How would you like the chance to hunt 6,000 acres in Morgan County that is only hunted two days a year? You would be hunting property that has an estimated deer population of 70 deer per square mile and has hunter-success rates of 50 to 80 percent. You can harvest two deer of either sex, and the state will tag the deer for you, so the deer don’t count against your season limits. Sound too good to be true? These are the types of hunts that can be experienced at some of Georgia’s state parks.
The above scenario describes Hard Labor Creek State Park near Rutledge, but many other prime hunting opportunities exist at some of Georgia’s other state parks. While there are numerous public hunting opportunities in Georgia including national forests and the many Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), some of the most unique and special deer hunting opportunities are in the state parks. Most of the state parks that offer special deer hunts provide excellent experiences for the fortunate few who are selected in the quota lottery.
The first public state park hunts occurred in 2005 when Hard Labor Creek and Richard B. Russell state parks held hunts to reduce and control the swollen deer herds. The parks were thick with malnourished deer, and it was common to see herds of thin deer walking around feeding on whatever they could find. Allowing hunting on these state lands was way overdue.
Scientific studies were conducted in 2003 and 2004 at Red Top Mountain State Park, located along Lake Allatoona. Documented was serious problems with overbrowsing, unhealthy deer and high numbers of deer-car collisions. A major reduction in the deer population was warranted.
The Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), personnel from the State Parks Division and wildlife biologists got together to discuss the need for the hunts and how to accomplish them. Either-sex firearms hunting over a few days by a quota-selected group of hunters was determined to be the most effective method, and the state park hunts were born.
WRD state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster explained it this way.
“Parks are selected for hunts by a committee that meets once every two years (the normal hunting-regulation cycle) and is made up of State Parks Division personnel and Wildlife Resources Division biologists. Because these hunts are strictly for management purposes, parks requiring less deer harvest may only schedule a hunt every other year. Parks that are hunted every other year are still listed in the hunting regulations in the off year, indicating a hunt schedule for the following year.”
According to WRD, these hunts are not designed for hunters’ recreation or enjoyment, although they clearly provide that for those who participate. Rather, state park hunts are held for the expressed purpose of reducing the deer herds. That is why they are not held at every park, and the deer hunts will be conducted some years and not others.
One hunter who has taken advantage of the state park hunts is Tony Rittenhouse. Along with several family members, Tony has been on four state park hunts and has experienced fantastic success. They’ve hunted Chattahoochee Bend twice, and Fort Yargo and F. D. Roosevelt once, taking a total of 15 deer on four hunts.
“On the first hunts conducted on state parks there was no limit on how many deer you were allowed to harvest, only you had to harvest a doe first,” Tony said. “The first morning of the hunt I harvested three, my wife harvested five, and my dad harvested one.”
That first state park hunt for the family was at Fort Yargo. The Rittenhouses bagged two deer at FDR and four deer at Chattahoochee Bend on subsequent hunts. The Rittenhouses enjoyed not only the high success rate, but also seeing the varied terrain, the helpfulness of the hunt staff, and they liked being able to stay in the state park cabins during the hunts.
“The uniqueness about Fort Yargo was that it was actually conducted inside a city limit. But, they really had everything planned out well. They had the park broken down into different sections and only allowed so many people in each section. It kept everyone spread out, and it was not over crowded.”
Tony found incredible buck sign at FDR.
“The deer population was nowhere the population that was at Fort Yargo, but the big buck sign was incredible. There were large—and I mean very large—rubbed trees all over the area of the park we hunted. There was so much buck sign it was hard to tell where to hunt.”
The Chattahoochee Bend hunts were different also and did not have the mandatory ‘must shoot a doe first’ rule. Tony bagged a doe and a spike on his first hunt there, but the second hunt he was surrounded by other hunters and left early. The hunting experiences at the state parks can vary widely, as Rittenhouse’s accounts show
Brian Nichols is the natural resource manager for DNR’s State Parks Division.
“A successful hunt involves the legal and ethical reduction of the deer population to amounts sustainable by the local area’s carrying capacity,” Brian said. “One of the first messages given to registered hunters at their mandatory pre-hunt meetings is: ‘This hunt is not recreational, but resource management driven.’ Population estimate methods like spotlight counts, vegetation studies and camera surveys have all been conducted and justify that deer herd management on parks can continue to be utilized. Social impacts are also considered. Once deer herd estimate and negative impacts consistently decrease, so will the necessity for the frequent hunts.”
Because the deer herds are over-populated in most cases, the hunter success rates are accordingly high. Your chances of seeing and killing a deer are excellent, which is why these state park hunts are so popular.
“Hunter success rates vary but typically average in the high 40s to low 80s, with an average in the low 60s,” said Nichols.
With a deer herd that often exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat, state park deer generally are smaller than average. That doesn’t mean you can’t see a good buck, but don’t go to a state park hunt expecting a wall-hanger. Do go looking for additions to your freezer. However, it’s always possible to see and harvest a good buck, and some hunters have done just that. Brian McIntyre, of Covington, hunted Hard Labor in 2011 and 2013 and killed an 8-pointer, a 9-pointer and an 11-pointer on two hunts.
“In 2011, I shot the 8-pointer in the morning as it was walking across a clearcut. Then I moved my stand 50 yards in the afternoon and killed the 11-pointer at 5 yards from my stand as it was making a rub.”
Two years later Brian bagged a 9-pointer at dawn as it was walking down a trail. Brian’s strategy is simple—find some buck sign near the thick stuff, and get in there and set up.
“I don’t think there is much of a strategy. You basically get in the woods, and you’ll see some deer,” he said.
I came to the action a little late with my first state park being at Hard Labor Creek in 2014. Hard Labor is known for its golf course, and golfers routinely see deer crossing the fairways. Hunters drawn are required to attend a pre-hunt meeting the night before, and as we gathered in a large meeting room, we were given instructions.
“We estimate that we have approximately 70 deer per square mile,” the WRD biologist said. “We want it to be 30. We want you to kill deer—don’t pass up the does,” he urged.
With that charge, 138 hunters headed into the woods the next morning and by the end of the two-day hunt, 117 deer had been removed from the park to become parts of family meals.
I scouted the park property the day before and found two promising areas, one a steep ridge loaded with acorns and the other an open hardwood flat also covered in acorns. The first morning I got in my stand an hour before dawn and waited for sunrise. While it was still dark, I listened to the trucks of other hunters drive in, and I also heard the footsteps of deer walking up the ridge and feeding. As the sky began to lighten, the deer were still there feeding, and I had yet to load my rifle.
As quietly as I could, I slowly put one cartridge in my old Ruger .30-06 bolt action. When it was light enough to see, I could tell there were two does within 15 yards, and I picked out the largest one and shot. Moments into my first state park hunt, I had a nice doe on the ground.
I counted more than 100 shots that morning. At the check station, there was a steady flow of deer-filled trucks rolling in and out. That afternoon I went to the other spot I had scouted and ran off two deer on my way in. The forest floor was thick with acorns and scattered with fresh scrapes. I set up in my climbing stand and waited while squirrels rustled about. A half hour before dark, a buck came strolling in with acorns on his mind, and I nailed the 2 1/2-year-old 7-pointer. One day, two deer, and I was done hunting. And DNR tagged the deer for me, a win all the way around.
Not surprisingly, these state park hunts are popular. Most hunts will require three or even four priority points to be drawn. The state park hunts are a separate category from the WMAs and have their own choices and priority points. The deadline to apply online is Sept. 1. Go to www.gohuntgeorgia.com.
In 2015, there were 11,544 applicants for 550 spots at six state parks. That’s a 21 percent chance of getting selected, but those raw numbers don’t tell the true story. Last year, 2,907 of those hunters applied for a state park hunt with zero priority points. Those applicants had no chance of being selected, and none of them were. With no priority points, you will not hunt a state park.
There were 558 hunters who used one priority point, and only 46 of those were picked—and all of those selected were for the hunt at R. B. Russell State Park. At Tugaloo, Red Top and Panola Mountain State Parks, no applicants who used two priority points were selected. The easiest state park hunt to be selected for was R.B. Russell, while the hardest was Panola Mountain, which has a quota of only 40 hunters. You will need four points to be picked for Panola Mountain. Hard Labor has the largest quota at 250, but there were 1,842 applicants for those 250 slots, and most who were selected used three priority points.
The year before in 2014, no applicants for a state park hunt who used zero points were picked, and only hunters applying for Mistletoe State Park had a chance with one priority point.
Because the deer populations are high at the state parks and the areas are only hunted a few days each year, the success rates are very high. For the last three seasons, the success rates at Red Top Mountain State Park have been 115, 57 and 63 percent. From 2011 through 2015, the hunters at Hard Labor Creek enjoyed success rates of 62, 54, 57, 85 and 52 percent.
“The state park hunts have been immensely successful in managing deer,” said WRD’s Charlie Killmaster. “Much of the feedback we’ve received on these hunts is very positive. Most hunters really enjoy these special opportunities. While the hunts are typically more carefully controlled than WMA hunts, they are typically staffed more heavily and provide excellent customer service. Additionally, the amenities the parks provide, often limited to just the hunters during the hunt, can add to the experience.”
During a two- or three-day state park hunt, the entire park is closed, and all services and energies are devoted to the hunt. That means hunters can use the campgrounds and the cabins. Only selected hunters can attend—no unselected family members can come—and the usual rates still apply. A $30 hunt fee must be paid before you hunt, and hunters still have to pay the $5 daily fee to enter a state park.
“Hunter feedback has been positive—a point we don’t take for granted,” said Brian Nichols. “A number of our hunt sites are located in urban or suburban areas, and we ask our hunters to go above and beyond to follow safety procedures for themselves, other hunters and for the general public. We recognize this and reciprocate where feasible to assist with tracking or dragging and loading the deer that ran downhill or to the water, or providing skinning racks with fresh water and lights at the check station. Thus far, hunters have accomplished our goals. There have been reductions in poor-bodied deer, an increase in vegetative diversity, and reduction in deer vs. motor vehicle accidents.”
If you want to get in on the state park hunt, start applying and save your priority points. You may only get to go every few years, but it will be worth the wait. Apply online each year between June 1 and Sept. 1 at www.gohuntgeorgia.com.