South Carolina's 2009 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

South Carolina's 2009 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Here's what the latest deer-scoring data tells us about where the biggest bucks in the Palmetto State are coming from. (November 2009)

Some of the best luck you can have in deer hunting is meeting some really smart deer hunters and learning from them. Many years ago, I knew a hunter who talked about seeing a lot of big bucks. But he was able to back that up in a sense because he would normally kill one or two extremely fine bucks each season, along with a number of doe deer. I kept quizzing him about his success and he just chalked it up to "luck."

For quite a while, he had me convinced that luck was the biggest difference between him consistently taking big bucks and me taking "not-quite-trophy-size" bucks.

But after we became better friends, we planned a trip together. I went on a scouting trip with him during the early summer in preparation for a deer hunt together that fall. That's when I learned the truth. For him, it was not luck; it was physical and mental work that he applied to the sport that led to his success.

He worked his tail off for two days planning his strategy months before the hunt. He introduced me to the concept that planning the October and November deer hunts begins in June and July. By learning the woods, he could project where the deer should be later in the season based on available food supplies, and he would pick prime areas to hunt during the rut and late-season.

This was in addition to the time spent researching and pre-planning a hunt in a specific area to take a big buck. He also introduced me to the concept of going to the big bucks instead of hoping they would come to him in his back yard. We traveled two hours to get to the right place where big bucks were known to live. While this was just the surface of his big-buck hunting efforts, it taught me that luck had nothing to do with his success.

If you rely on luck to see and harvest trophy bucks, then odds are good you're not consistently killing trophy deer. For most of us it takes planning and hard work to consistently put big-racked bucks in the cross hairs, or get them within bow range, in South Carolina.

The "work" of this kind of hunting is complex. Work includes, but is not limited to, getting out before the season and scouting, planting food plots, learning the land and the hideouts where the big bucks prefer to stay. While all of these steps are essential to success, these require spending time and some physical effort in the woods and fields. For some hunters, the really hard part is the mental planning process. But it is no less essential to the final outcome.

You've got to put yourself in the right neck of the woods if you want to consistently see big-racked bucks.

To that end, we've compiled antler-scoring data from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) 2009 scoring sessions to help the planning "where-to hunt" part of the process.

Planning success for big bucks is a two-step process. You first plan your hunt in the general area where big bucks are known to be found. Then, you formulate a plan to specifically target the block of woods or swamp where big bucks are known to live.

As you review the data depicting where big bucks are harvested in the state, you'll realize there are obvious patterns with respect to where hunters have consistently killed big deer.

Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor Charles Ruth and his team have scored deer in all areas of the state and have complied the data from deer harvest in 2008 (score year 2009), as well as all-time data. This information can certainly help you locate big buck hotspots near you.

According to Ruth, the most recent round of white-tailed deer antler scoring conducted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in the spring of 2009 revealed 194 new state-record-book bucks, maintaining the trend of solid numbers seen the last few years.

"Of the 576 sets of antlers scored at the 15 scheduled sessions this spring, 194 met the minimum score for entry on the state records list, including 181 sets of typical and 13 non-typical racks," Ruth said. "The number of successful entries into the records list this year is the second highest number of entries in 15 years. Although all of the records were not taken during the 2008 season, 159 were taken during the 2007 or 2008 season. Racks must score a minimum of 125 points typical or 145 points non-typical to qualify for the South Carolina state records list. Records are based on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system."

Ruth said that the report generates not only the score of the bucks that make the state record list, but also names the hunters harvesting the bucks and the specific county where each deer was taken. This is specific information that hunters can use to zero in on where some of the biggest bucks in the state are being taken.

"Although most of these records represent deer harvested during the fall 2008 hunting season, there are some records that were taken in previous years and were not officially scored until the 2009 scoring sessions," Ruth said. "There are also lists of typical and non-typical sets of antlers taken during the hunting year of 2008. Separate rankings are presented for the score year (2009) and for all-time. The list is broken down by typical and non-typical and provides the rank for each county based on total number of historic entries."

Ruth said that the data in the report reveals that big bucks are being taken in a number of different areas around the state.

"While the traditionally top areas are still producing big bucks, there are big bucks being taken throughout the state," Ruth said. "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.

"I say this every year, but it's worth repeating," he said. "Just like high numbers of deer can be found practically anywhere in the state, big bucks can be found almost anywhere in South Carolina. There can be local hotspots that have all the ingredients to grow a few big deer. But on a big-picture consideration, this data can depict counties, or groups of counties, where big bucks are consistently taken."

Let's take a look at the biggest-racked bucks and where they were harvested. All of these deer were harvest in the 2008 hunting season. As noted above, some scored racks were harvested in other years and some were simply found. To ensure you get the latest, most pertinent information for planning your hunting strategy, we'll list those taken in the 20

08 season only. We'll consider all-time historical information as well.

"For the second year in a row, the top typical buck was taken in Chesterfield County," Ruth said. "At 158 3/8 inches, John Rivers' buck, taken in September, is a new Chesterfield County typical record, topping Thomas Smith's 156 1/8-inch buck taken in 2007. The second highest scoring typical was a 153 7/8-inch Jasper County buck taken by Joey Webster in October. "

The No. 3 buck taken from the 2008 hunting season was a 153 2/8-inch buck taken by Mark Goss from Aiken County. This buck was taken in early October. The fourth spot belongs to a 151 6/8-inch buck taken by Wilber Pendarvis in Dorchester County in October. Rounding out the top five is a 149 6/8-inch buck taken by Jeryl Johnson from Aiken County in December.

Larry Benenhaley took the No. 6 buck in 2008, a 143 7/8-inch trophy, during September in Lexington County. The seventh biggest buck had a 141 7/8-inch rack and was taken from Colleton County in October by Jerry Martin. The eighth-place buck was also an October buck and scored 140 7/8. It was harvested by Richard Parker in York County.

Fred Hancock took a 140 2/8-inch buck from Calhoun County during October to claim the No. 9 spot. Rounding out the top 10 was a 139 0/8-inch buck taken by Gary Rowland from Berkeley County in October.

The next 10 largest bucks also help establish a pattern. Of this group, three were taken from Calhoun County and two each from Orangeburg and Aiken counties. Also represented in this list are McCormick, Florence and Berkeley counties.

If you look at the entire top 20 typical bucks taken in 2008 in terms of multiple record-book bucks taken in a single county, you pick up a really good pattern. There were four taken in Aiken and Calhoun counties and two each from Orangeburg and Berkeley counties. A quick look at a South Carolina state map will reveal a "big buck corridor" running through part of the state.

Timing is also a critical planning guide for taking a trophy buck, especially if you plan to take a few days off work or to plan a trip away from home to focus on your quest. Note the months the top 20 record-book bucks were harvested and a clear pattern is evident. There was one typical record-book buck taken in August, three in September, 11 in October, three in November and two in December.

Over half were taken during October, a fact that might surprise many hunters.

Now let's take a look at the record-book non-typical bucks harvested in 2008. There were six non-typical record-book bucks taken in 2008.

According to the report, the top scoring non-typical buck, netting 163 3/8 inches, was taken by Richard Shumpert in Allendale County during December 2008. At 161 7/8, the next buck on the list was taken by Matthew Groves in October from Colleton County. A big September buck was third and was taken by Lee Prickett from Orangeburg County. Prickett's buck scored 153 5/8.

The next one on the list of 2008 harvested bucks was a 149 4/8-inch buck taken from Marion County in October by Will Brown. Paul Elias took yet another October buck from Dorchester County that scored 149 2/8. The last one on the list was a 147 7/8-inch buck harvested by Stephen Yandle from Lexington County during November.

There is a good range of counties for these bucks. Also the timing of the harvests of the big non-typical bucks is interesting: none taken in August, one in September, three in October, and one each in November and December. It is noteworthy again that half of these were taken during October.

Clearly, a strategy for taking a big buck can be further tailored if you have the ability to hunt a lot during October. It's no secret that this is when the pre-rut chase is on, and the majority of big bucks are taken during that single month. Using the above information, you can make both location and timing your ally when looking for big bucks.

Ruth said that when the entire score list is considered, Orangeburg County was this year's top producer of state-record entries with 17. He said other top counties included Aiken (15), Williamsburg (12) and Barnwell (11). In addition, both Lexington and Colleton counties recorded eight record-book bucks each.

The results from these counties come as no surprise, as they have historically produced good numbers of record entries," Ruth said. "Although some of the top counties also have relatively high deer populations, some of these counties have more moderate numbers. 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 is higher. Good nutrition is important in producing good antlers, but deer reproduction, recruitment and survival are also directly tied to nutrition."

Ruth also said that a key to taking bigger bucks is having a balanced herd and that South Carolina hunters have been doing an excellent job of harvesting doe deer.

"South Carolina deer hunters deserve a lot of credit for their role in deer management, particularly as it relates to female deer harvest," Ruth said. "Over the last 10 years, most hunters have realized the importance of harvesting doe deer and what was once a rapidly increasing deer population is now stable to decreasing in most areas. All things considered, having less deer than we did 10 years ago is good for growing big bucks and this is supported by the high number of record entries in 2009."

In addition to this year's tally, it's worthwhile to consider the all-time records as well. As Ruth pointed out, some of the top producers this year are familiar names to the record book list. Historical data, along with current data, can give you both sides of the picture when planning a hunt.

Looking at this data, we'll also include the number of typical and non-typical antler sets making the record book. Some areas are more prone to large non-typicals than others, based on the data.

As far as all-time leaders at the county level, Orangeburg County remains at the top with 379 sets of record-book antlers. Of these, 364 were typical sets of antlers and 15 were non-typical. The second place all-time county is Aiken with 316 sets of antlers. There were 309 typical and seven non-typical sets of antlers on the list.

In a distant third place is Fairfield County with 234 sets of antlers making the book. Of this total, 228 were typical and six were non-typical sets. Colleton is a close fourth place with 224 sets of antlers with 210 typical and 14 non-typical sets. The final county in the top five was Anderson with 196 record-book sets of antlers, with 192 sets of typical antlers and four more non-typical sets.

A very close sixth place was Williamsburg County with 195 record-book bucks. Of these, 192 were typical and three were non-typical antlers. In seventh place was Abbeville County with 185 sets. There have bee

n 176 typical and nine non-typical sets taken here, according to the record book.

Kershaw County is only one behind in eighth place with 184 record-book antlers. The breakdown here is 178 typical sets and six non-typical sets. Barnwell County is in ninth place with 172 sets of antlers. Of these, 167 were typical and five were non-typical. Rounding out the top 10 all-time list is Hampton County, with 154 entries. Of these, 151 sets were typical and three were non-typical.

According to Ruth, there are currently 5,233 sets of antlers (5,040 typical and 193 non-typical) included on the South Carolina antler records list.

Use the above information to help you plan your hunt for big bucks this season and to even get a jump-start on next year as well. Sometimes being in a place where you see a lot of bucks is not necessarily the best place to find a trophy buck. Think about your strategy and put in the mental planning effort and follow up with the physical task required and you will likely become a better big buck hunter.

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