Knowing North Carolina's Deer Inside & Out

Knowing North Carolina's Deer Inside & Out

Jeff Pearce owns one of the biggest deer-processing plants in the state, but some of the largest bucks he sees are in the cross hairs of his own scope.

By Mike Zlotnicki

Not many Tar Heel deer hunters have the opportunity to see literally thousands of deer each year, but Jeff Pearce of Louisburg in Franklin County does. Sure, most of them are already dead, being brought in for venison processing at his plant, but even that workload doesn't prevent this outdoor jack-of-all-trades - meat processor, farmer, fishing guide, trapper - from getting out and harvesting bragging-size bucks each season.

He also passes on bucks that many hunters would be proud to tag, allowing them to grow into what he considers a "trophy."

The contact with so many other of his deer-hunting brethren also allows Pearce to have a finger on the pulse of the local deer hunting community, allowing a free flow of information during the season.

Pearce, 52, grew up in Franklin County and spent much of his time with his grandparents, who fostered his love of the outdoors with frequent fishing trips and squirrel and rabbit forays during hunting season.

"I killed my first deer in 1972, an 8-pointer, while running dogs," he said. The buck still adorns his wall.

"But I was one of the first hunters I knew of to climb a tree (to hunt deer)," he added.

In the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, Pearce trapped furbearers commercially during the winter, and he credits the woodsmanship gleaned from trapping for helping his deer hunting.

Jeff Pearce doesn't spend all of his deer season just processing other hunters' venison. Here he is with some of his better Franklin County bucks. Franklin County is not widely known as a trophy producer, but Pearce has developed tactics to find big deer. Photo by Mike Zlotnicki

"Trapping helped me learn the habits and traits of different animals, which made me much more aware when deer hunting," he said. "Why did he walk there? Where did he come from? What's he eating? This thought process really helped this past season when some of my customers were reporting fewer deer sightings."

As it turns out, the culprit that Pearce was quick to deduce was, in fact, a boon to whitetails - a bumper crop of acorns - that had the bait-dependent hunters shaking their heads. This even reinforced one of the basic tenets of Pearce's whitetail success. Everyone knows that deer eat, but not everyone thinks about what deer like to eat when they have a choice in the matter.

"Food," he said. "Not just food, but preferred foods. We have a lot of hunters around here who rely on baiting with corn (to attract deer), but last year the deer were walking past corn piles to eat acorns. Hunters hunting over fields weren't seeing deer either. Then, we had hunters who stayed on the oak flats after the acorns were gone and the deer had gone to honeysuckle and bamboo briars in December. You have to know what the deer in your area prefer to eat, and where that forage is. Go to the deer."

Pearce used that "local knowledge" to nail a heavy-beamed 8-pointer last season that should easily score in the 140s.

"I knew there was a nice buck in one of my spots. It was post-rut, and I knew that the deer were favoring honeysuckle in my area. I had one stand site with a food plot and honeysuckle stand in close proximity. I shot him at 4 p.m., and he's the only real nice buck that I've killed in the evening," he said.

Which brings us to another one of Pearce's beliefs: The morning is best for trophy bucks.

"I think that 85 percent of the real big bucks are killed in the a.m. hours," he said. "Your percentage of bucks seen will be higher. Most of my big deer have come in the morning, and most of the really exceptional deer that come to my processing plant have been killed in the morning."

Pearce also has some simple thoughts about stand site selection.

"I believe that most of the big deer killed around here are killed in the woods, not in the fields," he said. "I'm fortunate to hunt a lot of good private land. When I set up a box stand near a field, I make sure that I've got a line of sight into the woods or cutover near it. You won't see my stands standing in the middle of a field; they'll be tucked back in a corner or wherever it allows a look back into the woods. I may have less vision into the field, but I catch those bucks skirting the field, particularly during the rut."

While age has given Pearce a preference for fixed stands, he does employ portable stands to play the wind.

Pearce's seasonal approach to deer hunting starts with early scouting, and he advises hunters to stay out of their hunting areas for about a month prior to the season opener.

"Know your land, but don't overdo it," he said.

This philosophy does make for some hot and buggy stand erecting, but it has worked for him. When the season opens, he's ready.

For pre-rut whitetails (September and most of October), Pearce said, "I hunt the food source closest to a given bedding area both morning and evenings, but try not to hunt too close to either. I don't go in early using a flashlight; I think you alert more deer with the light and noise than going in when you can see the ground clearly. One trick I've learned for pre-rut hunting is that big bucks will often walk 20 to 30 yards downwind of a main deer trail if there's enough cover for him to feel comfortable."

When the rut kicks in (the last week of October through the third week of November), Pearce has a simple switch of tactics.

"If I have an area with a high concentration of does, that's where I hunt," he said, "if I know there's a nice buck in the area. During the rut, most of the big bucks that come into my plant are killed sometime between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m."

Pearce differs from some hunters concerning rut tactics. He eschews the use of estrus scents, allowing only for a cover scent at times. He rarely uses a grunt call, and saves most of his rattling for the post-rut.

"When every buck's got two or three receptive does, he's not going to leave them for a fight," he explained.

The post-rut brings Pearce almost full circle in tactics.

"I start to concentrate on food sources again," he said. "Food, especially when the weather gets cold, becomes more important, and I again hu

nt close to bedding areas.

"Cold, severe days are good days to kill a nice buck. They have to feed to survive, especially after expending all that energy during the rut, so they'll be exposed more. Baited situations, food plots, bamboo briars and honeysuckle all are good setups."

Equipment is another area where Pearce has a definite opinion. "You've got to have adequate equipment, the best that you can afford," he said. "In clothing, you've got to stay warm and dry. If you're on a budget, put more money in your scope than in your rifle. Most modern rifles shoot plenty accurate enough for hunting, but a guy will go buy a $600 rifle and put a $200 scope on it, when he should be doing the opposite."

Pearce's rig includes a bolt-action rifle in 7mm Magnum topped with a 4x12x50 scope. He reloads his brass using 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets. "I've got myself set up so I can shoot 3-inch groups at 200 yards from solid rest," he said.

Not all aspects of deer hunting require a great deal of time, but many of them do require some common sense and just a little bit of planning. Pearce offered some tips in no particular order for Tar Heel deer hunters to ponder:

  • "If you have any kind of rest, use it. Lean against a tree; use shooting rails in a stand; use your knees when on the ground.
  • "Know the kill zone. I have a lot of deer that come into the plant that have been shot in the middle. On trophy deer, I shoot straight through the shoulders to anchor him. A heart shot deer can run a 100 yards and get lost in a swamp, river or cutover.
  • "Know the lay of the land - bedding areas, funnels, feeding areas and times and seasons deer are using them.
  • "Big tracts of cutover - 100 acres or more - near timberlands usually have mature deer in them, particularly if there are dog hunters in the area. The dogs will run bucks in the thick stuff, but the bucks will circle inside the thick stuff until the dogs cut another track.
  • "Take the first effective killing shot you have when you see a trophy buck, you may not get another chance.
  • "Don't set your goals too high. The trophy lies in the eye of the beholder.
  • "Use binoculars to learn an area, but use a scope when you see deer. You can lose a big buck in the time it takes to transition between optics.
  • "In a lot of areas, there are little pockets of land that no one hunts that may hold deer. They may take more work, be close to roads, be in the middle of fields - or whatever. Bucks can relocate under pressure; hunters need to do so as well.
  • "Keep things (in the field) as simple as you can. Concentrate on hunting, not gadgets.
  • "Pay attention to a deer's tail when you shoot. Ninety-nine percent of the time a hard-hit deer will duck its tail on impact.
  • "When thinking of tracking a deer after the shot, I've found that deer will normally favor the side where it was shot as it runs. This doesn't always apply, but a lost blood trail can often be found by arcing your search based on the side hit.
  • "Don't shoot the first buck that walks out, and wait for mature does to walk when you're hunting meat. Big bucks often follow younger bucks, and some of the smaller 'does' are actually this year's button bucks. Shoot only mature does for meat."

Pearce summed up his philosophy with a statement that's not unusual, but often forgotten by many deer hunters. "The bottom line with successful deer hunters is this: They take it very seriously. They pay attention to what's going on around them, and they ask questions. I believe that luck happens, but a man makes most of his luck."

Tar Heel deer hunters are a talkative bunch, and the buzz last season wasn't positive: Hunters complained of seeing fewer deer in the field and having trouble killing big bucks.

The culprit? While several factors contributed to the scarcity of deer, a severe outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic fever (EHD) was a main component in the decline of deer sightings and numbers, and as many 15 percent of the North Carolina deer herd (150,000 animals) may have died as a result. The outbreak was most severe in the Piedmont and eastern counties of the state. EHD is similar to another disease, often called blue tongue virus.

It was a record year for EHD as states from Georgia to Pennsylvania reported cases, all as a result of the weather.

At the Dixie Deer Classic held in Raleigh last March, Evin Stanford, deer biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said, "Overall, our early harvest figures are showing a 10 to 15 percent decline. Some counties were more heavily hit than others, but the disease was present in 64 out of 100 counties in the state. Scientifically, there's no evidence that it affects bucks more than does, but people may dwell more on dead bucks than dead does."

He also acknowledged that EHD was the No. 1 question asked by visitors to the NCWRC exhibit at the Dixie Deer Classic.

EHD is an infectious disease of white-tailed deer and other ruminants like mule deer and bighorn sheep. Domestic animals like sheep and cows generally show no clinical illness or mild disease when affected. The virus is transmitted through a biting midge, known to many as the "no-see-um," a tiny biting fly. A dry midsummer, followed by a wet late summer or early fall, drives midge populations, and those conditions were present last year. High-density deer populations may have higher mortality rates. Once a deer is infected and survives, the animal becomes largely immune to future exposure. The virus is not a danger for humans, either from contact or consumption.

Outward signs of EHD depend partly on the virulence (potency) of the virus and the duration of the infection. In fact, many infected animals may appear normal or show only mild signs of infection. The signs change as the disease progresses. Initial signs include depression, fever or a swollen head, neck, tongue or eyelids. In severe cases, deer may die within one to three days. The chronic form of EHD exhibits with growth interruptions on the hooves and oral lesions, among other signs.

But hunters weren't the only group affected by the EHD outbreak. Taxidermists reported fewer capes for mounting, with several in the Triangle areas reporting a 30 percent decrease in deer business. Auto body shops, long the accidental benefactors of the rut, reported fewer dents to fix. Meat processors, many of whom depend on harvested deer for business, were hard hit as well.

"I did (processed) about 800 deer two years ago," said Don Sollars of Country Butchers, a Zebulon-based meat processor in Wake County. "Last season I only did about 600, and I get deer from all over eastern North Carolina."

Pearce, who sits on the board of directors for North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry, processed 25,000 pounds of the 38,000 pounds of ground venison processed statewide, said, "In my opinion, EHD caused a 10 percent drop in my overall deer processing. I'd have to give the acorn crop another 10 percent. You had to hunt the deer this past season. If you hunt over bait, the deer are hunting you.

"Also, the ice storm in December hurt us. We had six days of no electricity, and about six mor

e days of hunters cleaning up after the storm, so they weren't hunting."

Stanford, while concerned about the outbreak, is optimistic about the future. "I hate making predictions," he said, always the scientist, "but I don't think it will have any long-term effects on the herd. Our deer herd has dealt with things like EHD forever. We've been flirting with record harvests for the past couple of years. Right now we're looking forward to another successful year. We had a real good mast crop last year and that may provide a buffer for pregnant does and reproduction."

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