."

Scarborough has a handful of factors he keys on. First, it's food.

"Up here, mast is primary; you've got to go by it. It's the only way you can concentrate them. If there aren't any acorns, they'll be scattered here and yon. I can talk with people and know when the red oaks are in and the white oaks are hot, and I know where to go. The same thing with grapes," he said. "

"If you can find an eight- to 10-year-old clearcut, that's big-buck country. And the best places are tremendous rhododendron thickets because somewhere in the middle there will be some open little oak ridges. Those are like slaughter pens for deer -- and you can find them by looking at aerial photos.

"I've hunted Mills River, Davidson River, Harmon Den, Mount Mitchell. Every single area has nice deer. The habitat is changing, because the Forest Service is real limited as far as the amount of clear cutting they're able to do."

Scarborough feels that the rut is a little different depending on where you're hunting in the Pisgah. East of Asheville, he thinks that the peak of the rut hits very close to the opening of the three-week gun season, in mid-November. West of Asheville, he thinks the rut is "in its latter stages when our season opens.

"You don't get a second rut, because up here, the season ends in mid-December, and by that time, the weather gets so bad that it is almost impossible to hunt. You get high winds, snow and cold weather. It's our coldest month," he said.

The Pisgah National Forest, and all of western North Carolina, for that matter, is confirmed big-buck territory, but it doesn't get as much notice, because local hunters are unwilling to let their secret out.

One of the main reasons is that deer populations are low enough, and the buck/doe ratio low enough, and hunting pressure low enough, that bucks have a decent chance to make it to 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years old. That's when those big, heavy sets of horns start to show up.

"There's nobody around to kill a lot of them. That's the main reason they reach old age," Scarborough said. "They get that in the mountains. Around here, big bucks are nothing now, but nobody really wants to let anybody know about it.

"I use kidney fat as an indicator, and I've never seen any with more than 25 percent. The deer are never really fat. It just makes you wonder what they could do with good food."

Scarborough said that patience is a key. He admits that he often sees only a dozen deer during the three-week gun season, but a relatively high percentage will be adult bucks.

"If you see a doe, there will usually be a buck with her."

Scarborough doesn't carry a tree stand back into the forest -- permanent stands or screw-in steps are illegal; climbers are not. He mostly still-hunts and stalks through potentially good areas, going slowly.

"I drink a half of a Mountain Dew, then put the bottle in my pocket sideways. If I can hear it sloshing around in the bottle, I'm going too fast."

Scarborough rarely hunts past mid-day, leaving the woods around 2 p.m. because of the length of the walk out. "If you kill one after 2 p.m., it will be midnight before you get him out," he said. "The fastest I've ever gotten one out is 4 1/2 hours. You've got to be in good physical condition to hunt this type of country."

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