Oliver Bridge WMA

If you are like me, a public-land junkie, the opening of a new wildlife management area near your hometown is a red-letter day. For folks in and around Statesboro, get ready… it’s a red-letter day! Welcome to Georgia’s newest public hunting area, Oliver Bridge Wildlife Management Area.

Oliver Bridge WMA is located in the southeastern part of the state, 12 miles east of Statesboro and 65 miles northwest of Savannah. This Bulloch County WMA is comprised of 1,932 acres of mostly small- to mid- sized pines bordering a hardwood swamp that forms the area’s northeastern boundary with the beautiful Ogeechee River. Hwy 24 forms the western boundary.

Oliver Bridge is the closest management area to Statesboro, its 30,000 inhabitants and the 16,000 or so stu- dents at Georgia Southern University. Before the opening of Oliver Bridge, the nearest public hunting areas were 40 to 50 miles from Statesboro. The skyrocketing cost of gasoline has caused all of us to consider hunting options closer to home. Now, thanks to this new hunting area, Statesboroites have that option.

The WMA provides a rare chance for public-land hunters and fishermen to pursue game or fish along the banks of a Georgia jewel: the Ogeechee River. The Ogeechee is one of Georgia’s last free-flowing rivers and has been relatively unaltered by devel- opment along its banks. The river starts in the Piedmont with raised banks, and it slowly changes to a wide blackwater stream (slow moving tea-colored water with sandy bottoms and bars) with forested swamps on either side of the main channel as it proceeds into the Coastal Plain.

The Ogeechee, as it proceeds through Oliver Bridge, is a lovely, mostly shallow, tannin-stained stream with large bank-side hardwood dead- falls providing a touch of primitive scenery as well as cover for the river’s various species of fish: redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish (shellcrackers), black crappie, spotted sunfish (stump- knockers), largemouth bass and catfish. There is boat access to the river from a ramp accessible from Hwy 24, but remember that the river’s depth and flow alter due to rainfall.

Deer, turkey and small-game hunting should be good on the property in its first year as a wildlife management area. The habitat is there, and hunting
pressure should be limited.

THE AREA

I visited the area on a warm August afternoon. The two main roads were well maintained and provided easy access to the area’s northeastern boundary along the Ogeechee River and to the remaining areas of various- aged pine plantation. Oliver Bridge, unlike many Coastal Plain management areas, has plenty of places to park alongside the roads and easy turn- around options. There are no sandy, water-filled, tire-trapping ditches so common to south Georgia dirt roads. Approaching a shallow firm-bottomed section of the river — which obviously serves as a well-used swimming hole for locals — I spied a large gobbler walking along a sandbar. As my truck approached, the bearded fellow high-tailed it away from the river into the thick pine plantation under- cover. In later interviews with local residents, I was told that in past decades (50s, 60s and 70s) the area served as a popular location for local Boy Scout activities such as camping and fishing.

While I walked along the river sandbars, a group of ducks flew away downriver. The swamp along the Ogeechee in the Oliver Bridge area has many large trees: oak, sweetgum, cypress, etc. These trees have the typical and impressive bulbous water- logged trunks typically found in south Georgia river swamps.

As I motored away from the river, more turkeys scurried off the road into the pines. I can certainly see myself visiting this area in the spring for some early morning gobbler calling followed by some late-morning ultra-light tackle action for Ogeechee River stump-knockers.

Away from the river, pine thickets dominate. Hunters who visit the area in this initial 2008 season will find challenging deer hunting in the vine- clogged understory. There is significant open-field farming surrounding Oliver Bridge, but the 1,932 acres under WRD management is undeniably thick. Deer will certainly be drawn to the nearby soybean fields along Hwy 24 and the WMA will, no doubt, serve as promi- nent escape cover for the deer in this part of Bulloch County. There is also a large well-established dog hunting club in this area of the county. Their activi- ties will also very likely cause deer to use the WMA as escape cover.

There is extensive clear-cutting taking place on the other side of Hwy 24. The downed browse in this area will attract deer to both the Bulloch County and Screven County sides of the river, and the Screven County deer will have no trouble crossing the currently shallow Ogeechee to reach the thick cover of Oliver Bridge WMA.

“Locals attest to the area’s good deer population and… there appears to be a good turkey population,” said WRD Wildlife Technician Jim Gillis. “Areas along the river should be productive.”

Management of the area recently fell into control of the Region 6 Game Management Office.

“DNR has only been managing the area since summer 2008,” Jim said in August. “We’ve placed a large DNR sign and kiosk sign-in at the Hwy 24 entrance, and we’ve put up gates block- ing several roads leading into the area’s interior. These interior areas can now be accessed only via foot traffic. Since deer season is right around the corner, and our preparation time has been limited, we feel that this type access will serve hunters best during this first year of use.”

Another aspect of the WMA that may make it a little less accessible for some are restrictions on camping and ATVs.

“The Oliver Bridge site is unusual in that the DNR is managing land belonging to the Georgia Department of Transportation,” Jim said. “DOT regulations do not allow camping or ATV access to off-road areas.”

The Local Low-Down

The Go-Bar Hunting Club is a long-established dog hunting club that has, in the past, hunted what is now Oliver Bridge WMA. Several members of the club provided some helpful information for deer hunters on the state’s newest WMA.

Justin Lucas of Bulloch County is a member of the Go-Bar Club and has hunted this area quite a bit over the years. He currently hunts land just across Hwy 24 from Oliver Bridge.

“The WMA land has been part of our club for years. The last couple of years we have let it rest and have concentrated on surrounding areas. So, it should be a great area this coming fall for deer,” Justin said in August. “I know that area well. It’s mostly pine trees with a big river swamp and with scattered hardwoods among the pines.

“There have been some fine deer taken from there and there should be plenty of them.”

Mike Clifton of Leefield, a life- long member of the Go-Bar Hunting Club, has had tremendous success deer hunting the area. Mike has an outstanding collection of mounted deer, turkeys and hogs killed in the Oliver Bridge area of Bulloch County.

Mike has been a member of the Go-Bar hunting club for 37 years. The club is the oldest dog-hunting club in Bulloch County and was established early in the twentieth century.

“The Go-Bar has been in existence for as long as I can remember,” Mike said. “My grandfather leased our family land to the club just as my dad did and now I do. It’s a special tradition in this part of Bulloch.”

The club was named for the Go- Bar Landing on the Ogeechee River. The club has 77 members and leases 7,800 acres in eastern Bulloch County. They gather each Wednesday and Saturday during the firearms season and conduct drives with their dogs.

Listening to Mike describe the club’s typical day of hunting was a special treat. He obviously loves dog hunting, and he speaks with a special reverent connectedness to the Bulloch County land and to the traditions of the decades-old Go-Bar Hunting Club.

“We club members welcome the hunters to the new WMA and hope to have a good relationship with all of them. And we hope to carry on our dog hunting for as long as we can,” he said.

As a potential Oliver Bridge WMA hunter, I came away truly impressed by Mike’s deep convictions as a dog hunter, a truly American tradition. George Washington was an avid dog hunter, and I intend to always respect the rights of men like Mike to continue dog hunting in Georgia.

Mike allowed me to photograph his Bulloch County trophies: five mounted bucks, a basket of stacked antlers, a giant wild hog and a full-body mount of an impressive gobbler. All of these animals were taken on the Oliver Bridge WMA tract or nearby. Mike spoke, generally, about the success rate of Go-Bar hunters over the years.

“Well, our biggest opening day harvest was several years ago, back in the day of buck-only hunting. We had an incredible opening day where we killed 16 bucks,” he said.

I asked Mike about more recent club success.

“Since the advent of doe days, I’d say we probably average five or six deer per opener. The deer population is good in this area of the state,” he said.

He’s also had success hunting other species. He showed me a full- body turkey mount taken from the area and grinned ear to ear when showing off a huge hog killed by his son, Chase, in 2002 on the land that is now part of the WMA.

“Now, I won’t say there’s a big population of hogs using the Oliver Bridge land but across the river in Effingham and Screven counties, there’s a good population of hogs. And nothing stops them from crossing the Ogeechee and using on the Bulloch County side,” he said. “This rascal here weighed near 500 pounds.”

I mentioned seeing several turkeys when I visited the area.

“Oh yeah, there’s a healthy turkey population on this new management area. No doubt about that,” was his reply.

Mike was born and raised in this part of Bulloch County and has been hunting and fishing the area since he could walk, so he should know.

The Ogeechee sandbars are beautiful to visit and the freedom to wander amongst the big swamp hardwoods is an adventure in itself. I hope to see you soon on the Oliver Bridge section of the Ogeechee River.

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