For what it often lacks in national recognition for it’s trophy deer hunting appeal as compared to some other states, South Carolina has a vast and varied contingent of deer hunters who are as dedicated to the sport as any on the continent. Starting the whitetail season earlier than any other state in the country, these hunters hunt long and hard through the month of December and come January 1st, reluctantly give up their stands with tears in their eyes.
Whether you’re one of these die-hard deer hunters or start crying just after Thanksgiving when deer become hard to come by, dry your eyes. There’s plenty of action besides deer in the South Carolina outdoors to be found through the winter months. Plus if you’re just as versatile with rod and gun, there’s twice as much action. Let’s check out some of the best winter picks for South Carolina hunters and anglers.
SPOTTED BASS — LAKE KEOWEE
Largemouth bass were the predominant species in Lake Keowee when the lake was first built. Several years later spotted bass were introduced to the lake, most likely by fishermen, and over the last 15 years spotted bass numbers have increased exponentially (to the detriment of the largemouth).
While spotted bass do not achieve the same size as their largemouth cousins, the “spot” definitely has a more aggressive attitude. Spotted bass tend to school more than largemouth and when Lake Keowee’s forage base of threadfin shad and blueback herring begin to group en masse around the “hot hole” — the thermal water discharge area from the Duke Power nuclear plant — the lake’s spots go on a rampage. Schools of baitfish get bunched into corners, pockets or driven to the surface by schooling spots. The eruption of spotted bass tearing into baitfish schools can be seen from quite a distance and at times lasts for several hours early and late in the day.
Casting bucktails, jigging spoons or other long distance baits is the best way to target schooling fish. Look for seagulls to give away baitfish locations. Concentrations of spotted bass may be found along saddles, drop offs or other bottom relief. Vertically present a 4-inch drop-shot worm or jigging spoon for these fish. Drifting the area with live minnows suspended anywhere in the water column is also productive.
REDFISH FISHING — COASTAL REGION
The inshore coastal waters of South Carolina harbor good numbers of redfish, which get surprisingly little press during the winter. In fact, many anglers claim that catching numbers of reds is easier in December and January as the fish tend to group into tighter schools and, once found, are easier to catch. The important thing to bear in mind when searching for redfish is the importance of a working knowledge of “inlets and outlets” that change with the tide and bring food to the fish.
The tide drains the marsh on an outgoing tide so one of the best strategies for taking redfish is to find even the smallest area where water is moving out of the marsh back into the waterway. This current will bring bait with it and any available piece of structure adjacent to this moving water is likely to hold fish. An incoming tide requires an angler to look for pockets where the tide will first reach into the marsh, allowing redfish access to bait that has been hiding out through the low tide.
The vast majority of South Carolina anglers cast artificial baits for redfish or float live baits across structure under popping corks. Best artificial baits are 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig heads rigged with 3-inch plastic grubs or shrimp. It’s hard to beat anything with combinations of chartreuse for color choices. Pay particular attention to any structure such as submerged oyster bars, points and drop offs. All of these make good ambush points.
RABBIT HUNTING — STATEWIDE
Another statewide available venture for winter-weary hunters is rabbit hunting. A crisp morning of listening to a pack of beagles baying behind a foxy cottontail brings back old memories for a lot of seasoned hunters. Many mistakenly blame a lack of rabbits for modern hunts that don’t measure up to the “old days.” The problem lies with adequate habitat, not populations.
Since most private land rabbit hunting takes place on leased deer land after deer season is over, providing dual usage for rabbits is a concern. Many available rabbit lands in the state are high canopy pine plantations. If an entire property is same-age pines, then the rabbit population will be pretty scarce due to the mature trees choking out the ground level cover. On the other hand, if the land is a mix of clearcuts, young pines and mature pines, look for bunnies around the clearcut areas that have been cut within the last 4 or 5 years.
Open ground exposed to sunlight will quickly overgrow with briar patches, canes or a myriad of ground cover. Many pine tracts in the state have been cut in the last few years to deter the spread of pine beetles and the leftover brush piles are havens for rabbits. The best thing hunters can do to attract rabbits is create habitat — it’s even better than planting food plots. Even the best stand of clover in the world won’t hold rabbits if they don’t have cover.
Open season for rabbits typically comes in around Thanksgiving and runs through the end of February with a limit of 5 rabbits per hunter per day. For hunters who do not have access to private lands, a listing of available WMAs that allow small game hunting for rabbits is available on the SCDNR website.
STRIPED BASS FISHING — SAVANNAH CHAIN LAKES
The Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond have earned a nationwide reputation for both size and numbers of landlocked striped bass, which are annually stocked into these lakes. U
nlike many other species of fish, the stripers love cold water and feed heavily throughout the early winter in preparation for coming colder weather.
Free-lining live bait is a favorite tactic among local anglers who can be found trolling store bought blueback herring, gizzard shad, or extra large shiners in search of linesides. Look for striped bass and hybrid striped bass to hold around the mouths of secondary creeks that dump into larger tributaries during the day. Overnight, striped bass will often push baitfish into the extreme shallows in the backs of creeks or around shallow flats and most anglers begin fishing these shallow waters early in the day then work back toward deeper water as the sun gets overhead.
One of the best ways to locate a striper holding spot is to watch the sky for birds — seagulls, loons or herons. These coastal birds move inland during the winter to feed on baitfish and can be seen from long distances diving on schools of bait pushed up by schooling stripers.
Once water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the live bait bite may slow down as stripers become lethargic and unable to consume as much, though they will still feed at periodic intervals. This is the time many anglers turn to artificial baits in order to entice a reaction bite. Trolling umbrella rigs or vertically fishing jigging spoons are popular choices.
HUNTING WILD HOGS — STATEWIDE
Once considered solely a resident of coastal marshlands, the wild hog population has spread across the entire state of South Carolina. Hunters and landowners regularly see wild hogs or feral pigs in the mountainous regions of the upstate all the way down to the tidal regions along the coast.
Hog hunting can be divided into two separate strategies: still hunting and hunting with catch dogs. Hog hunters who employ dogs are often sought out by landowners, farmers and those with agricultural interests to reduce the impact hogs have on crops and agriculture. Hunting hogs with dogs may be the most consistent method but also involves experience and commitment to put together a workable team of dogs. Several hog dog breeders exist across the southern United States and locating them is a matter of contacting them through hog hunting trade magazines or on the internet.
Stand hunting is more common among deer hunters who may target hogs during the non-deer seasons or have chance encounters with hogs while deer hunting then seek to extend their hunting seasons by hog hunting on their deer lands. Look for signs such as hog wallows, mud rubs, or rooting in lowland or bottom areas. Hogs are mostly nocturnal and move more in the early morning and late evening hours.
Hog hunting on WMAs is permitted but eligible weapons vary with whatever season is in progress at the time on public lands. Be sure to check out the rules and regulations that apply to the time period and place you intend to hunt. Game rules and regulations can be found on the SCDNR website at www.dnr.sc.gov.
CRAPPIE FISHING — LAKES GREENWOOD AND MURRAY
From December through mid February, crappie concentrations at Lakes Murray and Greenwood are most often found on a deep-water pattern near brush, rocks or around bridges. Anglers also typically find crappie relating to deep-water brushpiles off the end of boat docks or holding along the edges of creek channels near main tributaries. Target depths will be in the 20-foot-plus depth range. Because of higher fertility in the upper reaches of these two Saluda River impoundments, look for crappie to favor the upper one-half to upper third of the lakes.
Winter tactics for crappie include single pole vertical jigging tactics and multiple pole slow trolling tactics. When vertical jigging, downsizing to 1/32 ounce or even smaller jigs is most productive. One deep-water brushpile may hold a limit of crappie so anchoring over the brush and working the structure thoroughly with a slow vertical presentation can pay off.
Trolling anglers may prefer to use small live minnows and ease around creek mouths, junctions, or marked fish attractors. This popular tactic is often referred to as spider rigging and requires a system of long limber poles, variable speed trolling motor, and multiple rod holders in order to be effective.
SQUIRREL HUNTING — STATEWIDE
One final statewide hunting option is for squirrels. Squirrel season has been open since October so winter squirrels may have already seen pressure depending on the usage of the land. Cooler temperatures may also keep squirrels pinned down in treetops and nests until midday when they come out to forage. A warming trend will extend their activities as will the last day or so before a major cold front.
The most likely places to locate squirrels will be hardwoods stands or ridges, especially if they contain water oaks, pin oaks or any other “late blooming” acorn trees that will have dropped their mast later in the season. Look for squirrels to come all the way to the ground to forage rather than up in trees as they have done through the fall.
Patience and woodsman skill are just as important in squirrel hunting today as they were in years past. Silent stalking tactics, still hunting areas from the ground and the use of treeing dogs are all popular and successful tactics.
With this wide selection of outdoor opportunities for South Carolina hunters and anglers, there’s no reason to spend the rest of the winter crying over your empty deer stand. Unpack your rods and clean up your guns, there’s plenty more action left for you to enjoy.