Public Paradise: 5 Top Carolina Bowhunting Trips

Public Paradise: 5 Top Carolina Bowhunting Trips

Modern firearms seasons can make it difficult for a bowhunter to find a quiet place to hunt in South Carolina - difficult, but not impossible!

By Walt Rhodes

South Carolina is busting at the seams with deer. From the mountains to the ocean, herds of white-tailed deer occupy nearly all of the environmental nooks and crannies possible. Even the historically deer-poor Pee Dee region has its fair share of venison.

The abundant deer population allows for liberal regulations to help keep the statewide herd in balance. Months of hunting with rifles or buckshot, no limit on bucks and readily available antlerless deer tags are parts of our deer hunting that are only dreamed about outside of the Palmetto State. It is a great place for deer hunters.

The liberal regulations come with a tradeoff, however. The long firearms season leaves little room, if any, for specialty-weapon hunts.

Other states that have shorter firearms seasons are able to squeeze in a six-day muzzleloader season or month-long archery season. Some portions of South Carolina have short seasons for more primitive weapons, but for the most part, rifle-hunting rules.

Even with the liberal regulations in South Carolina and a preponderance of deer hunters who use firearms, several WMAs across the state allow bowhunting, some exclusively. Starting in the mountains and heading toward the coast, here's a profile of several tracts that will please even the most die-hard archer.

Photo by Mike Searles

FANT'S GROVE WMA
Ever since Fant's Grove WMA started having rifle hunts three seasons ago, the bowhunting opportunities here, which used to attract a great deal of attention, have been overshadowed.

"When we opened the area to firearms hunting to try to kill a few more antlerless deer, many hunters were anxious to use a rifle to get a crack at the quality bucks that roam the property," said Richard Morton, an assistant regional wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). "Because of the antler restrictions and habitat, there are some nice deer on the area."

Fant's Grove WMA covers about 7,000 acres in Oconee, Pickens and Anderson counties near Clemson. Several different tracts of various acreages make up the WMA.

The area is rolling Piedmont-type land with a mix of deer habitat types. Hardwoods, including both red and white oaks, are common on the property. Hunters will find a lot of mature pine, too.

"Pine beetles recently hit the property pretty hard, so deer hunters will see some habitat change in those areas. About 600 acres were affected. The larger blocks of damaged trees were cut and replanted. Smaller areas were also cut, but they were allowed to grow back naturally, which will produce some good deer habitat," he noted.

Morton said that Fant's Grove is not hunted hard during the archery season. He said a hunter might come to a popular entry point and see five or six cars, but that road might lead to 1,000 acres or more. That's a lot of room for bowhunters to roam.

"There are a lot of roads on Fant's Grove. They are cabled off, and most of them run for two or three miles to Lake Hartwell.

"It has been my experience that most hunters only go in about one mile or so," Morton explained. "It is legal to access the property from the lake, which some hunters do by launching a boat at either 18-Mile Creek or Twin Lakes boat landing. When I'm hunting there, I try to avoid any crowd by getting in between the hunters that might be coming in from the road and the lake."

SCDNR eliminated check stations several years ago, so Morton has no way of knowing exactly how many deer are harvested each season. He said when the check stations were in operation, the harvest was 35 to 50 deer annually, and he suspects the harvest is about the same or a little less now.

"The deer kill might be down some because we went with antler restrictions and reduced the limit to one buck," Morton said. Hunters can kill four deer on the area, but no more than one buck, which must have at least 4 points on one side.

"The hunters seem pleased with the change in regulations. They're seeing a lot of nice bucks now, and some of these deer are getting killed. To try to get an idea of herd condition and harvest, we are requiring bowhunters to get a free permit this season before hunting on the area. It will be available primarily at our Clemson office, and it will allow us to get a list of names and addresses so that we can survey hunters after the season to get harvest information and feedback about the area," Morton stated.

The Fant's Grove either-sex bow season runs from mid-October to early December. For more information about the area, you may contact Morton at (864) 654-1671, ext. 16.

KEOWEE WMA
Keowee WMA is the little sister to nearby Fant's Grove. The area is smaller, totaling roughly 4,000 acres spread over seven tracts in Oconee and Pickens counties.

"All indications are that the deer population on Keowee doesn't appear as abundant as on Fant's Grove," said Morton. "There seems to have been a decline, and it appears to be habitat related. The deer on Keowee seem to be more dependent on acorns than the Fant's Grove deer. There are not as many fields and swamps on Keowee as on Fant's Grove. In addition, Fant's Grove has our 45-acre dove field and there are corn and hay fields from Clemson University."

When the mast crop is poor at Keowee, there is a decline in deer recruitment. Some years the decline is dramatic.

"We examined some harvested does during a poor mast year, and very few of them were pregnant," Morton said.

Of the does that were pregnant, one fawn was all they carried. The situation immediately reversed itself during good mast years.

"Once there was an acorn year, average weights jumped 20 pounds, nearly every doe was pregnant and they had twins or three fawns," Morton said.

Keowee has 20 acres of food plots on the area to help the deer through the leaner times. Morton said that currently these plots aren't getting eaten up like they used to, but he feels certain the deer population will increase once there are a few seasons of good acorn crops.

"Anyone bowhunting at Keowee will need the same free permit that will be required at Fant's Grove," Morton said. "The permits will supp

ly us with information that should provide several pieces of the puzzle for managing the deer herd."

Keowee WMA is an archery-only area. The bag limit is two deer per day, and four deer total for the season. The total may not include more than two bucks, and there are no antler restrictions on the area. The either-sex season opens at the beginning of October and continues until late December.

BROAD RIVER WATERFOWL MANAGEMENT AREA
Another archery-only area is the Broad River Waterfowl Management Area in Fairfield County. Nestled along the eastern side of the Broad River near Winnsboro, this piece of property supports an abundant deer herd, but the terrain limits hunter numbers.

"There are plenty of deer on the area, but most people find access a problem," said SCDNR area manager Bob Harkins. "If you arrow a deer down in the property, it is a long drag to get him out, even if you use a wheelbarrow. A lot of people try hunting the area, and then simply give up.

"If you want to hunt here, you are going to have to work. The average, everyday bowhunter just can't hack it," Harkins added.

The 700-acre Broad River area is managed primarily for waterfowl hunting. The duck ponds are located down in the river's floodplain and are planted with agricultural crops, like corn. Harkins said that the highest deer densities are down in the bottom near the duck ponds.

"Most of the hunters concentrate on deer trails coming and going to the duck ponds. There are not many big trees on the area, so it can be difficult to find a good tree to hang a stand. In addition to the ponds, I might cultivate and fertilize around good deer-food trees, such as persimmon," he added.

Harkins said that one way hunters can defeat the access problem is to come into the area by boat. To get to the highest-density deer areas in the bottoms, the walk or bicycle ride is over a half-mile long. However, if you use a boat, you would only have to go about 100 yards once you got out of the boat.

"A group of three hunters killed six deer in two days by coming in by boat," Harkins said.

The either-sex archery season on Broad River Waterfowl Management Area runs from mid-September to the end of October. The bag limit is two deer per day, and three deer total. There are no antler restrictions.

"Broad River has lots of deer," Harkins said. "The mosquitoes can be bad at times, but we have never had anyone claim there were no deer. It seems that most hunters have the best luck during the evening."

For further information, you can contact SCDNR's Union office at (864) 427-4771.

MANCHESTER STATE FOREST WMA
Manchester State Forest WMA is 23,135 acres of river swamp and sandhills on the western edge of Sumter County. The long, narrow area runs from the upper end of Lake Marion at Sparkleberry Swamp north along the Wateree River. Bowhunting is permitted over this entire paradise as well as in two exclusive archery-only areas.

"There is a pretty good deer population on Manchester," said SCDNR assistant regional wildlife biologist Sammy Stokes. "The area is a mixture of bottomland swamp along the river, open fields and sandhill uplands with mixed pine and hardwoods. The property has a great deal of topographical and plant diversity."

Bowhunters are allowed to hunt the entire property during an either-sex, six-day season during the third week of September. The week after that there is another six-day season, of which one day is either-sex and the rest of the time is bucks only. During the second hunt, archery hunters must share the woods with muzzleloader hunters. Starting in late September or early October, depending on the calendar, Manchester State Forest WMA is open to a series of firearm hunts. Bowhunters can still find room to hunt during those dates on the two exclusive archery-only areas.

"The exclusive archery areas support moderate hunting pressure," Stokes said. "One area is a 500-acre piece near Manchester Forest's office, and the other is a 250-acre area near the Burnt Gin Camp. Harvey Belser, who is the forest director for the S.C. Forestry Commission, and I feel that there are a lot of under-utilized bowhunting opportunities outside of the exclusive areas."

Stokes said that initially the forest used to get a lot of attention from bowhunters, but that participation has waned in recent years. He thinks it might be from military deployment, since a lot of the use on the area is by military personnel from nearby Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base.

"My recommendation if you are interested in hunting at Manchester is to go down and scout the area first," Stokes suggested. "Don't confine yourself just to the archery-only areas, but check out other spots on the general forest."

Refer to the SCDNR 2002-2003 Rules and Regulations booklet for specific dates and bag limits for Manchester State Forest WMA deer hunts. They vary by hunt, and hunters are not allowed to harvest more than five deer for all hunts combined. All harvested deer must be checked at Battens or Shop and Go. More information can be obtained by calling SCDNR at (843) 661-4768 or the S.C. Forestry Commission at (803) 494-8196.

HALL WMA
Coastal archery hunters who are looking for an area all to themselves have to look no further than northern Berkeley County near Cross. The 800-acre Hall WMA, one of the WMAs within the larger Moultrie Hunt Unit, supports one of the longest archery-only seasons on public land in South Carolina - or anywhere else, for that matter.

"The season on Hall WMA opens in the beginning of September and runs until January," said Sam Chappelear, an SCDNR assistant regional wildlife biologist in nearby Bonneau. "If you hunt on this area, all of your scouting effort pays off since you can hunt throughout the entire fall. It's not like other spots where you have to quit for a gun hunt."

It is bucks only during the first two weeks of the season, but from the middle of September until the closing date, it is either sex.

According to Chappelear, most of the area is pine stands of varying ages. There are some hardwoods located on the property, and he said these are hotspots if the trees are dropping acorns.

"There are six wildlife openings on Hall that cover about 9 to 10 acres. We used to plant them once in the spring with deer vetch or sorghum and then again in the fall with either winter wheat or oats or clover," Chappelear explained. "Now, with the budget cuts, we can only plant them once a year. We plant them in the late fall with winter wheat because this will help the deer herd get through the most critical time of year. The openings traditionally were hunted pretty hard, but hunters probably won't see any food in them by the time the season rolls around. If it wasn't for partnership with Santee-Cooper, we probably wouldn't be able to plant

anything."

Chappelear pointed out that a hunter who comes to Hall and sees the number of vehicles at the gates might reasonably think that the area gets hunted hard. However, the pressure is not uniform.

"A little effort to go back into the deeper areas will pay off. A good suggestion is to come in from Lake Moultrie," Chappelear said. "When the lake has been down, the deer will key on the green vegetation that sprouts on the flats. This food source will remain available until we have a killing frost. The other plus about hunting out along the lake is several sloughs cut into the WMA creating good bottlenecks that funnel deer."

You may telephone SCDNR's Dennis Wildlife Center at (843) 825-3387 to learn more about the archery opportunities at Hall WMA.



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