The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages hunting and fishing 2 million acres for public hunting on 89 different game lands from the coast to the mountains.
The Commission created game lands to offer sportsmen places to fish, hunt and trap, especially those who don’t own or have access to private property with good wildlife habitat.
Wide-ranging interviews and conversations with Commission biologists point to a handful of different public-hunting areas as the best for a handful of different game species, from whitetail deer and bear to rabbis and squirrels. Here are the findings:
Best game-land bets: Butner-Falls of Neuse, Jordan Lake, Croatan, Holly Shelter, Bertie County, Roanoke River Wetlands.
Chris Baranski, a biologist who works in the northern Piedmont, believes the Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Land, with portions in northern Durham, southwestern Granville and northwestern Wake County, is North Carolina’s top game-land for whitetail deer. It covers 40,662 acres.
“Falls includes the southern part of Granville, which has always had a lot of deer, and the northern part of Durham County, which has a residential archery zone,” he said.
The Jordan Lake Game Land is Baranski’s second choice. It covers 40,350 acres in Wake, Chatham, Durham and Orange counties. Next, he likes the Uwharrie National Forest’s 51,849 acres split between Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties because of its quality habitat.
“Caswell Game Land is another top game land for deer,” Baranski said.
The Croatan National Forest, which covers 162,217 acres in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties, as an excellent public-hunting area in the eastern part of the state, as is the Bertie County Game Land, whose 3,790 acres gave up 131 deer last season. Another great public-hunting area in the southeastern part of the state is Holly Shelter Game Land north of Wilmington in Pender County. It covers 63,494 acres.
David Turner, a Commission biologist, said the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land offers some excellent opportunities for archers.
“I think the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land is the state’s best quality permit hunt for archery,” Turner said.
Permits cost $5 at point of sale from wildlife cooperator agents. Hunters may pick hunt dates from the Special Hunt Opportunities on-line list at www.ncwildlife.org., and will be notified if they apply and are chosen. Deadline for applications is Sept. 1.
“Archery deer permits (at Roanoke River) usually are granted, but there’s more demand for gun hunts,” Turner said.
Best game-land bets: Nantahala, Pisgah, Alligator River, Dare County Bombing Range.
Approximately 22,000 black bears roam North Carolina from Stumpy Point in eastern Dare County bordering Pamlico Sound to Parson Bald, 4,732 feet above sea level in western Swain County along the Tennessee border.
Game lands are scattered throughout eastern North Carolina, which holds the stat’s largest population of bruins, but public-land hunters tag more bears in western North Carolina: 253 to 88 last season.
“The key to understanding harvest figures is how big are the game lands and how many counties are included in a single game land,” biologist Chris Baranski said, pointing to a total of more than one million acres in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which easily outstrips the total acreage of all eastern game lands..
“Nantahala probably offers the best public-bear hunting now,” said Kip Hollifield, a Commission biologist stationed in western North Carolina.
The Alligator River and Buckridge game lands, both in Tyrrell County, had 37 bears harvested between them last season, according to Turner, who also touted the Dare County Bombing Range Game Land, not because of a large harvest but for quality hunts.
“It has 35 two-day bear still-hunts and dog hunts for back-to-back days in November and December,” he said.
These permit hunts include two-party (from five to 10 people) hunts for still and dog hunters.
“There are a limited number of permits, but it offers a good opportunity,” Turner said. “You don’t have to worry about too many people getting in each other’s way.”
Best game-land bets: Sandhills, Butner-Falls of Neuse, Jordan Lake, Bailey-Ca swell.
North Carolinas best public dove fields are mostly in the Piedmont.
The Sandhills Game Land comprises 63,000 acres surrounding the town of Hoffman along US 1 south of Raleigh in Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties. It is open to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Commission maintains 15 dove fields at Sandhills, from the 120-acre Carrington tract and the 30-acre Parsons tract to several fields from 4 to 7 acres in size. Dove fields on the game lands cover 214 acres.
Brady Beck, a biologist for the Commission, said not all of the fields are planted every year. Call the Sandhills Depot (910-281-3917) to check on the status of individual dove fields.
Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Land has had a reputation as a good dove-hunting venue for years.
“The Brickhouse Road dove fields (70 acres) ... draw a lot of hunters, but there are other good dove fields at Butner-Falls,” said Chris Baranski, a Commission biologist.
The 35-acre Flat River field, Olive the 28-acre Grove Road field, the 18-acre Ellerbe Creek field, the 17-acre Eno Hole field and the 16-acre Penny Bend field are planted in corn, millet, top-seeded wheat, buckwheat and sunflowers and draw plenty of doves.
Butner-Falls is open Monday through Saturday, with no special permits are needed to hunt doves.
Jordan Lake Game Land has seven dove fields totaling 55 acres, with the 22-acre NC 751 tract probably the best. Its dove fields also have corn, millet and top-seeded wheat.
The Wayne Bailey-Caswell Game Land’s seven dove fields cover 156 acres and range in size from the Scott Tract’s 30 acres to 8 acres at the Old Bigelow Tract.
Northeastern North Carolina has one of the top permit hunts on the Conoho Farms tract of the Lower Roanoke Rapids Wetlands Game Land between Williamston and Hamilton, but the deadline for permit applications was Au.g. 10. Approximately 40 acres of fields are planted in millet and sunflower on the right side of NC 125. To make sure all 50 permits are drawn during the application process, call 888-248-6834
“Permit dove hunts at the Lower Roanoke River Wetlands are by far the best in the northeast,” Turner said. “especially the first couple of days.”
Best game-land bets: J. Morgan Futch, Goose Creek, Lower Roanoke River, Lantern Acres, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.
With three major sounds, a half-dozen big rivers, hundreds of feeder creeks and small streams — all located along the Atlantic Flyway — coastal game lands dominate public-land waterfowl hunting in North Carolina.
Recognizing the attraction of ducks, geese and swans to the area, the Commission has carved out many game lands, purchased properties and built dozens of impoundments.
Chris Kent, a Commission biologist, said the J. Morgan Futch Game Land, which spreads across 600 Tyrrell County acres north of the Little Alligator River, is a top public-hunting area for waterfowl. Hunters must apply for $5 permits by Sept. 1 for early-season hunts and Oct. 1 for late-season hunts.
“Futch has 15 impoundments and 21 blinds,” Kent said, “including one for a disabled person and companion.”
Teal, ringnecks, mallards, some wood ducks, widgeon and a few pintails offer regular flyovers.
Goose Creek in Beaufort County features 13 impoundments off Goose Creek and four at Pamlico Point’s Bear Island. Permits are needed for all Goose Creek impoundments. Application deadlines are the same: Sept. 1 for early season hunts and Oct. 1 for late-season hunts. The Roanoke River Game Land offers early- and late-season permit hunts for four areas.
Kent said that Lantern Acres, which covers 1,825 acres in Tyrrell County adjacent to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is “coming on strong as a waterfowl game land.
“Lantern Acres (Tyrrell County, 1825 acres next to Pocosin Lakes NWR) is coming on strong as a waterfowl game land,” Kent said.
The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge has 16 blinds near the lake’s southern shoreline available for permit hunts. Application date for blinds is Oct. 1. Hunters who are drawn may bring up to two buddies. The application fee is $5, but a $15 per hunter fee is required the morning of the hunt at 5 o’clock. If permit-holders don’t show up, hunters standing by may be chosen for those blinds.
Best game-land bets: Butner-Falls of Neuse, Jordan, Caswell, Uwharrie, Sandhills, Shocco Creek, Roanoke River Game Lands, Pisgah, Nantahala, Cherokee, Thurmond Chatham, Three Top Mountain.
Biologist Chris Baranski said that the Brickhouse section of Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Lands is very popular with rabbit hunters, “but there are tons of (other) areas with excellent rabbit hunting.”
Jordan, Caswell, Shocco Creek and Tillery game lands also hold rabbits.
“You can have good hunting away from population centers,” Baranski said.
For gray squirrels, Caswell has some of the best upland hardwoods, he said, along with the Uwharrie National Forest. Butner-Falls and Jordan also have gray squirrels.
Beck said the Roanoke River Game Lands, with extensive bottomland hardwoods, also are excellent for squirrels, but he worries about heavy hunting pressure on fox squirrels at the Sandhills.
“The first two days we get people from all over, even campers, who want to get a fox squirrel,” Beck said.
Biologist Kip Hollifield said Cherokee, Thurmond Chatham and Three Top Mountain in northwestern North Carolina have some fox squirrels, along with tiny red squirrels.
Ruffed grouse are limited to the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, he said.
“You should look for early successional habitat,” Hollifield said. “If you’re serious about grouse hunting, call a (U.S. Forest Service) Ranger Station and see where timber’s been cut. Old logging roads are there to access old timber and are good places to walk. Grouse are dependent on food sources such as grapes, greenery and Christmas ferns. They concentrate there.”
“If you like woodcock and snipe, wet bottomlands at Jordan, Falls, Shocco and Embro are good,” Baranski said, “but weather is a factor. It depends on how cold it gets to make woodcock migrate. Some years the end of January is best; some years it’s in December.”
In 2015, Baranski and two friends flushed 38 woodcocks in one day on the Jordan Game Lands.
The Sandhills, which has a field-trial area, has some quail, but they’re generally not plentiful at most game lands.