Ready, Set, Hunt!

Ready, Set, Hunt!

With a variety of gun season opening days in South Carolina, deer hunters are in different stages of preparation now. But it's never too early -- or too late -- to get ready for your deer hunts.

North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington shot this nice velvet buck in a Jasper County bean field last August. The hunt will be shown on an upcoming episode of North American Whitetail TV on the Outdoor Channel.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The opening of deer season means different things to different deer hunters across different parts of South Carolina in terms of pre-season preparation. The structure of the South Carolina deer season is designed to offer several different "opening days" for deer hunting, depending on the portion of the state you hunt. While it's essential to your deer hunting success that you be actively preparing right now, the type of preparation will vary depending on the area in which you plan to hunt.

For example, a 15-county area consisting of game zones 3 and 6 will open for gun season on Aug. 15. These hunters will currently be in a much different stage of their preparation for hunting than will gun hunters in the Piedmont and Upstate portion of South Carolina in game zones 1 and 2 for their Oct. 11 gun season opener. Plus there are 'in-between' gun season opening dates of Sept. 1 for Game Zone 5 and on Sept. 15 for Game Zone 4.

When you add in bowhunting season openings in the various game zones, as well as muzzleloaders in game zones 1 and 2, a lot of different strategies are being implemented by deer hunters right now.

Let's take a look at what hunters need to be doing in the different portions of the state, based on when your specific hunting season opens.

For the purpose of consistency, we'll be discussing gun season opening dates and associated preparations. By checking the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Rules and Regulations booklet, you can determine the opening dates for archery tackle or muzzleloading weapons and plan for those specific openers as you desire.

We'll begin in game zones 3 and 6, where the actual gun hunting season opened August 15.

The counties in Game Zone 3 include Aiken, Lexington and Richland. Game Zone 6 includes Orangeburg, Hampton, Colleton, Bamberg, Allendale, Berkeley, Charleston, Barnwell, Calhoun, Jasper, Dorchester and Beaufort counties. If you're hunting any of these areas, get your rifle sighted in now.

While it's never too late to begin preparation, most hunters in this sector of the state have pretty much finished with the season preparation grunt work. In most cases, serious deer hunters in these counties will have their stands already built, repaired or moved and ready for hunting. We're down to scouting, and for those using bait (legal in this section of the state), ensuring that the deer have plenty to eat.

Most veteran Lowcountry deer hunters know that the first few days of the season can mean a golden opportunity to take a big buck. At this early point in the season, only bucks can be harvested, so obviously figuring out what the bucks are doing an essential part of the hunting strategy. It's not just about where you locate deer: The key is locating bucks. Plus, after the first few days of hunting pressure, the early season hunting success can slow for a few weeks until the pre-rut phase begin to crank up.

That's why in this area it's best to have everything finished and left alone by late July, or early August at the latest, thus giving deer some time to get into normal patterns and routines again. Loud banging, hammering and a lot of human intrusion and activity right before the season opens will usually blow any good bucks right out of an area. Plus, it will likely curtail most deer activity for a while.

This can be a hot, steamy, mosquito-swatting time to be sitting in the deer stand, so advance preparation in this regard is essential to make it worthwhile.

For many hunters, essential gear for early season hunting in this area includes scent inhibiting clothing and mosquito repellant. The ThermaCell product has proven very effective for most hunters in the Lowcountry, and seems to have no negative impact on deer, at least if you set up a reasonable distance away from your projected target area. A few bowhunters have some concerns about the use of anything that creates any scent, so they must plan the prevailing wind patterns into their scheme of hunting.

Veteran hunters often use corn as bait where legal. The key is to begin the baiting process several weeks prior to the season and keep a good supply out for the deer. Replenish the bait during midday -- there's less potential to spook deer if you add the bait then than in the mornings or evenings.

When baiting an area, select a site near areas in which the deer are already moving. Make the specific spot a place providing good lines of sight when the deer come to the feed or you'll have totally defeated your purpose. You might think that placing the bait so that you can get a decent shot at any deer that does show up would be obvious. Unfortunately, I've seen inexperienced hunters do exactly this sometimes: Place the bait where they have only a poor or marginal shot at a deer on the bait. Double-check your bait location by sitting in your stand and looking at the area. A two-man team is ideal for this process.

If you're gun hunting, place the bait as far away from the stand as you're comfortable making a shot. While a 25-yard broadside shot may be perfect for a bowhunter, a rifle hunter can take advantage of the range of his weapon to decrease the odds of spooking the buck if he places the bait further from the stand, maybe 75 to 100 yards. This gives you more opportunity to make slow moves if needed to target the deer in the cross hairs. Plus, it provides a bit of relief from a close-quarters scent issue in the early-season heat.

Of course, in the early season in the Lowcountry you'll have to balance distance against visibility. In many places, bucks want to be in thick patches within which you can't see anywhere close to as far as your rifle can shoot.

Most Lowcountry hunters will check to see if the corn is being eaten but won't sit in the stands prior to the season opening to see what comes to the bait. The first time to sit the stand will be on opening day.

The pre-season scouting these hunters do will use rubs made by and visual sightings of bucks to help figure out the animals' whereabouts. Also, areas historically productive for bucks tend to stay that way unless something big disturbs the natural vegetation of the areas. For example, a clearcut of your favorite swamp or a major thinning of the pine forest y

ou hunt can dramatically alter deer patterns.

As noted, the first few days are prime time to score. But pressure on the deer will often modify their schedule after a few days. Charles Ruth, deer and turkey project supervisor for the SCDNR, noted the same basic early-season information as relayed by hunters.

"Sometimes deer hunting can be difficult during the early season, especially after the first few days of the season," he said. "Since the harvest opportunity is limited to bucks only at this stage of the season, bucks can become scarce when a lot of hunting pressure is applied. While hunters will usually continue to see does, especially if they are legally baiting, the number of bucks seen will often drop until sometime in September. However, some nice bucks are typically taken in those first few days, and even in the first few weeks of the season."

Ruth remarked that gun season openers on Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 can also produce some excellent hunting during the first few days, after which success rates drop for a while. Thus, you can approach these later season openers much as you would the August openers. In fact, if you're going to hunt one of the later openings, it's not too late to do some final stand moving or repair if you're not quite ready yet. While experienced deer hunters will say the earlier, the better, you can still do some serious scouting in these areas and move stands according to what you find.

If you're going to use a climbing stand, you've got plenty of time. But it's still best to scout and select specific trees and get them limbed and ready now. Have more than one tree selected for a given area -- thus allowing you to pick the best tree no matter the wind direction. Or simply prepare backup hunting sites that take into account the wind direction on the day you're hunting. That strategy will allow you to leave an area alone until you get the proper wind.

In sections of the state with September openings, you still have time to determine the deer's bedding and feeding areas and their basic travel routes. But you're close enough to the season opening to be fairly confident of where they'll be on opening day. In game zones 1 and 2, opening on Oct. 11, the rut will be beginning to crank up, and that will often cause deer to change patterns from early September to the middle of the month.

If you know the stand locations you'll hunt for early season in game zones 4 and 5, now is the ideal time to begin limbing them up for open shots. Shooting lanes can give even gun hunters a big edge. The woods will often be such that a hunter can spot deer movement but may not be able to make out the size of the buck's antlers, or even clearly determine the sex of the deer. By having the cross hairs on the shooting lane when the deer enters, you can quickly appraise the animal and make the shoot/don't-shoot decision.

This is also a good plan for game zones 1 and 2. The leaves will still be on the trees when the season opens, and shooting lanes cleared now will often take the guesswork out of a potential shot. Also, antler restrictions in Quality Deer Management areas make a good look at the antlers is essential.

In game zones other than 3 and 6, you also still have time to learn the woods if you don't already know the details of your hunting site(s) like waterholes, food sources, potential bedding areas, thickets and funnels. As you want as little human intrusion as possible near the season openers, you need to get busy if you have a Sept. 1 start date. But it's generally worth the risk in order to learn the woods thoroughly.

One reason to do so is that your first plan, no matter how well thought out and scouted, sometimes doesn't work. If you hunt what should be a good spot but have no success, there's a reason. If you know the woods and the lay of the land, you can make an informed judgment and probably effectively change up your game plan.

It's not necessary to spend all your time in the woods -- in fact, that's the opposite of what you need to do. Instead, get a topographic map of the area and learn what you can, looking for specific things found on the map when you enter the woods. You've got to spend enough time in the woods to learn the area thoroughly, and to learn the spots that the deer frequent, but looking at a map first will cut down on the disturbance you make while scouting.

Scouting at the wrong time is probably the No. 1 problem that most deer hunters create for themselves. Most take "pre-season scouting" to mean something undertaken immediately prior to the opening of the season. But in actuality, a person going into the woods right before the season opens alerts all the deer in that area to human activity. Human activity is, in my opinion, the top turn-off for a deer, and especially for a big buck. Late summer is a perfect time to begin scouting and to follow up on that with periodic checking on the areas as the season approaches.

Another factor to consider now, especially if you belong to an organized club, is the stand location of other hunters who may not be as careful in their pre-season preparation as you. While you can walk far back into an area and get away from most of the hunters, you can't hide from the ripple effect of having several hunters in the same vicinity. However, if you figure out the likely disposition of places in which other hunters will be, you can make a pretty good plan for the escape routes that deer will use. By setting up on these areas during high-traffic hunt days such as opening week of gun season, you can increase your odds of success.

Scouting efforts are twofold. First, locate areas with high concentrations of deer; second, focus your scouting efforts on the areas you'll be hunting during the fall. Deciding where the deer are concentrated now is partially a matter of common sense. In some ways, deer are like humans when it comes to comfort: If it's cold, you're going to a warm place; if the temperature's high, you're going to a cooler area. Deer likewise: When the weather's hot, they head for water and/or cooler places, and when it turns cold, they're going to the high places to use the cutovers and open places, where they can sun.

Check the creek bottoms, low areas or the primary water source for the deer in your area. Look for concentrated areas of activity. Typically, some areas will be loaded with sign while other spots will be almost devoid of it. You may or may not be able to determine the reasons for either, although availability of food is generally a key.

Only this one time will I recommend that you get among the deer and walk around in their territory. You can do it in this situation because the deer won't be in this spot when hunting season opens unless you have a very early archery season. By the time most deer hunting seasons open, the deer will have moved back to the acorn ridges and hardwood stands.

Once you've found the major areas of current activity, it's time to check the nearby areas you will want to hunt during the season. The prime spots to begin scouting are those very near the heavy deer concentrations you've found in the low areas. Thus, while the deer are away for the summer, you can check out the area you'll be hunting in the fall.

Also, do most of your scouting during midday, when the weather's warm and the deer are most likely to be bedded near water or in the coolest spots they can find. If you're not thoroughly familiar with the area as a whole, now's the time to learn everything you can about it. You need to study aerial, topographical and any other maps of the land you can get your hands on before you get on site. Carry the maps with you; refer to them often. Learn to associate all the physical features of the area to the map. Once hunting season rolls around, the map will be your guide if you have to plan new strategy or change tactics.

To take deer consistently on opening day or opening week, we've got to "plan" our way to success. We have to beat them mentally; physically, we're no match for them because of their senses. Accordingly planning is one of the most important but underused in the deer hunting toolbox.

Improve your early-season planning strategies and you'll likely see a marked improvement in your deer hunting success this season -- maybe even on more than one of the "opening days."

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