Although Ben Powell has not taken a deer off the Woodbury or Marsh wildlife management areas, he has spent many hours scouting the two public hunting areas along the Big and Little Pee Dee rivers in lower Marion County.

Those two WMAs, along with the Pee Dee Station Site WMA next door in Florence County, combine to provide some of the most-unique and varied deer-hunting opportunities in the state - on public or private lands.

"I've seen a lot of deer, but have not dropped one - but that is my choice," said Powell, the Clemson extension agent for the Lower Pee Dee Region. "I don't harvest a bunch of deer - maybe three a year at most - but I have seen many does and a couple of young bucks in there."

What he really prefers is to take his young son and go exploring on the properties, he said, noting that he has discovered some of the richest hunting territory in the state in the less than four years he has lived in the area.

"It takes me about 15 minutes to be in Woodbury from my home," Powell said. "Located between the Great and Little Pee Dee rivers, it features two very different kinds of hardwood bottoms. The Great Pee Dee shorelines are largely covered with oaks, ash, river birch and a mixture of other hardwoods. The lesser Pee Dee side is a typical tupelo cypress swamp."

Powell said the Greater Pee Dee side of the property is more productive because there is a lot more hard mast and a lot more cover.

The 25,668-acre WMA also features Carolina bays and other isolated freshwater wetlands, longleaf pine forests and loblolly pine plantations with some clearcuts that are beginning to grow back.

And it has played a significant role in South Carolina and national history, Powell said.

"Snow Lake and Snow Island were Francis Marion's stronghold during the Revolutionary War." Powell said. "He used that property, Native Americans used that property and the early settlers used that property. The land between the rivers has a lot of history."

The 8,560-acre Marsh WMA contains several habitat types, including red-river floodplain habitats along the Great Pee Dee River such as bottomland hardwoods, isolated freshwater wetlands and extensive pine and mixed pine-hardwood forests.

"If somebody is going to hunt deer or turkey, Marsh may be better than Woodbury because it is a little older, more established and has (been under) management for a longer period of time - and it tends to hold some bigger deer," Powell said. "I have heard a fair number of people have taken some quality deer off that property. It seems to produce every year. When I've gone there I've seen sign all over the place."

In contrast to the terrain found in Marsh and Woodbury, Pee Dee Station WMA offers some pretty interesting topography, according to Sam Stokes, Jr., regional wildlife biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"Down on the river are some really high bluffs; it almost looks like the Piedmont in that respect," Stokes said.

Marsh, Woodbury and the Pee Dee Station WMAs also offer a variety of hunting choices when it comes to deer, Stokes said.

"Pee Dee Station is owned by Santee Cooper, and it has been in the WMA program for a long time. It's an archery/muzzleloader area only, and it's pretty popular for those two types of hunting," he said. "Marsh has a special youth hunting area, and hunts in that area are … by drawing only. It's done mostly through the Take One Make One Program. Woodbury is a quality management area. Bucks have to have four points on one side and a 12-inch spread."

All three areas offer a special bonus for deer hunters: plenty of wild hogs, with no limit. All three also have special hog-hunting seasons outside the scheduled deer seasons.

"I would venture to say that Woodbury has as many, if not more, pigs than just about any public property in South Carolina," said Powell, an avid hog hunter himself.

As for deer and other wild game, Powell said Woodbury and Marsh are extremely productive areas and should continue to be very productive well into the future.

"They are awesome properties. Just getting out and exploring them is interesting enough. My 6-year-old son and I just go out and start walking a lot of times. As for the deer, when you are dealing with public land it always takes a little more work.

"Those animals have been more exposed to traffic and people, and they are a little more savvy."

Stokes said hunting on Woodbury, Marsh and Pee Dee Station is just like hunting anywhere.

"You have to do some legwork. You have to go scouting and find good spots to hunt."

And that, according to Charles Ruth (the biologists who heads up SCDNR's deer and wild turkey programs), is basically the key to success on the more than one million acres of public hunting lands in the WMA program.

"There are deer on these properties, so you are going to get out of it what you put into it," said Ruth, who compared South Carolina's WMA system to a giant hunt club with varied habitat and myriad hunting opportunities. "You pay the WMA permit fee, which entitles you to go on those lands and hunt under the regulations established.

"I can assure you that there are folks who hunt nothing but public lands for the most part. They've been hunting these lands for years. They know where to go, they know where the acorn trees and other food sources are - just like someone in a private hunt club would."

It boils down to how far you are willing to travel to hunt, Ruth said while pointing out there are both big and small tracts open in every region of the state.

"There are thousands and thousands of acres of little tracts scattered around the state," he said. "Get a copy of the rules and regulations, get the WMA map and find out where these places are. You can use Google Earth to look at the habitat, and then get your boots on the ground and see for yourself what is there."

Ruth said there are three basic approaches to hunting deer on WMAs: "Open WMAs," "mamed WMAs" and "WMA draw hunts."

"The first are the areas that are open generally except for Sundays," he said. "They are similar to private land, with some exceptions. All you really need is to be properly licensed, have your WMA permit and simply go hunting in those areas."

Examples of these "open WMAs" include the Sumter National Forest in the Piedmont and in the Upstate, which includes the Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units and the Mountain Hunt Unit.

"In a lot of that area in the Piedmont, the deer densities are fairly comparable to private lands, so there are ample opportunities for those who want to roll their own hunts to have good success," Ruth said. "And, if you live in Horry County and have a hankering to hunt in the mountains, it may take you five hours to get there, and you may not see many deer, but there are some really nice animals up there.

"The state record and the No. 2 buck both came from Pickens County."

Ruth said a second level would be the "named WMAs," such as Woodbury in Marion County.

"A lot of these 'named WMAs' may have particular opening and closing dates," he said. "They are not open as widely as a lot of the unnamed WMAs. In those cases, the hunter would need to refer to the rules and regulations brochure.

"In most cases, these WMAs are well-managed with on-site staff. They may not be there full-time, but they travel through the WMAs, managing the land, planting food plots, burning, doing whatever is necessary to maintain good wildlife habitat."

The third approach to hunting WMAs is getting involved in draw hunts, which range from securing a general permit to being drawn for special hunts, Ruth said.

"One of the best examples would be the Webb Wildlife Center hunts, which (have) a stand-alone application, and then there is a multi-site application for hunting on seven or eight WMAs, places such as Palachucola WMA adjacent to the Webb Center, Donnelly WMA in Colleton County and Belfast WMA in the Piedmont," he said.

The Webb Center hunts in Hampton County are about the closest thing a hunter can get to a commercial-type guided hunt, but it does take some time to invest in the draw process, Ruth said.

"On average, it takes about three years to build preference for the draw hunts, but once you are drawn, the success rate is pertty high ­- and all your needs are taken care of from the time you arrive on the property until you leave," he said. "Drawing for WMAs like Hamilton Ridge adjacent to the Webb Center and Donnelly are not nearly as competitive as the Webb Center drawings because you are just drawing for the ability to go on the property, and then you do your own hunt."

In addition, there are the specialized hunting situations, such as dog-hunting for deer, which is allowed on the Francis Marion WMA, with almost 260,000 acres primarily in Berkeley County, and the 23,000-acre Manchester State Forest in Sumter County.

The Francis Marion WMA has scheduled dates open just for dog-hunting, so a group can just show up with their pack of hounds and hunt. Manchester State Forest has a drawing for dog party hunts on scheduled dates.

Most hunters are familiar with the traditional WMAs and key locations in those areas, but what they may not know is that there are close to a hundred small WMAs and Heritage sites scattered across the state.

These "named WMAs," such as Woodbury, Marsh and Pee Dee Station, range from small acreages - less than 300 acres - to large tracts in the tens of thousands of acres. Most have special regulations governing hunting, and the type of hunting allowed varies from location to location. Some are archery-only, some are sign-in and sign-out, some are strictly draw hunts, some are by special permit, some allow camping and some do not, some have restrictions on antler size and some have special areas or special days set aside for special hunts such as youth-only areas.

But all WMAs that allow deer hunting, big and small, provide the chance for success.

In the Piedmont, for instance, the public hunting land is intermingled with private lands, so the hunting in most cases is comparable to hunting private land, according to Ruth.

In the Coastal Plain the success rate varies, with some of the smaller WMAs providing the best chances for taking a deer.

Harvest records on the three upstate hunt units and 17 coastal WMAs, including the vast Francis Marion WMA and the three WMAs in the Webb Center Complex, show hunters took 8,433 deer (4,640 bucks and 3,793 does) in 2011 - an average of 6.5 deer per square mile. That total was up by approximately 7.4 percent from 2010, Ruth said.

And, while some WMAs have a very low harvest rate - it's less than one per square mile on the Francis Marion, for instance - some others have very high harvest rates. Many exceed the total state average, including private lands.

Hunters in the Piedmont hunt units experienced an exceptional harvest per square mile - 11.8 deer per square mile in the Western Piedmont and 15.2 per square mile in the Central Piedmont.

Some of the coastal WMAs had even higher rates -17.4 per square mile on Oak Lea WMA in Clarendon County, 18.5 per square mile on Bear Island in Colleton County, 19.6 per square mile on Cross Generating WMA in Berkeley County and a whopping 23.7 per square mile on Botany Bay WMA in Charleston County.

"When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2011 was 10.6 deer per square mile over the entire state," Ruth wrote in his annual Deer Harvest Report. "Although the deer population in the state has declined in recent years, this harvest rate should be considered good in comparison with most other states."

The chances for taking a record book buck off many WMAs is also very good, Ruth said.

"Each year, we score a small number of antler sets that come off WMA lands. When you understand that WMA property only represents a small fraction of the total hunting area of the state and extrapolate it out, the success rate for taking a record book buck might not be quite as much as on private land, but it is still not bad," he said. "We had a decent 130-class buck taken off Forest Service land in Newberry County last year. A couple of years ago, a hunter took a 140-class buck off Forest Service land in Edgefield County, and a 10-point in the mid- to upper-140s was taken on the Webb Center a couple of years back."

For the cost of a $12 hunting license, a $6 big game permit and a $30.50 WMA permit, a deer hunter in South Carolina has access to almost 1.1 million acres of hunting lands with just about any imaginable type of hunting and terrain available.

Success on these public lands, Ruth said, depends on putting as much effort into hunting as a hunter would on a private hunt club.