Fewer hunters crowd the woods in December, and late-season deer are concentrated around food sources.
Just because it’s December does not mean your deer hunting has to come to an end. Fewer hunters and less available food for the deer are just two of the advantages of hunting deer in December. To find the best places and top techniques for hunting them, we asked the state’s wildlife biologists for their input.
David Stewart is the North Carolina Wildlife Commission’s Lands Management Biologist for District 9. As a deer hunter himself, he harvested a nice 8-pointer at one of the mountain game lands during the 2016-17 hunting season. He says that anyone who hunts the higher elevations of the mountains must do some homework to be successful during December.
“I receive a lot of requests from hunters who are newcomers to this area,” he said. “They want to know where they can hunt deer and have a reasonable chance of success. The first thing I tell them is that our game lands are great places to hunt because we improve the habitat for deer through active management. Some good ones are Sandy Mush, Cold Mountain, Needmore and Green River. However, there are 1.1 million acres of game lands in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, too. That means hunters have a lot of territory to explore.”
Stewart said that with so much hunting territory to scout, the first step is to acquire maps from every available source. The various ranger district offices sell hiking trail maps. The Commission’s website has maps showing roads and trails on the game lands. Various online map sites are also excellent places to start. However, when in the field, hunters should not depend upon having cell phone service at many places in the mountains, so having printed maps in hand is important for hunters who are actually on the ground in deer-hunting territory.
“The first thing to do is locate the tract boundaries,” he said. “Our game lands boundaries are marked well, so no one will be straying onto private property. The next thing to do is locate access to the roads that will lead to hiking trails that are within your physical capabilities. If you are successful, you have to be able to bring a deer out of the woods.”
Stewart said Sandy Mush is one of the best places in District 9 to hunt in December because it has nearly 100 acres of wildlife openings. Some of them are dove fields, some are planted with crops that create green deer browse in winter and others are planted only when there are funds for farm equipment, so they are in fallow condition some years.
“In winter, food is the key,” Stewart said. “Sandy Mush has some land where we can use a tractor. Deer find food in the ragged-looking fields as well as the fields that we have planted more recently. Some of the fields are large; others are very small. We also manage a lot of the property with prescribed fire, and the burn units have good browse. The firebreaks also provide good hunter access.”
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Sandy Mush has 2,600 acres in Buncombe and Madison counties. Since it is close to Asheville, it is only open for hunting under the three-day-per-week game lands schedule to balance high hunting pressure with hunting productivity. It has a one-day either-sex gun season in mid-December.
Cold Mountain has 3,295 acres in Haywood County and is open six days per week. It also has a one-day either-sex deer season in mid-December on the same date as Sandy Mush. It has a few planted wildlife openings and several areas where timber harvests have created openings. It also has several burn units and many logging roads that the Commission maintains for foot travel.
Needmore has 4,525 acres in Macon and Swain counties. It is located along the Little Tennessee River. The Commission plants and maintains several old farm fields along the river corridor that were on the property before it became a game land. The property also has some wildlife openings at the higher elevations.
River bottomlands occur on all three of these game lands and they have hardwoods that produce acorns, which are a primary deer food source. Another manmade food source is logging roads and log decks, especially those in recent timber harvest areas. The Commission plants these roads as linear food plots with lespedeza and warm and cool season grasses that create deer browse.
“Gated roads on the national forests provide excellent food sources while providing good hunter access,” Stewart said. “Many hunters sneak along the roads because the terrain hides their movements. It is some of the best terrain in the state for stalking deer.”
Commission personnel maintain small and large wildlife openings on the national forest through a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Forest Service. Some are former farms and have a lot of acreage.
Hunters should look for apple, crabapple, persimmon and oriental chestnut trees on these old farms because they are deer magnets. Even in the dead of winter, some fruit may remain on limbs and on the ground. Wildfires also create deer habitat in the opening-starved national forests and several recent fires have burned through extensive areas.
“We also have the new William H. Silver Game Land opening this season,” he said. “It has nearly 2,000 acres and is near Maggie Valley. It joins the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has some good cover, especially brushy areas that had recent logging activities. We will focus on improving the deer and elk habitat.”
Chris Kreh, former Dist. 7 biologist (now the Upland Game Bird Biologist) says that Thurmond Chatham, Mitchell River, Pond Mountain and Buffalo Cove are good game lands for deer hunters.
“We have done a lot of good habitat work,” he said. “We have conducted burns and planted some winter food plots. Some of the fields are very small and isolated, which is perfect for deer hunting.”
Pond Mountain has 2,272 acres in Ash County. About 700 acres was a Christmas tree farm. However, it is at the mountaintop. Access to that area is difficult if snow falls. Going forward, the Commission will manage it with herbicides and prescribed burns.
“By Christmastime the acorns have played out,” he said. “Food is scarce and hunting pressure slacks off, so patterns are more reliable. Topography comes into play because the cold weather sends deer to the warmer southern or western exposures. Our rut is the third week in November. However, about a month later we may see a secondary rut around the last week of season, so Christmas can be a good time to hunt.”
Ken Knight is the Supervising Wildlife Biologist for the piedmont. He said hunters should pay attention to the mast crop.
“Every year when we have a good acorn crop, people ask where the deer have gone,” he said. “The deer have left their food plots and corn piles and are feeding on those acorns, and hunters should move with the food source. Caswell and Butner-Falls are good places because they have plenty of oaks.”
Located in the northern piedmont, R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell has 17,788 aces in Caswell County and Butner-Falls has 40,899 acres in Durham, Granville and Wake counties. Caswell allows dog hunting and is open three days per week. It has an either-sex season the last week of December.
Rupert Medford is the District 6 Wildlife Biologist and an avid deer hunter. He says hunters in the southern piedmont should look for specific habitats and adapt to human pressure.
“I take into consideration that a lot of hunters drop out after the rut, which occurs around November 4-12. Hunting pressure increases again Christmas week. Hunters who are in the woods during the lull between those times have a better chance of seeing deer.”
Medford named Uwharrie National Forest, Pee Dee River and Sandhills game lands as prime deer hunting destinations. Uwharrie has 50,189 acres in Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties.
“With all of the timber management at Uwharrie Game Land, the cover can change dramatically from year to year,” Medford said. “Hunters should not keep returning to a spot where they may have taken a deer in the past, but keep scouting to find new places. I look for areas with low hunting pressure and a late-season food source. On game lands, that usually means acorns. I find an area with mature hardwoods that has cover nearby. Cover can be a clearcut or clearcut-like, such as a young mixed pine and hardwood stand with oaks just old enough to produce acorns.”
Another type of deer cover is mountain laurel, which grows in thickets on north-facing slopes. In some areas of Uwharrie, laurel thickets are the densest, greenest cold-weather cover available. A good food source hunters overlook is recently used logging roads.
The roads are planted with rye grain, winter wheat and oats. In December, these green roads are some of the best food sources around for miles. Hunters should set up stands at the edge of thick cover in anticipation of seeing deer move from the cover to feed on acorns or along green roads.
While river bottom habitat occurs in Uwharrie, Medford said most of the 6,829-acre Pee Dee River Game Land in Anson, Montgomery, Richmond and Stanly has that type of habitat. Medford said it is some of the best deer-holding habitat in December due to a variety of food sources and cover. While still-hunting can be productive, dog hunting can be a better option.
“Parts of the Pee Dee River in Richmond County are open to hunting deer with dogs,” he said. “Sandhills is another excellent place for hunting with dogs. That is a good way to hunt deer in December. If you are hunting with dogs, the best thing to do is look for the densest cover you can find.”
Pee Deer River has a gun either-sex season during the last week of December and is a six-day-per-week game land. Caswell is also open to dog hunting. Sandhills has 61,526 acres and is a three-day-per-week hunting area. Either-sex deer harvest is by permit only during the regular gun season and hunters can apply for the permits through the Commission’s Permit Hunting Opportunities program.
Richie Clark is the Commission’s Central Coastal Management Biologist. He says some of the bigger game lands have excellent opportunities to dog hunt for deer.
“Our bigger game lands — Holly Shelter, Angola Bay and Croatan National Forest — have some great dog hunting areas,” he said. “The vehicle access is good and they have small areas that can be blocked off as well as some bigger blocks that can take more hunters to surround. The use of GPS tracking collars has changed the nature of hound hunting, because smaller hunting parties can hunt bigger blocks without risking losing their dogs.”
Holly Shelter has 74,743 acres in Pender County, Angola Bay has 24,483 acres in Duplin and Pender counties and Croatan has 160,724 acres in Craven, Carteret and Jones counties. Except for the Bear Garden Tract, which is a permit hunting area for deer, Holly Shelter is open for still-hunting six days per week and dog hunting three days per week plus holidays. Angola Bay and Croatan are open six days per week.
“We have a lot of food plots at Holly Shelter and more than 100 acres of wildlife openings at Croatan,” he said. “Hunting the weather fronts is the key. If you are still-hunting you should be in the woods after the rain stops and while the wind is still blowing, because the deer are going to move just as soon as the front passes. If the tract has water access, you might try coming in by boat rather than by vehicle. Holly Shelter has some good water access and Goose Creek has some canals where you can really get off the beaten path. Goose Creek also has a couple of islands that are only accessible by boat.”
Goose Creek has 10,027 acres in Beaufort and Pamlico counties. White Oak River has 2,303 acres in Onslow County. Clark also said some recent clearcuts on the Upper White Oak River Game Land are worth investigating that are also accessible by boat. The Upper White Oak River (Huggins Tract) is a special permit zone where no dog hunting is allowed and centerfire rifles are prohibited. It also has access along Belgrade-Swansboro Road.
“Upper White Oak River has some stands where we cut out the loblolly pine for longleaf pine restoration,” he said. “The thicker habitat has better food and cover and the longleaf restoration areas have firebreaks for good still-hunting access.”
FOR LATE SEASON DOES,
Ken Knight, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Supervising Wildlife Biologist for the piedmont, said hunters should not wait until the end of the season to take the number of does that are within their harvest goals. It becomes more difficult to see does after the primary rut is over in November.
“My advice is to take your does early,” he said. “If you wait until Christmas week at the end of the season, you may not see any does and your freezer could be empty. Like bucks, does will be in the heaviest cover they can find in response to hunting pressure.”
Another thing Knight emphasized is that the Commission would like hunters to report any dead deer they find or deer that are showing obvious symptoms of disease such as listlessness or moving around in places they should not be during the day. It could be a sign of hemorrhagic disease, which is a naturally occurring disease that is cyclic and persistent. It could also be a sign of Chronic Wasting Disease, for which Commission biologists sample periodically. While CWD has not been found in North Carolina, it has been found in Virginia.