Up the Creek: Paddling Your Way to the Best Hunting Spots in Georgia

Crowded public lands lead one hunter on an off-road search for the perfect stand.

Like many other hunters across this great state, I was not fortunate enough to own any private acreage or belong to any exclusive hunting clubs last year. Whenever a species came in to season, I rushed to various WMAs across the state only to find that nearly 300 other people had the same idea on any one of those given days.

Cursed by a 2-wheel-drive truck and poorly maintained roads, it seemed like the only places I could physically get to were the ones with pickup trucks parked on both sides of the road every 75 yards.

After seeing no wildlife whatsoever and several orange-clad hunters tromping around my deer stand, I left the woods cursing and joined the shameful ranks of the 46 percent of Georgia deer hunters who didn’t kill a deer last year.

By the time waterfowl season came around, I had already forgotten about my bad luck and enthusiastically began the ritual of waking up at 4 a.m. to shoot at birds at dawn. While I didn’t have a motor boat of any kind, I did have the use of friend’s canoe, which turned out to be even better.

My friend and I rotated between Lake Sinclair, Cedar Creek WMA and the Oconee River, paddling his canoe deep into the dead lakes and creek channels that were inaccessible to the rest of the general public.

Besides the many ducks and geese we encountered, we also began to notice something completely foreign to us on public land: deer. I marked many of these locations on my GPS, and when I returned home, I entered the coordinates into a computer mapping program and saw that many of the places we had been were miles from any road and completely impractical for any sane hunter to walk to.

Even if someone could have gotten to the area on foot, he then would have had to brave sloughs of sticky Georgia mud and wade across the neck-deep channels of 40-degree water to access both sides. Unless an elite team of Navy SEALS or android robots planned on hunting there, I was pretty sure my spot was safe, and you can bet I’ll be there this season.

It’s no secret to waterfowlers that using a canoe or jonboat is a great way to get to those hard-to-reach places, but surprisingly few big-game hunters seem to take advantage of it. When you look at the hard numbers, it’s easy to see why you should try a few unconventional tactics on public land.

According to Bugwood.org’s timberland statistics, the state of Georgia has approximately 24.1 million acres of forested land. Non-quota wildlife management areas make up 1 million acres, a mere 4 percent of the state’s hunting land. This means that about 96 percent of Georgia’s potential hunting land is privately owned. Unless you have access to some private land, you are competing with a lot of people for a small amount of territory.

Ask the Experts

Perhaps the greatest resource for hunting advice around is the local game wardens, who spend the majority of their time learning the woods and interacting with hunters. The best way to get in touch with one is to call the Georgia WRD Game Management office in Social Circle at (770) 918- 6400 and ask them to put you in touch with an officer in your area.

“I’ve used boats on several occasions to access my personal hunting spots, and so do a lot of people around Allatoona,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Weaver, who’s worked as a DNR Law Enforcement officer in Georgia for the last 18 years. “It’s quiet, it cuts down on scent, and it’s worked out pretty well for me.”

Give Canoes a Chance

There are several key differences between canoes and motor boats in relation to their cost and overall practicality. People who own motor boats often describe them as a hole in the water they throw money into. A motor can be several decades old and still cost a few hundred dollars. Then there is the cost issue of trailers, the boat itself, towing capabilities, potential mechanical problems, $3 a gallon gas, and the limited number of access points from which you can actually launch one.

Canoes are a much more practical vehicle to hunt out of because you can usually find a decent used one for around $200, and while it requires a little more effort to move, there is a lot less that can go wrong in the process. Plus, you can carry or drag a canoe a short distance by yourself and launch it in a foot of water. If you can’t afford to buy one, you can always rent one from a local outfitter for between $25 and $40 a day.

Besides deer and waterfowl, small boats can also be great for hunting turkeys and hogs. Most people know that turkeys roost near water, and floating around with a locator call is a great way to find out where they’re hiding. I have also snuck up on countless groups of hogs with a canoe that didn’t even realize I was there until I was 20 or 30 yards away.

The best time to try to hunt from a boat is during the early season when the heat focuses deer activity around water. While most hunters are sitting in the air conditioning waiting for October, the smart ones are out searching for their next potential honey hole. Last year, 76 percent of archery hunters went home empty handed, as did 78 percent of muzzleloader enthusiasts.

While it seems like early season deer have little interest in food until after legal shooting light, they still have to get water to beat the heat, and scouting worn out trails from your canoe can tell you exactly where they’re coming from so you can ambush them before nightfall.

Know the Terrain

While this sneaky little tactic may be a great way to fill your tag, it is not without its own challenges. Last March, I paddled up a channel in Cedar Creek while turkey hunting only to find that the high banks of the creek had caved in and several large trees had fallen straight across the water, completely blocking my path. When you encounter obstacles like high banks and fallen trees, your choices are pretty much limited to getting out of the boat or going home.

I have also had my fair share of run-ins with rocks, submerged logs, alligators, sandbars, rapids, currents and other marine obstacles and wildlife. The best advice for avoiding these obstacles is to remember that still water runs deep. Stay away from ripples because there’s usually something underneath them.

Although rapids aren’t all that common in Georgia, there’s always the chance of getting caught in them. If you should find yourself caught in a rapid, the best thing to do is lower your center of gravity by dropping your butt on the floor or kneeling. No matter what happens, you should never stop paddling because doing so might cause you to get spun around and rolled over.

Since using a boat adds a new dimension of danger to hunting, it’s important to take all necessary safety precautions. Already this year, Georgia DNR has reported 93 boating incidents resulting in 71 injuries and 10 fatalities. There have also been 38 drownings.

Always Be Prepared

There are a few things you should never be without when hunting or really doing anything involving boats. I always carry my life jacket, map, GPS, cell phone, knife, flashlight, batteries, plenty of water, toilet paper and a good lighter. These things can save your life if you get in trouble.

I once got caught in a torrential downpour during turkey season at Tuckahoe WMA; a 40,000-acre swamp that borders the Savannah River and lies almost completely below sea level.

It rained so hard so fast that the river rose and flooded all the sloughs and previously rutted out roads before I could escape. I got trapped on the most remote side of the property and trudged six miles through the thigh-deep swamp water before I got a signal on my cell phone and called 911. I felt like an idiot when the game warden showed up to rescue me, but two hours later I was sitting in my living room in clean clothes with a cold beer instead of shivering under a tree in my sopping wet camouflage.

There are also several legal issues associated with hunting from a boat. All boating rules still apply, so it is important to have life jackets, a fire extinguisher, boat registration and running lights. While the first three are not required for canoes, it is required to have some sort of light if traveling after dark, and it’s pretty dumb to not have a life jacket, especially in the winter.

While there have been no recent deaths in Georgia attributed specifically to hunting from a boat, there have been several in other parts of the nation, according to DNR headquarters. In 2002, a 37-year-old Oklahoma man was killed when he flipped over his motorized canoe while deer hunting. He spent less than 15 minutes in the freezing water before finally going under. A 73-year-old West Virginia man died just last year under similar circumstances.

Stay within Legal Hunting Boundaries

“You can’t just arbitrarily float down the river and shoot things,” said Cpl. Robert Peacock of the Macon DNR region. “You have to know the out boundaries on public land, and people hunting from a boat on private land must either own it or obtain written permission from the owner.”

There are many places for people who don’t own land to try their luck in this kind of hunt. Besides Cedar Creek and Tuckahoe, there is Chicksawhatchee, Riverbend, Rum Creek, Sapelo Island, Phinizy Swamp, Redlands, parts of Lanier and scores of other lakes, rivers, streams, and miscellaneous waterways across the state.

Nearly every management area in Georgia has some kind of waterway that can be accessed with a canoe or small johnboat.

Plan Ahead

Before you rush into the woods, it’s important to plan your trip thoroughly. The best way to go about your planning is to first decide where you will put in and where you will take out.

If you are hunting in a river and have to factor in a current, do yourself a favor and put in downstream from where you intend to hunt and paddle upriver. I can promise that it is much harder to paddle against a current with a 150-lb. dead animal in the front of your boat.

After you decide where to put in and take out, figure out the traveling time you will spend getting from point A to B. This can only be done with experience so it is important to get out there and do it at least once before you intend to hunt.

I can say from personal experience that paddling upriver on the Oconee in a canoe has an average speed of 1 mph, while traveling downstream has a speed of approximately 3 mph. However, this can change with rising or dropping water levels due to rain and dams.

Once you calculate your traveling speed, you can begin to coordinate sun- rise and sunset times with your actual hunt. If you intend to be in a stand an hour before daylight and you have to paddle a mile upstream to get there, you know you have to arrive at your destination by about 6 a.m. and therefore need to be in your boat and paddling by 5. The same is true for afternoon hunts.

If at all possible, you should bring a friend with you for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s an extra person to paddle, which makes your life easier. Secondly, it is safer to hunt with a friend, and you can learn your surroundings twice as fast with an extra pair of eyes and ears. It also means you don’t have to drag your deer out by yourself, which is always a plus.

Now that you have a better under- standing of how to outsmart the lazy guys, there’s nothing to it but to do it. While I can’t boast about killing any gigantic monsters last year, I can promise you will definitely encounter fewer people, and your time in the woods will be spent more wisely than before. Why be like one of the 109, 656 hunters who didn’t kill a deer last year when you’re only a short boat ride away from the big one?

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