Make A Great Game Plan For Lowcountry Deer

Make A Great Game Plan For Lowcountry Deer

For the mid-August opening of deer season in the Lowcountry, preparation can make all the difference. Here's how to get in the game. (August 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Serious whitetail deer hunters leave very little -- or, as little as humanly possible -- to chance or luck. Preparation is the key to success and that's true throughout the state of South Carolina.

But the Lowcountry deer hunting season opener on Aug. 15 of each year leaves plenty of variables for the deer. The varied and often rough, dense vegetative growth frequently found in Lowcountry deer habitat gives deer many options. The variety of food sources available can mean they will be less predictable in terms of where they travel. The traffic of humans in the woods is another wild card that will influence their behavior.

However, you can stack the odds in your favor.

One Lowcountry hunter, Mike Cox, does exactly that every year. He consistently takes a nice buck on opening day or within the first few days of the season. I remember our discussion regarding one such season. His hunting plan sounded simple. He slipped into the stand about three hours before dark. And he stayed in that stand. Just about five minutes before it was too dark to shoot, a good buck crossed an old logging road about 80 yards from his stand. Presto, dead 8-point buck.

No problem, right?

Actually, it's not really that simple. The final act of taking the trophy buck seemed simple, or even lucky, to his buddies hunting the same large tract of land that evening. However, none of them saw a deer that afternoon. Cox saw several does and two smaller bucks before taking the 8-pointer.

The key to his success had required plenty of prior planning and thought.

He had put up and finished working his stands several weeks before the season began. All limbing had been done. He had four possible stands for opening day/week. He had already decided the wind and weather would determine which one he would sit on any given day. He had learned the bedding and feeding habits of the deer in his specific territory. He had placed his stands accordingly.

He was using corn as an attractant (legal in this area), but he only traveled through the area by 4-wheeler to freshen up the bait and wore rubber boots to reduce any human scent. He parked far from his stand that first day of hunting season and walked in quietly. The deer had no reason to suspect he was in the woods. Thus, per his plan, they reacted in their normal daily manner. As far as the deer were concerned, they'd seen no pressure from humans all year.

Other hunters had not prepared in such a way. They put stands up late; just before the season opened, they were still hanging stands and limbing shooting lanes. A couple of hunters even sat in the just-erected stands armed with binoculars only a few days before the season opening. Moreover, they paid no heed to wind direction. Some had seen deer while observing from their stands before actually hunting.

There's a dramatic difference in the approach, and in the outcome, of the above scenarios.

It's not too late to produce a winning game plan for the opening day and first couple of weeks of the mid-August gun season for deer. However, you have to act now to be able to really stack the odds of success in your favor.

First, let's take a look at where the most deer are located in the Lowcountry. We'll define the Lowcountry for this feature as the 12-county area where there is an Aug. 15 gun session opener for deer. Even though this time is drawing near, there's still opportunity for you to make a good game plan for success.

The 12 counties, in order of total deer harvested in 2005, include: Orangeburg, Hampton, Colleton, Bamberg, Allendale, Berkeley, Charleston, Barnwell, Calhoun, Jasper, Dorchester and Beaufort.

The first six of these counties were in the top 12 counties of the state in terms of total numbers of deer harvested. That's certainly a great starting point to find areas with high populations of deer.

Another way to look at the most productive areas is to consider the counties on a deer harvested per unit area. In this category, five of the top nine counties in the state are in this category. The counties include, in ranking order, Bamberg (No. 1), Hampton (No. 2), Allendale (No. 3), Calhoun (No. 6) and Orangeburg (No. 9). If you have access to top counties in either list, or one that is high in both, you're in the right area for early-season success.

Charles Ruth, deer project supervisors for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), said the harvest per unit area is perhaps the best "apples-to-apples" way to compare deer populations in South Carolina.

"Comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established," Ruth said. "Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile.

"When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2005 was 11.5 deer per square mile over the entire state," Ruth said. "This harvest rate should be considered extraordinary in comparison with other states. Three counties recorded harvest rates in excess of 20 deer per square mile with the top counties including: Bamberg (26.5 deer/mile), Hampton (21.6 deer/mile) and Allendale (20.8 deer/mile)."

Ruth also said the success of the early-season hunting is defined by pre-season preparation and taking advantage of the first few days of he season.

"Sometimes the hunting can be tough during the early season," Ruth said. "The opening few days are often an exception. But since the harvest opportunity is limited to bucks only, they can become scarce when a lot of pressure is applied. Typically, hunters may see some deer the first few days, and then the hunting success will usually drop. The bucks get much more difficult to see until sometime in September."

Ruth also said there are some limited early-season public-land hunting opportunities in the Lowcountry. This hunting will be confined to the units of the Francis Marion National Forest. He added that public land hunting in August is limited to specific places, so be sure to check the rules and regulations for Game Zone 6 to find exactly when and where hunting is allowed on public lands.

There are many

detailed, specific things you can do to help control your hunting destiny in the Lowcountry early season. Having a defined game plan is a key.

As illustrated earlier, Mike Cox is a veteran Lowcountry hunter who is meticulous in his hunting preparation. He has a game plan for almost any of the various hunting scenarios he'll encounter.

"Hunting the August portion of the Lowcountry season can be really productive," Cox said. "However, it can also be very unpredictable unless you do your homework. There's a lot of preparation that goes into successful hunts anytime of the season. But despite what some hunters think, early season does not necessarily mean easy pickings for whitetail deer.

"If you don't know where the deer are bedding, feeding and the basic travel routes, you can be in for some long, hot, unproductive afternoons," Cox said. "But armed with a good game plan, you can also enjoy great hunting and have an early-season opportunity to take a big buck."

Cox said that other than the rut, perhaps the best time to take a big buck in the Lowcountry would be during those first few days of the early season. One reason is simply that deer, particularly the big bucks, have not been pressured much at this time.

"Typically, it doesn't take too long for big bucks to feel the pressure once the season opens," Cox said. "That's why you hear people talking a lot about seeing big bucks before the season as they drive along the road or sometimes while driving a 4-wheeler through their hunting club. But once hunters start sitting in stands, that usually will change.

"Far too often, they'll not consider real important factors, such as the wind," Cox said. "Even in August, we have some wind, although some of those hot and sticky evenings it doesn't feel like it. A hunter needs to understand the prevailing wind direction in their area and hunt accordingly. So a primary initial consideration is to place your stands where you'll have the prevailing wind to your advantage, not to the advantage of the deer."

Cox said that getting your stand up early and in the right place in terms of wind direction is a double plus for your hunt. Even two to four weeks out is not too late to get your stand in. However, as a rule of thumb, he will have his stands in place and left alone in terms of human scent for perhaps two months or more before the season opens.

"Through the years, I've found it crucial to determine my stand sites and get them where I want them long before the season opens," Cox said. "Also, I get them limbed up for shooting and camouflaged as much as possible. I use some of the leafy camouflage at times to help hide the stand, but I try to make maximum use of the existing natural vegetation in the area. This is absolutely critical when setting up bow stands. However, if you're hunting a big buck from a permanent stand, it's also important. Use your natural surroundings to blend into the woods as much as possible. The more successful you are at doing that, the more deer you will see throughout the season. That will be specifically because they don't see you.

"Consider your background cover and incorporate as much concealment into your stand as possible using the vegetation around it," he said. "While I'll cut lanes for open shots, I pick those lanes carefully. Don't over-clear an area where you have too clear of vision. That makes you much more obvious to the deer as well."

In addition, Cox said that after the first few days, hunters will often again have to change their game plan to continue to see deer during late August.

"Once the bucks get pressured, they are going to be much less likely to step out in the open during the daylight hours," Cox said. "So, to get a shot at a big buck, you may have to get back in the thickets and swamps with them.

"That can also mean very tight quarters," Cox said. "So this is actually a very good setup for bowhunting as well. In some of the places the bucks will be using at this time of the year, you may not have much more than 20 to 40 yards of sight. A lot of the areas I hunt have corridors where I can find a narrow funnel that deer may travel before dark. This is an ideal time to use climbing stands.

"Because of being so close to the deer, you'll need to use scent hiding clothes if you can," Cox said. "You'll need to place your stand so it's hidden but affords you some open lanes to shoot. I would not trim much of the cover out in a situation like this, even if you are doing it prior to the season opening. Consider the prevailing wind to give you the advantage. Mosquitoes will be a problem in the heat and humidity, especially if you're in the swamps. Use Bug Tamer clothing or ThermaCells. I also suggest discretion about hunting any area too frequently. A little bit of human intrusion can go a long way . . . the wrong way."

When possible, after he hunts a stand, he will try to let it rest a couple of days before going back to it. He also always has a backup stand -- again, a stand that he can hunt that affords him a wind advantage if his first choice does not. Wind direction is always crucial to Cox, but particularly when hunting deer in what is essentially their living room, he believes it's best to simply not hunt rather than go to an area when the wind is wrong.

Another factor is to know where the deer bed and feed. Cox will set up his stands to cover main early-season travel routes. Then, he'll have places to take the deer as they cross roads, or slip though a funnel area where he can see the entire area. He will also employ corn as bait to stop the deer right where he wants them.

Without saying there's a science to using corn for deer, Cox said there are definitely right and wrong ways to use it.

"Frankly, if a person doesn't use bait properly, it can actually hurt his potential to see deer," Cox said. "One of the biggest mistakes is that some hunters put bait far too close to their stands. This makes seeing any deer more difficult, but will significantly reduce the odds of seeing a big buck.

"Deer are not stupid regarding what's normal for the woods," Cox said. "They know a deer stand is out of the norm for their woods. They will get used to the stand over time, but if a hunter places corn almost right under it, then almost anything can mess the hunt up. Scent, movement and even very small noises will all contribute to a hunter not seeing deer.

"This is true anytime of the season, but particularly now," Cox said. "Later on, when the rut begins, bucks may lose some of their normal caution. But as a general rule, keep the corn well away from the stand. Based on how far you can see for a shot, I'd say 80 to 120 yards is a decent range. The farther the distance, as long as you can make the shot, the better in terms of seeing more deer. Thus, scent, small movements and low noise will not necessarily ruin the hunt."

Cox also said that random placing of bait sometimes is a wasted effort as well.

"If you're going to use bait, have a purpose," Cox said. "Sometimes, it may be a de

stination for the deer if a lot of corn is used and it is kept up with fresh bait.

"My primary philosophy is to target areas where the deer are already moving and enhance that as a target area," he said. "Scouting in the pre-season will help you locate their well-used trails and other sign to clue you where they already are walking. Bait added to a place like this gives it a definite purpose. It will give the deer a reason to come back through the area. It can also be the method used to stop a buck long enough to get a good shot. This is exactly the case on a lot of my stands. There are small roads, trails or clearings where the bait may get the deer to stop for a few seconds. If I'm paying attention, that's all time I need."

Cox said that to be effective, bait such as corn needs to be considered a legal tool to help get the shot on a nice buck. Instead of trying to make deer change their normal routine and come to your corn, Cox said it's best to plan your hunt around places that the deer are naturally using. Then you can use bait to give you an additional edge.

"The early part of the season is bucks only," Cox said. "That's a good thing, but it also means you're only hunting half the deer population. You need to develop your strategy for early-season hunting for bucks. Sometimes that may mean you need to hunt areas where you may not see a lot of deer. Right at this time, fresh buck rubs are a great indicator of where bucks are using. Use that information, along with well-worn trails and big tracks to clue you to where the bucks are."

Preparation for deer season is an on-going event. "It's never too late to start and it's never too early to begin," Cox said.

If you don't have your 2007 deer-hunting game plan finalized, get on it now. There's still time . . . but not much.

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