"We've been hunting this area for 30 years," Grubb said. "There don't seem to be as many hunters as there were, and they are scattered out more."
Grubb was hunting on Lodge Road in Holly Shelter Game Land on Opening Day of the 2011 deer season, along with seven other hunters, including his brother, Ricky.
The hunters had turned out nine mixed-breed hounds near a logging deck at Little Field. Grubb had missed a chance at the buck early in the hunt, then, after the dogs coursed the buck for three hours, he downed it with a single load of No. 00 buckshot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. Now, the hunters were trying to locate three of their dogs by listening for barks and howls and with the help of electronic tracking collars.
"I think they are still running a deer," Richard Grubb said to his brother over a CB radio. "They may be headed your way."
Ricky Grubb, a boat mechanic from Holly Ridge was a mile down the road, standing in a small grain field, using an antenna receiver, trying to locate the wayward hounds, which were deep in the thick pocosin cover between the open ridges.
"They used to plant corn," he said. "That was better for concentrating the deer and bears, but we still have good hunting. I used to hunt Angola Bay. But now we come into Holly Shelter through the gate on Highway 17 because it's closer for us to than it is to go all the way up Highway 53."
While Holly Shelter and Angola Bay were once separated by lots of swamps and ridges, the purchase of several properties from International Paper Company in the early 2000s joined the game lands, creating a single complex. The only dividing line is now NC 53. The additions to Angola Bay Game Land, - to which there had been no easy public access - totalled almost 5,000 acres. Holly Shelter also grew by nearly 15,000 acres with the addition of the Bear Garden Tract.
Another tract, Pender 4, was added along the west side of the Northeast Cape Fear River, directly across from a greentree impoundment. Vic French, a wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said the expansion of the Holly Shelter-Angola Bay complex did not come without growing pains.
"Pender 4 is a smaller tract of land of about 1,000 acres that was better managed under a permit system," he said. "Much of the Bear Garden Tract was also put under a permit system for deer and bear hunting because it is irregularly shaped and interspersed with private properties. The permit system results in a better quality experience on those tracts through reduced crowding and conflicts."
While the original Holly Shelter property had nearly two dozen fields planted for wildlife, Bear Garden and Pender 4 tracts and all of Angola Bay did not. French said the Holly Shelter foot plots give hunters a place to concentrate their efforts, as well as create supplemental food sources. However, the main habitat enhancement is prescribed burns, and the main problem is still access.
"Our biggest challenge is access," French said. "We are constantly maintaining and improving roads on both game lands. While our controlled burns are the best way of managing the habitat, some habitat in Holly Shelter has not recovered from a wildfire in 2011. Hunters may not find as much success in that area as they did in the past."
While French said Holly Shelter was once open for deer hunting only 12 days per year because of a local ordinance, but hunting opportunities increased in the 1980s under an agreement that allowed hunting three days per week throughout the season. Since Angola Bay was open six days per week when it was a landlocked tract, the same hunting days were kept as newer tracts that provided public access were added. The Bear Garden and Pender four lottery-style permit hunts allow three consecutive days of hunting on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The result is a complex of game lands with something for all deer hunters, whether their schedules are restrictive or wide open.
"There are more hound-hunters than still-hunters at Angola Bay because visibility is limited to the roads," French said. "In Holly Shelter, still-hunters and hound-hunters are evenly divided because there are more places conducive to still-hunting, including some very large blocks that are difficult to hunt with hounds."
On the same day the Grubbs' group was hunting, Nick Blanton was heading up a group of 18 hound-hunters at Angola Bay that included his 18-year-old daughter, Stephanie.
"We hunt here when everybody is off work, which is just about every Saturday," said Blanton, who owns a heating and air conditioning business. "Some people come along with our group, and others who show up are welcome to join us if they want. The roads block off sections of about 200 acres, which is a lot of territory. It takes a lot of hunters to head off a deer."
"I've been hunting three years and have killed five deer, including an 8-pointer," Stephanie Blanton said. "I wouldn't want to go all the time, but I wouldn't miss opening day."
Nick Blanton said his group would grow to include 35 or 40 hunters as the day progressed, but only three or four of them would bring deer dogs. In fact, he'd already picked up his own pack and returned it to his pickup truck's kennel after the morning hunt, on which only one hunter, Adam Maynard of Castle Hayne, had taken a shot.
"The dogs weren't running the buck, and he was just sneaking along," Maynard said. "I tried to hit him in the head with a load of 000 buckshot but missed."
Opening Day takes place later at the permit area of the Bear Garden Tract because the permit hunts begin on Thursday, rather than on Saturday when the public season opens. On the final day, George and Josh Hardison were hunting the permit area of Holly Shelter. The brothers own Shake Em' Down Kennels in Rocky Point and raise, train and sell Walker hounds.
"We've been hunting Holly Shelter for about 18 years," George Hardison said. "We hunt Angola Bay some, but there's usually too much competition. That's why we apply for Bear Garden permits every year. This year, we've killed two 8-pointers, a 7-pointer and lots of does."
The brothers own 23 Walker hounds, and while the reduced competition on the permit-only area increases their enjoyment, they said restrictions the limit hunt applications to parties of five hunters force them to leave some of their friends behind.
"On permit days, we tell our friends that didn't draw permits they will have to hunt the other parts of Holly Shelter on their own," Josh Hardison said. "It works both ways. You have less competition with the permit hunts, but since the maximum number of people in a party is limited to five, you can't hunt with everyone in your normal group."
The Hardisons said that one problem is hunters entering the Bear Garden permit-only area without permits. Although permits are issued for three consecutive days, Josh Hardison said Saturdays are usually the only days when he can put together a large enough group to hunt.
"It makes it bad on us and other people with permits who are trying to go by the rules," Josh Hardison said. "We do everything right on that one day a week when we get to hunt. It would be great if everyone else would respect that."
Doug Jones, an enforcement officer with the Commission, said stepped-up enforcement has been tackling the problem. He has written several hunters tickets for Bear Garden permit violations and successfully prosecuted them in court.
"Some of the hunters claimed the signs identifying the boundaries of the Bear Garden permit area had been destroyed or removed," Jones said, "but the area is clearly defined in the regulations booklet. We enforce the permit regulations as aggressively as we do all of the regulations."
HOW TO GET THERE - Angola Bay and Holly Shelter game lands are west of Jacksonville. Take I-40 east to Burgaw, then go east 7 ½ miles on NC 53 to Angola Bay. To reach Holly Shelter, go 7 miles past Angola Bay on NC 53 and turn right onto Shaw Road. The main entrance and depot are 5 miles down Shaw Road
WHEN TO GO - Angola Bay is open for deer hunting six days per week. The main body of Holly Shelter Game Land is open for hunting three days per week. Lottery permits for the Pender 4 and Bear Garden tracts of Holly Shelter allow hunting on three consecutive days and must be applied for by Sept. 1. See www.ncwildlife.org or the Permit Hunting Opportunities Booklet for application details.
EQUIPMENT - Hunters almost universally use 12-gauge shotguns and 3-inch loads of No. 00 or No. 000 buckshot when hunting deer ahead of dogs. Some bring both a shotgun and a rifle, often a semi-automatic in .30-06. For smaller or youth hunters, a 3-inch 20-gauge loaded with No. 2 or No. 3 buckshot is the ticket.
HUNTING INFORMATION - George and Josh Hardison, Shake Em' Down Kennels, 6490 US 117, Rocky Point, NC.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Primitive camping is allowed in two campgrounds. One is located at the western entrance to Holly Shelter off Shaw Road and the other is located at the eastern entrance of US 17 near Woodside. These campgrounds have no facilities, so campers must bring everything they need, including water. Wilmington is approximately 30 minutes away, where hunters may lodge at Sleep Inn, 5225 Market St., 910-313-6665.