South Carolina's Deer Outlook Part 2: Our Trophy Bucks

South Carolina's Deer Outlook Part 2: Our Trophy Bucks

As the deer population stabilizes in South Carolina, the number of places to kill a big buck has increased.

Photo by Mark Werner

I heard more hunters talking about seeing fewer deer during the 2004 hunting season.

On the other hand, I also heard more hunters talking about killing more big bucks than ever before. If you're wondering where you can find a big buck this season, maybe we can help. We've analyzed the latest South Carolina harvest and scoring data from the 2004 scoring sessions to help you improve your chances of finding that trophy this season.

The good news is that there seem to be more monster bucks coming from a variety of places around the state.

Big bucks often seem to appear when you least expect them. However, they will usually be in the places you've worked hard to find. Such was exactly the case for a hunter I've known for several years who specialized in big bucks.

He was hunting the opening week of the season in the upstate area. He was perched high in a climbing stand near the area where he had found frequent big-buck sign. However, the wind was wrong at his "No. 1" stand, so he was in the backup position. He didn't want to take any chances with this buck.

His plan to get to the stand early was also a good idea. While there were still nearly four hours of daylight left, he caught the 10-pointer slipping through a thicket that funneled from one hardwood stand to another. It was not exactly "where" or "when" he thought he'd get the buck, but his pre-season planning paid off. He was in the right place at the right time to take the trophy. The key to his success was planning the hunt so he would be where big bucks were known to frequent and, second, to get there without alerting the buck.

It's never too early to begin planning where to take a trophy whitetail buck. For some hunters, it's a year-round process of being in the woods, checking deer movements and scouting sign. In recent years, it seems that more big bucks are being harvested from South Carolina. Based on data from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), that certainly seems to be the case.

To enhance your odds of success, you may need to plan your hunting season to put you in the areas of the state where big bucks are known to exist. While outstanding hunting for deer exists basically throughout the state, in many areas the "outstanding" aspect of the hunting has to do with the sheer number of deer. If you hunt these areas long enough and just want an animal for the freezer, you'll have your chance. But the hunting areas for high-quality bucks are statistically more scattered. While a big buck can be harvested practically anywhere hunting is legal in South Carolina, there are hotspots for these big boys.

The best place to start is with the source of the statistical data, and that is the SCDNR. Charles Ruth is the Deer Project coordinator for the SCDNR and by working numerous scoring sessions where antler racks from trophy whitetails were examined and scored, Ruth has put together the data that can help hunters figure out where the big bucks are being taken on a consistent basis in South Carolina.

According to Ruth, South Carolina hunters had another good year in the 2004 hunting season for trophy bucks.

"Based on the racks we scored this season and the number of them that were bucks harvested during the 2004 hunting season, I'd say hunters had an excellent year in 2004," Ruth said. "The scoring sessions conducted in early 2005 by SCDNR revealed 180 new (state-record-book qualifiers), including one potential Boone and Crockett record.

"Each spring, the SCDNR Wildlife Management personnel make a concerted effort to score deer racks throughout the state, with a major scoring session during the Palmetto Sportsmen's Classic in Columbia. Of the 430 sets of antlers scored at the nine scheduled sessions this spring, 180 met the minimum score for entry on the state records list, the most in more than five years. The 180 racks included 172 sets of typical and eight non-typical racks," Ruth noted.

Ruth added that of the antlers scored, 147 were taken in 2003 or 2004. Racks must score a minimum of 125 points typical or 145 points non-typical to qualify for the South Carolina state records list. He notes the records are based on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system, which measures the mass and symmetry of deer antlers in two categories -- typical and non-typical.

"Although the total deer harvest has been down the last two years, indications from the antler records program are that deer quality remains good. This would make sense because fewer deer in the population would benefit from increased nutrition," Ruth explained.

Another point of good news is that the deer are being taken in a number of different areas around the state. While the customary top areas are still producing big bucks, there are big bucks being taken throughout the state, Ruth noted.

To kill a big buck, you have to be in an area that a big buck lives. Being lucky won't hurt either.

"Looking at the data from a historical perspective is certainly one good way to forecast the best odds of finding big bucks. By looking at the information for recent years, as well as the long-term perspective, hunters can see which areas are producing best for the long haul," Ruth said.

As he noted, it's only logical to figure that by hunting in the areas that traditionally produce more big bucks hunters can certainly enhance their potential for success.

Of course, the in-the-woods hunting of big bucks can be a much different endeavor than simply hunting legal-sized bucks. To kill a big buck, you have to be in an area that a big buck lives. Being lucky won't hurt either.

Ruth's data goes back to 1974 and good records have been kept since that time, thus there's plenty of historical data to track big-buck harvest patterns. However, it is the more recent trends that we will also be examining to see where big bucks were taken in 2004 as well.

"We conduct our scoring session in March and April as a general rule. This ensures there is plenty of time from the end of the hunting season on Jan. 1 of each year for the required 60-day antler drying time for legal scoring to occur. As is usually the case, our largest single scoring session is at the Palmetto Sportsman's Classic in Columbia," Ruth said.

The data Ruth generates from all these scoring sessions can be broken down into different categories that hunters can study.

One is the Score Year information, which is simply the list of all the racks scored that made the record book, regardless of when the buck was harvested. Usually if the bucks were not harvested in the immediately preceding hunt year, they will have been taken in a recent hunt year.

Another way he breaks down the information is to provide the data in terms of Hunt Year. For our purposes here, that will mean the listing of all the bucks taken in the 2004 hunt season.

Then there's the all-time historical list that will enable you to study where the data from 1974 until the present time indicates where big bucks have been produced. With three different ways to view/study the data, you can better make determinations where you need to focus your time and effort if you're serious about harvesting a trophy buck.

We'll begin with the Hunt Year data that considers where the big bucks taken in 2004 were harvested. We'll look at the top two bucks in the typical and non-typical categories first, then the data will be considered on a county-by-county basis so you can focus your search to relatively small areas.

"The top typical buck taken in 2004 scored 149 6/8 points and was harvested by Clifford Rickett in Oconee County last November. The second highest score was 148 1/8 in Orangeburg County in November and was taken by William Jones. Delton Roe's 187 4/8-point Anderson County buck, taken in October of 2004, was tops among non-typical deer and this buck will also qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club's Three Year Awards Period List. The No. 2 non-typical was taken by Jeff Dennis in Colleton County in October 2004 and scored 154 5/8 points," Ruth said.

The top-producing county in South Carolina, by a wide margin, for Hunt Year 2004 state record-book entries was Aiken County with 14 qualifying bucks. Aiken was a strong third in the 2003 listing with 11 record-book bucks taken that year. That's a total of 25 in the past two years, best in the state.

1. Ailen14
2. Colleton6
2. Lexington6
4. Anderson5
4. Orangeburg5
4. Dorchester5
8. Kershaw4
8. Summer4
10. Bamberg3
10. Barnwell3
10. Calhoun3
10. Fairfield3
10. Horry3
10. Laurens3
10. Lee3
10. Newberry3
10. Spartenburg3
*Minimum size of buck entry into the South Carolina Trophy deer book is 125 Boone and Crockett points for typical racks and 145 points for non-typical racks.

There was a tie for second place with Colleton and Lexington counties having six record-book bucks each. Beyond that, there was a four-way tie for fourth with Abbeville, Anderson, Dorchester and Orangeburg all having five record-book bucks. Tied for Eighth place were Kershaw and Sumter counties with four entries each.

Rounding out the top 10 was a long list of counties tied with three record-book bucks each. The counties included Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Fairfield, Horry, Laurens, Lee, Newberry and Spartanburg.

Remember, this listing is for bucks taken during the past 2004 hunting season. As noted, many big bucks are being taken from numerous different areas. That's really good news.

The Score Year Top Ten list includes all the bucks scored in 2005, which includes the above list, plus any others that were brought to a scoring session for the first time last year, even though they were killed in previous years. Most of the additional bucks are generally from recent years, so it's still a good method to help analyze where big bucks are being taken.

Aiken County again leads this listing with a whopping 21 bucks scored that made the record book. All 21 of these bucks were typical bucks. The second place county was Orangeburg with a total of 11 bucks and again, all of these were typical.

Third place went to Kershaw County with 10 record-book bucks. Of this total, nine were typical and one was non-typical. Lexington County finished fourth with a total of eight record-book bucks, all but one of which was a typical set of antlers.

There was a tie for fifth place with Anderson and Colleton counties each having seven record-book bucks scored in 2005. Both of these counties had one non-typical scored; the rest were typical. Abbeville and Calhoun counties were tied for seventh with six record-book bucks each. Neither of these two counties had any non-typicals scored in 2005.

There was a five-way tie for ninth with Bamberg, Barnwell, Dorchester, Oconee and Spartanburg all having five record-book bucks each. Dorchester had two non-typicals scored, all the rest from this group were typicals.

We'll now look at the All-Time Record List, which includes data from 1974 through the 2004 hunt year.

As it has been for a long time, Orangeburg County is still far in front of other South Carolina counties, with 320 bucks taken that have made the state-record list. Since Orangeburg was second in this year's scoring session in total number of record-book bucks scored, there is no question it's still

a prime spot for big bucks. The No. 2 all-time producer is Aiken County with 257 entries into the state-record book. Fairfield County remains in third with 223 (with four more added at this year's scoring session). In fourth is Colleton County with 197, up seven entries from last year.

Fifth place was shared this year with Abbeville and Williamsburg counties having 169 entries each. Williamsburg added two this year and Abbeville added six. In seventh was Allendale with 165 entries, with four added this year. Anderson County was eighth with 160, adding seven from this year's scoring sessions.

1. Orangeburg3119320
2. Ailen2525257
3. Fairfield2176223
4. Colleton18012197
5. Williamsburg1672169
6. Abbeville1609169
7. Allendale1569165
8. Anderson1555160
9. Kershaw1515156
10. Barnwell1421143

In ninth place is Kershaw County with 156 entries, with 10 added this scoring year. Rounding out the top 10 are Barnwell and Hampton counties, both with 143 total deer making the record book. Barnwell added five this year, while Hampton added three more.

As Ruth noted, the places where big deer are being harvested seem to be expanding as the statewide herd population begins to stabilize. The best places to kill big deer in South Carolina are not necessarily the best places to kill the most deer.

"Although some of the top counties have relatively high deer populations, some of these counties have more moderate numbers," Ruth said. "It is important that hunters and land managers understand how the density of deer in an area affects the quality of the animals. Areas with fewer deer typically have better quality animals because natural food availability and nutritional quality (per animal) is higher. Good nutrition is important to producing good antlers, but deer reproduction, recruitment and survival are also directly tied to nutrition.

"If hunters want to continue to have good numbers of large-antlered bucks," Ruth said, "the harvest of female deer must continue to be emphasized in order to keep deer numbers from becoming too high. Over the last 10 years, most hunters have realized the importance of harvesting doe deer. These hunters should be commended and encouraged to continue this trend."

Ruth summarized the record-book program by noting that currently 4,488 sets of antlers are included on the South Carolina antler records list. Of these, 160 sets of antlers are non-typical, the rest are typical.

"As for the South Carolina Antler Records List, about one in every 1,000 bucks harvested makes the state book," Ruth said.

By looking at all the above data, with luck you can target areas close enough to you to allow you to hunt in areas where big bucks exist. It is still a rare event to harvest a state-record buck, but that is why you need to put a lot of effort into the planning part of the hunt if you are out to add your name to this list.

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