In order to qualify for the South Carolina White-tailed Deer Antler Records Program, a deer’s antlers must score a minimum of 125 points under the typical classification or a minimum of 145 points under the non-typical classification. For the purposes of scoring antlers, the SCDNR’s antler scoring system is the same as that utilized by both the Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young Clubs. The scoring system is based primarily on antler size and symmetry and includes measurements of the main beams, greatest inside spread of the beams, circumference measurements at certain designated locations, and the number and length of the points.
To qualify for the list of all time record book deer for South Carolina is a distinction among deer hunters — the majority of hunters never kill a buck big enough to qualify. It may come as no surprise, however, that several individuals have more than one entry in the record book, and Allendale deer hunter Don Houck is one of these frequent flyers. Houck is a local real estate developer and one of the founding members of the 17,000-acre Belfast Hunt Club, which borders the banks of the Savannah River in Allendale County.
THE HOUCK BUCK
Prior to the start of the 2009 deer season, which opens on August 15 in Allendale county, Houck was expecting to see good things from his deer club — but he didn’t realize how good until the evening of August 22 when he downed his best South Carolina buck to date.
Houck and his fellow club members had arranged for 1100 acres of the club to be planted in peanuts and were confident they’d see some good racks with the increased nutrition. In fact, in past years the club has had a gentlemen’s agreement that they wouldn’t start hunting until September 15. Last year, however, the packed-with-peanuts bruisers they were seeing during pre-season scouting quickly altered that arrangement.
“We decided we would hunt the regular season dates this year because we were excited about what we were seeing,” said Houck, who has been hunting the property for over 17 years. “A week before the season, I started doing some long distance glassing of our fields and saw a couple of bachelor groups that included several 130 and 140 class deer.”
Strictly a quality deer management club, the Belfast Hunt Club has a 110-inch minimum size buck limit and only two bucks are allowed per member each season. When word spread that a number of 140 class deer were being seen on the property prior to the season, several of the hunt club members began scouting locations and Houck credits this activity with part of his success.
“The deer vacated the fields where I had seen them earlier once the guys started scouting and the season opened,” said Houck. “In fact we’d already had three bucks in the 130 class killed before I killed my deer. I knew of an opening on the backside of one of our fields and also knew no one else had been back there so I went in late on Friday and rediscovered a couple of the big deer I had seen earlier and decided I’d go back there and hunt the next evening.”
Houck and fellow club member Mark Tinsley, an attorney from Allendale, were hunting separate fields. Houck had just seen a couple of 8-point bucks in the 110 to 120 class that had entered the opening he was watching, which was near a creek bottom, when several more deer filed into the field, including a massive buck that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
The hunter’s vantage point was a ground blind overlooking the bottom, which dead-ended into the Savannah River swamp. Houck estimated the deer to be at least in the 150 class and to be about 5 1/2 years old. The massive animal was standing just over 250 yards from his stand. With a single shot from his .270 rifle, Houck dropped the animal in its tracks.
“The rack on this deer is just amazing,” said Tinsley, who helped his buddy collect the deer and snap some photos. “It’s a very symmetrical 10-point typical rack with massive G2′s and heavy brow tines and still in velvet. This is probably the biggest typical deer killed in Allendale County.”
KEY INGREDIENTS FOR BIG DEER
For Houck, killing a record book buck was no mistake. In fact the hunter estimates that he has killed nearly 20 deer that would qualify over the years but has let just as many walk. In fact, he has a reputation for putting other club members, especially ones who have never killed a big deer, on trophy bucks. He admits he gets more enjoyment from another hunter’s trophy than adding another one to his own credit.
“There’s three key ingredients to consistently harvesting trophy deer,” he said. “You have to have good food sources to feed your deer, you also have to have good genetics in your deer herd, and you have to let the smaller bucks walk.”
When he speaks of food sources, Houck suggests that having excellent nutrition during the spring months, when deer are growing their antlers, is important, but having a balanced diet to feed deer year round is critical.
“We plant a mix of clover, sorghum, wheat, and rye — pretty much everything you’ll find in a quality deer management mix,” he said. “We have some sandy soil here so using a mix helps keep something available for deer to eat year round.”
“The peanuts we planted last year and again this year are a great protein source and they’re great to hunt over, but you have to have good nutrition during the growing seasons if you’re going to consistently grow trophy deer” he said.
As for the genetics of their herd, Houck said they’ve had to work with the existing herd for many years to build it into a trophy buck factory. “You can’t import deer into South Carolina. It has taken a long time to weed out the undesirable deer, which leaves you with better quality deer-that’s the basis of quality deer management,” he said.
Most deer managers speak of adequate doe harvest to balance their herd but according to Houck, coyotes take care of most of the thinning of does. “We’ve killed over 100 coyotes on our land and surrounding properties,” he said. “Our buck to doe ratio is right around one buck per every two does, that’s just about unheard of. I read in a study conducted by the University of Georgia that 80 — 85 percent of fawns are killed each spring and that most of that fawn loss is due to coyotes. We’ve definitely seen a decrease in our overall deer population so we have eased up on our doe harvest because of so much natural mortality.”
etting young bucks walk is a challenge for most deer clubs that want to establish quality deer management practices but Houck said it’s not as difficult these days in his club.
“When a new member comes out here during the late summer and sees what we have walking on our property, they want to wait until they can get on a big one,” he said. “We instituted a 110 point minimum rule and we only let a member shoot two bucks a season. We try to only shoot the mature deer. That takes some education to learn the difference between a big, young deer and a mature deer that’s prime for harvest. You also have to know a young deer with poor genetics and get him out before he passes those traits on.”
GOOD AND BAD HUNTING PRACTICES
For Houck, the best time to kill a record book deer is the first time or two you hunt a stand. Shortly after that it’s time to move on and find another location.
“Permanent stands that get hunted all the time are not good places to kill a big deer,” he said. “The chances of seeing a good buck diminish every time you hunt a stand.”
To find trophy deer Houck will scout an area from a distance. He uses binoculars to scout food plots and fields then once he spots a trophy deer he’ll move in later to find a specific location to put up a stand and hunt that deer.
“I locate the travel routes he’s using to access that area then I’ll back off and find a good vantage point to hunt the trail he’s using,” said the hunter, who prefers to bow hunt deer but admits that bow hunting early in the season is tough due to the heat and mosquitoes.
“I usually gun hunt until mid October then I’ll bow hunt the rest of the season. Stand location differs whether I’m using a gun or bow-you have to get a lot closer to kill a buck with a bow whereas with a gun you can back off even further.”
Even with this knowledge, Houck’s club members claim he has more than just random luck when scouting deer.
“Another member, Pat Asson killed a big 9 point last year,” said Mark Tinsley. “Don put Pat on that deer. It was a deer Don had been watching. The place we are hunting obviously has some big deer and a number of them, but Don has this uncanny ability to go through the woods and say–this is a good spot for a big buck. The bucks are almost always killed on the first time the spot is hunted. The secret seems to be that you wait until the conditions are right to sit the stand, then you hunt it without having gone into the area and disturbed it. After you hunt the spot a few times, you can write it off. These really olds bucks won’t stand much pressure.”
THE HUNT IS ON
Baiting with corn is legal in the area Houck hunts but the hunter may or may not use it when hunting a trophy deer. “If I use corn, it’s after I’ve scouted a spot, then I’ll put out 7 — 8 bags on that one spot after I’ve placed my stand. I may go in 4 days later and hunt that stand. After hunting it three or four times, I move on.
Houck is not stuck on one particular type stand. He uses lock-ons, climbers, even hunts from the ground using a camo dove blind. He lets the lay of the land dictate which stand type he uses and he never hunts the stand unless the wind is in his favor.
“I make sure the wind is right and I’ll also spray my boots to keep from leaving any scent behind — both when putting up a stand and later when I hunt it,” he said. “Another important factor is to pay attention to those moon phase calendars posted in your outdoor magazines. Bucks will walk during the middle of the day when the moon is full. I keep up with those charts and more often than not they are on the money.”
Houck’s final advice is to tread lightly. Much of the 17,000 acres encompassed in Belfast Hunt Club is swamp land. Places no one hunts because they provide sanctuary for deer and there’s simply no way to get very far in or out without spooking deer. They also do not allow random ATV travel on their club.
“They’ll come out to eat and find does if the rut is on,” said Houck. “That’s why it’s important to have everything in place.”
Hopefully with a little luck when that trophy buck does come out you’ll be in the right place to make your mark in the record books.