How to Hunt Our Piedmont Bucks

You've heard about those big Piedmont bucks and you want one of your own. Here are the factors to weigh in a good game plan.

Photo by Michael H. Francis

By Terry Madewell

After many years of hunting deer, I have concluded (or, more accurately, finally accepted the truth) that the end result of a deer hunt will generally be a reflection of the effort the hunter places in the planning and execution of that hunt.

Nowhere in the state of South Carolina is this more true than in the Piedmont, the huge expanse of deer haven land between the Columbia and Spartanburg/Greenville population centers of the state. The variety of habitat here - rolling topography, hardwood creeks and bottoms, and pine ridges - require more versatility from a hunter than anywhere else in South Carolina . . . at least from my experience. Hunting the Piedmont is different than hunting in the Lowcountry or the more mountainous terrain of the upstate. The Piedmont has a uniquely diverse character that you need to accept and embrace if you want to be consistently successful.

In much of the Piedmont, September hunting will be primarily bowhunting, with the pattern being a predominately pre-rut phase. Then, early October hunting will be with a muzzleloader during a part of the season that can be a transition from pre-rut into rut. Finally, the gun season traditionally opens in most areas about Oct. 11, just in time for the rut to begin cranking into high gear. And, of course, post-rut and late-season hunting follows that.

I name these obvious phases of the season to make the point that just as the topography changes so much in this region of the state, the particular time of the season and phase the deer are in will dictate changes in their preferred habitat as well. Piedmont deer in most areas have a wide range of habitat choices during these seasonal changes. As the forage changes, the deer can and will move.

Expert hunters such as Bill Lee notes that as the rut approaches, the buck-hunting patterns will change from a quest for bucks in isolated areas away from other deer into a search of areas where the does are concentrated. Post-rut will again cause Lee to change strategy and hunt the loner buck again.

His goal is big bucks; if yours is the same, you need to follow this lead. His strategy for big bucks is one of constant pattern and location changes as buck patterns change.

Unlike some Lowcountry areas I've hunted where a good stand location (even a permanent stand) may be productive throughout the entire season, in the Piedmont you need to keep on the move and change with the season and patterns if you want to score consistently on big-racked bucks. According to Lee and other experts in the Piedmont, there's no substitute for a climbing stand and the mobility it affords if you want to key on bucks in the Piedmont.

As a simple definition for hunters, the Piedmont area of South Carolina is generally defined as the region where the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) classifies the Central and Western Piedmont hunt units. However, to be sure, there are transitions between the upcountry and the Piedmont as well as the midlands (Richland, Aiken Kershaw counties, for example) and the Piedmont. Generally, you can visualize the Piedmont on a state map by looking at Abbeville, McCormick and Edgefield counties on the western side of the state and follow through to Cherokee, York and Lancaster counties on the eastern side.

The overall deer population is very good in the Piedmont sector of the state and harvest has been excellent in recent years, according to Charles Ruth, Deer Project coordinator for the SCDNR.

"We consistently see a lot of good bucks come from this area every year," Ruth said. "There are always going to be hotspots where deer are more plentiful, but overall, the Piedmont as a whole certainly rates very high," he adds.

When looking for the top areas to bowhunt during September in the Upstate, there's both good and bad news. Actually, even the bad news is sort of good. The Western and Central Piedmont areas are loaded with outstanding spots for bowhunters, and public lands here annually rate at the top of the WMA lists for deer harvests. The bad news, if you can call it that, is it is quite difficult to single out some of these areas from others because most of them have the potential to produce excellent hunting, primarily for bowhunters.

In any of the areas mentioned on WMAs, and to a certain degree on private lands, one key to success will be to get as far off the beaten path as you can. Some folks can only hunt after work or on weekends and are limited in how much time they can take to get to a hunting area. Nevertheless, go as far as reasonably possible. That will separate you from many of the other hunters and give you a much better opportunity to go one-on-one with the deer.

External influences are a major problem in heavily hunted areas. Either your hunt will get messed up by someone else, or the mere presence of too much human activity will push the deer out or make them change their habits dramatically, sometimes becoming nocturnal even early in the season.

That said, let's look at a few more areas that typically offer excellent bowhunting opportunities.

In the Central Piedmont area, the Enoree WMA is well known for producing both quantity and quality deer. The key areas here to look for are the bottoms along the larger creeks and drainages and the acorn ridges overlooking these bottoms, primarily when we have a good mast crop.

In the Western Piedmont region, the Ninety-Six area in Greenwood County is also a prime spot. This entire area is laced with fertile bottoms and hardwood ridges, interspersed with agriculture that combines to create an excellent deer population. This area is known to produce plenty of good bucks, as well as excellent numbers of does for either-sex hunting.

Across the lake, in Laurens County, is a combination of private and public lands that also offers outstanding bowhunting opportunities.

Another excellent region in the Western Piedmont is the Clarks Hill area of McCormick County. Charles Ruth notes that McCormick County is one of the top areas in the state for trophy bucks, but there are also plenty of deer to offer excellent bowhunting opportunities.

To be able to figure all the angles properly for an opportunity to take a trophy buck is the goal of every serious whitetail deer hunter. A primary key to success is proper planning.

For some of the best hunters, such as Joe and Scott Kelly of Laurens County, proper planning involves scouting and staying on top of these

movements of deer. Scott notes that he never quits scouting, and his deer season never really ends. It's all meshed together as one unit of effort. The harvesting portion occurs at one time of the year, while many of the other keys to his success occur at other times of the year.

"I usually begin serious scouting for the upcoming season in the summer, even before bow season," Scott said. "Knowing where that big buck is, where he is going, where he is coming from, when he's likely to come by, why he is where he is (there's a reason for all his movements) is essential in deer hunting, especially here in the Piedmont."

His scouting doesn't stop with bow season, either.

"Even during bow season, I'm scouting for muzzleloader season and then during muzzleloader season, we're looking for deer transitions into areas for rifle hunting season," he said. "Always think in terms of upcoming changes in patterns and you can keep up with the deer movements. It's not really difficult, it just needs to be part of your normal thinking and deer-hunting strategy."

Of course, you've got to do all this scouting without ever letting the old buck know you've been around, much less that you might be coming back. Learn everything you can about your quarry without tipping your hand. It's a valuable to have the buck think he's the "boss" in his neck of the woods and there is no threat from humans. An old buck that doesn't know he's being hunted might be killable; an experienced buck that knows people are after him can make himself virtually impossible to find.

While a lot of people say scouting is important, many hunters really do little about it until just before the season opens. But some consider that a bit too late without alerting the big bucks of your intentions. For small bucks and does, you can perhaps get by, but big bucks are different and every expert hunter I've ever talked to has made that statement.

It's not necessary, nor even a good idea, to spend all your time in the woods scouting. But you've got to spend enough time in the woods to learn the area thoroughly and to learn the spots where deer frequent.

Marvin Jackson of Spartanburg has successfully hunted deer for many years, on both public and private lands in the Western Piedmont and offers some advice on hunting deer in this area.

If you're hunting public land, Jackson says, it can be difficult to consistently take big deer. In fact, strategy becomes even more crucial because you've got to factor in the likely movements and habits of other hunters.

"While you can walk far back into an area and get away from most of the hunters, you can't hide from the ripple effect of having several hunters in the same vicinity. However, if you figure the likely places other hunters will be, you can make a pretty good plan for the escape routes the deer will use. By setting up on these areas during high-traffic hunt days, such as opening weekend of bow or gun season, you can up your odds of success," Jackson said.

The overall hunt experience on public land may not be as high quality as a secluded hunt on private land. However, by planning for the other hunters and the effects on the deer, you can still be highly successful. And success has a way of improving the quality of any hunt.

In most situations during the pre-season and early portion of the bow-hunting season, the deer will be holding in the lower areas near reliable water sources. By the time gun-hunting season opens, they likely will have changed, or be in the process of changing, their major activity areas to ridges and other spots that are often some distance from the water sources.

Locate the high-concentration sectors of the deer, and then key your hunting efforts on the areas where you find the most buck sign. Check the creek bottoms, low areas or whatever is the primary water source for the deer in your region. Look for concentrated areas of activity. There will typically be areas loaded with sign, while other spots will be almost void. You may or may not be able to determine why one spot is used and another isn't, although availability of food is generally a key.

Using your own personal experience, gained only by walking the woods yourself, you need to learn all the unique features of the land on which you'll be hunting: the creeks, the draws, ridges, swamps and hollows, as well as the potential bedding, feeding and mating areas. In essence, learn the territory so you won't have to go back and look at anything once the patterns begin to change. You'll know what's there and will be able to piece together the missing pieces of the puzzle without moving in and spooking the deer.

For example, this is a prime way to take a buck during the rut. You'll know the basic area, will not have violated his space for a while, and the first time you're back in the area since early season will be 20 feet high in a big pine. Then, even if you don't harvest the animal, if you need to fine-tune your hunting strategy the next hunt, you can zero in on the buck you're hunting without spooking him out of the region.

Keep in mind major feeding spots for the different times during the season. For example, I want to know what the deer feed on after the agriculture crops and acorns are gone. Acorns are great food, but are available only for a while; you can't rely on that as a deer concentration attractant for the entire season. The specific foods will vary from one locale to another even within the Piedmont area, so you may have to talk to experienced hunters in your area or to wildlife biologists from the state agency for specific information. Late in the year when the crops have been harvested and the acorns are gone, the honeysuckle patches may become a prime feeding area, for example.

You need to watch for signs that the deer are no longer using a feeding area and anticipate what food sources they have begun using. If you know the ground you are hunting well, you should be able to make an informed guess.

Remember, the hunt takes place on the deer's home territory. Regardless of how well you know the area, they know it better. They can smell and hear much better than hunters. They can detect even very slight movement, especially when they are close. They are very wary and nervous. Plus, they are intelligent and do associate human presence to danger and react accordingly.

This season, plan your strategy to allow you to change as the season and deer habits change and use the diversity of woods to your advantage in the Piedmont. When you get this pattern down, you'll likely see a marked improvement in your buck harvest, both in terms of deer seen and the size of bucks you harvest.

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