Realistically improving your odds of shooting a trophy deer in South Carolina takes considerable effort. It is becoming more common for hunters to kill big bucks in South Carolina, but in the vast majority of cases these hunters are successful because of a well-planned strategy.
Relying on luck to have a big buck step out a thicket and offer a clear shot with plenty of light to see and a perfect wind is not the way to realistically and consistently target big deer.
Bob Matthews of Ladson has taken hundreds of bucks in his lifetime of hunting and said lightening can strike in the form of luck, but he wouldn't count on it.
"When I was younger I hunted for deer in general and took a lot of bucks and an occasional big buck,' he said. "That got me to begin to focus on why that big buck was taken and I started paying attention to the time of year, type of habitat and food sources available.
When all of those things are considered I began to develop strategies that enable me to see more big deer consistently throughout the season. With patience and perseverance I began to pass on bucks I would have taken in the past and started seeing some larger bucks on a much more consistent basis.
"A lot of the process is finding the right place with the right habitat for big bucks,' he said. "If you find places where more big bucks are located you automatically improve your odds. Plenty of work remains, but targeting a specific area is the first step toward success."
To find that Promised Land of big bucks one excellent resource hunters can use is the South Carolina White-tailed Deer Antler Records Program data. Some areas simply produce more big bucks than other places do. These hotspots exist throughout the state and in them big buck numbers are proportionally higher.
Locating a place close to where you live will enhance your chances of hunting the area more frequently and, as Matthews said, perseverance and patience are two keys to success.
According to Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Coordinator, the program began in the spring of 1974 and since that time, 6,389 sets of antlers (6,147 typical and 242 non-typical sets) have been officially entered onto the state record list.
"A set of antlers is classified as typical or non-typical based on its general conformation, the number of abnormal points, and a determination as to whether it will rank higher in the typical or non-typical category," Ruth said. "Current minimum scores for the South Carolina Antler Records List are 125 typical points and 145 non-typical points.
All antlers must undergo a minimum 60-day drying period before they can be officially measured. If a set of antlers meets the minimum score the record is added to the list and a certificate is issued recognizing the outstanding white-tailed deer taken in South Carolina."
Most hunters in South Carolina would likely consider a buck with qualification scores in either category as a big buck.
That brings up an important element in successfully hunting big deer: Each hunter has to decide what he or she thinks a trophy deer is. For most hunters, legal deer are tempting targets — but if you are going to kill what you consider a trophy, you can't be spending too much of your time dragging fork-horns out of the woods.
Ruth said initially measuring sessions were only conducted a few times each spring, but since 1987 antler measuring sessions have been scheduled throughout the state with approximately 12 sessions annually.
"Each year SCDNR wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians measure approximately 500 sets of antlers," he said. "Generally only about one-third of the antlers measured make the Antler Records List, with the bulk of entrants falling short of the minimum scores. A lot of those trophy deer are close to qualifying and were certainly considered big bucks by the hunters having them scored.
"The purpose of the Antler Records Program is two-fold," Ruth said. "First, because of the increased interest in deer hunting exhibited by sportsmen, it is a way to recognize outstanding white-tailed deer taken in South Carolina.
Second, it provides management information that allows SCDNR wildlife biologists to identify areas that produce quality deer. When particular areas stand out it is important to attempt to recognize the underlying characteristics that produce outstanding animals."
He said deer hunters can utilize the data to find specific counties in the area they hunt or can gain access to hunt.
"As deer populations have grown in South Carolina, it has become more apparent that deer herd density in a given area is related to the production of large deer," Ruth said. "Typically, areas of the state that are known to have large numbers of deer do not produce as many large antlered deer as those areas with fewer deer.
Even areas that have exceptional habitat can only support a certain number of deer before the quality of the animals begins to decline. During much of the 1980's, the statewide deer population and annual deer harvest were perhaps one-half of what they are today. However, a tremendous number of deer were harvested that made the records list.
"In fact, the period between 1982 and 1992 accounts for approximately 35 percent of all records even though the list contains records that date to the early 1900's. Score years of 2012, 2013 and 2014 (hunt years 2011, 2012, and 2013) are three of best years we've seen for scoring more big bucks in the past decade. So with declining numbers of deer in much of the state, it's enabling more deer in some of those areas to grow larger antlers."
Over the long term, approximately one of every 800 bucks killed in South Carolina qualifies for the records list. Deer this big are rare — but not impossible to find.
Antlers from deer that are taken in the fall are typically measured the following spring. For example, antlers from deer taken in the fall of 2013 were measured in the "score year" or spring of 2014. Antlers taken in other years may also be included in this publication since they were scored in 2014.
Ruth said the Records List publication contains a number of separate lists. Two lists contain the records for typical and non-typical antlers that were documented during the spring of 2014 measuring session only. Although most of these records represent deer harvested during the fall 2013 hunting season, some records were taken in previous years and were not officially measured until 2014.
Separate rankings are presented for the score year 2014, or any previous single year, and for all-time. These rankings reflect the position of the antlers compared to the other antlers measured during the year and as compared with all historical records. This list will note the county where each buck was taken and where the largest trophy deer were recently harvested.
Two other lists contain the top 100 records for all-time in the typical category and the top 50 records for all-time in the non-typical category. By checking the counties a hunter can see if they are in or close to a top county.
The final list provides information related to the all-time production of antler records by county. The list is broken down by typical and non-typical and provides the rank for each county based on total number of historic entries, as well as the county rank based on the number of entries in relationship to the size of the county in square miles. Attached maps depict the top ten counties in each category.
Ruth said the Score Year 2014 (hunt Year 2013) round of white-tailed deer antler measuring revealed 222 new records, including one Boone and Crockett qualifier.
"Of the 569 sets of antlers measured in the spring of 2014, 222 met the minimum score for entry on the state records list, including 213 sets of typical and 9 non-typical racks," he said.
"Although not as strong as the past couple of years, the number of successful entries into the records list this year is the third highest number of entries in the last 10 years. Although all of the records were not taken during the 2013 season, 182 were taken during the 2012 or 2013 season."
According to the data, the top typical buck scored in 2014 was a 162 7/8-inch buck taken by Gary Walls in Orangeburg County in December of 2009. Walls' buck qualifies for the Boone and Crockett Club's Three Year Awards Period List and ranks number 18 among South Carolina's all-time typical deer. The second highest scoring typical was a 159 3/8-inch Laurens County buck taken by Ricky Brooks last October.
Netting 167 4/8 points, the top scoring non-typical buck was taken by Tony Blackwell in Oconee County last December.
The attached list depicts the top ten typical and all nine non-typical bucks in Score Year 2014 and the county where taken.
Kershaw County was the 2014 top county for State Record entries, with 15, followed by Aiken County, which had lead the state for the 3 previous years, with 14. Other top counties included Orangeburg (10), Calhoun (10), Fairfield (9), and Dorchester (9).
Ruth says these results come as no surprise — these counties have historically produced good numbers of record entries.
As far as all-time leaders at the county level, Orangeburg County remains at the top with 457 sets of antlers on the list. Rounding out the top five counties, Orangeburg is followed by Aiken (435), Fairfield (264), and Anderson and Colleton (each with 246).
Ruth notes, however, that it is a good idea to account for the size of the county in the rankings. The top counties per square mile of harvest are Anderson, Abbeville, Orangeburg, Allendale, and Aiken. Counties making both lists — total trophies produced and high numbers of trophies per square mile — should be high priority big buck targets.
Ruth said although some of the top counties have relatively high deer populations, some of these counties have more moderate numbers.
"It's important that hunters and land managers understand how the density of deer in an area affects the quality of the animals," he said.
"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 says factors other than deer density are also very important to growing big bucks. Nutrition is essential and good, abundant forage can be a key element. Large agriculture areas that have a moderate population of deer would potentially be better than a similar area with lots of deer.
"In our deer density survey of 2013 the highest deer populations are often around major rivers where soil fertility is high and nesting and forage habitat are excellent," Ruth said. "Finding areas where these conditions exist but herd size is moderate would be a good goal."
A good diversity of habitat types is also conducive to growing big deer. Excellent big-buck habitat occurs in areas that have ample agricultural crops and also have blocks of timber that are less than 10 years old. If a large creek or river bottom is nearby, it's even better.
"Although the total deer harvest in South Carolina has been down the last few years, indications from the antler records program are that deer quality remains good," Ruth said.
Based on the above data hunters can locate areas around the state where big bucks have been taken recently as well as examine long-term trends. You can then scout areas close by and locate places to hunt.
Or you can identify what big buck habitat looks like in terms of soil, habitat and forage and try to replicate, improve or locate similar features on the land you hunt.
Ruth said that some hunters take trophy animals on WMAs that are open to the public. These hunters often find prime habitat in remote areas that require laborious access, essentially reducing hunter competition.
But taking big bucks is often about hunters willing to put in effort, as well as planning, to harvesting a trophy buck.