Hunters in South Carolina harvested more deer in 2011 than in 2010, the first increase after two consecutive years of declines.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer and turkey project supervisor Charles Ruth said the numbers are encouraging, representative of a stable deer population.

"During the 2011 deer season, based on our survey methodology, we estimate that a total of 120,407 bucks and 106,051 does were harvested for a statewide total of 226,458," Ruth said. "This figure represents a 1.2-percent increase in harvest from 2010 … but it is 29.3 percent below the record harvest established in 2002. Dramatic changes in habitat have led to the decline since 2002, but the good news is the herd seems to have stabilized at a healthy level."

Ruth said South Carolina has seen the harvest increase from season to season onl twice since the 2002 record.

"In 2007 we had an increase of 7.5 percent, and in 2008 South Carolina hunters enjoyed a 3.9-percent increase in harvest," Ruth said. "Otherwise, the harvest has been down every year since 2002."

Survey results are based on hunter responses to a mail surveys, and they provide a good representation of deer actually harvested; but, based on historical data, there's no way to accurately predict what the 2012 season holds for South Carolina hunters.

"Too many variables can occur to make an accurate predication, but looking at the data over the past few years and seeing a slight increase this year, I think we're on track to harvest about the same number of deer next year," Ruth said. "One factor will be the weather. That alone can significantly impact hunter participation in a positive or negative way, which will have a direct impact on harvest. Bad weather will reduce hunting pressure, which will reduce harvests, and that's particularly true during the peak harvest season during the rut. Also, the mast production can influence deer movement and can have a positive or negative impact. But I am encouraged by this harvest increase, and currently the statewide deer herd health is very good.

"The biggest issues with the long-term decline are a reduction in prime habitat from what we had in the 1980s and 1990s and the impact coyotes are having in terms of fawn predation," Ruth said.

Ruth said that, while excellent hunting can be found statewide, some areas seem to consistently produce better harvests. Some variability might occur from year to year, but the basic areas of top harvest generally remain consistent.

"Comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established," Ruth said. "One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile. When considering the estimated deer habitat available in South Carolina, the harvest rate in 2011 was 10.6 deer per square mile over the entire state.

"Although the deer population has declined in recent years, this harvest rate is good in comparison with most other states.

Bamberg County was the top producer in South Carolina, with 24.1 deer harvested per square mile - "considerably better than the rest of the state," Ruth said - followed by Union County at 18.6, Calhoun with 17.3, Orangeburg with 16.6 and Anderson with 16.2.

Ruth said that total deer harvest by county is not comparable among counties because counties vary significantly in size and are not directly comparable, but it is data the SCDNR is frequently asked for.

"It has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested," he said. "The top five counties during 2011 for simple total harvest without regard to the size of the county were Orangeburg, Williamsburg, Colleton, Laurens and Hampton.

"The deer herd has stabilized at a point below our record high in 2002, but consistent with the deer habitat we currently have in South Carolina," he said. "The overall number of deer in South Carolina is good based on the habitat and the production of quality deer is up, as well."

Ruth said data from antler scoring sessions held around the state this past March backs that up, with the best year in terms of state record book bucks recorded in the past 15 years.

"Each spring SCDNR Wildlife Section personnel make a concerted effort to measure deer racks throughout the state, with a major session during the Palmetto Sportsmen's Classic in Columbia," he said. "Of the 601 sets of antlers measured this spring, 257 met the minimum score for entry on the state records list, including 246 sets of typical and 11 non-typical racks.

"This is the highest number of entries into the records list in over 15 years."

Of those 257 new record-book racks, Ruth said 209 were taken in either 2010 or 2011. Racks must score a minimum of 125 points typical or 145 points non-typical to qualify for the South Carolina state records list. Records are based on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system, which measures the mass and symmetry of antlers.

Ruth said the top typical buck scored was a 169 2/8-inch trophy taken in Pickens County in 2008 by David Elrod; the score ties for the fifth-largest all-time among South Carolina deer.

A 153 6/8-inch buck taken by Gayle Shuler in Calhoun County last November was the second-largest typical scored.

A Berkeley County buck found dead last November by Jennifer Mixson and Allen Mole was the highest-scoring non-typical at 187 7/8 inches and the fourth-largest non-typical ever from South Carolina.

Ruth said overall good balance exists in the South Carolina deer herd.

"Although some of the top counties have relatively high deer populations, some counties have more moderate numbers," he said. "It's important that hunters and land managers understand how the density of deer in an area affects the quality of the animals: 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 said a good way to determine the top areas for record-book bucks is to consider the all-time leaders at the county level in terms of producing state record book bucks.

"Orangeburg County remains at the top with 428 sets of antlers on the list," he said. "Rounding out the top five counties, Orangeburg is followed by Aiken County with 387, Fairfield County with 250, Colleton County with 239 and Anderson County with 222 entries."

Ruth said that. while the harvest numbers may be down from record levels, a lot of deer are being harvested in South Carolina and the harvest increase this year is a good sign. He said the production of quality bucks being high right now is another extremely positive factor.

"It's a good time to be a deer hunter in South Carolina," Ruth said.