It takes a different mindset to get back in the mountains to do your deer hunting. But with patience and the right tactics, it can pay off.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It's every deer hunter's dream -- to have a big, mature, wide-racked buck all to yourself. Somewhere down deep, most of us secretly yearn to be turned loose on the trail of a once-in-a-lifetime, record-book buck in a remote patch of deer woods where no one else is likely to come along and interfere or snatch your prize.
Well, the remote mountains of South Carolina may be just the place where your dreams can come true. But for those unfamiliar with the rugged terrain, hunting deer in the mountains can be a frustrating experience.
The biggest problem that hunters face when hunting in the mountains is trying to sort out the various features of the terrain. If you were able to fly over the Carolina mountains in a small plane, the first thing you would notice is that they just seem to go on and on, forming a vast wilderness. The northwestern corner of the Palmetto State is a seemingly endless sea of peaks, ridges and hollows running in all directions, steep slopes and little pockets of relatively flat floodplain.
How do you sort it all out? How do you figure out where the deer are? How do you determine what they feed on, where they bed, and most importantly, where the big bucks are likely to be during the daylight hours when you are in the woods?
Well, you could spend a good part of your adult life studying maps and scouting, and scouting some more, sorting it out one mountain at a time. You could spend several years doing some trial-and-error hunting by the seat of your pants.
But you would be well advised to begin by talking to an expert.
Robert Chapman is the man you need to talk to. Chapman is widely regarded as one of the best of the best deer hunters in the South Carolina mountains. It's hard to argue with success, and consistently bringing home big-bodied, heavy-antlered mountain bucks is the hallmark of Robert Chapman's deer-hunting career. But you don't need to track down this veteran Pickens County hunter and pick his brain. He recently sat down on the front porch of his hunt club cabin and spelled out his secrets for success.
"It's all about knowing the terrain and knowing the woods," Chapman said. "For example, I don't like to hunt on top of the ridges, as that's not where the big bucks are likely to be. They're going to be off down the side of the mountain, in the thick stuff, 50 to 75 yards on one side of the ridge or the other."
This would be news to most casual deer hunters. If you turn 100 deer hunters loose in the mountains, 99 of them will eventually pick out a spot to hunt on the top of a nice, flat ridge with big, open hardwoods. It's just in the nature of a deer hunter to want to see as much territory as he or she can. Sprinkle in a few finger-sized rubs, some deer pellets, maybe a scrape or two, and few hunters can resist a nice open patch of big hardwoods on top of the mountain.
But Chapman firmly believes that's not where you need to be.
As much as we want those big-racked bucks to come sauntering through the wide-open woods, turn broadside and stand still, veteran trophy hunters know better.
"The big bucks, the ones that survive a few hunting seasons, are going to use all the natural elements in the woods to their advantage," Chapman said. "Big bucks want some cover around them all the time. I like to hunt off on the side of the mountain in the ivy thickets. There might be a lot of general deer sign up on top of the ridge, but you need to look for faint deer trails in the ivy thickets. That's where the big bucks like to travel."
Ivy thickets, for the botanically challenged, are one of the most important terrain features in the mountains. "Ivy" or "mountain laurel" is the dominant shrub in the Southern mountains. It occurs both in scattered patches and in dense tangled colonies known as ivy "hells." Sometimes an ivy thicket may be small, an acre or less, but sometimes it may cover an entire slope, or maybe even an entire side of a mountain. Yes, thick places, and especially ivy thickets, are tough to hunt, but the deer seem to know that, and that's where wise old bucks feel secure enough to move around in daylight.
Chapman suggests that after you have found the trails or corridors of movement that big bucks use as they amble through the thickets, you need to look around for little openings or gaps in the vegetation, and get up a tree looking down into the brush.
This is where you can actually use the terrain in the mountains to your advantage. You can often locate your stand, or even sit on the ground on the opposing ridge, or somewhere upslope from the trails, and gain a real advantage. Chapman said that in almost all situations he likes to get up above the deer trails, looking down. Since he primarily hunts in the mornings and since it is common knowledge that scent rises in the morning, that's a good strategy.
Above everything else, Chapman cautions that once you've done your scouting and you've found the place you want to hunt, you absolutely must stay focused. Pay attention to everything going on around you. This is not the time for daydreaming, napping, fidgeting or trying to solve problems you might have at work or home.
"Sometimes I'm so focused that when I get home from hunting I'm just worn out, my muscles are sore from sitting there holding perfectly still all morning. I try to not even move my head when I'm in a stand. I'll just move my eyes from side to side to check for movement.
"You need to stay focused. You need to stay ready all the time you're in your stand," Chapman said. "When that buck finally does come through, you're probably only going to have a minute or two to size him up and decide whether he's a shooter or not, and actually make the shot. He may be the buck of a lifetime, but if he winds you, or sees movement, or just senses that something is wrong, it's all over. He'll just disappear in the brush. You might not ever see him again.
"Squirrels can be a hunter's best friend. Squirrels are nature's burglar alarms and will often let you know when a deer is coming. Chapman said that he knows from personal experience the origin of an old expression among veteran mountain deer hunters. "Sometimes a big buck will 'take a tree' on you," Chapman said. What that means is that a buck that senses something is wrong will stand behind a tree, seemingly for hours, and then just disappear into the brush. The best defense against having a buck "take a tree" on you is to see him before he sees you. To do that, you have got to stay ale
DEALING WITH SCENTS
Chapman said that the most important scent in deer hunting is human scent. You've got to get control of that before you can take advantage of the commercially available deer scents. He is meticulous about keeping his hunting clothes clean and not leaving human scent around the area where he is planning to hunt.
"Sometimes I'll take a hemlock branch and rub it all over my shoes as a cover scent. I try not to walk through brushy areas if I can avoid it, because human scent can cling to the bushes. Sometimes I'll circle way around the place I've decided to hunt and come in the back door, so to speak. The most convenient way to get to your stand is not always the best way to get to your stand."
He said he also tries to avoid going into restaurants and cafés on the way to a morning of deer hunting. "You wouldn't believe it," Chapman said, "but sometimes I run up on deer hunters that have just come from having breakfast in a café and I can smell the grease and the coffee and the cigarette smoke on them. If I can smell it, the deer can smell it.
"Also, I try not to hunt the same place two days in a row, especially if I'm going to be hunting from the ground. I figure that if I don't see him that day, he's going to come through there some time during the night, and if he smells my scent all over the place, he's not likely to be back the next day. They don't get big by being dumb," Chapman said.
The only deer scent that Chapman uses is the tarsal gland of a buck that he has recently killed. An incident that happened several years ago convinced him that tarsal gland scent can draw in big bucks.
"I had just killed a pretty nice buck," Chapman said. "I had dragged him out to a place near the road and left him lying there to go out to get the truck. When I came back, another big buck, a nice 7-pointer, was coming down the trail with his nose to the ground. He was following the trail like a bird dog where I had dragged the other buck. Now I had two big bucks to haul out of the woods, and I became a believer in tarsal gland scent."
HUNTING THE RUT
Since he is also a bear hunter and bear season is the last week in October, Chapman uses the early deer season, the first weeks of October to scout for bears.
"I usually don't even get started deer hunting till after bear season," he said.
Like most hunters, Chapman believes that the best time to kill a big, mature buck is during the rut.
"The rut is the one time of the year that an old mature buck might make that one mistake and step out in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.
However, determining when the rut takes place in the mountains is a problem. Very little research has been done on the timing of the rut in the South Carolina mountains. The one study that was done several years ago indicated that most of the breeding in the population sampled in Oconee County took place the second week in December, much later than most hunters would think.
"It seems to be changing," Chapman said. "Back when I was young, it seemed like the peak of the rut was toward the last of October. Then in the 1980s, it seemed like it shifted to the middle of November. I used to consider the week around Nov. 18 or 19 the peak of the rut. Now, it seems like it's around the second week of December and on into Christmas."
Chapman said that he does not put a lot of stock in scrapes. "Most scrapes are made at night," he said. "Yeah, I guess I've killed a few bucks over scrapes, but I mostly look for big rubs. And I mean big rubs. I like to find rubs on trees 6 inches or more. That really changes your attitude about hunting there. Any fresh deer sign that you find is encouraging, rubs or scrapes. But I guess the difference between me and most people is that when I find a big scrape, I go the next step and try to find out where he's coming from to get to that scrape, and then cut him off before he gets there."
TIME OF DAY
There is an old saying that the best time of day to go hunting is when you get the chance. True enough, but Robert Chapman feels strongly that mornings are better than evenings. His thinking is that the deer are primarily moving at night during deer season and the best chance you have to meet up with a big, ol' mature buck is to cut him off on his way "home" to his bedding area.
"I can look at any given mountain and tell you where the deer are going to bed. They're going to bed in those little saddles between ridges and low places at the end of steep ridges. The trick is to set up in between where he's feeding and where he's bedding.
"I think that deer don't see real well in bright sunlight. It really bothers them. It has been my experience that if a deer has a choice, he will walk from east to west in the morning with the sun over his back. That means that I need to set up on the west and look back toward where he's going to be coming from, that is from the east.
"In terms of the best time of the day to hunt, I would say that the absolute best time is between 8 and 10 in the morning, with the prime time being around 9 o'clock. Every day is different. There are some days when it seems like the squirrels, the birds, everything in the woods, is moving. Then there are days when it seems like nothing is moving. In my experience, if you're sitting there at 8 in the morning and the squirrels are not moving, you're probably not going to kill a deer that day. The most movement seems to be right after a front passes through, say after a three-day rain and then it clears up all of a sudden, that's the time to be in the woods."
Chapman said that when you start deer scouting in the mountains, you will need to be prepared to wear out some shoe leather. You will likely have to cover a good bit of up-and-down territory before you find the core area of a big, mature buck. But he said you should keep one rule in mind: "The bigger the track, the bigger the scrape; the bigger the rub, the bigger the buck."
To hunt successfully in the mountains, where the deer population is pretty thin, you've got to be scouting all the time.
"I'm a bear hunter, a coon hunter and a turkey hunter, too," Chapman said. "And whenever I'm bear hunting or coon hunting or turkey hunting, I'm paying attention to the deer sign I run up on. I'm storing it all away in my memory bank for next season."
The real key to deer hunting, Chapman said, is to keep up your enthusiasm.
"To be successful at deer hunting, you've got to enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, you're not going to go that extra mile or sit perfectly still in the tree stand," he said. "I'm 54 years old and I still get as excited when I see a deer as I did when I was 15."