South Carolina's Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Where's the best place to hunt deer in South Carolina?

Here's what the harvest data tells us.

Photo by Charles R. Brower III

From the Piedmont to the Midlands to the Lowcountry last season, I saw a lot of deer sign in almost every place I hunted. There were tracks galore and I saw plenty of scrapes, rubs and droppings to keep my enthusiasm high. However, when it came to hunting, I spent more hours sitting in the stand seeing fewer deer than I felt I should.

However, several of the deer I saw, and some harvested by friends, were really healthy-looking, big-racked bucks. If you encountered this scenario last season, you're not alone. Most hunters I talked with reported seeing fewer deer, and some really good deer. This actually corresponds directly with the data that the state has compiled.

Another question commonly discussed since the close of the 2004 deer-hunting season has been regarding the status of the deer herd. A number of hunters have come to the conclusion that the deer herd population is down. They base this on their harvest results during the 2004 season, as well as the 2003 season.

Well, the annual harvest results for 2004 results are in and there's good news and acceptable news. Let's discuss the good news first. According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer Project supervisor Charles Ruth, there are no big health issues facing the statewide deer herd.

"The herd, on a statewide basis, is in good condition. We're beginning to stabilize, I think, in terms of the size of the herd. Plus, we also scored a lot of big bucks harvested from last season in our annual scoring sessions across the state in the early part of 2005," Ruth noted.

The "acceptable" news is that the deer harvest and projected population is down from the record high in 2002. The 2004 total harvest of deer in South Carolina was down 8.1 percent from the 2003 harvest. The 2003 harvest was down roughly 14 percent from the record high in 2002. The estimated herd numbers in the state has gone from 1,000,000 deer going into the 2002 season to 800,000 animals going into the 2004 season.

According to Ruth, that's over a 20 percent drop in the harvest in the past two years and that's reflected in the population estimate figures. While that seems like bad news, it's acceptable when other factors are considered, according to Ruth.

"The harvest figures last year had some good points, despite the lower numbers," Ruth said. "First, hunters harvested 125,550 bucks and 124,655 does in 2004, for a total harvest of 251,205 deer. Hunters should be commended for the ongoing efforts to take equal numbers of bucks and does. This is a positive note because it is important to keep deer numbers at reasonable levels, particularly with the increased interest among many hunters in improving deer quality."

Ruth also notes that after many years of rapid herd and harvest increase, the deer population in South Carolina has been relatively stable since the mid-1990s.

"The reductions in harvest over the past two years can likely be attributable to three factors. First, the state experienced a very significant drought during the period from 1998 through 2002. Although rainfall has been more than normal during the past two years, any reduction in reproduction, recruitment and survival of deer during the drought would result in reduced deer numbers in years immediately following the drought.

"Second, the good rainfall that was experienced in the spring/summer of 2004 produced an abundance of natural foods for deer and that included acorns. This worked to keep deer movements low during the fall hunting season.

"Finally, fall temperatures in 2004 were unseasonably warm, which also contributed to decreased daytime movements of deer during the hunting season," Ruth said.

The first point would cause a decline in the total number of deer available. The second and third conditions Ruth mentioned would curtail deer movements, denying hunters opportunity to harvest as many deer.

On an anecdotal level, there have been countless stories of hunters seeing a lot of deer sign in the woods in 2004. But their actual sighting of deer, and thus their harvest, was down noticeably from previous years. I hunted on three different tracts of land last year where this seemed to be very obvious. In all three instances, there were lots of tracks, but we simply did not see deer as much as we normally did. However, driving home after dark, we'd see plenty of deer. The same thing often occurred in the mornings: An hour or two before dawn, deer would be moving.

Ruth said, "Deer movements are directly linked to hunter success because hunters are less likely to be successful if deer movements are low. Finally, if the drought decreased reproduction, recruitment and survival of deer, it would likely be expressed in terms of fewer young deer available to harvest in 2003 and 2004. Evidence appears to support this. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that availability of deer in the affected age-classes will be reduced until deer born following the effects of the drought replace those age-classes."

That brings us to the overall outlook for the 2005 season. Because of the above issues, this is a tough call, Ruth admitted. "There are several things going on and there's no way to tell what the most influential reason for the decline was. If the primary factors were poor hunting conditions, specifically too much food and weather too warm, then we could easily see an upswing with more conducive weather and food conditions.

"However, if the main player in the decrease is the drought, then we could be looking at a harvest near the same or less. That's especially true if the drought impacts linger for a while longer. Of course, if recruitment into the deer population the past two years was excellent, we could be past that drought influence this year. We really won't know for a while," he said.

However, one thing Ruth does feel he's safe in saying: The deer hunting in South Carolina in 2005 will be among the best in the nation.

"Looking at the raw data, deer hunting in South Carolina is very impressive," he said. "We had an average of 12 deer per square mile harvested in South Carolina in 2004. Relative to other states, we have sensational hunting based on that figure."

Even though this harvest figure is less than the 2003 figures, it was still good enough to tie us with Georgia for the most deer harvested per square mile in the entire Southeast last year. (Harvest figures from other states were not available for 2004 when this data was complied).

"If you go back to 2002, South Carolina was hands down the top deer harvest state in the Southeast. But with the emphasis by many hunters on quality animals (harvesting fewer deer), it is not necessarily a bad thing. You can't have a huge quantity of deer and massive quality. There's a good mix of quantity and quality we hope to achieve. Based on antlers we scored from deer harvested during the 2004 season, we're seeing some really big deer harvested around the state," Ruth said.

Although he does not have harvest data from all the states in the country, he did note that the Southeast is nationally recognized as a hotbed for deer numbers being harvested. Since South Carolina ranks near or at the top in the Southeast, we're in the same basic position when you consider harvest per square mile on a nationwide basis.

Okay, so the deer are out there. We still have to figure out where to hunt them.

Let's look at the top areas in the state for deer harvest in 2004. Based on this data, you can identify the hotspots near you and plan your deer hunting trips to put you in the most productive areas possible.

Ruth notes that there are no real surprises in the 2004 data. As expected, many of the historically top deer-producing counties remain strong. However, some new areas seem to be coming on as well.

We'll consider the data in two forms. First, we'll consider the straightforward number of deer harvested on a straight county-by-county basis, period. Second, we'll look at the harvest rate per unit of area. The second perspective is often considered more accurate to relative hunting success because it measures the amount of deer taken to the amount of land available for hunting in each of the counties.

As we look at the raw harvest numbers from the top 10 counties in 2004, we'll also add the percentage of harvest increase or decrease from the previous year. This can be important to help identify upward trends in counties.

SOUTH CAROLINA'S TOP 10 COUNTIES FOR DEER (2004 Harvest Data)
By Total Harvest -- 2004
CountyBucksDoesTotal Harvest
Orangeburg5,7886,06211,850
Fairfield4,8096,08510,894
Colleton5,5654,75010,315
Hampton4,7454,6659,410
Allendale4,2614,7629,023
Williamsburg4,4164,5949,011
Bamberg4,3454,5648,910
Chester3,9844,3318,315
Union4,0653,9167,962
Aiken4,1023,6777,779

Orangeburg County was the No. 1 deer-producing county in 2004 with a total harvest of 11,850 deer. This harvest was down 1.7 percent from the 2003 total. There were 5,788 bucks and 6,062 does harvested. Orangeburg was the No. 2 county in this ranking for the 2003 season.

Fairfield County dropped from No. 1 in 2003 to No. 2 this season with a total harvest of 10,894 deer. That's a whopping 18.7 percent drop from last year. There were 4,809 bucks and 6,085 does harvested in Fairfield County last season. That's still the highest number of does taken in the state in 2004.

Colleton County moved up from eighth in 2003 to third in 2004 with a harvest of 10,315 deer. Colleton County sported an impressive 20.8 percent harvest increase in 2004. The harvested included 5,565 bucks and 4,750 does.

Hampton County moved up from seventh to fourth with a total harvest of 9,410 deer in 2004. This reflects a drop of 1.8 percent from the 2003 harvest, but still was able to move up in the overall rankings. There were 4,745 bucks and 4,665 does harvested in Hampton County.

Allendale broke in the top group at fifth in 2004, up from 11th in the 2003 harvest. This county had a harvest of 9,023 deer in 2004, up 11.7 percent from the 2003 harvest. There were 4,261 bucks and 4,762 does harvested in 2004 in Allendale County.

In sixth place was Williamsburg County with a total harvest of 9,011, which dropped from fourth in the 2003 harvest. Williamsburg County also had a harvest decline of 17.9 percent in 2004 from the 2003 season. There were 4,416 bucks and 4,594 does killed there in 2004.

Finishing in seventh place in 2004 was Bamberg County, which made a big jump from 16th place in 2003. The 2004 harvest was 8,910, which indicates a hefty 33.2 percent increase over the 2003 harvest. There were 4,345 bucks and 4,564 does harvested in Bamberg County in 2004.

At the No. 8 spot was Chester County, which fell from No. 3 in 2003. The total harvest was 8,315 in 2004, which was a 26.4 percent drop from the previous season. There were 3,984 bucks and 4,331 does taken from Chester County.

In ninth place, the same as it ranked in 2003, was Union County with a total harvest of 7,982 deer. There were 4,065 bucks and 3,916 does harvested and Union County had a modest 6.1 percent harvest decline in 2004.

Rounding out the top

10 was Aiken County with a harvest of 7,779 deer. Aiken County made the biggest jump from the 2003 season data, all the way from No. 22 to claim the final spot in the top 10. Aiken County had a 29.6 percent increase in harvest in 2004. There were 4,102 bucks and 3,677 does taken in 2004.

For the deer harvested per unit area in South Carolina, we'll consider both the acres per deer harvested and the deer harvested per square mile.

The top county in this category was Bamberg, with 29 deer harvested per square mile and 22.1 acres per deer harvest rate. Bamberg was ranked No. 4 in the 2003 data. The No. 2 county was Allendale with 26.7 deer harvested per square mile and a deer harvested for every 24 acres of land. Allendale County remained in the No. 2 spot as it was in the 2003 calculations.

Abbeville County was third, up from 11th in 2003, with 21.1 deer harvested per square mile and a deer harvested for every 30.4 acres of land. In fourth was Union County, with 19.8 deer harvested per square mile and 32.3 acres per deer harvest rate. Union was up from sixth last year in the rankings.

Hampton County was at No. 5, up from the No. 9 spot the previous year. Hampton County had a harvest of 18.5 deer per square mile and one deer harvested per 34.5 acres.

SOUTH CAROLINA'S TOP 10 COUNTIES FOR DEER (2004 Harvest Data)
By Deer Harvested Per Unit Of Habitat
CountyAcres/DeerDeer/Square Mile
Bamberg22.129.0
Allendale24.026.7
Abbeville30.421.1
Union32.319.8
Hampton34.518.5
Fairfield35.318.1
Chester36.117.7
Cherokee37.417.1
Beaufort40.515.8
Laurens41.115.6

In sixth was Fairfield County, down from third in 2003. Fairfield had 18.1 deer harvested per square mile and one deer for every 35.3 acres of land. In seventh place was Chester County, with 17.7 deer harvested per square mile and one deer harvested every 36.1 acres. Chester County dropped from the No. 1 slot in the 2003 rankings.

Cherokee County was in eighth place, up from 12th in 2003. There were 17.1 deer harvested per square mile in 2004 and the harvest rate was 37.4 acres per deer harvested.

Ninth spot belonged to Beaufort County, with a total of 15.8 deer harvested per square mile and one deer harvested for every 40.5 acres of land. Beaufort made the biggest improvement in this category, moving up fro the No. 26 spot in 2003.

Rounding out the top 10 in this category was Laurens County, which dropped from seventh place in 2003. There were 15.6 deer harvested per square mile in 2004 and there were 41.1 acres of land for each deer harvested.

For your general information, the next 10 counties in the list for this category were, in order: Lancaster, Orangeburg, Anderson, Barnwell, McCormick, Marion, Greenwood, Jasper, and Colleton and Calhoun counties were tied.

If you want to find the "best" hunting, one way of going about it is to look for counties listed in both categories. Counties that have high total harvest numbers and high kill rates per acre indicate the hunters there are in good deer county. Making both lists were Bamberg, Allendale, Union, Fairfield, Hampton and Chester counties.

Consider the data presented here and look at the map where you are in relation to these top spots. You can then make plans on where you have the best chance to succeed in 2005.

Ruth also notes relative hunting success was very good in 2004.

"Based on the number of deer hunters that hunted at least one day, overall hunting success in South Carolina for the 2004 season was 73.5 percent, which is outstanding. The number of days devoted to deer hunting in South Carolina is very significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of deer as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resources," Ruth said.

He noted that about $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.

So get busy planning your 2005 hunting season so you can have an even better year than in 2004.

Next Month:

FINDING TROPHY BUCKS

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