Updated: Sep 30, 2021
North Carolina hunters have several million acres of public lands at their fingertips. TSN Outdoors profiles the ones they should take a long look at, by species.
With a growing human population of 11 million, North Carolina is changing from a rural state where access for hunting and fishing once was easy but now is shrinking.
So the value of public land where citizens may hunt, fish, hike, camp, photograph or watch wildlife increases daily.
Public areas where citizens may engage in these activities are called game lands. Statewide, they total 2.1 million acres and are managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Meanwhile, 322,000 North Carolina residents own hunting licenses, and 25,000 non-residents visit the state to hunt. The total number of fishermen is around 1.525 million. Together, they spend $2 billion annually for their pasttimes, each expecting some bang for their outdoors bucks. Most don’t own private property, so game lands are left to supply these needs.
The following details some of North Carolina’s valuable game lands to outdoorsmen:
North Carolina hunters killed more than 5,200 deer on public-hunting areas around the state last season
Last season, hunters tagged 5,222 deer on game lands, 20% above the previous season, but well behind the record 7,135 deer tagged on public lands in 2007-08.
The bucks stop here, as far as public lands play out
Game-lands comparisons are difficult when considering access, whitetail numbers and hunting success. Hunting habitats are as different across the state as a sand dollar and a freshwater clam.
Nantahala, Pisgah National Forests
There’s little question that the Macon County section of the Nantahala National Forest, is
the best public-hunting area for deer in the western third of North Carolina.
“The Macon Ranger District has lots of wildlife openings including logging roads, power lines and openings at higher and lower elevations, sanctuaries and wilderness areas” said David Stewart, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Hunters took 200 deer of Macon County tracts that are part of the Nantahala National Forest last season. Three other counties weren’t far behind: Transylvania, Cherokee and Jackson.
The Nantahala National Forest covers about 530,000 acres. The Pisgah National Forest is slightly smaller, at around 512,000 acres. Slightly more accessible to hunters from the eastern two-thirds of the state, the Pisgah National Forest produced 111 deer last year in Madison County, 105 in Brunswick County and 81 in Burke County.
Butner-Falls of Neuse, Jordan Game Lands
These two game lands are mirror images, with good deer populations and large reservoirs at their centers. Together they cover approximately 26,000 acres just north and south of the Raleigh-Durham area, respectively.
Similar landscapes include mixed hardwood-pine forests surrounded by small farms and housing developments.
Annual deer kills at the two game lands have tracked evenly for years.
“Both game lands are excellent for deer,” said biologist Chris Baranski of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Hunters shouldn’t have any trouble (finding whitetails). Everything is developed except the game lands, so deer concentrate inside a large expanse of undeveloped land.”
Croatan National Forest
The Croatan National Forest in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties in eastern North Carolinay offers a different experience with its pocosins, swamps and forests.
Last season, hunters tagged 331 deer on the national forest’s 162,247 acres, an increase of better than 20% over the previous season.
“Croatan is a popular place for deer hunting,” said Richie Clark, a Commission biologist.
Wildlife food plots include oats and rye near Pelletier and Long Point Landing. The Croatan has white oak ridges near the Havelock ferry terminal and large drainage areas reachable by boat at Bryce’s Creek and the White Oak River.
“Some of the biggest whitetail bucks in eastern North Carolina are killed (here) each season,” Clark said. “Most come out of Jones and Craven.”