Leaving the Crowds for Late-Season Deer

Leaving the Crowds for Late-Season Deer

If you think late-season deer hunting in South Carolina means long hours of seeing nothing but trees, you need to change your approach -- and maybe where you hunt

By Terry Madewell

It was early December in 2002 when I stopped by a country store to grab something to munch on after a morning of hard fishing. Even though the fishing was decent, my six stripers seemed paltry when I saw what was in the bed of a pickup in the parking lot of the store I pulled into at the end of the day. A massive-racked, 10-point buck grabbed my attention first. However, I soon looked beyond the maze of antlers and saw another hefty buck, this one a most respectable 8-pointer. Naturally, I went in and got the details of how, when and where this had all taken place.

It was cool, but not cold, and mostly overcast that day - a good day to be outdoors in fairly typical South Carolina December weather.

Two hunters, hunting together but in different blocks of woods, had each taken one of the big bucks. In addition, they had seen smaller bucks and several does during their morning hunt.

They told me this was a typical late November and December pattern for them. While they didn't always kill big deer, they usually saw deer - and very few other hunters. They noted their hunting patterns had certainly changed from the early season, but the deer were still there, still moving; and in fact, the deer were moving better than anytime of the season except for the rut. Why? Both men offered the same explanation: a lack of hunters in the woods.

They had not seen another hunter in nearly two weeks before killing their bucks. Indeed, in many areas in South Carolina the woods are all but deserted 10 days after Thanksgiving.

Where do they hunt, you ask? If you're thinking on the back end of their own private property where no other human is allowed, you're wrong. They told me they primarily hunted Fairfield and Kershaw counties.

The willingness to get back in the brush away from other hunters is a key attribute of successful late-season hunters. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

These two counties are among the top counties in the state for both buck and doe harvest rates.

I would have thought that such high success rates through the early and peak parts of the season would result in higher numbers of hunters in the woods into the late season.

But that seems not to be the case. The hunting pressure is actually quite light, and over the next few weeks I kept a keen lookout for parked vehicles with hunters in the woods or hunters riding around. Basically, the number was very low, almost nonexistent by my own survey. I don't have scientific data to back it up, but most of the deer harvested in these counties would seem to be from the early part of the season until Thanksgiving.

From that point on, the human pressure and presence in the woods diminishes greatly and the deer begin to move more naturally.

Perhaps it's just that the cold weather makes some hunters stay home; maybe the other hunting seasons that are now in effect lure some deer hunters away from the woods. Perhaps it's simply that most of the hunters have the venison they want already in the freezer. But for whatever reason, late-season hunting in this deer-rich neighborhood is left to but a few hardy hunters.

Of course the deer are not going crazy and simply running up to hunters this time of year. These animals have been hunted for an extended period, regardless of where you're located in the Palmetto State, and the deer have become wary of human presence.

Late-season deer hunting will go better for you if you're a good hunter and know how to leave a minimum of telltale scents and clues that you're in, or have been in, the woods. These two guys at the country store certainly seemed to fit the bill as good woodsmen.

I've talked with several other hunters since then who are also in on this late-season pattern. According to them, it's an annual pattern in this area: Hunters simply begin to vacate the woods for other pursuits. Thus their late-season deer hunting can be outstanding, especially if they have a good game plan.

They all report using basically the same strategy. First, get away from other hunters; unpressured deer begin to move in more normal, or at least predictable, late-season patterns.

During the early season and through the rut, there are hunters pounding the woods daily. It makes the deer more skittish, even during the rut. The deer begin to get locked into nocturnal patterns as well as long periods of inactivity. In addition, deer (especially bucks) will get into unusual patterns that make it very difficult for hunters to find them during the day.

Some will get into midday routines that baffle most hunters. In this case, hunters will see plenty of new tracks, but while they're out of the woods for a midday meal or break, the deer are doing their moving. This is a classic example of how the deer will pattern the hunters and alter their own behavior accordingly. Big bucks are especially prone to this type of behavior.

Among all North American big game, whitetail deer are perhaps the best at adapting to changes in their environment, whether those changes are short term or long term. South Carolina deer have adapted very well to large-scale, long-term changes in their environment caused by logging and agricultural practices in South Carolina, for example. But the deer are, if anything, even better at adjusting their short-term responses to changes brought about by increases and decreases in hunting pressure.

By the end of the rut, deer are hard to find because the deer don't want to be found and they've adjusted their movement patterns accordingly. Thus, by early December, many hunters think there are no deer around the areas they hunt. Actually, there are very few places in the state where the late-season hunting pattern won't work.

But as December wears on and fewer hunters are in the woods, deer adapt to this change, too - this time by returning to a late-season pattern where they are concerned less and less with avoiding hunters and more and more with finding food and cover and conserving energy in cool weather.

For deer hunters, the key is to determine exactly what part of their range the deer are using. Finding deer that are not pressured means a better opportunity to see deer, especially big bucks.

Based on data from the annual deer harvest report produced by Chares Ruth, deer project coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), in 2001,

Fairfield County produced the most deer of any county in the state in terms of overall harvest. In the 2002 season, Fairfield was fifth in the state in the same category. If deer-producing areas such as Fairfield and Kershaw counties offer places that are not heavily hunted during the late season, then hunters who live in other parts of the state should be able to scout out areas where hunting pressure falls off dramatically as the solstice approaches.

Nevertheless, these two counties and the adjacent counties offer some prime late-season sleeper potential. One factor they have in common is the Lake Wateree area, and while that's not the only area that's productive, the areas around the lake do seem to produce excellent hunting. The rolling hills are divided by plenty of thick creek bottoms and there are timbered clearcuts along the hillsides and ridges.

The clearcuts hold good numbers of deer during the late season, especially if they're near a good water source and plenty of heavy cover.

To best hunt these areas, most late-season hunters recommend using a climbing stand (as opposed to a permanent stand).

There are several reasons why a climbing stand is very helpful during late-season hunting. First, a climber enhances a hunter's mobility considerably, allowing for easy changes in stand locations as the deer move from area to area. Late in the season, deer can be hard-pressed to find palatable, nutritious and high-energy food. They will move from food source to food source.

Being able to change setups, of course, also allows a hunter to quickly alter his plans when the wind isn't cooperating. Regardless of the time of the year, the wind is your enemy if you don't play it just right. But revealing yourself to late-season deer may be even worse than being made by deer earlier in the season. If the deer you are hunting now are just returning to "normal" patterns, any evidence they detect that indicates hunters are still after them can cause them to disappear again.

Another block of counties that offer exceptional late-season hunting with relatively low pressure after Thanksgiving, in ranking order, are Hampton, Orangeburg, Colleton and Jasper. In the past several years, I've hunted all of these areas during the late season and when I find a good combination of low pressure and the right terrain, the deer are there in excellent numbers.

While these are all regions I've hunted and I've talked with a number of hunters from these areas, it's also interesting to note that these counties were the top four deer-producing (by total number) counties in the state in the 2002 hunting season, based on the data from SCDNR.

Deer hunters also have another advantage in lowcountry settings: These counties are strongholds of the deeply tradition-based hunting of rabbits and quail, which draw many serious hunters away from the deer after Thanksgiving.

I remember hunting in Orangeburg County on numerous occasions in mid to late December when I saw a lot more deer than I did people - not just hunters, but everyone. The green winter wheat or rye fields are magnets for deer, just as are other types of crops. While you can still see deer around the bean fields that are so popular early in the season, most of the deer will have changed their patterns in these areas by this time of the year. To be successful, you not only have to get away from other hunters, but you must change patterns with the deer.

Because deer tend to engage in the same late-season patterns every year, they will use the same areas in successive years, assuming cover and food resources stay the same. Because of this, permanent stands do provide at least one advantage: A late-season site that is selected with care can produce well for more than one season, and a permanent stand obviously allows the hunter to avoid packing a climber in and out. Some of the places I've hunted had plenty of permanent stands placed around the property to take advantage of this type of situation.

But after a few months of hunting pressure, the deer will know the stand is there. They will look at permanent stands for any sign of movement before they walk into view.

If you are hunting private farmlands, take the time to talk to the landowners and ask them where the deer are moving. Odds are good, if they're working crops, they'll know exactly where they've seen the most deer lately, and that can be a very good place to start looking for a stand site. The big fields can be buck magnets when they are planted adjacent to good, thick swamp cover, which is abundant in all of these counties.

One place that I hunted for several years had some large fields planted all along the edge of a swamp. By December, it seemed that these were about the only places where you had a realistic chance of seeing a big buck. Earlier in the season, bucks and does could be see throughout the property and while the number of deer was still plenty high during the late season, they seemed to retreat to the heavy cover.

Another tactic that works well in the lowcountry areas is to take that climbing stand and get back into the hardwood swamps, especially if you are after a big buck. High spots or islands back in the swamps often provide great cover away from hunters and serve as natural havens for older, smarter deer.

The cover in these swamps provides deer with bedding areas. To intercept deer on their way back to their bed, however, you'll have to slip in very early in the afternoon, several hours before dark, and get the climber set up and in the tree. Then be quiet and stay there until dark. By doing so, your odds of seeing big bucks are considerably enhanced. Again, you've got to play the wind just right, because a lot of these areas are rather small and you may have to be willing to wade through a bit of water or muck to get there. But it can be well worth the effort.

Then you've got to haul the big-antlered rascal back out . . . but you can always deal with that challenge when it occurs.

These are not the only two areas of the state where you may well get into high-quality late-season action. In fact, just about anywhere in the state offers potentially excellent late-season hunting if you're willing to go to a bit of effort to get away from the crowds.

This is certainly true in the upstate region, such as in and around the Greenville and Spartanburg areas and surrounding counties. In some of these areas, you may simply have to pack your stand and gear into a very remote area. By doing so, you can get away from the other hunters and get into areas where deer are more into a natural routine.

I enjoyed an excellent late-season hunt a few years back in the upstate region by doing exactly that. I was hunting public land and had obtained permission to park my vehicle at a private residence adjacent to the land, but it was pretty far off the beaten path already. So I trekked in a couple more miles and began looking for sign. I hunted the first afternoon and saw a couple of does, but no bucks. I was back at my spot at dawn the next morning (yes, you have to get up real early if you're doing this) and saw what I believe were

the same two does again.

So I moved out of that area at mid-morning and after a couple hours of scouting, I finally found an ideal place. A long, sloping point overlooking two hollows was a perfect stand location and deer sign was everywhere. With the leaves off the trees, I could see a good distance in every direction and by the end of the afternoon I had seen five different bucks and several does. For me, this would be an excellent day of hunting anytime of the season. The buck I took was a nice-8-pointer, and I still had an hour of light to get part of the way out before dark.

This type of hunting can essentially be enjoyed almost anywhere in the state during December; however, you often have to be willing to work harder than other hunters to make it happen.

Late-season deer hunting can be outstanding, especially if you get away from the crowds. But you've got to do the planning, and sometimes the extra work, to make it happen. If you do, you can enjoy the woods in solitude, well, except for the deer that keep slipping up on you.

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