Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
New Jersey's Pine Barrens is a densely forested region that covers just over 1.2 million acres across much of the southern and central portions of the state.
The name "pine barrens" is derived from the area's generally flat topography and sandy, nutrient-poor soils, along with the dense growth of pitch pines (Pinus rigida), which can grow to be over 40 feet tall.
Pitch pines rely on fire to reproduce, and in the Pine Barrens, fire is a necessary and frequent occurrence. For that reason -- and due to the generally poor nutrients of the region's soils -- large areas of land are covered by pitch pines measuring between 1 and 5 feet tall. These stunted trees are sometimes referred to as "pygmy pines."
PINE BARRENS' BOUNDARIES
Within the ecological boundaries of the Pine Barrens there are two basic sub-boundaries: The Preservation Area and the Protection Area, both established by the Pinelands Commission in 1980.
Starting from the extreme south, a rough set of boundaries for the ecological area defined as the New Jersey Pine Barrens would be from Cape May Courthouse west to Bridgeton, north to Glassboro, northeast to Freehold, east to Asbury Park, south along the western side of the Garden State Parkway, then continuing southwest back to Cape May Courthouse.
New Jersey's Pine Barrens contains many areas perfect for resident and non-resident hunters alike. The largest expanses of good hunting lands are actually owned and maintained by the state.
WHARTON STATE FOREST
One of these prime public lands is Wharton State Forest. The Wharton Tract is made up of some 108,000 acres of core-area Pine Barrens habitat, most of which is open to hunting in some form or fashion. The Wharton Tract was the single largest privately owned contiguous tract of land in New Jersey until the state purchased it in 1954 and 1955. Today, it is a well-developed recreational facility that includes such popular hiking trails as the Batona Trail.
Having hunted extensively in Wharton State Forest I can tell you from first-hand experience that the hunting here is hard. In many areas, dense cover with thick underbrush makes it difficult to actually see a deer until it's right up on you.
However, some of the prettiest, mature stands of oaks grow here. In the early archery season, when the oaks are dropping their acorns, bagging a nice buck is very much a reality. But this isn't an area to focus on if you're concentrating on harvesting a trophy rack. Big bucks do inhabit this region, of course. But there are other areas where your hard work and precious time are better spent.
ALLAIRE STATE PARK
One of these places is Allaire State Park. Most people don't think of the Pine Barrens extending as far north as Monmouth County, but it certainly does. Allaire State Park is probably the single best public hunting area within the Pines that affords the hunter a better-than-average chance at harvesting a trophy-class buck.
In fact, New Jersey's current record head was harvested in Allaire State Park. And with the high-quality farmland not far from the area, there's little doubt that hunters can expect good racks to be the norm for this part of the Pine Barrens.
GREENWOOD WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA (WMA)
At nearly 30,000 acres, Greenwood WMA is a place that hunters wanting to explore the Pine Barrens should consider. The Greenwood WMA affords hunters unparalleled public access, as many gravel roads cut all throughout its range.
Another feature making this WMA a prime pick are the fields of winter wheat that the state maintains for wildlife of the area. During pheasant season, you will have lots of company in Greenwood. But in the first weeks of archery season and nearly all of the muzzleloader and winter bow seasons, you'll be almost alone out there.
This is one of my favorite places to look for distinct edges and natural funnels. A high number of white oaks form sporadic nice groves over much of the territory. I have harvested many deer from Greenwood WMA and it's an area that I'm currently focusing on more and more. Each year, I see really good bucks working the area. But only a few of them seem to turn up during hunting season.
Greenwood WMA is hard hunting in most places. And with large areas covered by pygmy pines, it's often very difficult to draw the deer out during daylight hours. Regardless, it's a challenging area and one that you shouldn't overlook.
STAFFORD FORGE WMA
For hunters who are looking for a bit of a challenge in bagging a truly decent Pine Barrens buck, I suggest giving the woods of Stafford Forge a try. At almost 16,000 acres, this WMA is certainly no small woodlot.
To make things slightly more challenging, Stafford Forge's beautiful oak groves back up to some of the nastiest, thickest, and just downright impenetrable cedar swamps around -- though the same can certainly be said for the Wharton State Forest!
Every year, I see really decent bucks harvested by hunters who put in their time at Stafford Forge. This WMA is easy to access. And with the New Jersey State Police's Tuckerton Barracks literally right down the road, the area is secure and well patrolled. So if you're afraid of getting lost in an area or simply don't like parking your vehicle in the middle of nowhere, then this is a great place to consider.
COLLIERS MILLS WMA
With its 13,000 acres of true Pine Barrens beauty, Colliers Mills is a popular place to enjoy a day of hunting in the pines. Colliers Mills is located just off county Road 539 in Ocean County. In addition, this WMA has a shotgun/muzzleloader training area where you can sight in your slug gun and muzzleloader, or pattern your scattergun with buckshot. There's also a fine archery range, which is perfect for taking a few quick shots with practice heads before trekking into the woods for an afternoon bowhunt.
Colliers Mills is surrounded by some of the richest farmlands in the state. Each year, shockingly nice bucks are harvested from the area. In addition, the area holds a lot of does. Hunters usually report seeing several mature does filtering through their hunting spots.
I have hunted very little in Colliers Mills, but my friends who have are all very fond of the area in general.
FORKED RIVER MOUNTAINS WMA
The second- and third-highest elevations in the Pine Barrens, at 182 and 175 feet respectively, are found in the area known as the Forked River Mountains WMA. Of all the places within the Pines, this area is the least flat by far.
Granted, what we call "mountains" and what you call mountains may be quite different, but it's all relative.
This area has some wonderful topography. Those of you who really enjoy sitting on the ground with your muzzleloader as I do will want to give this area a try for sure.
The forest is made up of a mix of common pine and oak, with some areas having thicker underbrush compared to others.
Forked River Mountains WMA is one place where you will want to buy a topographical map and carry it with you. Access is good, but the trails can be tricky. Since the area essentially butts right up to the expansive Greenwood WMA, you may find it quite confusing to navigate. I have hunted the immediate area around the Forked River Mountains and have had good success, but it's not an area that I would suggest to a fellow hunter who's never experienced a Pine Barren's hunt before.
PINE BARRENS PRIVATE PROPERTY
Within the ecological boundary of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, it's hard to quantitatively measure the amount of public land compared to private land. Compared to public land, however, it's easy to conclude that private land is far greater in terms of total acreage.
For that reason, don't be afraid to knock on doors and ask for written permission to hunt. You would be shocked at just how many people -- even other hunters -- will grant permission to hunt on their land. I find this especially true if you are simply looking for a deer to put meat in the freezer.
Most people, and quite a few fellow hunters, frown on trophy hunting. After all, I have never seen a good recipe for antlers! But with the doe-to-buck ratio at approximately 15 to 1 over much of the Pines, isn't it about time we took more does anyway? I think so, and I do take does -- about four a year, on average.
Speaking of private property in the Pine Barrens, I've had some interesting experiences with those folks who have recently moved here from more urbanized northern areas. I find that many of these folks don't like hunters or maybe hunting in general --initially. But after a year or two of getting their pretty plants consumed as fast as they plant them in the soil, they warm up to my offer of helping them alleviate this problem. I can't begin to relate how many times this has happened to me, and quite a few of my friends.
So, yes, here in the Pines, there is certainly far more privately held property than public land. But quite a good amount of it may be open to you, a lot more easily than you might think initially.
WHAT TO EXPECT
What's a trophy whitetail to me may not be a trophy to you, or vice versa. New Jersey surely produces good racks year after year, but they are rarely harvested within the Pine Barrens. This is primarily due to the overall poor quality of the soils, which consist largely of sand.
Without good-quality soil, a WMA is hard-pressed to have a good growth of nutritious plants. Since plants make up a large percentage of whitetails' diet, it's vital that the plants the bucks consume be of the highest possible quality to provide them with the nutrients they need to develop large antlers.
Areas with more nutrient-rich soils -- for example, like those found within the farmlands of Salem, Cumberland, and Monmouth counties -- are far more likely to produce Pope and Young qualifiers, and even an occasional Boone and Crocket buck. Of course, Allaire State Park seems to have the best of both worlds: This area contains the necessary elements to produce bucks with good antlers and nice body size, year after year.
Simply put, the Pine Barrens may not boast bucks with massive headgear -- at least not most of the time. But there are certainly plenty of respectable heads out there. Additionally, the does of the area shouldn't ever be underestimated. I've harvested more than a few does that weighed 100 pounds dressed out, which are perfect for the freezer.
WHERE TO HUNT?
There've been times when I have sat in front of a piece of land and simply stared at it, wondering where in this area I should start hunting. The answers don't come through osmosis, nor do they come to you in the middle of the night in some random dream. They will come through experience and doing your homework.
At times, I have been so unsuccessful that I feel I can speak with great authority about what not to do! Over the past seven years or so, however, I finally stopped assuming I had all the answers and started listening to what others had to say.
With this reality check came success. And only now do I feel comfortable passing on my own wisdom on where to hunt in the Jersey Pines.
Probably one of my favorite techniques is hunting edges between the really dense pine thickets and the less-dense oak groves. In the Pines, edges are everywhere. When deer are forced to live in tremendously thick cover that butts up to cover that's significantly less dense, they'll use edges very frequently.
Just last year, in fact, while hunting during muzzleloader season, I saw three nice does come tearing through an oak grove behind me, obviously spooked by something. They were headed straight for the large, dense cedar swamp that I was facing. Once they came to it, they stopped and stood completely still. Had it not been broad daylight, I would have sworn they dissolved into the swamp.
After a few minutes passed, they began to move in my direction, hugging that swamp edge all the while. Nose to tail, they passed in front of me. I raised my trusty Thompson Center Encore 209x50 muzzleloader and harvested one of the smaller does with a 30-yard shot.
The above scenario is very common. In my two decades of hunting the Pine Barrens, I have harvested more deer along edges than anywhere else. But don't be fooled: Edges are not always so straightforward. Within the Pines are neat little edges formed when small groves of oaks (whites, reds, blacks and others) sprout up in various places.
I can't tell you how many times I have hunted these edges, where the underbrush is just as thick on either side, and watched deer travel around them. Simply stated, edges are everywhere in the Pines. If you find an area with only a few of them, and the edges are very harsh -- such as from dense pine to open oaks -- then that's like finding gold. Those are the spots you want to find!
In the Pines, swamp hunting is somewhat of an art. I've hunted whitetails in several states, none of which have come close to having swamps like those found in the Pine Barrens, which have some of the thickest, most briar-filled swamps that exist!
Many hunters will focus their hunting on cedar swamps with great success. Sadly, I'm not one of those who can claim such a title. However, I've done my share of hunting in, around, and among many swampy areas throughout the Greenwood WMA and the Wharton State Forest.
Hunters who enjoy great success in cedar swamps often report that deer are active throughout the day. In addition, the dark canopy of the cedar trees provide temperatures that can be upwards of 10 degrees warmer during the winter months and 10 degrees cooler in summer.
Additionally, the presence of water and thick cover associated with cedar swamps provides deer with two of the three essential elements for survival. The third element is never far away either. No wonder many hunters concentrate their efforts on hunting swamplands.
When hunting pressure is heavy on the immediate areas around a big swamp, finding a high spot surrounded by thick cedars is sure to be a win-win situation.
Approach such an area with the wind in your face, move in slowly but with determination, and don't forget to wear your hip boots!
It's no secret that acorns are a big buck's staple. In fact, acorns are an extremely important mast crop for all deer in the Pines. During years with bumper acorn drops, it's not uncommon for deer to travel for miles to feed on the newly fallen nuts. My experience has proven that oak groves are excellent places to harvest deer in the fall bow season as well as during the rut.
During the first week of December, once the six-day firearm (buck) season rolls around and the guns start blazing, the deer almost instantly become nocturnal.
More often than not, groves of white oaks will draw larger numbers of whitetails than red oaks, since the red oak acorns tend to taste bitterer and are less favored by deer.
Hunting whitetails in an oak grove can be tricky. In most cases, it will require a bit of tree-stand hopscotch. I always try to find the trees with the most deer droppings around and hunt about 30 yards downwind of that location to start. Adjust your location from there, depending on where the deer enter the grove.
Because oak groves tend to be considerably more open compared to the pine/oak thickets that surround them, you'll really have to play the wind here. Be patient and spend a lot of time in these oaks. It will pay off in the end.
I tend to treat thickets as bedding areas. Perhaps this is partly due to my laziness -- I don't want to walk through them and suffer all the fury that the briars have to offer! I've always had rather poor experiences in thickets. The few deer that I have been lucky enough to harvest in them were not easy to track and drag out.
In addition, I tend to like the scenery of more open areas -- along a strong edge, for example. Hunting a single trail amidst a thicket is just not my idea of fun.
However, hunters who enter the deer's "bedrooms" take many nice bucks each year. If you can do it without being detected and the sign is just too good not to hunt, then by all means hunt it!
New Jersey has a lot to offer the avid whitetail hunter. The Pine Barrens specifically holds many hidden secrets. Those hunters who are looking for just a fun experience and to see a lot of deer, with the intention of stocking the freezer, are sure to be rewarded. In my fairly short hunting career, I've been fortunate to have harvested the deer I have. While none of these animals has been worthy of a Pope and Young or Boone and Crocket trophy book, they are all worthy of my trophy book -- and that's all that matters to me!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An avid hunter and fisherman since the age of 10, Brian Scott received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He currently works as a wildlife biologist for a private consulting firm in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.