The 2015 season was one for the record books — but not the kind of record book deer hunters hope to make. A season that began with hope and significant success suffered a record flood and lingering wet and warm weather for the remainder of the season. The floodwaters disrupted the season, forcing short-term deer season closures in several areas and left a lot of prime deer hunting areas inaccessible for long periods, due in part to continued rains.
While the floods were very disruptive, some hunters chose to see the silver lining behind the floods. Many noted that lower hunting pressure on some key areas of their lands could help them see more deer in 2016.
Bill Geddings of Williamsburg County, a hard-hit flood area, summed it up with a positive spin.
"All the areas that hunters can't get to now will probably be a safety refuge for deer, especially big bucks," he said during the floods. "It won't help this year, but next year I expect the deer that made it through the season because of this mess will improve our odds of seeing increased numbers of older deer. I think that's going to be especially true when hunting areas that could not be hunted later in the 2015 season. A few weeks after the flood a lot of those areas were again accessible to deer, but not to hunters."
Barring any natural disasters in 2016, the forecast does bode well for hunters. Looking at harvest data for 2015 is a great place to start the search for deer hotspots in 2016. A decline in overall deer harvest was recorded in 2015, but it was not significant, considering the conditions. Buck harvest, of prime interest to hunters, was actually slightly up over 2014.
Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) says the 2015 season started strong and the overall harvest was probably better than many hunters expected considering the weather issues.
"Based on our annual survey of hunters that provides detailed and, we believe, accurate data, there was a four percent decrease in harvest from 202,952 deer in 2014 to 195,030 deer in the 2015 season," Ruth said. "During the 2015 deer season we estimate that a total of 111,035 bucks and 83,995 does were harvested. The buck harvest was up slightly from 2014, but the overall harvest decreased from 2014. The 2015 harvest was 39 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 of 319,902 deer."
Ruth said after many years of rapidly increasing during the 1970's and 1980's, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. He said since 2002 the population has trended down. One important reason for that decline is a loss of prime habitat. Timber management has created a pine monoculture in many areas that is just not as conducive to high deer populations.
Habitat is a key element to your hunting success in 2016 and the advancing age of pine stands on land you hunt can have a negative impact on herd size in that area. Find areas to hunt that are mixed-aged stands of woods with a combination of young, thick regenerating pines, along with hardwoods and open agriculture fields. Regardless of the area you hunt, if you find quality deer habitat your odds of success are improved.
Ruth says the decrease in harvest specifically during the 2015 deer season were probably related to poor hunting conditions in South Carolina during the fall of 2015.
"I've learned though many years of watching the harvest figures that weather conditions play a major role in deer harvest," Ruth said. "We'll face the same test in 2016, but during the 2015 season weather was extremely disruptive, especially to some locations. This began the first week in October with a 1,000-year rainfall and flooding event spawned by hurricane Joaquin in the Atlantic Ocean. The magnitude of this event forced a temporary season closure for all game species in parts of 15 coastal counties. Although these closures only lasted 5 to 10 days, the aftermath of the flooding in these areas and throughout the state created access and other problems for deer hunters. Additionally, hunting was negatively impacted by ongoing rainfall and unseasonably warm temperatures for the remainder of the deer season."
Ruth did say that the strong start to 2015 season confirmed that hunters were likely to have a very good season in 2015. Barring poor weather, the outlook for the 2016 season is good.
"I believe the harvest in 2016 will be up," Ruth said. "I think with good weather we possibly would have had an up year in overall harvest in 2015 and given that same parameter of good weather this season, I think we'll have a good year in 2016."
Rush said the deer herd is stable with no negative biological issues with the statewide herd. Along with hunter effort, the combination of habitat, coyotes and weather are the primary influences on herd conditions and harvest."
To pinpoint top deer hunting targets in 2016, hunters can employ harvest data from 2015 to target the best places for taking deer last year. In most cases, these trends will tend to carry over in 2016.
Ruth notes that even in counties that are not at the top of the list in harvest, excellent hunting can exist in localized areas — hunters need to scout to find the right habitat. And most habitat conditions can be enhanced with food plots. Find the prime habitat conditions in the top counties and your odds of success may soar.
Ruth says fair comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established.
"Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties," he said. "One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile, with 640 acres being one mile. When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2015 was 9.0 deer per square mile over the entire state. Although the deer harvest in the state has declined in recent years, South Carolina remains at the top among southeastern states, many of which have also noted a declining trend."
We'll take a close look at the top 10 counties for harvest per unit area.
Leading the way in 2015 harvest was Anderson County with 18.1 deer harvested per square mile. Anderson County enjoyed the second largest county increase in harvest over 2014, jumping from sixth in the 2014 harvest (with the 13.7 deer per square mile harvest) to first last season. So last year 4.4 more deer per square mile were taken in Anderson than the year before — a 31.8 percent increase in harvest.
The number two hotspot in 2015 was Hampton County with a huge 26.6 percent increase in harvest increase over 2014. The harvest rate was a solid 17.9 deer per square mile in 2015, up from 14.1 in 2014.
In the third spot was Spartanburg County with a harvest not much different than in 2014, only down 1.1 percent in 2015. The deer harvest per square mile in 2015 was 15.0. Spartanburg County was also third in 2014, and is a highly productive producer of deer.
The fourth county in 2015 was Bamberg, with a 13.9 deer per square mile harvest. Bamberg County's deer harvest decreased 22.9 percent from 2014 (in that season it topped the list as the number-one county with a rate of 18.0 deer per square mile).
At number five was Orangeburg County, slightly improved from the number seven spot in 2014 harvest. Orangeburg recorded a 1 percent increase in harvest with a rate of 13.1 deer per square mile.
Allendale County finished at number six with an 8.8 percent harvest increase and a harvest rate of 13.0 in 2015, up from 12.0 in 2014. At number seven was Abbeville County with a harvest rate of 12.4 deer per square mile, a drop of 14.7 percent from 2014. At number eight was Union County with a 3.1 percent decrease, with 11.6 deer per square mile harvest rate in 2015.
At number nine was Calhoun County, with a harvest rate of 11.2 deer per square mile, an 8.8 percent harvest drop. Rounding out the top 10 was Colleton County with a 10.8 deer per square mile rate, 2.2 percent less than in 2014.
Ruth said another way to examine harvest figures is a simple total harvest by county. Total harvest does not compensate for county size differences. Big counties tend to have higher numbers than small counties under this measure, which makes it a less-than-ideal way to compare the quality of hunting between counties. However, it does remain a way to determine how a specific county fared from the previous year's harvest numbers for that county.
The top county in 2015 is Orangeburg County, just as it had been in the previous year. The second spot belonged to Hampton County, which moved up from the previous year's number four position. At third was Colleton County, down one notch in 2015 from the 2014 harvest, but still very consistent. Williamsburg was next with a 3.7 percent increase in 2015, although dropping down a notch from third from the previous year. At fifth was Spartanburg County, up from sixth the previous year.
At number six was Anderson County, breaking into the top 10 this year. Fairfield County, up a notch form the previous year's number eight position was seventh in 2015. At number eight was Florence County, breaking into the top 10. The number nine slot was taken by Kershaw County with a 12.7 percent harvest increase over the previous year. Finishing the top 10 list in 2015 was Berkeley County with a harvest decrease of 9.7 percent, dropping form fifth spot the previous year.
Some of these counties display a strong, consistent pattern, while others displayed marked improvement in 2015. A few slipped down, but still have highly respectable harvest numbers, such as Williamsburg County — where the harvest went up in 2015, but the county's ranking slipped. And Williamsburg was hard-hit by storms, suffering hunting closures for part of the 2015 season during the flood aftermath.
Another facet of hunting success is the weapon used and the relative success rate of the weapon. Based on the data the SCDNR compiled in from the 2015 season, there's some interesting comparisons on deer hunting success using various weapons.
Based on the 2015 data, 159,144 deer were harvested by rifle, the highest total of any weapon. In addition the success rate was the highest of any weapon, with 63.3 percent of the hunters who used rifles successfully killing a deer.
Shotguns were second with a total of 15,407 deer harvested in 2015 — with a success rate of 31.1 percent. Bow and Arrow equipment accounted for 12,579 deer taken in 2015 and enjoyed a 27.9 percent success rate.
Muzzloader weapons accounted for 4,486 deer harvested in 2015 and there was a 26.9 percent success rate. Crossbows accounted for 3,120 deer and sported a 22.4 percent success rate. Handguns accounted for 195 deer in 2015 with a 14.6 percent success rate.
The above information is the latest data from the SCDNR regarding deer harvest and can help hunters statewide plan their season strategy. Some hunters may choose to roam far and wide across the state to up their odds of success. But even saying in a given region, hunters can use the data to find the best places close t where they live. Excellent hunting opportunities can be found in or near most sectors of the state. Plan your hunt and hunt the plan for improved deer hunting success in 2016.