Labor Day is on the horizon; the kids are getting ready to go back to school. In many parts of the state, the tourist season is winding down. That’s not the case in Anson County, less than 90 minutes east of uptown, where things are just getting started.
Labor Day marks the first day of Dove hunting season, followed by bow season for deer later in the month. But longtime hunter and Anson County native Buck Willis says, if you don’t have family or friends with land, or you’re not paying to be a member of a club, it can be hard to find a place to hunt.
“Most anybody could come from out of town fifty years ago and find a place to hunt," he remembers. "That’s not the case now.”
Anson County has not seen the same rapid development as other parts of the region. So, the county has been trying to leverage its relative surplus of open space by positioning itself as an accessible outdoor getaway. The Chamber of Commerce launched a “Discover Anson” campaign last year. Its brochures invite visitors to surround themselves in the county’s wide open spaces and drive its country roads….all, according to the chamber, about an hour east of Charlotte.
Anson County is home to the only National Wildlife Refuge in the North Carolina piedmont, the Pee Dee refuge. There, licensed hunters can apply for permits to hunt on the 8,500 acres of public land. Most permits are free, the most they cost is $12.50.
"This makes it a lot easier for people to know what’s legal and feel safe and be able to enjoy the hunt without having to worry about anything," says refuge manager J.D. Bricken. He says part of his job is to familiarize young people with spending time outside.
"You’d be very surprised at how many kids, even in rural Anson County, aren’t familiar with the outdoors," he says. "They’re afraid when they come out. If we take a school group and walk on the trails, a lot of them are really jittery, looking around. They don’t know what might bite them or hurt them. It’s just the unknown. They’re afraid because they don’t know what they’ve got around them."
The Pee Dee Refuge also has about 20 miles of roads and trails, all open to the public for free. They wind through rolling fields and patches of woods, both dotted with small creeks and ponds. There’s even a covered bridge. And, of course, there are three miles of the Pee Dee River.
“On the river, you can catch just about any kind of fish," Bricken says, "pretty big catfish, bass, brim, shellcrackers, carp, uh, gar…a lot of different fish species in the river.”
The reserve also stocks ponds with some of those species.
If hunting or fishing isn’t your thing, there’s birdwatching. The refuge was established in 1963 to provide a place for migrating birds to come in the winter, specifically the James Bay Canada Geese. These geese used to fly into the area by the thousands. Nowadays, the number has dwindled to a few hundred.
Later this fall, the refuge will flood several hundred acres of farmland along the river to entice migrating birds into spending the winter. Those areas are closed to the public, but you can still spot more than 90 different species of ducks, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers.
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