Virtually every county and established game zone in South Carolina has public land set aside for hunting. In fact, deer hunting is allowed on 89 individual WMAs, and eight wildlife refuges, and several other special-hunting opportunities are set aside for the public. Between the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, around 1.3 million acres - roughly seven percent of the state's land cover - is available to the public.
Many huge bucks are hiding in the heart of these WMA lands waiting to be discovered, yet WMAs receive little activity as a whole as compared to other lands. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 25 percent of America's hunters hunt on public land, SCDNR reports that only seven percent of licensed hunters are public-land deer hunters, and only four percent of all the deer taken in the state come from public lands, and an even smaller percent is bucks: one for every 300 acres that's available.
It would follow that bucks are getting a great chance to survive to older age-classes and reach trophy size on public hunting areas. Coby Whittle of Leesville can vouch for that claim with a 146-inch 9-pointer taken on the Webb Wildlife Center in Hampton County in 2007.
The same kind of bucks are waiting for any hunter with a WMA permit and the drive to get it done.
Many large WMAs have very little vehicular access to much of their acreage, especially in the extreme interior or parcels. But that limited access can boost the odds for the adventurous and dedicated advocate. William Terry of Van Wyck, owner of Legacy Game Calls, annually logs significant hours in a tree stand on public land. He recommends that any hunter visiting a new tract of land, especially public land, to get a map and locate remote areas with the potential for little hunter activity.
"The further you got to walk the better. People are lazy," said Terry, who prefers tracts with roads restricted to foot traffic only. Even though public lands will not be hunted excessively as a whole, the more-easily accessible tracts will receive enough hunting pressure to push into more difficult to reach areas - the areas that Terry chooses to hunt.
"A place real inaccessible lacking hunting pressure allows you to catch deer on food during the day," said Terry, who sets up his tree stand around the best food sources he can find. "Look for oaks and acorns to start with. If you find the food, be patient, the does will come and the bucks will be on their way."
If time allows, Terry will scout a few days to locate places to hunt. It will often reveal how deep he must venture into a WMA to find a decent buck. In addition to locating food, tracks and buck sign, he scans his surroundings and notes any fresh hunter activity.
"If I find places where people have been messing around, I keep going," he said. "A big deer will not put up with that."
Lands that offer public hunting opportunities are also popular with hikers, horseback riders, campers and even the occasional exercise junkies. Deer living in these areas are somewhat-accustomed to human intervention, giving hunters a brief advantage.
One such place, the 7,054-acre Croft State Natural Area, is found in the rolling hills and valleys of Spartanburg County. Part of what was once a 25,000-acre military training facility, it holds three two-day archery-only hunts each year to keep the herd in check and improve its overall health, as well as reduce significant deer damage to park vegetation.
Rick Dixon, park ranger at Croft (846-316-9922), helps facilitate these hunts and sees many old bucks arrive at the check station each year.
"It's an ideal opportunity for a hunter to hunt in an area with a high percentage of mature bucks greater than 4 ½ years old. There are some quality deer in there," he said.
Adding fuel to the fire, Dixon said Croft is in the geographic center of a conglomeration of privately-owned tracts that are being managed for trophy bucks. For much of the season in that area, Croft serves as a refuge, allowing bucks to reach their full potential. Dixon said adjoinging tracts also have significant agriculture and many lush food plots.
"The deer will be drawn to neighboring tracts with food plots and agriculture fields, but they will come back and forth on a routine basis," he said.
Many WMAs and other public-hunting lands have rules and regulations similar to Croft aimed at allowing bucks to reach their full maturity, but many public-land bucks will set up on those agricultural crops. These deer will often bed in some of the thicker areas on the public lands and move back and forth to the heavy food sources on the private lands. move on adjoining lands where agriculture crops persist. Dixon recommends hunting along these heavily-used travel corridors.
"Look for natural funnels and the major travel routes between food and bedding areas. Go to the creeks, too; deer will run creeks," he said.
While some WMAs will have food plots planted, these food sources often receive heavy hunter attention, On some of the larger public tracts, many deer will find places to eat at home. Deer are known as an edge species throughout their range and will seek out places where habitat types join. On Croft, Dixon observes many of his deer using places with diversity.
"Anywhere you can find broken habitat, such as beetle kills, clear-cuts, power line right of ways, and edges between timber types will attract deer," he said.
Diverse habitats offer a variety of nutritional choices, keeping the deer fat and happy. Before the first heavy frost, Dixon recommends hunting around acorn-producing oaks, as well as persimmon trees, greenbriar thickets, and even kudzu.
As the season progresses, deer on public land come in contact with more hunters. While some end up hanging upside down by their feet, the brief encounters surviving deer have with humans will quickly teach them to steer clear of certain sounds and odors. On tracts susceptible to heavy pressure, hunters can intercept these deer traveling away from these common hunting locales. Sometimes hunting on Saturdays and holidays when the pressure is on, smart hunters will allow others to drive deer in their direction, especially during the middle of the day. Most hunters get out of their stands during mid-morning and begin scouting around for their next hunting venture. Dixon urges Croft hunters to stay on stand as long as they can to get their trophy buck, and that goes for hunters on any WMA.
"People will push the deer around and down the main travel trails throughout the day," he said.
Pressured deer learn quickly and shift their main feeding habits to the cover of the twilight skies, but hunters can still intercept these mature deer in the right places. Terry moves his stand away from the food sources and closer to their daytime refuge.
"Later in season, get as close to bedding areas as possible without spooking the deer out of there," said Terry, who prefers the thick, dense places where the big bucks lay. They will become nocturnal, feeding at night almost exclusively, but he hopes to intercept them on the way back to the bedding areas at dawn.