Willie Johnson’s dirty Toyota pickup rolls to a stop in a Walmart parking lot near I-285. Overhead, a jumbo jet howls. Johnson has to shout to be heard above the roar. “It’s not far,” he yells. “I’m thinking that we can cut through the parking lot instead of going out the main road.”
We’re near Hartsfield-Jackson airport, but Johnson doesn’t want to say exactly where. His reluctance is not unusual. Hunters everywhere closely guard their favorite spots, but hunters in metro Atlanta are especially cagey. They fear resistance from residents who know little about hunting and from poachers who kill deer illegally. While state law prohibits hunting with a gun in Clayton, Cobb, and DeKalb, as well as in Fulton County north of Georgia Highway 92, there’s nothing illegal about going out with a bow. For the urban hunter, the tricky part is finding land.
Leading the way in his truck, Johnson drives through the parking lot of a strip mall and a Waffle House. Past a sporting goods store, a divided two-lane road leads to a subdivision without houses, another casualty of the economic collapse. The pavement eventually turns into a one-lane gravel road, winds past three established homes, and dead-ends at Johnson’s hunting spot, a wooded parcel of about ten acres.
Johnson gets permission to hunt tracts of land by knocking on doors and asking, scouting out new locations year-round. In metro Atlanta, the state does not manage any public hunting; all of the huntable land is privately owned, meaning that by law hunters must get permission from the landowner to hunt the property. Johnson says, “There’s a lot of places to hunt if people would just ask.”
White-tailed deer were few and far between in Georgia until the 1950s, when the species was reintroduced to the state. By the early nineties, the population peaked at 1.4 million. At this level, deer competed for habitat and were more likely to play Frogger across expressways. Loosening restrictions on hunters (the season has been extended until January 31 in metro-area counties) brought the deer population down to around 900,000. That’s a half million fewer cervids hurling themselves at minivans and Miatas statewide. However, growing suburbs have encroached on deer populations, crowding out their natural predators. The result? Deer around Atlanta are living longer and growing bigger.
In recent years, deer hunters have flocked to metro Atlanta hoping to kill a trophy buck. “DeKalb and Fulton counties are known for big deer,” says Johnson. In 2006, Robert Coombs, a Roswell resident, bagged the largest deer ever killed with a crossbow in Georgia. He was hunting in the Roswell city limits just off a four-lane highway. In November, residents of Roswell’s Martins Landing subdivision criticized Coombs for hunting an adjacent and relatively large 20-acre tract, citing safety concerns.
In truth, the only person realistically in danger of getting hurt by a bow hunter is the bow hunter himself. In 2009, there were four bow-hunting accidents reported in Georgia, and they were all falls from tree stands, according to executive director Wayne East at the International Hunter Education Association. No children were maimed by broadheads, no stray arrows flew through open windows, and no bow hunters mistook Fido for Bambi.
Deer hunters play a critical role in managing deer populations, which reduces auto accidents involving the animals. Since 2000, accidents involving deer have remained relatively steady. But when the figures are compared to the influx of people, accidents are down. “Deer are going to be killed,” says John Bowers with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “They’re either going to be killed by hunters or your car.”
The morning after Johnson gave a tour of his hunting spot, he bagged his seventh deer of the season, on a tract of land in DeKalb County. He lobbed the first arrow from his Hoyt TurboHawk bow into the buck’s chest at thirty-five yards and another when it came within five yards of his tree stand. A few hundred yards away, Johnson found the animal lying in a creek. He pulled it from the water, field-dressed it, and, after a short drive home, began prepping it for the freezer.
Photograph by Jason Maris