Best Bets For Late-Season Deer

Best Bets For Late-Season Deer

If you haven't taken that big buck -- or if you just want another deer in the freezer -- there's some great hunting in South Carolina. But you have to go now! (December 2005)

Photo by L. Voorhis

Sipping a cup of coffee two hours before dawn, I contemplated calling it a day before it even started. It was cold, cloudy and forecasters were calling for a chance of sleet and possibly snow. It was going to be an ugly morning, weather wise. But I figured the wind would be coming solidly out of the northwest, a good wind for the stand location I'd planned to hunt. I talked myself right back into going. It was the best conversation I had with myself all season.

"What the heck," I murmured. I would go and see what happened. It was the weather that was making me want to go, knowing it might just make those late-season bucks move before the front blew through.

With my climbing stand over my shoulder, I began the trek down the trail I'd marked with tacks a couple of days earlier. I remembered a similar trip during September, when I was sweating before I even climbed a tree. I figured this couldn't be any worse than that. Actually, the walk in and climbing the tree kept me warm that morning.

If there were other hunters out that morning, I didn't pass any of them on the road. I was positioned 25 feet up the tree an hour before it was light enough to see, and by first light, I was eagerly looking through my binoculars. I was hunting a cutover area with a thicket winding through a low spot in the field as my focal point. I knew there had been a lot of deer activity here recently. I felt this was a good setup for a nice buck and the morning ideal to catch him moving.

Ten minutes after I could see my target area, I spotted two does slipping through the thicket. Then a very symmetrical 6-pointer slipped along, but that was not the deer I was looking for. Be patient, I figured. Deer are moving and the wind, while not too strong, was solidly in my favor. In the next hour, I saw three more deer; it seemed the cutover was alive with deer that morning.

Then I saw something that looked like a set of antlers where nothing had been before. I studied the object closely, and thought I could make out the parts of a deer behind the thicket. Not a problem; there was plenty of time. Finally, the deer moved and it was a buck. I quickly counted at least four points on one side, very high and wide racked.

Binoculars down, scope up. The buck was moving much slower and more cautiously than the other deer I'd seen. But he was most certainly slipping through that thicket, using the cover as a shield extremely well. Over the course of the next three or four minutes, I lost sight of him twice but picked him up again quickly as he moved along.

I selected a good place for the shot about 10 yards in front of where he stood, got the gun propped and ready, and when he stepped out, the .30/06 did its job and the 9-pointer dropped in his tracks. With a body weight of about 180 pounds, he was certainly a nice buck . . . maybe not a record-book buck, but with only three days left in the season, it was my best buck of the year. I was proud to take him.

What a lot of South Carolina deer hunters simply don't realize is that there is some exceptionally good hunting during the last month of the season. Much less deer-hunting pressure, however, usually characterizes December. In some areas, for savvy hunters this means a late-season opportunity to score on bucks as well as does.

Let me add one more fact about late-season hunting. It's not hunting for "leftovers." The S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) data for biggest bucks harvested shows that three of the top 10 all-time bucks were taken in December. The largest typical ever taken was shot on Christmas Eve. Hunters in the know hunt deer during late season.

How do you approach late-season deer hunting? If you get excited about this time of the year and look forward to it, then you're a confirmed late-season deer hunter and already know the score. But most hunters, for various reasons, let the last month slip through their hunting fingers. There are some outstanding places for late-season hunting and we're going to focus on some of them now. Good late-season hunting is close to almost everyone in South Carolina and we'll help you find the right area. Then you can pinpoint the specific places to hang a stand and perhaps get your best buck of the year.

Remember, however, as we look at good areas of the state, that "normal" patterns now will be much different than when the season opened or patterns you experienced during the rut.

While we've looked at the best counties for numbers and the best trophy-producing areas in earlier issues of South Carolina Game & Fish, for this look we're going to mix and match the data. We'll combine that with personal knowledge of local experts to pick the areas that should offer best bets across the state for your late-season consideration.

When studying the data garnered by the SCDNR for the 2003 hunting season, we can see which counties rate very high on both the "numbers harvested" as well as the "trophies harvested" categories. In addition, another very interesting tidbit of deer data produced is the percent of change in terms of overall harvest from one season to the next on a county-by-county basis.

Statewide, there was an 8.1 percent drop in the harvest in 2004 compared with 2003. This is not unexpected as part of the natural ebb and flow for a deer herd the size we have in South Carolina, according to SCDNR Deer Project supervisor Charles Ruth. However, it does give a good baseline from which we can work to identify potential hotspots or areas on the increase. With a statewide drop the second straight year for a decline in harvest, anything near holding even from the previous year would be a positive indicator.

Some of the areas I like are those places where there was a hefty harvest increase in 2004 over 2003. Plus, the areas that ranked high in total harvest and big bucks harvested are areas to key on for late-season success. This will bring in some counties not otherwise discussed in previous outlooks, but that do have excellent potential for late-season success.

The first area we'll look at, however, is one we've heard about before. We're mentioning it again because it's too good to ignore: Aiken County. Aiken County is on a good roll and has to be part of the late-season equation. This was the No. 1 big-buck county in South Carolina for the 2004 hunt year. This data is from the SCDNR's scoring sessions in early 2005. These scoring sessions determined the number of bucks that qualified for the state record book. To meet this criteria, a set of antlers must score at least 125 Boone and Crocket

points (typical).

In addition, Aiken County was No. 10 overall in number of deer harvested in 2004. Plus, there was a whopping 29.6 percent increase in harvest in 2004 over 2003. Everything points to this being a hot area again this year, with late-season hunting a prime bet.

Another spot that I've hunted with excellent late-season success that also ranks good by the numbers is Orangeburg County. There's a tremendous diversity of deer habitat here, from swamps to agricultural land. Also, there are some public lands available, as well as private lands, that provide excellent hunting.

Orangeburg County was No. 1 in total deer harvest in 2004 and No. 4 in trophies harvested in 2004. In addition, it is the No. 1 trophy-producing county in the state on the all-time list.

I've hunted Orangeburg County throughout the season many times and personally rate the area high in terms of late-season hunting. Look for deer in and around the many swamps coursing through this huge county. After months of hunting pressure, many of the deer have retreated to these thick swampy areas. If you take a climbing stand and hunt out-of-the-way places, you can still see and harvest plenty of deer, including trophy bucks.

There are a couple of counties that haven't made any of the previous lists discussed in this year's outlooks that may be late-season sleepers. Both Darlington and Pickens counties experienced huge increases in deer harvest in 2004, compared with the 2003 harvest. Darlington County was up 43 percent and Pickens County was up 34 percent. During a year when the statewide average was down over 8 percent, these numbers are very impressive.

Pickens County has a lot of steep terrain and backcountry areas you can hunt. Preparation is a key to success here. Also, there are good opportunities for hunting public lands very successfully, especially during the late season.

Darlington County has a lot of agriculture and I'd look for thick bottoms and swamps near good feeding areas.

Anderson County did not make the top 10 list in terms of total deer harvested for the 2004 season, but it's another strong area to consider. First, there was a 44.3 percent increase in the 2004 harvest from 2003. In addition, Anderson County was tied for fourth place in the number of trophy bucks harvested last season. It is also No. 7 on the all-time trophy list.

McCormick County is another place that should be good for late-season hunting. The data doesn't verify that as impressively as some word-of-mouth reports I've received. The total harvest in 2004 did increase slightly over 2003, but not exponentially like some of the other counties we're noting.

However, several hunters who hunt that area reported having very good success there last year, particularly after Thanksgiving to the end of the deer-hunting season. They did report that there simply were not a lot of hunters in the woods during the later part of the season. After a slow start in the early part of the season, they reported better deer movement during the late season, when mast and food sources became less available.

Florence County is also a good bet, I believe. The number of deer harvested in 2004 over 2003 was down slightly, by about 7.5 percent. However, this same county had experienced a huge increase of 44.7 percent in 2003 over 2002. Overall, that's still way up from two years ago. I know several hunters who hunt this area and they reported having a good late-season flurry of deer activity. Again, as in McCormick County and many other areas across the state last season, the deer hunter activity was down by late season.

Colleton County makes many of these "good deer hunting" lists and rightly so. Colleton County is a big county with numerous deer and ranked third overall in 2004 in total harvest. This harvest was up a solid 20.8 percent over the 2003 harvest as well. And Colleton County was second on the record-book bucks taken in the 2004 hunt year and ranks No. 4 on the all-time list.

Bamberg County is also a place for late-season hunters to check out. Bamberg County ranked No. 7 in total harvest statewide and experienced a 33.2 percent increase in the 2004 harvest compared with the 2003 data. It also was tied for 10th in the number of big bucks taken in 2004.

Hampton County had a slight decline in harvest in 2004 from 2003, about 1.8 percent. However, it was still No. 4 statewide in terms of deer harvested in 2004. Hampton County is a favorite area of mine, with all the ingredients for late-season success. There are several hunting lodges in this county that offer great hunting throughout the season and are managed for that specific purpose. Much of the land is private, though, so you'll need to make advance plans to hunt in most cases.

There are two outstanding public hunting areas, the Webb Center and the Palachucola WMAs. Check SCDNR regulations for specific hunt dates and drawings for these areas. But these are always excellent late-season areas and it's not too early to begin to plan strategy for next year if you're interested in hunting these WMAs.

The good news is that this is by no means a complete list. In fact, nearly every county probably has some isolated hotspots of good hunting for late-season deer. However, most of these have the numbers to back up the picks, either in total harvest, potential for big bucks, and in several cases both.

Remember, though, that no matter where you hunt, you'll have to adapt to late-season deer patterns to be successful during the late season. Simply being in the areas where deer exist is not enough; it doesn't much matter how many deer are in a county if none of them ever come within 300 yards of the place you pick to hunt. And deer movement and feeding patterns will be different from what you experienced during the rut. Different but not impossible to pattern, and once you do figure out what part of the habitat in your area the deer are using, a late-season hunt can be extremely productive.

Late-season deer hunting may not be for everyone. It takes more planning because it gets cold in much of the state. Actually, it can get really cold in some places by mid to late December. It does take more preparation, effort and endurance to be successful. But the first positive thing you'll notice when hunting the late season is that you'll not have nearly as much competition in the woods. Because of this, deer begin to return to more normal and predictable patterns.

Consider these areas to put yourself in the right place and you can enjoy great late-season hunting in South Carolina.

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