Many factors make fall bowhunting tougher in North Carolina today.
By Craig Holt
Archery hunters Tim Warren of southeastern Caswell County and Mike Kiker of Midland (southern tip of Cabarrus County) knew where to go and what to do for a chance at the two highest-scoring whitetails in North Carolina during 2016.
At the 37th Dixie Deer Classic, their bucks finished 1-2 among dozens of typical racks.
Most sportsmen believe deer with 10-point antler racks that measure 158 5/8 Boone and Crockett inches (Warren's) and 155 7/8 inches (Kiker's) are discovered in the back of beyond, in vast woodlands or impenetrable swamps and the two hunters must be super stealthy with modern equipment.
They'd be correct — but only about the equipment.
North Carolina's changing landscapes, modern hunting strategies, recent North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decisions, a periodic and deadly deer disease, and the expansion of a whitetail predator species have changed Tar Heel State hunting. Instead of taking to the deep woods, game animals — particularly deer — are taking to the suburbs and hunters are following them.
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Don't misunderstand: The state still manages game-lands hunting at 1,505,770 acres from Tennessee to the western shores of its coastal sounds. But the largest chunks of public hunting areas (Nantahala's 528,782 acres and Pisgah's 505,217 acres) are western national forests with meager human intrusions, old-growth timber, negligible tree harvests and little natural whitetail food.
In short, North Carolina's deer herd is in decline. In 2016 Old North State hunters had the lowest harvest at private and public lands in 10 years. They bagged 4,675 game-lands whitetails (bucks, does, button bucks). The previous year they tagged 5,125 deer (453 more deer), so 2016 saw an 8.9 percent harvest decrease at public lands. Not only that, the 2016 game-lands harvest was the second-highest decline in 10 years, the fifth-straight year of falling harvests and eighth in the last 10 years.
But game lands paled in comparison to private lands — from 162,558 tagged deer in 2015 to 149,511 in 2016 (13,047 less), a 13 percent plummet.
Hunting effort hasn't decreased as the WRC estimates 275,000 deer hunters in the state. So other factors must be at play.
North Carolina's archery season (crossbows and compounds, recurves and long bows) begins statewide the second Saturday in September. Depending upon region (east, piedmont, northwest or west), season end dates vary.
Hunters bag more whitetails in the east each year because of its large agricultural base, including corn and soybeans, which of course are favorite deer foods.
But east of Interstate 95, September is hot, muggy and buggy and an active reptile month (cottonmouths, copperheads and a few diamondback rattlers).
The east includes the swamps of the Cape Fear to the northeastern peanut-belt counties where Edgecombe, Halifax, and Northampton regularly exchange the inside pole in the race for the state's deer-harvest crown.
Thirty-four-year-old Tim Warren knew how to set up a tree stand and that knowledge helped him kill 2016's top typical bow buck — even though he'd actually never seen the wall-hanger until the day he shot the deer in Person County.
"I live in southeastern Caswell County, but me and some friends have access to a high-pressure neighborhood in Person with deer that have super genetics," said the 34-year-old employee of Executive Graphics and Detail of Raleigh. "We have dog hunters all around us, but we try to hunt around each other; they don't hunt on our land and we don't hunt on theirs."
He also started scouting farm fields in July.
The bow-hunters group has one rule: Don't shoot small bucks.
"We've got about 1,800 acres we can hunt," he said. "All the guys are on the same page. We and our boys (sons) plant people's fields with corn and soybeans and deer overrun them. We've become friends with landowners, too."
On September 10, 2016, opening day of 2016 archery season, Warren sat in a climbing stand and used binoculars to watch "30-plus deer, including some 135- and 160-class deer, in a field," he said. "I knew one of those deer was big enough to hunt."
The next day he returned with four bags of corn and two trail cameras.
Warren scouted to find a well-used trail leading to the soybean field where he'd first seen the bucks in a bachelor group. He'd practiced a variety of bow shots in his backyard six days a week, starting in July, to get more proficient with his bow, a CPX Bowtech Invasion compound bow set at 64 pounds draw weight.
"I set up two ladder stands about 20 feet in trees so I'd have a choice of where to go, depending on wind direction," he said. "I was in a hickory tree at the edge of a field."
Rain fell that morning, so Warren and girlfriend Lauren Carlton waited to go to their stands.
"I knew bucks would be walking after that rain," Warren said.
Within minutes of climbing into his tree stand, he spied the big buck walking toward the corn pile. But it stopped 50 yards from the field edge.
"I had a range-finder and knew how far he was," Warren said. "I'd practiced all summer in my backyard shooting arrows from 20 to 80 yards, so I knew he wasn't out of my range.
"When it looked like he wasn't going to come closer, the first time he turned broadside I aimed and hit the (bowstring) release. As soon as the arrow touched him, he went down. I was surprised; I thought 'That's kind of neat. I wasn't expecting that.' "
Warren later discovered he'd aimed slightly high, but the broadhead sliced through the buck's backbone.
When he walked to his deer, he found a nearly symmetrical in-velvet 10-point rack. Dixie Deer Classic scorers couldn't find a single abnormal point and the asymmetry of the points totaled just 3 3/8 inches. The main beams measured 25 6/8 and 24 7/8 inches and the most impressive tines (G3s) scored 10 1/8 and 10 2/8 inches. The eight circumference figures had 2/8-inch difference.
"It's the best buck I've ever seen in person and killed," Warren said.
The best eastern game land archery hunts are at the Lower Roanoke River Area ($5 permit-only). Lower Roanoke has dozens of three-day any-weapon hunts, but some areas don't allow Sunday hunting. Hunt dates begin in September and end Dec. 31. Some regions are best accessed by boat.
Holly Shelter Game Land also has archery-only (Sept. 10-30) and black-powder/archery permit hunts (Oct. 1-14) for $5.
Archery special-hunt permits rarely are turned down. But September-October archery hunters east of I-95 are encouraged to wear snake-proof boots and use mosquito or tick repellent. Overnight tent campers should bring waterproof tents, sunscreen, rain gear or a change of clothes.
For permit dates and rules, see the WRC's Special Hunt Opportunities on-line at http://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/License/Documents/Permit%20Hunts/Deer.pdf.
However, most eastern deer are taken with firearms at private land, especially in the northeast. Many landowners hunt with deer hounds, which isn't conducive to growing large antlers. Deer chased by hounds are put down asap.
Halifax County hunters bagged 3,558 deer in 2016 (41 with bow and arrow at private lands and 18 with crossbows — at game lands 36 with bow and arrow and nine with crossbows). Northampton hunters tagged 3,854 deer, including 118 with bow and arrow, 19 with crossbows, and one at game lands with bow and arrow (none with crossbows).
Piedmont and mountains
Wake County, containing parts of two game lands (Harris and Jordan Lake), led the state with a combined 45 archery deer kills last season.
Both public lands are similar with lakes (4,500 and 12,500 acres, respectively) at their centers. Rolling hardwood hills surround them, providing acorns. Local farmers grow corn, soybeans and millet at adjoining lands, so setting a stand on a game-lands trail leading to an agricultural field is a decent strategy.
With Butner-Falls of the Neuse Game Land in its northern section, Durham County's game land was second to Wake with 17 bow kills and 10 crossbow kills last season.
Granville County contributed 1,346 total deer last year, including 189 private-lands archery whitetails and 28 bow deer from the northern tip of Butner-Falls.
In the southern piedmont, Montgomery County produced 2,542 total tagged deer (all weapons types) in 2016, including 60 from the massive Uwharrie Game Lands. Twenty-one fell to bows and arrows or crossbows at Uwharrie.
The national forest is part of the Burkhead Mountain Range (about 50 miles east of Charlotte). It's hilly with slopes covered by hardwoods. Only climbing tree stands or take-down ladder stands are permitted and must be removed after a day's hunting. No one may use nails or screw-in steps to secure stands to trees. Deer trails tend to parallel a few yards below ridge tops or cross Uwharrie's saddles.
In the western mountains, the top game lands are at the southern Nantahala Forest in Jackson (87 deer killed in 2016) and Cherokee (82 tagged whitetails) counties.
Hunting the Appalachians means being in good physical condition. Many hunters obtain maps from the U.S. Forest Service and seek parking areas to access old logging roads. Deer are found mostly at bottom lands with edible grasses, gardens or sides of hardwood ridges with falling acorns in September.
Buck in the Suburbs
Mention Mecklenburg County and people immediately think of sprawling Charlotte, the state's largest city (or maybe its NFL and NBA teams). Outside the city limits, the rest of the county counts the hours until the annexation hammer falls.
Whitetail deer, in fact, probably are way down the list of things that come to mind when Charlotte is mentioned. But for the last few years, at least one local hunter has dropped a high-scoring buck.
The WRC's 2015 deer distribution map shows why: The edges of Mecklenburg County contain red etchings and fingers that aren't Republican voting districts, but deer densities. Red means 45 whitetails per square mile — the highest on the chart.
So Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have become de facto whitetail sanctuaries. No gun hunting is allowed by law. But, like Chapel Hill, archery hunting is tolerated, so Char/Meck deer have proliferated (and lured coyotes).
In October, Justin Kiker of Midland in the southern tip of Cabarrus County (about 2 1/2 miles from Mecklenburg County) headed to a 15-acre hay field at a mixed landscape suburb.
"The deer use funnels, wood lines, between fields," he said. "This field had a funnel around it with a trail worn like a cow path."
Kiker, 27, and an Otis Elevator employee, and his brother practice shooting 30 arrows per session at 3-D targets twice a week. His Ben Pearson Recon compound bow is set at 70 pounds draw weight and flings Easton Flat Line carbon arrows tipped with Swhacker broadheads.
"Oct. 29 it was really hot," he said. "I'd set up trail cameras earlier but only got images of a big buck for weeks at 7:30 p.m. or later. Then I got one at 6:10 p.m. (daylight)."
Kiker used a concoction he calls Apple Rage (corn, peanuts, and mineral mix covered in apple juice and molasses) to lure deer within bow range.
"I got in the stand in an oak tree at 4:15 p.m. I was sweating," he said.
After a few minutes, Kiker dejectedly watched a hunter walk the other side of the field. At 5:45 the man strangely retraced his steps to his vehicle and departed.
"That's when I heard a commotion coming from across the field and the big buck came trotting out," he said. "I guess he got tired of waiting to eat the Apple Rage."
Kiker drew his bowstring and released his arrow at his 40-yard-distant target. Amazingly the buck keeled over on its back. He had to finish off the animal with a second shot at 45 yards.
The rack's main beams both measured 25 3/8 inches with G2s of 10 and 10 2/8 inches and twin G3s of 11 2/8 inches. Two abnormal points (6 2/8 inches total) and 3 7/8 inches of asymmetry deducted 10 1/8 inches from the rack. Its gross score was 166 inches.
Both Warren and Kiker followed the main rules of September bow hunting — scout and know where bucks come to food sources, practice shoot from many distances, be aware of the wind, have a range-finder and focus at the moment of truth.
Read more stories by Craig Holt