South Carolina's Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

South Carolina's Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Though the deer harvest was down last year, biologists believe this season will produce strong harvest totals for hunters. (October 2007)

Photo by D. Robert Franz.

Deer hunting in South Carolina may be entering a period of change. In some areas of the state, long-time residents say the number of deer they've seen in recent years has dropped a bit. However, most hunters are quick to point out that they are seeing more bucks and bigger bucks.

According to Charles Ruth, Deer Project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the outlook for the 2007 season is good, but perhaps not extraordinary.

"As always, so much in terms of deer harvest is dependent on good weather," Ruth said. "Frankly, I was a little surprised that the data from the 2006 hunting season showed a decrease in the harvest from the 2005 season. For most of October and about half of November, we had cool weather on the weekends. That is usually very good for the deer hunters.

"I'd say with decent weather, we'll see a good harvest of deer in the 2007 season," Ruth said. "The overall herd health is good and conditions for replenishing the herd were good last year."

As Ruth noted, the 2006 harvest survey once again indicated a decline in the harvest in 2006.

"The data from our extensive surveys show that the overall harvest numbers are down for the past few years," Ruth said. "During the 2006 deer hunting season, it is estimated that a total of 115,917 bucks and 105,403 does were harvested. That comes to a statewide total of 221,320 deer harvested."

That's a 9.3 percent decline in harvest from the 2005 total of 244,045 deer. Ruth also said that it is a 30 percent decrease from the record harvest established in 2002 of 319,902 deer.

Ruth said the reduction in harvest since 2002 can likely be attributed to several factors.

"First, timber management activities stimulated much of the growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1980s," Ruth said. "Considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old. This is a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover are more available.

"Second, although deer hunter numbers in South Carolina have been relatively stable over time, the number of licensees that indicated that they hunted deer in 2006 decreased by 9.5 percent compared with the 2005 hunting season. This may be related to the dramatic increase in fuel costs since the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region during the fall of 2005. Interestingly, the deer harvest in 2006 decreased by virtually the same amount -- 9.3 percent -- as the number of hunters."

Ruth said the late freeze in the spring of 2007 will most likely have a dramatic impact on natural foods for deer this year.

"For most of the state, the hard freeze hit just when the oaks were greening up, and it did take a toll. The white oaks bear fruit the same year they are pollinated, so I think the white oaks will be severely damped in terms of mast production this season. The red oaks are pollinated one year, bear fruit the next. We'll have to wait and see how this freeze will impact them. Other trees that may be severely impacted include crabapples and persimmons. Some parts of the state, particularly along the coast, may have been spared. But based on the data I have, much of the state will see less mast."

Ruth added that from strictly a hunting perspective, the lack of natural foods could make food plots more productive.

"It could create a better hunting situation this season," Ruth said. "The lack of mast will likely mean deer will be moving and more susceptible to hunters. Plus, if you do find an area that has a good mast crop, it may be a mecca for the deer in that area and for the deer hunter."

Ruth added that studies also show that deer harvest is a function of hunter effort. Not surprisingly, if you hunt more, you'll probably be in a position to shoot more deer.

"Those are the factors that seem to be influencing the deer harvest figures," Ruth said. "We've reached a carrying capacity for what we have now at a certain level. Hunter success may be influenced by mast or lack of mast (and by hunter) preparation and skill in 2007."

The data collected by Ruth and his staff also give us the opportunity to put into perspective exactly where the most deer are being harvested in the state.

In this article, we look at the statewide harvest figures broken down into a county ranking. Those numbers will directly help you figure out where to focus your hunting this season for your best opportunity for success.

Ruth said that while the data is certainly useful for many purposes, there are localized hotspots that can be potentially found anywhere in the state.

"Even in counties near the bottom of the ranking in terms of harvest, there are almost always some localized hotspots," Ruth said.

Ruth begins his harvest analysis with the "harvest per unit area" method.

"Comparisons can be made between the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established," Ruth said. "Essentially, it's an apple-to-apple comparison. While overall harvest data is interesting, it is skewed by the size of the counties and the amount of land that is available for hunting. Some counties simply have a tremendous amount of land available for hunting, while others have a much smaller portion."

The 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 (One square mile is equal to 640).

"When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvests rate in 2006 was 10.5 deer per square mile over the entire state," Ruth said. "Although deer harvest has been down each of the last four years, this harvest rate should be considered extraordinary in comparison with other states. The top county recorded a harvest rate in excess of 20 deer per square mile."

The top 10 counties in South Carolina for the 2006 harvest by unit area are prime areas to consider. The No. 1 county in 2006 was Bamberg County, with a harvest rate of 20.0 deer per square mile. This figure, however, is down significantly from 2005 when Bamberg Count

y was also the top county in the state in this category. The harvest rate was 26.5 deer harvested per square mile for the 2005 season.

The No. 2 county for the 2006 season was Union, with a harvest rate of 18.3 deer per square mile. This figure is down only 6.8 percent from the 2005 data, when Union County had a 19.7 deer per square mile harvest rate. These are still extraordinarily good figures, according to Ruth.

The third-ranked county is Hampton, with a 17.5 deer per square mile harvest rate. Hampton County was second in the 2005 hunt year with a 21.6 deer per square mile harvest rate. Overall, the 2006 Hampton County harvest was down 19 percent from the 2005 harvest. However, based on the statewide decrease in deer harvest, Hampton County would still have to be considered a very strong area for the 2007 season.

In the fourth spot was Allendale County, with a 16.7 deer per square mile harvest rate. Allendale was third in the state in the 2005 hunt year, so it also remains a strong and consistent area.

The fifth most productive county was Chester County, with a 15.4 deer harvested per square mile total. Chester dropped only 3.4 percent from the previous year's totals.

In the sixth spot was Greenwood County, with a 15.3 deer per square mile harvest rate. Greenwood County had had an increase in deer harvest from the previous year. The increase -- 0.9 percent -- was small, but in a year when other top counties saw harvest decreases, even a small increase is noteworthy.

In seventh place was Calhoun County with a 14.5 deer per square mile total. This represents a 15.4 percent decrease from the previous year.

In the eighth spot was Orangeburg County, with a deer per square mile harvest total of 14.4. Orangeburg is a traditional top 10 county in this category, but this figure does represent a 12 percent decrease from the previous year.

In the ninth spot, and cracking the top 10, is Clarendon County. Clarendon County had a 14.3 deer per square mile average. That in itself is a good number. However, this county had a phenomenal year in 2006 with a 46.5 percent increase from the previous year. According to Ruth, the deer herd in Clarendon County is still rapidly expanding. This makes it a prime spot to consider for the 2007 season.

The final spot in the top 10 lists is McCormick County with a 13.6 deer per square mile harvest total. McCormick County also produced one of the largest harvest increases in the state last year at 10.4 percent.

The next counties in order of ranking were: Fairfield, Lancaster, Spartanburg, Saluda, Abbeville, Cherokee, Williamsburg and Anderson. Of these, only Saluda and Williamsburg counties had positive harvest growth in 2006.

There were a few of the lower ranking counties that each had over a 20 percent increase in the deer harvested per square mile category. These are areas you should certainly keep an eye on. When most of the others are dropping and these have significant rise, they may be real sleeper hotspots for 2007. These counties include Jasper, Lee, Beaufort, Florence, Marlboro and Greenville counties.

Now we'll look at the raw harvest data. While not really an apple-to-apple look at the harvest rate, there's just something special about areas where plenty of deer are harvested. It does instill confidence if nothing else.

Some hunters will compare the two lists and look for overlap of county names. If they're on both lists, you likely have a real winner.

The county with the highest harvest in 2006 (and 2005) was Orangeburg County. The total harvest for Orangeburg County in 2006 was 11,344 deer, which is 12 percent less than the total from the 2005 season.

The second-ranked county was Williamsburg, also a consistent leader in this category. Williamsburg County had a total harvest of 9,906 deer in the 2006 season. There was a slight 0.7 percent increase in the total harvest here. This is indicative of a good pattern and a great place to watch in 2007.

The third spot belongs to Colleton County with a total of 9,232 deer harvested in 2006. This is down 9.3 percent from the 2005 harvest totals. The fourth leading county is Hampton County with 8,868 deer harvested, down 19 percent from the 2005 total.

In the fifth spot is Fairfield County, down from third last year, with a total of 7,975 deer harvested in 2006. While still in the top five, Fairfield County experienced a big drop in overall harvest: a 24.3 percent decrease from the 2005 season.

In sixth place is Union County, with 7,397 deer harvested in 2006. Hunters in Union County experienced a 6.8 percent decrease in the deer harvest from the previous year. This is certainly better than the average decrease on a statewide basis.

The seventh place county was Chester County with a harvest total of 7,225 deer. Chester County dropped only 3.4 percent from the previous years harvest total.

In the eighth spot was Clarendon County, with a total of 6,664 deer harvested. This 46.5 percent increase is rally dramatic for a single year and puts Clarendon County into the top 10 of both lists.

The ninth spot was claimed by Florence County, with a total harvest of 6,612 deer in 2006. Florence County also showed a dramatic increase with a 26.1 percent increase over the 2005 season.

Rounding out the top 10 is Bamberg County, with a total harvest of 6,128 deer. Bamberg fell from the No. 6 spot in 2005 and overall dropped 24.6 present in total harvest.

The next 10 total harvest spots were, in order: Laurens, Jasper, Allendale, Newberry, Lancaster, Spartanburg, Greenwood, Richland, Barnwell and McCormick counties.

Counties that ranked lower on the total harvest scale, but that had increase in excess of 20 percent from the previous year include: Lee (27.6 percent increase), Marlboro (27.3 percent increase, Beaufort (25.4 percent increase) and Greenville (86.5 percent).

Ruth noted that any county with a positive growth rate last year certainly has to be looked at in a positive way when considering options for the 2007 season.

The data for the wildlife management areas (WMA) is also included in the report.

According to Ruth, deer hunting on the WMAs remains very popular in South Carolina.

"In the 2006 season, we had approximately 47,000 licensees having a WMA permit," Ruth said.

"During the 2006 season, it is estimated that 4,522 bucks and 3,961 does were harvested for a total deer harvest on wildlife management areas of 8,438 deer," Ruth said. "This figure represents an increase of approximately 3.2 percent from 2005."

The Upstate WMAs are broken down into the Mountain, Central Piedmont and Western Pie

dmont hunt units. The Mountain Hunt Unit had 2.6 deer harvested per square mile. This is a rather low figure based on statewide totals. The Central Piedmont had a 14.4 deer per square mile harvest rate, which is quite good, according to Ruth. The Western Piedmont was very close to that with a 13.1 deer harvested per square mile rate.

The coastal wildlife management areas are for the most part low-acreage parcels, with the notable exception of the Francis Marion WMA at 252,578 acres. The harvest rate for the coastal WMAs collectively was 6.5 deer harvested per square mile. For the Francis Marion WMA, the data indicated a low 2.0 deer harvested per square mile. The top WMA was Cross Generating Station WMA at 21.5 deer harvested per square mile. This is a small 654-acre WMA.

On a statewide basis, Ruth noted that the harvest was pretty even between bucks and does. He said there were 115,917 bucks harvested and 105,403 does. "Keeping a good harvest balance between bucks and does, close to 50-50, is good for the overall deer population," Ruth said.

Based on all the above data, it looks like the 2007 season should be good, with the potential to be very good. Of course, localized weather conditions will influence the overall harvest. Nevertheless, the deer herd condition is good and should provide good opportunities across the state.

Consider the above data to help you home in on the exact tract of land to take your deer in 2007.

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