Plan Your Carolina Draw Hunt Now

Plan Your Carolina Draw Hunt Now

Whether you're looking for a trophy buck or freezer meat, there's a WMA draw hunt for you.

Photo by Tim Black

By Walt Rhodes

While some details of managing deer herds are complicated, two of the most effective management actions for increasing the harvest of quality bucks are pretty simple: Don't shoot so many young bucks, and shoot a sufficient amount of does to keep the population in balance.

Deer hunters with access to private lands - either through lease agreements, permission or outright ownership - do a relatively good job of managing their deer herds. Most hunters manipulate the habitat to benefit deer, using methods such as planting food plots and mast-producing hardwoods or thinning timber. Many individuals now recognize the need to maintain an adequate harvest of antlerless deer, even though this management concept was a hard sell as recently as a decade ago.

A change in hunting philosophies also has occurred when it comes to meeting the objective of killing bucks with large racks. For years, many hunters merely took the first buck they saw while on stand. To take quality bucks, the hunters must control their harvest of smaller bucks so that a significant percentage of male deer have a chance to move into the older age-classes.

Overall, you could surmise that the deer population on South Carolina's private lands is in good shape. The deer herds on the state's public lands are doing well, too, but meeting some of the harvest objectives practiced on private lands has been difficult for public-land managers.

The difference stems primarily from hunter attitude. Obviously, all deer hunters want to kill a buck, but this feeling is typically much stronger for hunters using public land. They aren't as likely to believe that their actions will significantly impact the long-term composition of the herd on the WMA they hunt as are hunters who closely manage their own private land. Therefore, many public-land hunters are less likely to fill their tag with an antlerless deer - something that would benefit the herd, but is perceived to do little for the individual hunter personally, unless his objective was purely to gather some venison.

The idea of hunting on a wildlife management area (WMA) also creates an illusion with some hunters that big bucks are hiding behind every tree. Since the "authorities" or experts manage these places, hunters expect to bag a big buck. In reality, a WMA is probably a more difficult place to kill a nice buck because the animals are pressured harder.

Regardless of the reasons why hunters hunt the way they do on public lands, managers of these deer herds usually struggle to meet harvest objectives, particularly the goal of harvesting enough antlerless deer.

None of this should discourage you from taking part in public-land draw hunts around the state, however, especially if your sole interest is putting venison in the freezer. The opportunities for public-land deer hunters have expanded and game managers try to meet harvest objectives. That situation benefits you if you are searching for a place to go deer hunting.

No matter where you live in South Carolina or how you prefer to hunt on public land, there is a hunt nearby to meet your needs. Here are a few of the better hunts available.

FANT'S GROVE WMA
Fant's Grove WMA is rapidly gaining a reputation as a piece of public land that harbors big bucks and lots of deer. Because the area is archery-only for most of the deer season, the word has been contained for the most part within the bowhunting community. The secret, however, has been getting out ever since rifle hunts were instituted a few seasons ago.

"We know the archery hunters are killing some deer," stated Richard Morton, a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) assistant regional biologist who manages the area. "Since we eliminated check stations several seasons ago, it's been hard to monitor exactly what is occurring.

"We are thinking about surveying some archery hunters after the season to determine harvest," Morton said. "They are the ones usually killing the big bucks, but word of mouth also says they are seeing a lot of big deer." Morton mentioned a 210-pound 8-pointer taken by a bowhunter this past season that was brought by his office. The 2000-01 season was the first year of the rifle hunts on Fant's Grove, and it was instituted primarily so that more deer, especially antlerless deer, could be harvested.

Fant's Grove WMA spans nearly 7,000 acres and is located in the upper Piedmont near Clemson. Morton noted that opening a firearm hunt without a restriction on the number of hunters presented safety concerns; hence, the firearm hunts are draw-only.

"The first season we drew a total of 70 hunters for each of the four two-day hunt periods," Morton explained. "During the second season, we modified things to have three 1 1/2-day hunts with 80 people drawn. We backed that down to 75 hunters per hunt last year, but we will probably change things again this season."

Morton said the changes were due to the no-show rate. About 25 percent of the hunters selected to hunt never show up. Because only about 300 hunters have applied each season, the odds of getting drawn for the 225 slots are great, but for some reason a higher proportion of successful applicants don't come.

"Our objective is to increase the doe harvest to get a better buck-to-doe ratio," Morton said. "This is very hard to do when so many hunters aren't showing up. We are currently investigating ways to increase participation so that we can get the desired harvest that would really benefit the deer herd."

The rifle-only harvest on Fant's Grove is very dependent on the weather. Because hunting only takes place during three hunt periods in middle December (two Monday/ Tuesday periods and one Thursday/ Friday period), a locked-in weather pattern can negatively affect harvest.

"The first year of the draw hunts the total harvest was 56 deer - two bucks and 54 does," Morton noted. "There was a lot of snow and sleet that season with cold wind, but the hunters still did well. Two seasons ago, the weather wiped us out almost every day. The harvest was only 25 deer, which included two 8-pointers and 23 antlerless deer.

"It rained during the first two hunt periods this past season," he continued. "Despite the rain, they still killed 24 deer - one 8-pointer, a 9-pointer and 22 antlerless deer. The two bucks were the best two racks so far."

The limit for the rifle hunts is two deer, but no more than one buck, and that buck must have at least 4 points on one side.

Although the deer harvest has been down the last two seasons, Morton said that shouldn't bother hunters.

"Fant's Grove is a good place for a freezer deer. To be successful, hunters should scout the area. My advice is to get in there and scout the area several weeks before your hunt date. Most hunters scout all day Sunday and Monday morning, and then hang their stands to hunt that Monday evening and the next day. But you run the deer out that way," Morton said.

You can hang your stand ahead of time, but you run the risk on public land that someone will steal it. The risk is small, however, and placing your stand early leaves the area undisturbed so the deer aren't spooked.

Morton did say that Fant's Grove hunts differently from some other premium draw hunts in South Carolina. "A lot of hunters who are drawn here have hunted at the Webb Center. This place is different. I can't stress that enough. Here you are on your own - we don't take you to a permanent stand. You're given an area to hunt, and it is your responsibility to place your own stand. We've had some people ask us on the day of the hunt how to get to their section. You can tell they haven't scouted at all. If you don't scout, you are going home empty-handed."

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

WEBB CENTER WMA
It is probably safe to say that the Webb Center WMA has been conducting draw hunts for deer for as long as most of its successfully drawn hunters have been alive. The 5,866-acre region in Hampton County is a perennial favorite with deer hunters.

According to SCDNR regional biologist Tom Swayngham, there are 20 hunts of 30 hunters each. Hunters arrive by 1 p.m. on their first hunt day, hunt that evening, are provided dinner, overnight lodging and breakfast, then hunt the following morning before departing. Because of the meals and lodging, the application fee for the Webb Center WMA is higher than other WMA draw hunts.

"Just about everything is taken care of for deer hunters selected to hunt here," Swayngham said. "We take hunters by truck to elevated permanent stands. Generally, we hunt over wildlife openings during the evening hunt and back in the woods during the morning. Success usually runs about 30 percent, but it is dependent on the weather no matter the time of the year."

Draw hunts are conducted from late September to late December. Swayngham stated that October and November are the best months with December being a little slower.

"The harvest has averaged just under 200 deer for the past four seasons, and bucks make up about 55 percent of the harvest," Swayngham stated. "Overall, the deer herd at Webb is in good shape, but we are going to make some changes for the upcoming season."

Like almost all of the WMAs across the state that have implemented draw hunts for deer, the reason for the change is to increase the antlerless deer harvest.

"We are going to quality deer management," Swayngham explained. "We are killing too many bucks and not enough does on the area. To reduce the pressure on bucks, starting this season legal bucks must have at least 4 points on one side or a 12-inch spread. The limit will remain at two deer, with only one antlered buck with those criteria. Hogs are still legal, too.

"The idea is to reduce the harvest of 1 1/2-year-old bucks and move some of these animals into older age-classes. Historically, roughly 50 percent of the harvest has been 1 1/2-year-old bucks. Most of these animals are spikes or 3- or 4-pointers," he added.

Swayngham stated that they surveyed everyone who applied to hunt at Webb Center during 2001 to determine which antler restriction to put in place.

"Fifty percent of the hunters returned surveys, which was great. Over 80 percent of them supported some form of antler restrictions. When asked what they preferred, 59 percent supported at least 4 points on one side, 35 percent supported the 12-inch spread and 6 percent had no opinion. Because there was no strong majority, we decided to go with both approaches."

Call the Webb Center at (803) 625-3569 for further information about the area.

PALACHUCOLA WMA
Neighbor to the Webb Center, Palachucola WMA consists of 6,757 acres located in Hampton and Jasper counties. Despite its close proximity to Webb, the area is hunted under a very different format.

"The number of hunts depends on how the calendar falls," Swayngham said. "There were eight hunts last season with 35 hunters each."

The hunts are October through December and are 2 1/2 days long, beginning with an evening hunt on Thursday and concluding after the Saturday evening hunt.

"There are no stands provided on the area," Swayngham said. "You can go wherever you want on the WMA and put up your portable stand."

He added that lodging is not provided, but primitive camping is permitted and there are portable toilets. Water and electricity are not available.

"Success usually runs about 40 percent at Palachucola," Swayngham stated. "It fell slightly last year, and I don't know why, but it is typically higher than at Webb. The average harvest the last four seasons was 167 deer, with about 40 percent of the harvest being does."

The limit at Palachucola WMA is three deer, not to include more than one antlered buck. Swayngham said that the bucks taken at Palachucola are older than at Webb Center WMA because most hunters at Palachucola hunt deeper in the woods where older bucks tend to hang out.

Even though older bucks are taken at Palachucola WMA, Swayngham said they are going to implement the same antler restrictions that will be at Webb Center this season. "Our goal is to improve the quality of bucks for future hunters on the area," he said.

Even though they are older, deer taken at Palachucola WMA tend to weigh slightly less than the ones harvested at Webb Center WMA.

"Deer weights are lower at Palachucola because there is not as much food in the woods as there is at Webb. We're trying to thin the woods and add some more openings at Palachucola over time," Swayngham said.

Additional information can be obtained for Palachucola WMA by contacting SCDNR at the Webb Center.

SANTEE-COOPER WMA
In contrast with the other WMAs discussed here, the 3,144-acre Santee-Cooper WMA in Orangeburg County has had antler restrictions in place for about two decades.

During Santee-Cooper WMA's archery and muzzleloader seasons, hunters are only allowed to harvest bucks with at least 4 points on one sid

e or spikes. When local biologists implemented a rifle-only hunt several seasons ago to increase the doe harvest, they decided to keep the antler restrictions to maintain consistency and quality bucks in the population.

"Most of the bucks people are going to see during the rifle hunts are non-shooters (don't meet the restrictions)," said SCDNR assistant regional biologist Sam Chappelear. "The larger bucks are educated by the time the rifle hunts roll around in late November. The harvest on these draw hunts is almost entirely does, but the potential always exists that a quality buck will appear."

During most seasons of the draw hunts, a quality buck is taken. Several 8-, 9- and 10- pointers have been harvested, including a 178-pound 10-pointer taken during the 2001 season.

"Only about a quarter of the deer harvested during the rifle hunts are bucks," Chappelear said. "Hunters shouldn't be discouraged. As long as they aren't picky about shooting does, there is a good chance they will go home with a deer."

Five Tuesday-evening hunts with 15 hunters each are held on Santee-Cooper WMA from late November through December. Hunts are conducted from elevated permanent stands that overlook wildlife openings. During the last five seasons, the average number of deer harvested for the rifle hunts was between 16 and 17 deer.

"The limit is typically two deer, of which only one can be a buck with the antler restrictions," Chappelear stated. "Sometimes we adjust the bag limit, usually up, depending on our management needs in relation to the desired doe harvest. Hunter success averages about 20 percent."

You can obtain additional information about Santee-Cooper WMA by calling SCDNR at (843) 825-3387.

Donnelley WMA is another coastal WMA located in Colleton County. Recent harvest information was not available, but hunter success has averaged about 30 percent during recent seasons. In an effort to increase their antlerless deer harvest, antler restrictions similar to Webb and Palachucola WMAs are being added at Donnelley WMA, too. You can call SCDNR at (843) 844-8957 to learn more about this WMA.

Hunt fees for draw hunts range from $25 to $100 per hunter, depending on the area. Applications are available at local SCDNR offices or write SCDNR Public Drawing Hunts, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202 or visit the Web at www.dnr.state.sc.us.



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