Four Draw Hunts For Carolina Deer

Four Draw Hunts For Carolina Deer

Looking for freezer meat? A trophy? You could find both on these draw hunts.

Photo by Mike Biggs

Change frightens most people. The fear is probably linked to fear of the unknown. If we don't know what is around the corner, we may not want to go there.

Change, however, can be a good thing. It is often said that if things are not changing, then people are not thinking. Creative people think, and the result is often a better way of doing something.

This reasoning can be applied to deer hunting. Many deer hunters, unfortunately, get stuck in a rut, no pun intended. For example, they often wear the same camouflage, shoot the same type of bullet, park their truck in the same place, walk the same way to a particular tree stand and always hunt the same one or two stands.

Think about it for a moment. You know whom I am talking about. It is you and me and the majority of other deer hunters. We are like a bunch of cows walking a path across a snow-covered field, single-file and each doing the same thing and never straying out of bounds.

But conditions change, and if we don't adapt, we probably will not be successful on that particular hunt.

Your usual route to a tree stand might work when the wind is blowing from the northwest because it carries your scent away from a bedding area. However, if the wind is coming from the southeast on this particular hunt, the deer will know you're there, divert their routine and you won't see anything.

If you hunt the same way or same few stands all of the time, eventually the odds will favor you once in a while and you will get a crack at a nice buck. There is nothing wrong with doing or using the same thing. If something works, stick with it. However, we have all heard the stories of a particular deer hunter who is notorious for sitting in oddball places, like a small wooded graveyard at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and routinely kills trophy bucks.

It is not luck. It is called thinking outside of the box, which is nothing more than being creative and changing things on occasion.

The same philosophy can be applied to draw deer hunts held on the state's wildlife management areas (WMAs). They can be operated the same way season after season or wildlife biologists can continue to evaluate what they are doing and determine if there is room for improvement.

Remember, change can be a good thing and many of the state's WMAs have changed. Fortunately, the changes have benefited hunters and the deer herd and made hunts operate more efficiently for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

Here's a rundown of some great draw deer hunts and a discussion of the changes that have made these hunts better.

FANT'S GROVE WMA

Perennially a bowhunting-only area for a number of seasons, changes were made at Fant's Grove WMA a few seasons ago to provide more hunter opportunities and to improve the deer herd.

The 7,000-acre Fant's Grove WMA lies in the upper Piedmont of South Carolina, just outside of Clemson, in Oconee, Pickens and Anderson counties. An archery season is typically held on the area from mid-October to early December. After deer check stations were eliminated, wildlife biologists no longer were able to keep tabs on the deer harvest on the WMA.

A permit system was instituted for the bowhunters two seasons ago. Now, wildlife biologists can monitor the harvest and use of the area.

"We now know through the permit system that over 1,000 bowhunters hunt at Fant's Grove," said Richard Morton, a SCDNR wildlife biologist who oversees the area. "We don't have results yet for last season, but the season before, archery hunters took 84 deer."

It is probably safe to assume that the archery harvest at Fant's Grove has been fairly consistent over the years. Recognizing that the Fant's Grove deer herd could withstand additional harvest opportunity, especially on antlerless deer, Morton recommended instituting a rifle-only draw deer hunt to take place after the archery season.

"The objective in introducing the rifle-only hunts was to improve the deer herd," Morton said. "We hoped to harvest more antlerless deer, which would improve the buck-to-doe ratio.

"Fant's Grove has traditionally been known as an area that has produced quality deer and nice bucks. If we could improve the deer herd dynamics, the area would produce even nicer deer, including better bucks."

The first drawing for the rifle-only season was held in December 2000. The hunt consisted of four two-day hunts. SCDNR drew 70 hunters for each hunt, for a total of 280 hunters for the season.

Since that first series of hunts in 2000, Morton has tinkered with the process further. They began offering three 1 1/2-day hunts in 2001 and now select 75 hunters for each hunt period. Morton stated that about 350 hunters apply annually for the 225 slots.

Success of hunters during the rifle-only hunts is good, but because the hunts are held in December, which is normally during the rut in this region, hunters are at the whims of winter weather.

"The weather has always played a part in the harvest," Morton said. "The first season we held these hunts there was snow or sleet or cold winds on every hunt. Despite the weather, hunters did kill 56 deer (54 does, two bucks) that year. During the December 2001 hunts, weather wiped us out every day." The harvest that year was 25 deer (23 does, two bucks).

"In 2002, it rained during the first two hunt periods, but the two biggest bucks up to that time were killed then, and the total harvest for the season was 24 deer (22 does, two bucks)."

Several factors came together during the December 2003 hunts to produce a record harvest of bucks.

"The poor acorn crop that season combined with perfect weather and great timing of the rut resulted in a large number of bucks being harvested," Morton said. "They killed 41 deer that season, including eight antlered bucks. All eight bucks that year scored between 95 and 115 Boone and Crocket points.

"The weather this past season was good about half of the time," Morton recalled. "It was rainy and windy, but hunters still managed to harvest 34 deer (26 does, eight bucks) in what amounted to about three good days of hunting." Three of those bucks, a 10-pointer, an 8-pointer and 7-pointer, were killed in one morning

, with the 10-pointer scoring in the 130s and the other two in the 115-plus range.

Morton's advice for hunters who are drawn for the hunts is to scout early.

"The area is open for scouting all year, yet many hunters wait until the morning of the day of the first hunt to scout," Morton said. "It has been my perception that the hunters who do better are the ones who scout ahead of time rather than at the last minute.

"Overall, I have been very pleased with the results of the rifle-only draw hunts," Morton said. "All of the hunters are happy with the changes. They are harvesting more does, which was our goal, and the hunters agree that the management is working because they are seeing and killing larger deer."

The only drawback that Morton has witnessed is that the no-show rate still runs about 25 percent. He has not determined how to overcome this problem yet. While it limits meeting the harvest objectives, Morton is more concerned because it takes away opportunity from other hunters who might have come had they been drawn.

For additional information about Fant's Grove WMA, contact SCDNR's Region 1 office at (864) 654-1671.

DONNELLEY WMA

Changes to the draw deer hunts have also taken place at Donnelley WMA, an 8,048-acre WMA located in Colleton County outside of Green Pond.

Thirty hunters used to be drawn for one of the 12 1 1/2-day gun hunts held from early October to early December. Hunters would then draw for a stand for each morning and evening hunt period, and be driven to that permanent stand. However, budget cuts and personnel reductions necessitated that hunts be conducted differently.

"When we had five people working on the area, we could cater more to hunters and drive them to pre-selected stands," said Dean Harrigal, a SCDNR wildlife biologist at Donnelley WMA. "However, when we got down to only two people, we had to do something different."

What they did was follow the model in place at another WMA.

"We now conduct our hunts like the ones at Palachucola WMA," Harrigal explained. "We still draw 30 hunters per hunt, but now they are drawn for a 2 1/2-day hunt. The total number of hunter days on the area is still the same so that we can meet our harvest objectives.

"We still plant wildlife openings and the permanent stands are still available for hunters who want to use them, but we don't drive people to each stand anymore. They are on their own, unless someone requests assistance and has an obvious need," Harrigal said.

Harrigal related the new hunting procedure as hunting on your own 8,000-acre hunt club with 30 members.

"Hunters can scout where they want to put their stand," he said. "It gives them more freedom to find good places."

Harrigal suggested that hunters scout for two or three places just in case another hunter is in the same area.

"We have hunters place a pin in a map at the check station to indicate where they're hunting," Harrigal said. "The spot they decide to hunt is on a first-come, first-served basis. That's why we suggest looking for more than one spot. So far, we've had no conflicts. If someone can't find a place to hunt by themselves on 8,000 acres, then they aren't trying too hard."

Harrigal recommended that hunters not scout themselves out of an area. If you find a good spot, he said set up on it rather than wander all over the area spreading scent while trying to find the perfect location. In his experience at the WMA, it is a handful of people who kill the most deer.

He also suggested hunters find out-of-the-way places to hunt.

"The green patches aren't where the majority of deer are going to be in October and November," Harrigal said. "They look nice and the permanent stands are conveniently located over them from when we used to put people out, but they are not necessarily the best places on the entire area."

There has been another change at Donnelley WMA as well. Quality deer management practices have been in place for hunts since their inception. It used to be that hunters could only kill bucks with at least 4 points on one side. Now, a buck must have 4 or more points on a side and a 12-inch spread.

"We instituted the change for the same reasons they did at Webb Center WMA," Harrigal said. "The idea was to reduce the buck harvest, especially 1 1/2-year-old bucks, and to increase the doe harvest."

The total deer harvest has declined on the area since the regulations change. During the 2002 season, the last year before the change, hunters killed 73 deer (33 bucks, 40 does). Earlier seasons saw the total harvest run between 60 and 90 deer.

The 2003 total harvest, the first season with the change, was 52 deer (22 bucks, 30 does) and the harvest last season was 54 deer (19 bucks, 35 does). Harrigal is not concerned about the low harvest the last two seasons.

"We expected the harvest to drop because we were taking pressure off the young, basket-racked 8-point bucks that were being killed," he said. "However, the decline the last two seasons also has coincided with a general decrease in the deer harvest across the entire Southeast. We will continue to monitor the harvest to determine if we need to do something different in the future."

To learn more about the deer hunts at Donnelley WMA, you may contact their office at (843) 844-8957.

WEBB CENTER WMA

"We have 18 gun hunts at Webb Center," said Lisa Walters, a SCDNR wildlife technician at Webb Center and Palachucola WMAs. "Thirty hunters are drawn for each hunt, which either takes place on a Monday evening and Tuesday morning or Friday evening and Saturday morning."

The hunts at Webb Center WMA are unique. Successfully drawn hunters stay in the old house on the property and are fed supper and breakfast. Personnel also take hunters to one of the 100 permanent stands or 10 ground blinds, as well as clean their deer for them. Because of the perks, the application fee is higher, $100.

"Our hunts are held from late September to mid-December," Walters said. "Hunters are allowed to harvest one antlered buck and one doe or two does. Antler restrictions of 4 or more points on one side or a 12-inch spread do apply."

The antler restrictions are new for Webb Center, and were applied during the 2003 season. The results have been noteworthy.

Like Donnelley WMA, the harvest has declined during the last two seasons, down from 175 to 200 deer to around 110. Again, this mirrors what has occurred elsewhere. However, the percentage of bucks in the total harvest has fallen only about 20 percent, while the percentage of 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the harvest has fallen by nearly 50 perce

nt. That's good news for hunters.

What this means is the younger bucks are being allowed to grow older, which translates to larger racks.

"The harvest has been down the last two seasons," said Tom Swayngham, former Webb Center biologist who has relocated to the Upstate for SCDNR, "but hunters have killed more nice bucks than ever before."

During the 2004 season, 1,395 hunters applied for 540 slots.

PALACHUCOLA WMA

Hunts for Palachucola WMA are similar to Donnelley WMA. Thirty-five hunters are drawn for one of six 2 1/2-day hunts held on Thursday afternoons and all day Friday and Saturday.

No stands are provided on the area, and scouting is allowed Thursday morning. Additionally, hunters are allowed to camp in a designated area. Porta-potties are provided and there is a skinning rack and cooler as well.

Palachucola WMA has the same antler restrictions (which were introduced during the same season) as on Webb Center and Donnelley. Harvest characteristics have been the same: The harvest has gone down, but more dramatically the number of young bucks in the harvest has declined. Again, this will pay off in future seasons with larger bucks on the area.

Information for Webb Center and Palachucola WMAs can be obtained by contacting SCDNR's Webb Center office at (803) 625-3569.

Change can be a good thing when it comes to deer hunting. See if you agree with what these WMAs have done. Application deadlines are approaching. Get your application at

www.dnr.state.sc.us.

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