How can we hunt on a wildlife refuge you ask? The area of the Coastal Plain where Pocosin Lakes is located happens to be an important area for wintering waterfowl and one of the highest density populations of black bears anywhere. The management plan reflects an effort to encourage these animals to use the refuge and therefore, much of the available land is put in row crops like corn and soybeans to serve as food for the ducks and bears. The unruly guests at this wildlife party are the whitetail deer, which help themselves to all of the refuge's amenities and drain resources from the species they are meant for. To keep the herd in check, USFWS and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission partner to offer four 2-day hunts during the season to sportsmen who put in for, and draw, one of the 200 special use permits that allow it on the refuge's 12,000-acre Pungo Unit.
When I came as a tag-a-long for the first time back in 2006, I hardly knew most of the guys in camp, but I didn't really care. Deer hunting was fairly new to me back then. All I cared about was seeing and hopefully shooting a deer. Pungo didn't disappoint that season. On the final evening of the hunt, I harvested a big doe from a mature pine stand. That early success branded the Pungo hunt as a must-do for the future, but there was something more to it than that. The camaraderie I found back at the campsite was every bit as enjoyable as the abundance of game. It was a turning point in my hunting career.
|Brothers hanging a stand amid the insect onslaught|
The weather coming into the weekend was perfect. The first strong cold front of the season was scheduled to pass across the region the night before our hunt started. Temperatures that had been averaging in the high 70s were forecast to plummet into the low 60s for daytime highs. The moon was in its last quarter, suggesting deer would be on the move during daylight hours (if you buy into that theory - I sort of lean that way). Unfortunately, we had to survive a day of scouting and hanging stands before the weather turned. That meant we had to face the buzzing horde of mosquitoes that had been growing to biblical proportions ever since the eastern part of the state received upwards of 20 inches of rain in some places during a stormy period back in September. The skeeters were as bad as promised. They scoffed at my scent-free/DEET-free spray-on repellent. They attacked as soon as the vehicle doors opened and followed us into the trees as we hung our stands. It was miserable.
Our only relief was back at camp, where the smoke from the fire kept the bugs at bay. We huddled close to the blaze that night, anticipating that first puff of wind from the North that had been promised us. If the front was delayed, the morning hunt was going to be an exercise in survival.
Typically, afternoons are not as productive as mornings at Pungo, but when John and I spotted a deer feeding along a grassy access road at 4 p.m., we managed to buck the norm by pulling off a 600-yard stalk across open ground that got me within 30 yards of the yearling. He ended up being the smallest deer without spots any of us had ever seen, but the tiny little button buck got a trip to my freezer anyway. I had already decided before the hunt started that I'd take the first opportunity that presented itself, regardless of sex or size of the target. The purpose of the hunt is to reduce the size of the deer herd, and my freezer is getting low. Nate also connected that evening, for his first deer in a couple of years. To say the spirits were soaring back at camp would be an understatement. We'd never had a day as productive as that, and we still had another one to add to the tally. Most importantly, there were still a few guys who needed a deer. Mark still hadn't even seen one and neither had Brett. Ray was hunting public gamelands outside the refuge and was seeing deer, but hadn't closed the deal - yet.
As Mark and I drove west the following day - 5-1/2 hours to his home outside Charlotte and another 2 hours for me to Black Mountain - I had plenty of time to reflect on what had been a perfect weekend. Nearly everyone had venison to bring home; Nate and Mark were back on the board after several deerless years of frustration; Brett and John had made their first kills, and by the looks on their faces and enthusiasm to learn, it would certainly seem likely they are in it for the long run; and I had reconnected with my best friends. That seems to be more and more important to me as I evolve as a hunter and grow older as a man. Harvesting game and providing healthy, beautiful meat for loved ones is still a major reason for why I hunt, but sharing the experience with friends is just as important to me now. Too many modern hunters have never experienced deer camp the way it should be. Competition for hunting land and the pursuit of trophies have made it a solo existence for far too many. To them I say, call up your buddies, find a place you can all hunt and set aside a weekend this season to gather at the campfire. If you have trouble doing that, you can always pull up a chair and put your boots up at our fire pit. See you next season.