Buck Frenzy in the Foothills

Buck Frenzy in the Foothills

Last season was a watershed year for big bucks taken in the Foothills. Here's the story behind five great trophies.

By Scott Keepfer

There's "gold" in them thar Foothills.

Just ask Mark Huntington or Levone Boggs.

Or Jaime Esco, Mike Limbaugh or Ronald Morgan.

Each of those deer hunters from the Upstate of South Carolina struck "gold" last season in the form of trophy bucks. The animals taken by that quintet of hunters in 2002 ranked as the five highest-scoring bucks in the Upstate, each easily qualifying for inclusion in South Carolina's all-time state records book for deer antlers.

And each of the hunters met their date with destiny while hunting in what is generally known as "the Foothills."

At one time an overlooked entity in the realm of South Carolina deer hunting, the Foothills region is beginning to produce numbers that are cause for some upraised eyebrows.

The parameters of the Foothills area aren't exactly well defined, although that label has been given - courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) - to the general area between the mountains of the northwest part of the state and the area where flatland becomes the predominant terrain.

Mike Limbaugh shows off the mount of his tall-racked bow-kill buck, taken last year in Abbeville County. The buck scored 145 points, qualifying it for the Pope and Young record book. Photo by Scott Keepfer

"Twenty years ago, some hunters were hard-pressed to find many deer in that area, but as the population (of deer) has increased, it has gotten to the point where there are enough deer to hunt," says Charles Ruth, the DNR's deer project supervisor. "Nutrition is at a very high plateau, and there is a more moderate population of deer than in the Piedmont proper and the Coastal Plain. It hasn't gotten to the point where there are too many deer there."

For most hunters, the Foothills area would cover all of Anderson County, as well as the southern portions of Pickens and Greenville counties and parts of Abbeville and Greenwood counties.

"The surge in big bucks coming from Anderson County has been ongoing for 10 years now," Ruth said.

Indeed, Anderson County has emerged as the Upstate's frontrunner when it comes to producing trophy deer. Anderson has quietly moved into the No. 8 spot among the state's 46 counties in all-time record-book bucks with 139 entries, and the county has consistently ranked among the top five in the state in record-book bucks produced in each of the past several years.

In fact, Huntington's buck - a massive non-typical that has earned a spot as the state's No. 5 all-time in that category - is the latest feather in Anderson's burgeoning hunting cap.

Boggs' buck, featuring a perfectly typical rack that scored 144 1/8 Boone and Crockett points, also was taken in Anderson. Morgan and Limbaugh each took their trophy animals in neighboring Abbeville County, while Esco - a waitress who is just as comfortable with a muzzleloader in her hands as she is with a tray of home-style entrées - found her buck of a lifetime just south of Abbeville, in Greenwood County.

Here are their stories, presented chronologically:

Jaime Esco, a 23-year-old waitress from Greenwood, says she decided to take up hunting with a muzzleloader not only because the idea fascinated her, but also because it got her into the woods during the earlier primitive weapons season, providing a two-week time advantage over conventional hunters.

Her strategy paid off handsomely.

On Oct. 8, 2002, Esco went hunting on her grandfather's property near the small town of Bradley in Greenwood County. It was, she recalls, the "first cold evening of the season."

She had already hunted the area that morning and noticed a spot where an apparent buck had scraped the ground.

"There was some sign about 40 yards behind where I had been sitting on the ground, so I decided to go back that afternoon," Esco said.

She bundled up, only her eyes and nose exposed to the cold, and positioned herself with her back to a large tree.

"I just feel more comfortable on the ground," she said. "And I'm careful to know exactly which way the wind is blowing where I hunt."

Esco drifted off to sleep for a few minutes, but was awakened suddenly by a sound nearby. She glanced to her left and caught the flash of antlers moving through the understory.

"That's when I stood up, real slow," Esco said.

She slowly moved the muzzleloader to her shoulder.

Esco then saw two does as well and decided to blow on her grunt call. The big buck heard the grunt and promptly bounded into a clearing.

"He was all puffed up and looking for a fight," Esco said.

She whistled to stop the buck in his tracks, and he stopped and looked in her direction. Smoothly, she squeezed the trigger on her muzzleloader, and the buck dropped right there.

Esco walked up to the animal, and she realized right away that she had taken the biggest deer of her life. Leaving her flashlight and gun behind, she excitedly headed for her stepfather's nearby home.

He met her halfway.

"He said that when he heard my shot, he started slipping his boots on," Esco said. "He knows that I don't miss. I think he was doing more dancing than I was."

The buck, the fourth of her five-year hunting career, was a 10-pointer and weighed 180 pounds.

Esco would take photos of her trophy buck to work, where she'd tuck them safely into her waitress order pad. One day, Billy Fleming, a Greenwood-based wildlife biologist with the DNR, was eating in the restaurant and asked to see the photos.

He urged her to have the rack scored.

The antlers scored 139 2/8 points, easily qualifying for inclusion into the all-time state-record book. Since claiming her trophy, Esco has been met with varied reactions, but she makes no apologies.

"People call me 'Little Redneck,' or 'Deer Killer,' " said Esco. "Others call me Elly May (from "The Beverly Hillbillies").

"Some people are impressed; others are disgusted at how I could do it (shoot a deer). One woman has a different outlook about me now. She's impressed that I can go out there and do it and hang with the guys."

With one shot, Esco had conquered what she calls "two of my biggest fears - shooting a muzzleloader and shooting a buck that's looking directly at me."

Forty-four-year-old Mike Limbaugh of Easley has been deer hunting since he was 21, and bowhunting - almost exclusively - since 1980.

Time enough to develop well-thought-out strategies when deer season rolls around. Essentially, Limbaugh likes to put a couple of does in the freezer, then concentrate on bagging that big buck.

"I've let a lot of smaller bucks walk away because there's really no point in taking them," Limbaugh said. "If you don't, they'll never grow up to be like this one."

The "this one" Limbaugh was referring to is quite a reward for a man who has invested countless hours in watching deer behavior.

On Oct. 10, 2002 - the final day of the archery season - Limbaugh headed for his favorite public hunting area in Abbeville County. True to form, he'd already put one deer, the 98th of his career, in the freezer. He planned to add another, then focus on making deer No. 100 a truly memorable buck, even if it meant watching a lot of smaller deer walk away.

As it turned out, success came early for Limbaugh.

He climbed into a tree stand that he'd hunted from before and had, in fact, seen a big buck from on at least one occasion during each of the two previous seasons.

"He'd blow when he smelled me, then run off," Limbaugh said. "I knew right then I'd have to wait until the wind was blowing in a different direction."

The wind was in his favor on this late afternoon, and Limbaugh - a youth minister at his church - paused to say a prayer. When he opened his eyes, he saw a big buck feeding on acorns about 35 yards away.

"He fed around for about 10 minutes before he gave me a broadside shot," Limbaugh said. "It was one of those 'white-knuckle' 10 minutes, that's for sure."

When the opportunity came, Limbaugh finally released a deadly shot from his bow, then watched the buck run off into the darkening woods.

"I knew I had to find him that night because it was starting to rain, and I was afraid it might wash away any blood trail," Limbaugh said.

Limbaugh found the buck less than 100 yards away where he had fallen in some tall grass. The antlers protruded high above the grass, fairly glistening in the glow of his flashlight.

The high-sitting rack had 12 points, including 8 on the main frame and 4 sticker points. The buck weighed about 180 pounds.

The rack scored 145 points, qualifying it not only for the state-record book, but for Pope and Young status as well.

"It was," Limbaugh said, "an answered prayer and a half."

As a veteran member of the Greenville City Police force's SWAT team, Mark Huntington is well schooled in making the most of his shots.

The focusing. The tuning out of all distractions.

"I've done it so many thousands of times that I never really thought about it when it came to hunting," said Huntington, whose buck was featured in September's issue of South Carolina Game & Fish.

He will now.

The innate calmness and coolness that come with millions of fired shots helped Huntington bag South Carolina's best non-typical rack of the season last Oct. 31. He didn't get spooked on his Halloween Day hunt, and the result was the state's new No. 5 all-time non-typical.

The 22-point rack scored 180 7/8, which also makes it the best buck ever taken in Anderson County.

Huntington had only taken a handful of deer since taking up deer hunting in earnest several years ago, but used common sense and the advice of others to position himself in a desirable location.

"This one was different because I picked out my spot and placed my own stand," Huntington said.

He essentially homed in on a "crossroads" area where many deer had obviously passed through. A creek, a field and woods were all in sight.

"This was a place where the deer could go to bed, go to a nearby field or go to their scrapes," Huntington said.

He shot the buck around 7 a.m., using a 30/.06 at just 35 yards.

"He tipped over like a statue," Huntington said. It wasn't until after the buck had fallen that Huntington got "buck fever."

"I was shaking so bad that I had to stay there in the tree for about 15 minutes before I could come down," he said. "At that point, it was dawning on me that I'd just killed the buck of a lifetime."

Befitting a man who has hunted for more than 30 years and killed 173 deer during that span, Ronald Morgan lingered longer than normal in his tree stand last Nov. 8.

He could afford to - he takes all of his annual vacation time during deer season.

"It was a pretty day, and I was enjoying it whether I got a deer or not," Morgan said.

Morgan, a 56-year-old truck driver from Simpsonville, was hunting on club-leased land in Abbeville County. His late-morning lingering finally paid big dividends around 11 a.m., as he caught a glimpse of a big buck in a thicket approximately 50 yards away.

The time-tested Morgan simply waited for the buck to step into a clearing up ahead and squeezed the trigger on his Browning 300 Magnum as he'd done so many times before.

But what laid in wait for him was unlike any deer he'd ever killed. He didn't know exactly how to react when he walked up on a 185-pound buck toting a majestic 10-point rack.

"It kind of makes you want to holler when you walk up and see something like that," Morgan said.

Morgan did more hollering when the buck's antlers were scored a few months later: The score sheet totaled 146 6/8 points. That score gave Morgan the first recor

d-book buck of his long career, and was the highest-scoring typical rack tallied by wildlife biologists and technicians during the Upstate's scoring sessions last spring.

Persistence paid off for Levone Boggs last Nov. 14, but he almost slept through it.

A 28-year-old self-employed landscaper from Belton, Boggs was hunting on private land in Anderson County in pursuit of a big buck that he'd missed eight days prior.

But long hours that week had taken a toll, and Boggs closed his eyes.

"I had been sleeping for about 10 or 15 minutes when something just made me wake up," Boggs said. "There he was, standing about 100 yards away, looking directly at me."

Boggs would later realize that the buck was actually eyeing a doe that was standing under his tree stand, but it kept Boggs motionless for a few minutes.

"I couldn't get my gun up in position," Boggs said. "When he finally looked back away from me, I brought my gun up."

This time, Boggs made his shot count. The buck fell within five steps.

When he climbed down and walked to the animal, Boggs couldn't believe his eyes. "I had never seen a deer like this - at least not up close," he said.

The buck weighed around 185 pounds, but toted a much more impressive set of antlers - 11 points, with a 21-inch inside spread. It scored 144 1/8.

"It had everything," said DNR wildlife biologist Richard Morton, who scored the rack. "It had good tine length, good mass, good characteristics and very few deductions."

Although he has been deer hunting for about 15 years, Boggs admits that he labored unproductively for much of them. About six years ago, Boggs began soliciting help from an experienced hunter who introduced him to the practices of observation of deer and developing hunting strategies.

With his trophy of a lifetime, Boggs says he plans to help others.

"I know what it's like to need help," he said. "Now I want to return the favor and help other people."

So, in due course, they, too, may be able to strike some of the Foothills "gold."

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