Would you like to hunt an exclusive, exotic island, set with tall palmetto and live oak trees, pristine beaches, fertile marshes, an abundant hog population and a deer herd of 70 per square mile? The area is hunted five times each year, and each hunt is limited to a strict quota. It is accessed only by boat, and hunt personnel provide transportation to hunt areas and game pickup. A restroom with hot showers and a game cooler are also available for hunters. Since this is a state land and the hunting managed as a WMA, it’s free except for your licenses and expense of getting there.
This jewel is Ossabaw Island, about 9,000 acres of high ground and more than 16,000 acres of salt marsh off Georgia’s coast near Richmond Hill. As a public-hunting area, Ossabaw consistently has the highest hunter-success rates of all WMAs. The habitat and terrain are scenic and distinct and provide one of the most unique and productive WMA hunts in the state.
The earliest known occupants of the island were native Indians who used the island for hunting grounds in the 1700s. It has been used for agriculture, vacation homes, environmental research and for hunting. After passing through many private owners, the state acquired Ossabaw in 1978. At the time of the sale, it was stated under an Executive Order by the governor that Ossabaw Island be dedicated as a Heritage Preserve, which states, “Ossabaw Island shall only be used for natural, scientific, and cultural study, research and education, and environmentally sound preservation, conservation, and management of the Island’s ecosystem, under conditions carefully monitored and controlled by the Department of Natural Resources.”
Conservation and management dictate the need to control deer and hog populations, and this is where hunters come in. There are two general firearms hunts, one in early October and one in mid-December, an archery hunt in late October, a primitive-weapons hunt in early November and a firearms adult/child hunt on Thanksgiving weekend. All hunts are by quota drawing, and hunters can shoot two deer and as many hogs as they want to drag out of the woods. Additionally, there are two hog-only hunts in late January and late February.
All hunts except the adult/child hunt have a quota of 100 hunters and must be applied through DNR’s online quota-hunt system. The adult/child hunt has a quota of 75 hunters (under the age of 17) and must be applied for by letter to the Brunswick Game Management office. See the hunt regs or check with DNR for specifics. Only the kids can hunt during the Ossabaw adult/child hunt.
Success rates on Ossabaw—the number of deer killed divided by the number of hunters—are off the charts. The average success rate of four hunts in 2006 was 51.4 percent. In 2007, the average success rate of four hunts was 67.4 percent with a high of 87 percent on the early October firearms hunt. The 2008 season saw an average success rate of 84.4 percent. The early October firearms hunt again was the top taker with an outstanding 124 percent success rate. The average success rate in 2009 for all four hunts was 72.2 percent. The early November primitive-weapons hunt earned an 81 percent rate.
I have been on the island nine times, and every time someone in our party, I and/or the child I was supervising, were successful in harvesting game. This has included three youth hunters bagging their first deer ever. Nothing is sweeter or more satisfying than helping and observing a youngster shoot his or her first whitetail. The excitement and unstoppable grins are worth it all, and many adults get as giddy as the kids.
That is exactly what happened this past Thanksgiving during an Ossabaw hunt with my 13-year-old son Tucker, his 12-year-old friend Robbie and Robbie’s dad. Robbie had never taken a deer before, and I was given instructions from his grandparents, which include the pastor of our church, to make sure he got a deer. Talk about pressure, but I knew he had as good a chance at Ossabaw as anywhere.
Being an island hunt, the logistics of getting to the property and hunting the land are vastly different from a typical WMA. The obvious of course is accessing the island. With no bridge or public transportation, all transportation is by boat. The hunter has two options—take your own craft, or pay an outfitter to carry you over.
If you trailer your own boat down there, you can launch at one of two main options, Fort McAllister State Park or Kilkenny Marina. Anyone driving their own boat needs to be aware of the tides, potential storms and the possibility of having to stream-anchor at the island’s dock. If you launch at Kilkenny, your boat is lowered by crane into the water.
The most popular option is to let Kilkenny Marina take you and your gear. They will send a letter to all hunters selected offering their transportation service. For a fee of $55 per person, they will transport you and all your gear to the island and back again. They will begin transporting hunters at 7 a.m. the day before the hunt on a first-come basis.
Once on the island, hunters set up camp around the check station and entry road. There is a floating dock at the island’s edge. Large carts are available to transport gear from the dock to your camp, and some hunters bring their own carts or wheelbarrows.
Seasoned Ossabaw hunters have learned to consolidate their loads. Since you will be moving your gear numerous times, the easier it is to move the better. A popular conveyance are the large wheeled trash cans that work great moving lots of gear easily. Camping is primitive, so bring everything you will need including tables, chairs, lanterns and coolers. Large tarps strung up over camps are popular and are critical to help keep your camp dry.
For years the camp area had a crude bathroom with cold-water showers and a cooler for hanging game. The check station was renovated a few years ago but burned down in 2010. Last season the state used a temporary tent as a check station. A new building has just been completed and will be ready for the 2012-13 season. This brand-new metal building has four bathrooms containing a toilet, sink and a shower with hot water. This new all-in-one facility will have the check station with a lobby containing maps and other information. There will also be a long bank of electrical outlets to charge cell phones and other electronics.
Once you arrive at the island, pick out a campsite and head to the check station to check in. Make sure you have your identification and all necessary licenses. At this point you can sign up for a hunting spot. Hunt options include a walk-in area close to camp, and there are three “wagon routes” where the trailer drops and picks up hunters. Each hunting spot has a number, and some also have a letter such as E or W indicating east or west side of the road. The areas in the far northeastern portion of the island closest to the ocean are considered all-day hunts, meaning the wagon does not come get you at midday. Hunters are taken out to their spots every morning and afternoon by a pickup truck pulling a trailer. They are dropped off at their spot and picked up late morning and after dark.
Hunters who have been to the island many times have their favorite spots and try to hunt there each time. Once you sign up for an area, it’s yours for the duration unless you don’t hunt it or give it up. For this reason, there can be a rush to get particular spots on check-in day. Spots are sometimes traded and negotiated. I have my favorite spot, but I’m not about to tell anyone where it is!
The state conducted a survey last season among hunters to see how they felt about the way the system was set up.
“The overall preponderance of people preferred the way we were doing it now to other methods,” said WRD Senior Wildlife Technician Ed Van Otteren. “Some influential people didn’t like the way we were doing it because they didn’t get their spot. But most people would want to choose their spot than be placed.”
Scouting can be done the day before the hunt, but hunters must walk all the way to their spot and back, which is why most opt for waiting for the first day of the hunt to find a stand location. Each area is about 1/4-mile wide and typically reaches from the road to the next marsh, pond or road.
Just like whitetails anywhere, look for food sources, deer sign and cover. When hunting coastal islands, cover means thick marshes. Look on the map, Google Earth or scout on foot around your hunting area, looking for the marshes, and hunt near them. Deer and hogs usually stay near the marshes and venture out to feed at night. Giant live oaks with sprawling branches covered with Spanish moss and palmetto trees (they look like palm trees) of all sizes are the primary trees of Ossabaw. The entire island is flat. Some hunters use tree stands, while others hunt from the ground. Agile sportsmen may want to climb the live oak limbs for a handy perch.
Island soils are sandy and are not particularly fertile. For this reason, the deer do not grow big. A mature buck will field-dress 70 or 80 pounds.
“You don’t go to Ossabaw to shoot a big buck, you go to shoot a deer,” said Ed. “Most people shoot whatever comes by, not holding off on shooting does or young bucks.”
Ed assesses the Ossabaw deer population as steady, but it might be down a little because it has been so dry. Last year was very dry, but some good rains in middle June have helped.
The hunts at Ossabaw are very labor-intensive, according to Ed. Four workers are needed to stay on the island for the hunt and are limited to 40 hours a week despite transporting hunters at 5 a.m. and picking them up well after dark. For that reason it is not likely that more hunts will be added. The hunts that are scheduled are to give the most opportunity for hunters.
The hogs used to overrun the place, but numbers have been dramatically reduced.
“The goal is to kill every pig on the island,” Ed said. “They compete for food directly with the deer. The best goal is to control the pigs and protect sea turtle nests,” he said.
On our hunt this past Thanksgiving, the first morning was unproductive, so we changed locations. That evening I spotted two deer easing out of the marsh at dusk, but my son did not see them. With that sighting, I decided to take Robbie with me the next morning to that spot to try to get him a shot at his first deer.
The morning dawned bright with anticipation as the sun’s first rays darted through the palmetto leaves. An hour later we spotted two deer moving quickly through the forest, but they came by too quickly, and Robbie was unable to get his sights on them. I could see the disappointment on his face as the opportunity slipped by. Moments later I heard a shot come from the direction of my son, who was hunting with Robbie’s dad.
Half an hour later, I saw Robbie perk up and stare intently down the strip of woods. He raised his gun and aimed. Because of the foliage, I couldn’t see what he did and could only hope for the best. Robbie pulled the trigger and turned to me and said with a huge smile, “I got ’em!”
Though he wasn’t my son, I felt the thrill and pride of a boy’s first deer. We went down to see his doe, and I gave congratulations and took pictures. We dragged his kill toward the other duo and met my son who wore a wide grin also. He had shot the doe that had slipped by us initially. Both boys killed deer the same morning, and smiles beamed all around. The last morning my son took a spike, and Robbie also had other opportunities.
My first hunt to Ossabaw was in 1984 shortly after the state began hunts there. It was common to go out in the woods and see deer and hogs everywhere. There is still an abundant game population, but you have to hunt a little harder. In 1992, I killed a 7 1/2-year-old buck that field-dressed 78 pounds and had a handsome 12-inch wide 8-point rack. That’s about as good a buck as you’re going to find on the island. My oldest son killed his first deer on Ossabaw in 2000, and in 2002 he and another boy both killed two deer each.
But as with any hunting, it’s not always easy pickings. On the archery hunt in 2006, 76 bowhunters killed six deer, and my hunting partner and I killed two of them. That year it was extremely warm and humid, and all low-lying areas were full of water and mosquitoes. That leads to the next issue. If you’re going to hunt Ossabaw before mid-November, you better be well-prepared for bugs. Take Deet, Permanone, ThermaCells, Citronella candles and everything you can to keep the bugs at bay, or you will regret it.
If you want to hunt an exotic island with dense game populations and high harvest rates, start applying for an Ossabaw Island hunt. It may take several years of applying and numerous priority points to get selected, but it’s worth it, and you’ll be glad you did.