Educational Land Deer In North Carolina

There aren't many properties owned by the state's educational system that are managed for trophy deer hunting, but Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center is an exception. (December 2008)

The way I heard of the Johnston Community College Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center was through a magazine advertisement in 2000. The ad mentioned a donation of $10 for a lottery hunt for feral pigs. Since a hunter could send as many $10 donations as he wished, I sent in several and received several acceptance permit hunts. It was easy to receive permits back then. But the program has become so popular it's not as easy now.

Bill Barrett's nice feral hog and Luke Van De Guchte's big buck were taken on the same hunt at Howell Woods. During deer hunts here, hogs can also be taken by hunters. Photo by Mike Marsh.

In recent seasons, deer hunts have been added to the Howell Woods hunt menu. With a corresponding increase in the quality of the deer hunts conducted on the property has come an increase in the quality of the facilities dedicated to hunters.

At the time I participated in my first feral pig hunt at the 2,800-acre property, Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center was just beginning to take shape. The property was donated to the college by Rudolph Howell and had a longer name than today, which was shortened from Rudolph Howell and Sons Environmental Learning Center. It is located on Devils Racetrack Road, which twists and winds parallel to the Neuse River bottomlands. The Neuse River forms one boundary of Howell Woods.

The tract was donated for a wetlands mitigation project and the community college hit the ground running with the gift, viewing it as a major asset that had to pay for itself. The first public hunts targeted feral pigs, both as a control method and to provide a monetary return for managing the property. But hunts are also geared toward educational aspects of the animals and hunting.

Howell Woods is staffed by wildlife biologist James Sasser, operations technician Mike Rose and wildlife technician Jason Parker. Zoology students from N.C. State University also help staff the facility during hunts and for the purpose of conducting population censuses. The hard facilities consist of an office and educational center, heavy equipment and storage facilities for equipment, maintained walkways, paths, roads, campsites and primitive boat ramps. Several ponds are also on the property.

Based on success with the feral pig hunts, hunts for wild turkeys were held, followed by hunts for waterfowl and small game. Other uses of the property include horseback riding, dog field trials and hunt tests, fishing, hiking, bird banding and bird watching. The hunts are tightly controlled to provide maximum benefits to the center, the wildlife resources and the public. However, it wasn't until three years ago that Howell Woods began hosting hunts for white-tailed deer.

Johnston County is an agricultural county and has rich soils along the Neuse River. It is a top producer of Pope and Young bowhunting record bucks because of the soils and vegetative cover. Therefore, the potential for bucks of 130 points and more is certainly established. Sasser said a goal of the program was to provide the management required to help antlered bucks achieve their best potential.

"The hunting rights were leased to a bowhunting club," Sasser said. "We had to convince the Community College administration that we could raise as much money through hunting fees generated by public hunting as was generated by the bowhunting lease. We've actually doubled that goal."

The hunting program for white-tailed deer was established through trial and error. Howell Woods' volunteers put most of the infrastructure for the hunts in place and also provide much of the staffing during the hunts. In return for such work as helping hunters take their examinations before each hunt, filling wildlife feeders and maintaining trails and tree stands, volunteers are rewarded with free hunting days. But there are several other ways hunters can buy into some of the top public deer hunting in the state.

"Our deer hunts have gone well," Sasser said. "Last year was the first year we had most of our deer hunts full. We figured it would take a couple of years to get the momentum going for our deer hunts. All of the money we make is put right back into the property and facilities and much of it goes directly back into improvements for the hunters."

Another benefit of the hunts, aside from helping maintain the facilities, is better management of the deer resource. The ages and sexes of deer taken by hunters are controlled, which continues to improve the number of deer taken, the number of trophy deer taken and the number of trophy animals that inhabit the property.

"Every year, our donors have seen an increase in the size and the quality of our bucks," Sasser said. "Our doe and buck harvests go up every year, and last year we had a drop in the number of button bucks killed. We restructured our hunter examination to put an emphasis on identifying button bucks. If hunters take a little extra time and effort, they can do better at identification of button bucks. We have no penalty for shooting button bucks. But there is a penalty for harvesting antlered deer that do not meet our minimum requirements."

Sasser's statistics show the deer management plan is working well. Howell Woods' hunters took 42 deer in 2005, 39 in 2006 and 77 in 2007. There were 29 does taken in 2004, 26 in 2005, 24 in 2006 and 53 in 2007. There were 13 male deer, including antlered and antlerless, taken in 2004, 13 in 2005, 15 in 2006 and 24 in 2007. There were 12 button bucks taken in 2004, 12 in 2005, 10 in 2006 and 15 in 2007. There was one antlered buck taken in 2004, three in 2005, five in 2006 and nine in 2007.

We had a few accidents, with hunters shooting antlered bucks not meeting our minimum requirements," Sasser said. "But as you can see by the harvest statistics, our harvest has gone up in all categories. To qualify as a harvestable buck, any antlered buck taken at Howell Woods must have antlers wider than the ears, an antler base at least the diameter of the eye and the main beams must be longer than the deer's face."

Sasser said the trophy deer taken at Howell Woods have ranged in age from age 2 1/2 to age 4 1/2. That means deer are meeting the high trophy standards at young ages.

"That translates into high potential for some pretty big animals once they achieve older ages," he said. "We're only in year four of our management plan and we are seeing that it's paying off with bigger bucks and more bucks. Our staff, many hunters and other visitors see that success. We see these bucks on our game cameras after our deer hunting ends, so we also know most of them survive. We have some really

nice game cameras throughout the property that also show how big our bucks are growing."

Sasser said factors that most affect hunter success with both deer and pigs include weather and skill. Some hunters report using grunt calls and scents to help them take antlered bucks. But the weather and the ability of a hunter to remain quiet are probably the biggest factors of success.

"Cooler weather helps generate opportunities because deer and pigs move more," Sasser said. "Our stands are already set up so all a hunter has to do is go out to the stand and sit in it. Stands overlook feeders and are located in places with a high degree of deer movement. Some have been so productive they have remained in the same location for years, while others have been moved every year. We listen to our hunters when they suggest other locations for stands and our staff is always looking for new locations. Another factor for buck hunters is the rut. The best hunts for buck hunting occur the last week in October and the first week of November because buck movement peaks at that time."

I can personally attest to the weather playing a role in Howell Woods hunts. A heavy rain had created flashflood conditions along the river. I was sitting in one of the center's ladder stands, complete with a weatherproof top and a camouflage skirt overlooking, and a deer feeder in front of it. As the water rose, it inundated the corn spread by the feeder, and by late afternoon, I had to wade from the stand site wearing hip boots. The next day, I hunted the same stand area using a climbing tree stand. I saw two bucks, one of which was a legal trophy by Howell Woods standards. However, the buck had future potential and I could not see the complete antler growth on the far side, so I allowed him to walk away without firing a shot. Many other deer hunters at Howell Woods also allow marginal or low-scoring trophy bucks to grow larger.

Hunters are discouraged from using their own stands. But they are allowed to use them as long as they wear a safety harness and the stand has been approved by the Tree Stand Manufacturers Association. Any other stand must be used within sight of the hunter's designated stand.

"One thing driving our increasing harvest is our encouragement to get hunters to take antlerless deer," Sasser said. "We want them to take advantage of the healthy meat and take it home with them. If we don't think we will fill all of our NCWRC DMAP tags, we have staff go out to shoot a few deer. Last year, we filled our 60 antlerless deer tags."

There are several ways hunters can participate in a Howell Woods deer hunt. Wild pigs may be taken at any time during a deer hunt.

The first type of hunt is the lottery hunt. There are 12 slots spread throughout the entire season, with four lottery slots per hunt. People can enter as many times as they want at $10 per application and there is an additional $75 fee for hunters who are drawn for a lottery hunt.

The next level of hunt is the Stewardship hunt. With Stewardship hunts, the hunter pays a flat fee that guarantees a hunting slot for the dates requested. Only 15 hunters are allowed per hunt, which leaves 11 slots for Stewardship hunts along with the designated four slots for lottery hunts. Hunts are typically held Wednesday through Saturday and there are four hunts held during the hunting season. There is also an all-volunteer hunt. Volunteers who work 40 hours receive a two-day hunt in return. The volunteer hunts can be donated to friends.

"We have deer hunters who arrive in groups of two or three, but for pig hunts in spring we get larger parties," Sasser said. "We have a core of volunteers who hunt many days for free."

The final way of hunting is called the Donor Hunt. Donors pay a large fee ($1,500 last season), which allows them to hunt on dates when no hunt is in progress, as well as scheduled hunt dates. Donors are each allowed to set up two stands of their own, with the spots they select approved by the Howell Woods staff so they will not interfere with other hunters or other aspects of the center's operation. There is a limit to the total number of days the donors can hunt.

"We have seven donor slots," Sasser said. "Our donors tend to be dedicated sportsmen, who help us in lots of other ways. A few donor slots open up each season and we award them on a first-come, first-served basis."

Each hunter is required to pass an examination once per year. The test is an open book test and covers safety rules, hunting regulations and rules specific to hunting at Howell Woods. Hunters may use ATVs to get to their stand sites but must wear safety helmets. No alcoholic beverages are allowed on the site.

In the past, the tests were administered on-site. But now, hunters can elect to have the test and study materials sent to them by e-mail. They may bring the completed tests with them for grading or have them graded by e-mail. The test takes 45 minutes to complete.

One special rule requires that Howell Woods staff track any animal that runs out of sight. Staff will also help hunters remove their game from the woods. They also drop hunters off and pick them up at their stand sites.

Some hunters have become familiar with the property and may drive their own vehicles. Much of the property becomes inaccessible to anything but 4-wheel-drive vehicles with large tires and high clearance after heavy rainfall events. Howell Woods has special vehicles for access when conditions warrant their use. Multiple deer and pig kills often occur on the same hunts and it can take time and effort to retrieve them.

"It's a great hunt for first-time deer hunters," Sasser said. "We have a covered processing area, and will take care of all the carcasses and entrails. While hunters should be prepared to process their own deer, volunteers, staff and other hunters are usually around for assistance."

Blood and tissue samples are taken from all hunter-killed pigs for various studies and the weight, condition, age and sex recorded for each deer to comply with the NCWRC's DMAP program. Antlerless deer harvested do not count against a hunter's standard bag limit, since the property is included in the DMAP program.

Hunters are asked to complete a brief survey once they leave the woods. Information such as the number and ages of deer and pigs seen is recorded.

"Our hunters have generated some of our best information about what we have at Howell Woods," Sasser said. "When they sit in the woods that long they are going to see a lot of wildlife activity."

Last October, two cabins were erected at Howell Woods. Hunters had been using the campsites, staying in nearby motels, or in the back rooms of the learning center building. Rudolph Howell donated the money to build the cabins before his death.

"Each cabin has two rooms with four beds, with a shared kitchen and eating area and bathroom," Sasser said. "We supply everything except food and towels. We request hunters to bring their own sleeping bags, or we have to launder the bed linens

and charge them a fee. There is also a small fee for the use of the cabins."

Sasser said N.C. State University had contacted him about allowing similar hunts on its agricultural properties. But the other properties in the educational system had yet to have been opened. A sticking point, which Howell Woods surmounted, was instituting a change in a state statute to allow firearms on property within the university system.

"I hope other people within the university system see how successful our program has been, with benefits to the wildlife and to the public," Sasser said. "But I haven't heard that any other similar property has been opened to hunting, yet. We have a unique program at Howell Woods."

For more information, visit online at, or telephone (919) 938-0115.

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