Best Bets For Your Late-Season South Carolina Deer

If you're hunting for a hotspot to finish out your deer season in a meat-hanging mode, here are some deer-producing areas that will ensure you're in the woods with plenty of deer.

By Terry Madewell

Late-season deer hunting can provide Palmetto sportsmen some of the most effective hunting of the entire season in South Carolina.

Whoa! I bet some hunters will have to rub their eyes and read that sentence again. However, I have several reasons for making this statement.

First of all, though, I admit that late-season deer hunting may not be for everyone. It gets cold in much of the state, really cold in some places by mid to late December. Often it takes more preparation, effort and endurance to be successful this time of year.

To compensate for these disadvantages are two important advantages to late-season deer hunting. The first positive thing you'll notice when hunting the late season is that there won't be nearly as many other hunters in the woods with you. You may not quite feel as lonely as the Maytag repairman, but you will have plenty of elbow room compared to hunting early in the season and during the peak of the rut. There are some hunters who figure fewer humans in the woods are a distinct advantage to them when hunting.

Partly because of the decrease in hunting pressure, the deer begin to return to more normal and predictable patterns. Once bucks and does get through the rut, their movements are much less random: They need to eat and have a place to bed down, the more protected the better. If you can figure out where they do both, you have a fair chance of catching them during daylight hours. Of course, you must be armed with the knowledge of late-season deer habits and patterns. But if you are, or can quickly get acquainted with these tactics, you can better predict where deer will be during the last days of the season. A drop in human intrusion will definitely improve odds of more normal deer movement occurring in the woods you hunt.

While the rut phase is a great time to harvest bucks, especially big bucks because they are more focused on mating, they can be tough to pattern. When a buck is chasing a doe, neither of them really knows where they're going to be 10 minutes from now, so clearly you are going to have a hard time knowing more about it than they do.

But during the late season, they begin to return to more predictable patterns. They are dominated by a narrow set of concerns: finding enough palatable and nutritious food, and exerting as little energy as possible to secure it. Some very cold weather can really put them in your cross hairs if you plan and set up properly. I've personally seen more big bucks, and bucks in general, late in the season than any other time of the year. And I firmly believe it's because of the above-noted reasons.

While you don't have to agree with that statement, the fact is there's still excellent hunting late in the season that many hunters are simply missing out on because they simply don't go.

The second reason some hunters who do hunt late season don't score is that they hunt the same places that worked well in the pre-rut and rut phases. Sorry, but those days are over until next October and November. You've got to think late-season patterns now.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Whether you've been into late-season hunting in the past or not, you should try it this season. We're going to look at several potential hotspots in South Carolina for 2004, but first we are going to consider why these areas should be good this season.

There are a lot of factors you can consider when hunting for late-season deer. One of the most important is the local knowledge you have of the deer woods you hunt. Regardless of where you live in the Palmetto State, there are deer hotspots near you for late-season success. We're going to pinpoint some counties that should be top picks for late-season hunting this year.

According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), there was a 14.3 percent drop in the harvest in 2003 compared to 2002. While this decrease is within normal variation for a single hunting, it does give one a good baseline from which we can work in identifying potential hotspots or areas on the increase.

With a big drop in a statewide harvest, any area where the harvest did not decline would be an obvious place to start. Some of the areas I like are those places where there was an increase in 2003 over 2002. This should be reflective of a good, healthy deer herd and thus a great place to be at the end of this 2004 season. Combine this with a good number of trophy deer harvested in the area, and you've got a late-season winner in my book.

The most striking county to me is one I have hunted a lot in the past and have had excellent December success in: Laurens County. Laurens County posted a 33.3 percent increase in the harvest in 2003 over 2002, taking it from the 23rd ranked county in 2002 to No. 7 in terms of deer harvested per unit area in 2003. That's a huge jump and it's certainly reasonable to expect excellent hunting there again this season.

Plus, the area has produced a number of huge late-season bucks in years past; I've seen several of them myself. The rolling hill topography of this Piedmont county is ideal for late-season hunting in my opinion. The area is interspersed with croplands, pine stands, hardwood blocks and creek bottoms. This diversity is a key to holding plenty of deer during the late season. If the weather is warm, they'll still hang out near the bottom thickets and travel well-defined routes, which you can identify by doing your scouting homework.

However, when it gets really cold, you can use a climbing stand to get high in a big longleaf pine and watch cutover areas with a southern exposure. On those bitter cold mornings, the deer will have a strong tendency to migrate to those areas where the sun splashes down on them, especially a clearcut with three or four years of re-growth. They'll feel protected by the thicket, but if you're high in a tree stand, you can see them clearly. I have many fond December memories of this county and that entire portion of the state.

There are wildlife management area (WMA) lands in Laurens County; check with the SCDNR maps to find out exactly where the public land is. You can be successful here on public land, especially if you hunt late in the season and get away from the easy and obvious-looking places.

Florence County is another area that prospered in 2003. While many of the counties suffered falling harvests, Florence County was up a whopping 44.7 percent. Although the overall harvest is not in the same league as Laurens County, the population of deer is obviously in excellent condition. Even when

most counties were suffering a down year, Florence County seems to be one of the counties on the rise.

I've talked with several local hunters who saw plenty of deer throughout the season, even late in the year in 2003. And except for a few other close friends and hunters, they saw very little deer hunter traffic on the roads in the woods.

Three upstate counties that all saw increases in harvest figures in 2003: Greenville (43.8 percent), Oconee (5.4 percent) and Pickens (34.5 percent). While that's a positive sign, I also strongly consider Oconee and Pickens counties as the top upstate picks because they were also noted as being leaders in the trophy-producing category in 2003. Harvests being up in a slow year and the number of trophies harvested among the statewide leaders are two very good reasons to consider these counties.

Compared to much of the rest of South Carolina, the terrain in these areas can get rather steep and the weather very cold. Preparation is a key and good planning essential for success.

The late-season strategy here will be significantly influenced by the improved visibility by the leaves falling from the hardwood trees. Edgelines around cleared areas, cutovers and thickets are still good places to plan your hunt. Some pre-hunt scouting will definitely improve your odds of success as well. Remember, this will be some of the most steep terrain and coldest temperatures you'll encounter in any of the top hunting areas of the state we'll look at here, so have the appropriate equipment to cope with the situation.

Fairfield County is another excellent late-season hotspot. This county finished the 2003 season with a very respectable 8 percent increase and was third overall in the state in 2003 in terms of deer harvested per unit area. The two counties with higher per unit area harvest were Chester and Allendale counties. While both certainly had good seasons, their overall harvest was down 7.3 percent and 7 percent, respectively, from the 2002 harvest. Certainly, they are good counties to hunt late season, or anytime obviously, but Fairfield gets the nod as a top late-season hotspot because of the increasing harvest in a tough year.

The rolling topography of Fairfield is similar to that found in Laurens County and many similarities in terms of hunting styles will exist.

Adjacent to Fairfield County is Kershaw County and we get a double whammy of good news here. Kershaw not only had a 2 percent harvest increase, it was also the No. 1 ranked trophy-producing county in the state in 2003 in terms of qualifying bucks for the state record book.

This entire sector of the state obviously produces outstanding deer hunting and is certainly a broad area to consider for late-season hunting. Lancaster County, with similar terrain was also a top trophy-producing county, No. 2 behind Kershaw County, and was also ranked as No. 9 in the state in terms of total harvest per unit area. These three counties - Fairfield, Kershaw and Lancaster - form an outstanding block of hunting land for late-season hunting in the Piedmont.

Moving into the Lowcountry area, the top late-season picks are many. This entire area will have outstanding localized hotspots because of intense management by landowners or hunt clubs. But on a more broad scale, we'll look at some of the leaders. One of the best, in my opinion, is Orangeburg County. Despite a modest drop in harvest in 2003 from 2002, the county improved in ranking from No. 17 to No. 15 on a statewide basis in terms of harvest.

Plus, as usual, Orangeburg County is among the leaders in the state in terms of producing trophy deer. I've hunted the Orangeburg area enough to know there are scads of late-season hotspots 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 can get yourself and your climbing stand back in the boonies, you can still see and harvest plenty of deer, including trophy bucks.

The biggest change for most hunters here is that the late-evening field hunting has slowed. In these areas, my experience has been that the deer usually become more nocturnal. Many hunters find it difficult to stop using hunting tactics that were so successful in the pre-rut and rut stages, partly because there are so many deer in these areas that you will still see some animals.

However, the swamps offer the refuge and protection deer require to move about during the day. You don't necessarily have to go deep in the swamps; often the edge lines will be fine. But get off the beaten path to areas where the deer feel less pressured and you will still enjoy some excellent late-season hunting.

Charleston County is a good late-season pick and is often overlooked by hunters, especially those not from that area. This county showed a huge increase in harvest in 2003 over 2002 (38.6 percent). There are large expanses of land that offer quality hunting and a number of these areas are not hunted hard late in the season. With the deer season open for months, many hunters have quit for the season. Some hunters have switched to small game or quail, leaving the deer to those willing to hunt a bit deeper in the woods.

There are huge expanses of the Francis Marion National Forest here that offer quality late-season hunting. You may be surprised to discover the hunting pressure, especially in the slightly out-of-the-way areas, is very low. This usually means the deer population will often be higher in those areas.

Hampton County did have a decline in harvest from 2003 from 2002; however, it still remained in the top 10 counties in the state in terms of harvest per unit area. Hampton County is another personal favorite that has all the ingredients for late-season success and is an area that needs to be looked at if you hunt in this part of the state.

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, so you'll need to make advance plans to hunt in most cases. There are two outstanding public areas, the Webb Center and the Palachucola WMAs; however, you need to 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.

If you've haven't given up on the 2004 season quite yet, there's still some outstanding hunting to be enjoyed and some good hunting is likely close to all of us. The key is to understand you'll likely have to change your hunting strategy to fit the late-season 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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