The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's biologists and crews manage these public lands, which also play a key role in conservation and preservation. Commission staff members create habitat not only for wild game, but for animals that aren't hunted plus for native plants, streams and the fish that swim in them.
With increasing numbers of people moving into the Old North State, many more people are seeking outdoor recreation - and game lands play an important role to providing for that need.
Game lands can be small or large, from Orange County's tiny Buckhorn Game Land (500 acres) to the 1 million combined acres of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests spread across 17 counties in the western mountains. The state's game-lands program includes U.S. Forest Service acreages.
There is one thing all game lands have in common: No matter where you live, one will be within easy driving distance from your home.
To help readers better understand the opportunities offered across the state this fall and winter, North Carolina Sportsman Magazine publishes an annual preview of species available at state game lands.
Best game-land bets: Roanoke River Wetlands and National Wildlife Refuge, Jordan Lake, Butner-Falls of Neuse, R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell, Suggs Mill Pond, White Oak Plantation, Juniper Creek, Holly Shelter, Croatan National Forest, Shearon Harris, Van Swamp, Gull Rock, Chowan Swamp.
Even with 56 counties containing 61 game lands covering almost 2 million acres, deer live on every one of those public- hunting areas.
The Roanoke River Wetlands/National Wildlife Refuge game lands contain perhaps more whitetails than any public-hunting region in the state. That's because of its fortuitous location in the state's "Peanut Belt," which contains several counties that are always among the state leaders in deer harvest.
"The keys for deer are the Roanoke River, Jordan Lake, Butner-Falls and Caswell game lands," said biologist Tommy Hughes of New Bern, who supervises game lands in the eastern half of the state.
Roanoke River NWR changed last season to require permits for blackpowder hunters, which means the entire game land now is a permit-only area.
Covering 35,457 acres, the sprawling game land is divided among properties in Bertie, Halifax, Martin and Northampton counties owned by the Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on either side of the river. Sections on the south side are owned by the state, while the north side is federal land.
To avoid confusion, the game land follows state hunting and fishing guidelines, while it's patrolled by state and federal enforcement officers.
Jordan Lake produces the biggest deer harvest of any game land, as it's near heavy population centers in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties. Two years ago, hunters were able for the first time to enjoy a full season of either-sex deer hunting.
Butner-Falls of the Neuse gets high pressure, as it's also within the sphere of influence of the Research Triangle.
The R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell Game Lands in Caswell County also has good habitat and annually produces some bucks with some nice bucks thrown in.
Suggs Mill Pond, which covers 10,760 acres in Bladen and Cumberland counties, has plenty of deer. A large wildfire two years ago set up a regenerative growing area that has provided extra browse and cover for whitetails and should result in a larger harvest in 2012.
Whitehall Plantation covers just 1,430 acres in Bladen County, and it has some good deer, according to Hughes, but it's a permit-only area. The Cape Fear lowlands region has flood-plain forests, sloughs with 40 percent of its land area planted in upland pines.
Juniper Creek is a triangle-shaped, 18,624-acre region inside the Green Swamp between Whiteville, Clairmont and Bolton in Brunswick and Columbus counties. According to Hughes, it's probably the No. 1 game land for deer hunting with dogs.
Sprawling Holly Shelter covers 64,473 acres in Pender County, Pender County) and like Suggs Mill Pond, it has recovered from a 2011 wildfire.
Croatan National Forest, the biggest game land in Eastern North Carolina at 160,724 acres in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties, was the site of a July 2012 wildfire that consumed 22,000 acres.
"That fire was pretty much in the wilderness area," Hughes said. "Accessibility was very limited until the fire, but it should be better now. The fire probably pushed deer outside the area.
"Unless it rains, there won't be a lot of vegetation this fall for anything, but long-term wise, it should benefit deer and other game animals."
The fire began as a U.S. Forest Service controlled burn, Hughes said. Weather conditions changed, and a hot spot ignited, starting the blaze.
"Deer hunting shouldn't be hurt this fall," he said.
No permits are needed at Croatan except in the Bear Garden Tract.
Shearon Harris Game Land, surrounding the lake of the same name in Chatham and Wake counties, also offers deer hunting.
Best game-land bets: Buckridge, Alligator River, Dare Bombing Range, Gull Rock, Croatan, Holly Shelter, Bladen Lakes State Forest, Juniper Creek, Lantern Acres.
Bear hunting has been better than average for several years in the east, but most bruins are taken at private land - but that's not to say a few aren't shot each year on game lands.
Tyrrell County's five public tracts - Alligator River, Buckridge, J. Morgan Futch, Lantern Acres and New Lake - topped 2011 game-lands bear kills with 35.
"Buckridge is open to dog hunting," Hughes said, "as is Alligator River (National Wildlife Refuge)."
The Dare Game Land Bombing Range offers permit-only bear hunting when the U.S. Air Force opens chosen sections of its 45,149-acre property for a pair of two-day still and two-day dog hunts in November and December. The still-hunt draws allow 20 hunters, while the dog hunts allow two parties of 10 hunters for each hunt date.
To apply, visit www.ncwildlife.org or visit a wildlife cooperator agent. Deadline to apply for the Dare hunts is Oct. 1, and a $5 application fee is required.
Croatan, Holly Shelter and Bladen Lakes State Forest also have bears. Part of Juniper Creek is a bear sanctuary, but the rest of it can be hunted. Lantern Acres also has bears.
Hunters should read the Hunting Regulations Digest because some game lands are open three days per week while others are open six days. Permit requirements also are published in the handbook.
Best game-land bets: Goose Creek, J. Morgan Futch, Currituck, White Oak River, Roanoke River Wetlands/NWR, Jordan Lake, Butner-Falls of Neuse.
Goose Creek Game Land in Beaufort and Pamlico counties - with its six waterfowl impoundments near the mouth of the Pamlico River, including Pamlico Point on Beard Island in Pamlico Sound - is the top public waterfowl spot in North Carolina.
Other Goose Creek impoundments include Campbell's Creek, Smith Creek, Spring Creek, Hunting Creek and Hobuken.
"If the weather's rough, the Pamlico Point impoundments are difficult to reach, so a lot of guys hunt the land-based impoundments," Hughes said.
Goose Creek's land-based impoundments feature teal, wigeon, gadwall, mallards, black ducks and other species, while Pamlico Point's outside impoundments draw diving ducks, scaup, bufflehead and ruddy ducks, plus tundra swans.
Draw permits (one bird per season) are needed for swan.
The J. Morgan Futch Game Land in Tyrrell County is another top waterfowl area, and is entirely comprised of 14 impoundments scattered across 600 acres.
Hunting is by permit only. In the past, deadlines to apply for early-season hunts were Sept. 1 and Oct. 1 for late-season hunts. J. Morgan Futch is noted for ringnecks, teal, wood ducks, mallard, wigeon and pintails.
Currituck Banks Game Land and Currituck National Wildlife Refuge offer top open-water game lands waterfowl hunting by permit only. Currituck Banks has four blinds on either side of Currituck Sound, while the refuge has nine blinds.
The North River Game Land in Camden and Currituck counties features varying numbers of duck and geese. Cold winters mean hunters often have better chances of seeing waterfowl.
The White Oak River Game Land northwest of Swansboro offers puddle ducks, wigeon and gadwall. Permits aren't required.
Suggs Mill Pond Game Land has Singletary Lake, Horseshoe Lake and Jessups Pond plus several impoundments, and it features good wood duck and ringneck hunting with occasional pintails and teal, mallards and black ducks. Permits are required.
Hunting success at Roanoke River Wetlands and National Wildlife Refuge (permit only) depends upon the water level of the river. If shoreline swamps are flooded. they will feature wood ducks and mallards, while the impoundments attract wigeon, pintails and some Canada geese.
Jordan Lake Game Land offers seven green-tree impoundments, but usually only five are open each year. The lake receives heavy pressure, so some hunters use canoes or kayaks to access flooded areas for jump-shooting woodies and mallards. No permits are required.
Butner-Falls also has green-tree and planted impoundments. No permits are needed to hunt them until Nov. 1; after Nov. 1, permits are required in impoundments.
Shearon Harris has ringnecks and diving ducks. Permanent blinds aren't allowed at Harris.
Hyco and Mayo Game Lands in Person County attract diving ducks, while beaver ponds on feeder creeks support wood ducks.
Best game-land bets: Roanoke River Wetlands/NWR, Jordan Lake, Butner-Falls, Caswell, Holly Shelter, Suggs Mill Pond, Croatan NF, Stones Creek, Gull Rock, White Oak River, Bladen Lakes SF, Chowan Swamp.
The Roanoke River Wetlands/NWR features some cutovers and early-successional habitat that holds rabbits, plus its bottomland hardwoods harbor good numbers of gray squirrels.
Jordan Lake, Butner-Falls and Caswell game lands have similar habitat, with hardwood ridges that offer mast for squirrels.
Butner-Falls, with fields planted specifically for cover, offers great rabbit hunting - especially off Brickhouse Road.
Lantern Acres has good rabbit habitat as well, so hunters should find action there this year.
Parts of Croatan National Forest have rabbits, but hunters usually delay trips until after deer season has ended.
Whitehall Plantation in the Cape Fear River drainage has bottomland oaks that hold squirrels.
Croatan and Chowan Swamp game lands, along with sections of Holly Shelter near the Northeast Cape Fear River, also have hardwood bottoms and numbers of gray squirrels.
Quail hunting remains spotty at most game lands. Caswell and Gull Rock both hold a few coveys.
Best game-land bets: Uwharrie National Forest, Sandhills, Green River, South Mountains, Buffalo Cove, Thurmond-Chatham.
Most public-land hunting in Western North Carolina is in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which have more than a million acres for hunters to roam.
These two administrative areas have decent numbers of whitetail deer, but often the hunting is rugged because the terrain is extremely vertical in many areas.
Gordon Warburton, the Commission biologist supervising game lands in Western North Carolina, has two top deer game lands: Uwharrie National Forest and Sandhills.
"Uwharrie is one of the best areas for public deer hunting," Warbuton said.
Uwharrie covers 50,189 acres in 24 tracts, some as small as 50 acres and several spanning thousands of acres. In Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties, the Uwharrie is east of the Yadkin River drainage. It receives extreme hunting pressure, but its size usually creates uncrowded conditions.
Uwharrie offers six-day-per-week hunting without permits and features two one-week either-sex seasons.
At 61,225 acres, Sandhills is larger than Uhwarrie and is divied into 42 sections in Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties. Hunting is allowed three days a week and its deer-season follows eastern-zone dates, but with no deer-dog hunting allowed. It has a permit-only, month-long either-sex season that allows 100 hunters each day. The hunt has an Oct. 1 application deadline.
Farther west in Warburton's usual territory are Buffalo Cove, Green River, South Mountains and Thurmond-Chatham game lands, where Commission work crews have conducted burning, timber thinning and other work to create open areas and habitat for deer.
Best game-land bets: Pisgah National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, Mount Mitchell and Daniel Boone bear sanctuaries, Pond Mountain, Cold Mountain, Needmore, South Mountains, Johns River, Buffalo Cove, Mitchell River, Dupont State Forest.
Western North Carolina is coming on strong to challenge the east in numbers, if not overall size, of bears. The nine western bear sanctuaries have helped increase bear numbers.
During 2011, hunters harvested 1,170 western bears (trailing the east's 1,604).
"Bears are increasing in numbers in the mountains," Warburton said.
The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests are favorite places for still-hunters, although dogging dominates. Public-land hunters tagged 112 bears in Graham County last season - the most in Western North Carolina.
Western bear seasons will run Oct. 10-Nov. 17 and Dec. 10-Jan. 1.
Some bear sanctuaries offer permit-only hunts. Mount Mitchell Bear Sanctuary has still hunts or dog hunts Oct. 15-17 and Dec. 10 to Jan. 1, 2013 The Daniel Boone Bear Sanctuary offers 16 two-day permit bear hunts spaced from Oct. 10-Dec. 29. Two-year-old Pond Mountain Game Land in the northwest corner of Ashe County has five permit-only bear hunts between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31.
These permit hunts can be viewed at the Commission's Web site (www.ncwildlife.org).
The Linville Gorge region near Grandfather Mountain has good bear hunting that extends south through Graham, Macon and Swain counties, Warburton said.
Best game-land bets: Uhwarrie National Forest, Sandhills, South Mountains, Johns River, Pisgah, Nantahala, Perkins, Cold Mountain.
Warburton said the best squirrel hunting on public land in the western half of the state is in the Uwharrie National Forest, although hunting also is good in the Nantahala and Pisgah areas.
"Uwharrie has the top gray squirrel hunting," he said, "because of all the hardwood ridges."
Uwharrie also offers some rabbit hunting and a few dove fields.
Sandhills features fox squirrels, found at very few game lands. It also has gray squirrels, rabbits and quail.
Hunters must be careful, however, not to hunt the CURE area. Quail hunting also isn't permitted at the field-trail area. Opossum, rabbit and squirrel hunting is permitted at the field-trial region during specific dates.
A $5 permit allows hunters to take predators, furbearers, crows and doves from Dec. 10 to Feb. 28 on Johns River in Burke County, specifically the Lower Creek and Loop Road units.
South Mountains has a few quail, but the Commission continues to try to increase bobwhite numbers.
Grouse hunting is popular with a small segment of hunters at western game lands. Grouse habitat is scarce at national forests.
Best game-land bets: Johns River, Needmore, Sandy Mush.
The limiting factors for waterfowl hunting are access to water and being mostly outside the Atlantic Flyway.
Western ducks and geese are mostly resident birds; few game lands have major streams, rivers or areas with beaver ponds. A lot of western waterfowl hunting is restricted to float trips and jump-shooting wood ducks or mallards.
"Johns River has mostly wood ducks, mallards and the occasional black duck," Warburton said. "Teal sometimes come through."
Float trips and jump-shooting ducks on the Little Tennessee River that flows out of Fontana Lake at the Needmore Game Land in Macon and Swain counties can be good.
Beaver ponds on U.S. Forest Service land in the Grandfather Ranger District near Robbinsville offer some wood ducks, Warburton noted. Most waterfowl hunting occurs at the Catawba and French Broad rivers, plus canoeists may encounter rafts of ducks in the bends of the New River.