Imagine spending six days on a jungle island; deer-hunting when you have a hankerin’, fishing when you feel like it, and sitting by a campfire at night eating and drinking like some banana republic royalty.
If that sort of lifestyle floats your boat, then consider spending some time on Bulls Island, a 7-mile-long barrier island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Once a private hunting preserve, the island became part of the National Park Service in 1936. Realizing the resident deer herd needed management, the feds opened Bulls Island to archery-only deer hunting in 1954.
For the next 3½ decades, things went along smoothly. Bowhunters from around the country camped and hunted in the virgin landscape. Century-old pines towered above even older live oaks, whose limbs sometimes reached out 50 or more feet along the sandy soil. The understory was open thanks to the towering canopy, and deer feasted on the abundant acorns, berries and the greenery that flourished in the openings.
On Sept. 22, 1989, all that changed. Hurricane Hugo made landfall near Sullivan’s Island north of Charleston. Packing winds of up to 140 mph, the Category 4 storm produced the highest storm tide ever recorded on the east coast. On her way northeast toward the mainland, she tore across Bulls Island, literally submerging the land mass. By the time the powerful winds had passed and the sea returned to its boundaries, Bulls looked as if a bomb had been dropped in its center.
The once-towering pines had been snapped in half, leaving trunks, boughs and splinters scattered across the island. Oaks and other hardwoods were uprooted or denuded. Many trees that did remain intact later died from disease caused by damage from the saltwater.
The wildlife suffered as well. The raccoons and fox squirrels, deer and gators. Some were washed away and drowned; some were crushed by falling timber, but many survived and weathered the storm. And like the battered flora, the fauna adapted, multiplied and began a slow and steady reclamation of the island that continues today.
Because of the devastation, hunting was halted, but not for long. Two years after the storm, bowhunters were invited to return. As it was before Hugo, the season lasted two weeks: the first week of November and the first week of December. It’s been that way every year until 2013; because of federal budget cuts, this year’s December hunt has been cancelled, but the November hunt is scheduled for Nov. 4-9.
Most hunters arrive on Sunday, a non-hunting day used for setting up camp, scouting for fresh deer tracks and trails, putting out a climber or lock-on tree stand and meeting and greeting fellow campers. The hunting begins at dawn the next morning and continues through the next Saturday. For some “regulars,” the hunting takes a backseat to other aspects of their stay.
One of those regulars is Sumpter Cassels. Full-bodied, ruddy-faced and with a gentle smile, he’s been making the trek over to Bulls Island for 50 years.
“I first came over in 1961,” he said. “I was 11 years old. My father pulled me out of school and brought me over. From there, it became an annual event.
“That of course was before Hugo, and back then, the pine trees here were just phenomenal: 150, 180 years old — just huge trees. The oaks were huge, too, and because the canopy was tremendous, there was very little underbrush. You could step off the path into the woods and see 300 yards.”
After chatting with Cassels, I set up my tent under a shady live oak, grabbed my climbing stand and some doe pee and headed out toward the woods to find my hunting spot. As I walked the sandy road called Sheepshead Ridge, I could see that the long views Cassels had described had indeed disappeared. Instead, the understory was dense and seemingly impenetrable, but the deer tracks were everywhere in the white sand, and the tunnels and trails that lead in and out of the tangles of wax myrtle, saw palmetto, holly and cat brier were freshly traveled.
After a couple hours of scouting, I attached my climber to a sweet gum near a live oak dripping with acorns. With that “work” accomplished, I sat in the shadow of the big oak and simply listened. For a while, the only sound was the steady surf breaking against the boneyard a mile away.
The boneyard — on the north-side beach — is named for the many trunks and limbs of trees strewn along the shoreline. Having succumbed to storms and natural erosion, the dead trees have become permanent fixtures on the sand and in the surf. For anglers, these structure-filled shallows draw redfish and other predators in large numbers, especially during November and December. Thus, many archers bring their surf tackle as well.
Cassels’ brothers, Chris and Tom, are always part of the Bulls Island encampment, and fishing has become their primary activity when on the island.
“About five years ago, we changed our strategy,” Chris Cassels said. “Instead of getting up early and hunting, coming back for lunch, then going back out to hunt until dark, Tom came up with a better plan. From now on, we’d sleep in, fish in the afternoon and if the fish weren’t just tearing it up, we’d hunt in the evening. Been doing it every since.”
Steve McCallister of York County has been hunting Bulls Island since 1987. He’s part of the Carroll Camp, a group of men from the Rock Hill area who are dead serious about their deer hunting — no sleeping in for them.
“What is amazing to me,” McCallister said, “is Hugo completely devastated this island. The first year after Hugo, you could look across the island and about 11 feet up, every pine was snapped off, all leaning in the same direction. There was no access anywhere. But as the years went by, it just kept getting better and better.
“It’s been really amazing to watch this island come back since Hugo 22 years ago. I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.”
McCallister admits that hunting is more challenging then it was before Hugo, but he acknowledges that there’s a lot more to it then bringing home venison.
“Anymore, it’s hit or miss,” he says. “You can have the best hunt of your life, or you can have the worst. But for most people that come out here, it’s about a lot more than just hunting. Everybody enjoys themselves — fishing, hunting, camaraderie, whatever. It’s a beautiful place to hide out for a while.”
When asked about any memorable misadventures, he recounted his tale of engine trouble on a boat trip out to the island.
“I was driving the pontoon with all the equipment on it for five people,” he said. “My motor suddenly decided this would be a good time to cut off, and a stiff wind blew us up into a creek. The others were all in a boat ahead us, so it took them a while to realize we were missing.
“The tide was going out, so we wound up grounded from 11 in the morning to 6 in the evening until the tide came back. But that gave us time to fix the motor.”
Sumpter Cassels shared a story about his uncle, who became disoriented one night while boating near the island.
“An uncle of ours, who would like to remain nameless,” he said, “was in this super ski boat flying around the island. When he got out of the creeks and into the ocean, his motor died.”
From that point, the heavy waves drove his craft into the beach, where it was pounded to pieces.
“He made it to shore and used his cell phone to call his girlfriend in Charleston, told her to call the Coast Guard because he was stranded on a remote island. He had no idea he was just on the other end of Bulls.
“Word got back to the wildlife folks here and when we heard the missing boater report, we were sure he was on Bulls. So we took the 4-wheeler and went toward the south end, and there he was, sitting by a little fire in his shorts, drying his clothes out on sticks. Only things he’d grabbed from his boat was his cellphone and a bottle of liquor. He was real happy to see us.”
Steve McAllister had another story to share, although without the element of danger.
“I was out here hunting on the dunes one afternoon,” he recalls. “That’s something you can’t do just anywhere. A climbing stand up in a palm tree watching dolphins playing and shrimp boats going past. And deer really do cross the dunes.
“Anyway, you do occasionally see people walking up and down the beach — birdwatchers and whatever. So here comes this nice-looking blonde lady with no top on, just walking the beach. In 20 years of hunting out here, I’d never seen anything like that. I decided I wasn’t going to tell anybody, because they wouldn’t believe me.
“But there really are some nice bucks out here on the beach occasionally. Seriously.”
After hunting the first morning and not seeing a deer, I strolled back to camp, where I jealously congratulated Chris Ikerd of Catawba County, N.C., who had arrowed a 125-pound, 6-point buck. After snapping a few pictures, I noticed a new tent had joined our community. I walked over and introduced myself to Barry Owens of Charleston, a pastor since 1962 and a Bulls Island hunter since 1977. I asked him about the changes he’d seen over the years.
“It’s starting to get back to that Lowcountry look it had before Hugo,” he said, nibbling on a sandwich and readying his bow for the afternoon hunt. “When I first came out here in the 70s, I had just bought my first bow. It was the November hunt, and there were 300 hunters camped out here. Three hundred! The hunting had been really good the year before word had gotten out. Despite the crowd, I got my first deer with a bow. I’ve been coming every year since.”
Fortunately, the campground hasn’t been that packed for several years. One reason is that there are plenty of easier places to hunt deer in South Carolina.
“When you consider you bring all your stuff out — camping gear, food, bow,” Owens said, “it’s about as close to early American frontier hunting as you can get. I’ve had the opportunity to hunt lots of places — Texas, Colorado, New Mexico — but I still like coming out here.
“Part of it is the nostalgia of having hunted here so long. I’m starting to bring my grandkids out now. I’ll be going back to pick them up tomorrow.”
Owens said the island has always been known more for quantity then quality, but after Hugo, hunters began bagging bigger deer. Most likely, the larger body weights were due to the increased browse caused by the destruction of the forest canopy. With the sun’s rays reaching more of the ground, acres of briars, vines, saplings and grasses sprang up, providing deer with a rich smorgasbord. But as the island edges slowly back toward it natural balance, the body weights are returning to normal.
Yet despite the smaller body weights — 150 pounds is a stout Bulls Island buck — the antler size matches up with those in other parts of the state.
The fact that Bulls Island has been allowed to naturally recover from Hugo in 1989 is a credit to the people of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Rebuilding the dikes and rice trunks for waterfowl, clearing old roads and trails, and overseeing a few small controlled burns is pretty much the extent of human involvement. Mother Nature is in charge, and she’s doing quite well on her own.
According to Patricia Lynch, a park ranger at Cape Romain NWR, bowhunting will likely continue as long as there are deer on Bulls Island, and it doesn’t sound as if they’re going anywhere.
“The Bulls Island archery hunts are an important component of our wildlife-dependent recreation program,” Lynch says. “It’s a very challenging and enjoyable sport for the archers. The deer hunts are also important in that they help us maintain a healthy deer population on the island.”
And considering there are really no other “natural” predators on Bulls Island, except alligators, bowhunters should plan to arrive sighted-in and ready to hunt. Your hosts are truly counting on your success.
WHEN TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE — The 2013 Bulls Island deer hunt will be limited to Nov. 4-9; the December hunt has been cancelled due to federal budget cuts and staffing issues. Check-in and registration begins at 9 a.m. the day before the hunt at the designated camping site; registration will also be available on each day of the hunt. Best access to Bulls Island is from Garris Landing off US 17 north of Mount Pleasant. A ferry is sometimes available; check ahead at www.coastalexpeditions.com or plan to arrive in your own boat.
REGULATIONS — All hunters must have the appropriate state licenses. Hunters under 16 must be accompanied by an adult and must present a hunter-safety card. Hunters may camp in designated camping areas and are restricted to those areas from 7 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. Firearms and ammunition, motorized equipment, crossbows, poison arrows, dogs, nails, paint and flagging are prohibited. Hunting is prohibited within 100 feet of the designated interpretive trails and Beach Road. All deer killed must be checked in before leaving the island.
GEAR — Bring bug spray or a Thermacell and be prepared for all kinds of weather. Camping is fairly primitive, but there are outdoor fire grills, a few faucets for running water, and toilet and shower facilities. Compounds, long bows and recurves are welcome, and if you’re an angler, bring along a stout surf rod and tackle. Fresh shrimp is probably the best all around bait for the reds. Maps and well-marked sand roads will help you find your way around the island. There’s also a truck that makes regular runs to deliver hunters and help with fetching downed deer.
MORE INFO — For the latest rules and regulations, visit www.fws.gov/caperomain. You can also contact the Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center at 843-928-3368 or visit www.fws.gov/seweecenter.