Hotspots For Late-Season Carolina Deer

Hotspots For Late-Season Carolina Deer

Whether you're looking for more freezer meat or a last shot at a big buck, crunching deer population numbers in South Carolina can help you pick the right spot. (December 2008)

It was a very cold morning in late-December when a lone hunter walked the quarter-mile distance to his stand before dawn. He was glad he'd hung the climber on the longleaf pine the day before so he would not have to deal with frigid wing nuts with his popsicle-cold fingers.

An hour later, the sun had risen to a bluebird sky, but the frigid temperatures were slow to warm. The cold air, enhanced by a significant wind chill, kept the hunter hunkered in his stand. Between his wool toboggan coat and his facemask, only his eyes were exposed, but they were in constant motion. He kept surveying the cutover in the direct light of the morning sun. Nothing had stirred and now it was approaching 10 o'clock.

The temptation to get down was great, but this was to be his last chance to hunt this season. He figured he'd give the buck he knew was in that area another 90 minutes to show up.

About 11 o'clock that morning, he saw two does slipping through the cutover area about 80 yards away. Then another deer, a smallish 6-pointer, slipped along the edge, walking almost beneath his tree.

As he scanned the area again, his eyes locked in on a patch of brown he'd not seen before. The vegetation was thick, but the pattern looked out of place. He made out horizontal lines where only vertical lines should be. He waited patiently, and in about five minutes the brown patch moved and the deer stepped quickly through a small opening. It was a big buck, at least 4 points on one side not counting brow tines.

It took 10 more minutes of watching and waiting before the animal stepped into full view again. But this time the rifle was shouldered, the scope cross hairs locked onto the target. The .30/06 brought down the trophy 10-point buck.

What made this story most interesting to me was the hunter had been on a real quest to take a big buck. He found out where a big buck was located. He received permission to hunt the right tract of land. He'd studied maps of the terrain and was in the right spot for the weather conditions. When the buck made his move, he was ready to take the trophy he had so diligently sought, even though the season was about over.

The moral of the story is simple. It's never too late to make a plan for late-season hunting. Whether you want to target a big buck, or to just bring home meat for the freezer, you can use available information to get the answers you need to help you plan your late-season strategy.

Most deer hunters are usually looking for answers by the end of the long deer season in South Carolina, from one point of view or another.

One set of answers would be for the question: "Where can I just go kill a deer to put meat in the freezer?" The second question would likely be for the guy who has put meat in the freezer: "Where can I finish the year with a trophy buck?"

Depending on the success a hunter has during the season, one of these answers will likely be pertinent to the thinking of most hunters. We're going to examine information from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) to help determine some good answers to both questions.

Keep in mind that Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the SCDNR, said the potential to harvest deer, including trophy deer, can be very good in localized spots statewide. What we're going to examine is specific information to help guide hunters to general areas where the number of deer, or trophy potential (and sometimes both), is high.

To begin, it's good to know that the total harvest in 2007 was 239,192 deer, a 7.5 percent increase in harvest over the 2006 season. Therefore, the population is good and the harvest trend upward.

A great place to start looking for answers is to look for numbers of deer that may be available for late-season hunting.

Of course, where you have many deer, there will be some really nice deer too. Usually, according to wildlife biologists, where deer densities are lower, the more potential for huge bucks exists. While that may make good biological sense, as long as the habitat is suitable to grow big-antlered bucks, high numbers of deer does not exclude the presence of big bucks. The same conditions that biologically support high deer numbers will also produce some big bucks. You may have to hunt the remote areas, perhaps in heavy thickets or swamps to be successful. The point is you can have both quantity and quality hunting in the same place.

One of the tools produced by the SCDNR that can be used to pinpoint high deer populations that we've not explored this year is the deer herd density map. This map breaks the deer herd population down into four major groups. The top area is the 45-deer-per-square-mile segment, which will be of high interest to all hunters. This is the proverbial goldmine of deer density.

The next is the 30-to-45-deer-per-square-mile group; next is the 15-to-30-deer-per-square-mile areas and finally, the least deer populated areas of the state are identified by the less than 15-deer-per-square-mile areas.

Of great interest will be the areas where the deer population is more than 45 deer per square mile. Not surprisingly, many of these areas are closely associated with major river drainages.

However, not all river drainages are created equal when it comes to deer habitat. Moreover, there are two large sections of land away from just the rivers where this type of high deer density is also found.

Beginning in the northern part of the state and working south, the first highly conspicuous area is along the Catawba River drainage, which encompasses the lower portion of York County, then Chester and Lancaster counties. This is one of the two areas in the state where the high population density widens from river drainages to encompass parts of several counties.

A large portion of the western part of Lancaster County is included in this high-density segment; the remainder is in the 30-to-45-deer-per-square-mile deer density area. The entire area of Chester County is in the high-density segment, with the Catawba River on one side and the Broad River on the other.

In addition, most of Union, much of Laurens and the northern segment of Newbery County are part of the highest density area. For all of these counties the remaining portions are in the next highest density. They are all high-density deer areas that should support successful late-season hunting.

Moving down the Catawba River drainage, the area around Lake Wateree, where the river becomes known as the Wateree River, continues to be at the highest density. This includes a portion of Fairfield and Kershaw counties. In addition, at the northern portion of Fairfield County along the border with Chester County, a section of Fairfield County is included in this highest density group. The rest of Fairfield County is in the second highest density grouping, making it a prime late-season deer-hunting destination.

This highest density along the Wateree River continues all the way to and around Lake Marion, including small portions of Sumter and Clarendon counties.

The Congaree River drainage, in a narrow fringe on both the Calhoun and Richland counties sides, make the highest density grade as well. Because of high human population, there are portions of Richland and Lexington counties where the population of deer is in the lower two levels. Obviously, except for very small isolated areas, urban areas are not generically good places for high deer populations.

Below the Wilson Dam that impounds Lake Marion, the Santee River basin all the way through Williamsburg County, as well as on the Berkeley County side of the river, is in the highest density category. However, a very large expanse of Williamsburg County (which is a huge county in land size) remains in this highest category, even well away from the river. Only near the river does this density hold at the highest level in Berkeley County. From the Williamsburg County line with Georgetown, the overall deer density begins to drop as you approach the coastal area.

On the south side of Lake Marion, a narrow corridor of the highest density exists though a portion of Orangeburg County, particularly around the Four Hole Swamp area. It continues south to the Edisto River, cutting through a portion of Dorchester County as well. The narrow, highest density strip follows the Edisto River to the coast. The bulk of Colleton, Orangeburg and Dorchester counties (away from high population areas) have the second highest deer density population with the 30-to-45-deer-per-square-mile density. This density still represents very strong deer populations.

The final highest density area is along the Savannah River in Allendale, Hampton and Jasper counties. The remaining portions of these counties are in the second highest density area, making all of these counties prime late-season targets, simply because of the huge number of deer present.

If you are looking for deer in terms of numbers, these are the areas of highest deer densities in the state. Even during the late season, there should be ample deer to hunt in these areas.

In addition, the river drainages and thick-vegetation swamps often associated with these places have always been prime places to find big bucks. It would be wise to look at these counties, especially around the rivers and swamps, as prime late-season big-buck targets, as well as for numbers of deer.

Another way to identify areas where late-season deer hunting by the numbers can be good is to look at harvest rates for the past season. In addition to areas where the highest harvest per unit area was recorded for the 2007 season, we can look at the increase or decrease in harvest from 2006 to 2007 as a factor as well. Counties in which the harvests are both high and on the increase should be prime spots to consider for the last part of the 2008 season.

Some of these counties will be in the same group as above and some will not. If a county or area shows up in both, it will deserve a solid rating as an excellent late-season prospect.

The No. 1 county in harvest per unit in South Carolina in 2007 was Bamberg County. The news here is that there was a 5.1 percent harvest increase in 2007 over 2006. Union County was second, but showed a slight 1.5 percent decline in harvest from 2007 from 2006.

Spartanburg County might be an upstate sleeper, finishing third overall in deer harvest per unit area, but this county recorded a whopping 31.4 percent increase in harvest in 2007 from the 2006 total. Allendale County was fourth but was down 3.8 percent from the 2006 harvest.

Newberry County was fifth in harvest but had a sensational 43.5 percent increase in harvest in 2007 over 2006. The No. 6 total harvest county was Laurens, which recorded a 30.3 percent increase in harvest over the 2006 total. Calhoun County was seventh in total harvest in 2006 and had a modest 6.0 percent increase from 2006. Fairfield County was eighth in total harvest and was up 13.4 percent from 2006. Lancaster County was ninth in total harvest with a 10 percent increase in harvest from 2006.

Rounding out the top 10 in harvest was Cherokee County, which also recorded a 15.8 percent increase in harvest in 2007 over 2006.

As you scan the above areas, you will note several county names that have appeared in both groups we've considered. Specifically, Union, Lancaster, Fairfield, Laurens and Allendale counties were included in both lists.

As noted previously, do not exclude the above areas as potential big-buck destinations, especially in the areas right around the rivers.

Nevertheless, there are some other considerations when seeking an answer to where to go for a trophy buck in South Carolina.

First of all, there's no doubt that late season can be the right season for big bucks.

Looking at the data from the SCDNR antler scoring records during the spring of 2008, there is some very revealing data. Of the top 10 typical bucks scored this spring and all nine of the non-typical bucks that made the state record book, the date of the kills is of significance. Of these 19 biggest bucks taken in South Carolina, nine of them were harvested in November and six were harvested in December. Only four were harvested in October.

The simple translation is that late season can be an outstanding time to harvest a huge buck -- not quite as good as the peak of the rut chase period, but far better than many hunters give December credit for being. It is certainly worth the time and effort to plan a big-buck excursion late in the season.

The data from the antler sessions also provide names of the counties where the big bucks were taken.

In the typical antler classification, three of the four largest bucks in the state were taken from Chesterfield County. When compared with the deer density map, it makes good sense. The deer density for Chesterfield County is in the 15-to-30-deer-per-square-mile category.

That's a respectable population of deer, but in areas of good habitat, the population is such that deer have an opportunity to grow large. Charles Ruth said that the deer population in the Pee Dee River drainage is still expanding, which does make it a great place for bucks to grow big. Chesterfield County is bordered by the Great Pee Dee River.

The largest bucks

in the state also provide more information. Two of these bucks were harvested in Kershaw County, and two others were taken in Orangeburg County. The math here is simple: There are three counties (Chesterfield, Kershaw and Orangeburg) where seven of the top 19 bucks taken in the state in 2007 were harvested. Chesterfield and Kershaw counties are also adjacent to one another. These two and Orangeburg would all make great big-buck destinations.

Another of these big bucks was harvested in Oconee County. Oconee is listed in the lowest density of the populating density map. But the upstate mountain region has long been considered a prime target for big bucks. It's tough, steep, rugged terrain to be sure. However, big bucks are there for the taking.

The remaining counties that produced the largest-racked bucks in the state in the 2007 season include Allendale, Anderson, Barnwell, Calhoun, Chester, Colleton, Edgefield, Hampton, Lee and Spartanburg.

From all this information, you can very likely find excellent hunting for either numbers of deer, or big bucks, near where you live. There will be some planning that needs to be done and perhaps permissions to be obtained. But if you are on a quest to harvest late-season deer, or take that trophy buck to complete a dream hunting season, it's not too late.

But you have to get going now.

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