South Carolina’s deer harvest last fall was up 3.6 percent over 2012, continuing a see-saw trend over the past few years, but the state’s top deer biologist found plenty to be happy about.

Charles Ruth, the deer and turkey project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the higher harvest figures are encouraging and are representative of a stable deer population in the state.

“During the 2013 deer season, it’s estimated that a total of 124,482 bucks and 101,324 does were harvested for a statewide total of 225,806 deer,” Ruth said. “This figure represents a 3.6-percent increase in harvest from 2012 … but 29.5-percent below the record harvest established in 2002.”

Ruth said that the past few years of harvest data indicates the herd is more balanced after several years of steady decline. He said these small ups and downs are within normal parameters for a balanced deer herd.

“After many years of rapidly increasing during the 1970s and 1980s, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002,” Ruth said. “After 2002, the population has trended down, until recently becoming more stabilized. 

“The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina’s deer population in the 1970s and 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available.” 

Ruth said coyotes are another piece of the puzzle.

“SCDNR has recently completed a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns,” he said. “Cumulative data through the first three years of the study indicate approximately 70 percent total fawn mortality, with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities. If these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this new mortality factor is clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers. This is especially true when combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina.”

Overall, Orangeburg County led South Carolina in total harvest for 2013 with 11,753 deer taken, followed by Newberry with 8,024, Colleton with 8,021 and Fairfield with 7,999. Williamsburg rounding out the top five counties with 7,518.

A better comparison of counties, according to Ruth, takes into account the size of the county in area and a harvest per unit area is considered, typically deer harvested per square mile. He said this is a better comparison in terms of harvest. 

In this scenario Bamberg County produced a greater number of deer killed per square mile in 2013: 18.7. Union was second with 17.9, followed by Allendale with 16.9, Spartanburg with 16.5 and Calhoun with 16.4. Statewide, according to Ruth, hunters took 10.7 deer per square mile.

“Although the deer population in the state has declined since 2002, this harvest rate should be considered good in comparison with most states,” he said. 

Ruth said the legal use of corn as a bait statewide was in effect for the first time in 2013, but it is too early in the process to make any specific determinations on impacts.

“I’d like to have at least two or three years of data to compare before making any assessments on how this may be impacting deer harvest,” Ruth said. “One year is not enough time to demonstrate a trend, and I’d like to compare harvest rates in counties that were not using bait prior to 2014 and what happens to harvest after the use of bait was approved. But I need two or three years of data to make a sound assessment of the use of bait in these new areas.”

The most recent round of antler scoring conducted by SCDNR revealed 222 new records: bucks that scored at least 125 typical  points or 145 non-typical points using the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system. Ruth said this year’s numbers are slightly down from recent years but overall still rank as a very good year for bucks making the state record book.  

“Of the 569 sets of antlers measured this spring, 222 met the minimum score for entry on the state records list including 213 sets of typical and nine non-typical racks,” Ruth said. “Although not as strong as the past couple of years, the number of successful entries into the records list this year is the third-highest number of entries in the last 10 years, so I certainly consider it a good year in terms of long term trophy harvest.  

“Although all of the (deer) were not taken during the 2013 season, 182 were taken during the 2012 or 2013 season.”

Ruth said the top typical buck scored this spring was a 162 7/8-inch buck taken by Gary Walls in Orangeburg County in December of 2009. The second-highest scoring typical was a 159 3/8-inch Laurens County buck taken by Ricky Brooks last October. The No. 3 buck scored in 2014 was a 156 4/8 buck taken by Bill Wyatt in Anderson County in December 2013. The fourth-largest was Danny T. Dillard with an Edgefield County buck that scored 155 5/8 in October 2013. Rounding out the top five was Rick G. Carter with a 148 1/8 Colleton County that was harvested way back on New Year’s Day in 1968, but was finally scored in 2014.

 Netting 167 4/8 points, the top non-typical buck was taken by Tony Blackwell in Oconee County last December. The second larger non-typical was a 156 7/8 Abbeville County buck taken by Dennis J. Tate in September 2013. The third best non-typical was taken by Chase Smith with a 155 1/8 Anderson County buck taken last November. At No. 4 was a Sumter County buck taken by Brian T. Newman that scored 155. In fifth place was Robert W. McKenzie with a buck that scored 153 6/8.  

“In terms of top counties for record-book bucks, Kershaw County was this years’ top producer of qualifying bucks with 15, followed by Aiken County, which had lead the state for the previous three years, with 14,” Ruth said. “Other top counties included Orangeburg (10), Calhoun (10), Fairfield (9), and Dorchester (9). These results come as no surprise, as these counties have historically produced good numbers of record entries.”

Ruth said the all-time leading county for trophy bucks remained unchanged, with Orangeburg County topping the list with 457 qualifying bucks. Rounding out the top five are Aiken with 435, Fairfield 264, and Anderson and Colleton with 246 each. 

“If you consider the best counties in terms of trophy bucks harvested per unit area of harvest, a more equable way to measure potential productivity, then the top five are Anderson, Abbeville, Orangeburg, Allendale, and Aiken counties,” Ruth said.

With inclusion of 2014 data into the books, Ruth said 6,389 sets of antlers — 6,147 typical and 242 non-typical — are included in the South Carolina record book.  

“With a stabilized deer herd, the prospects for the 2014 hunting season are encouraging in terms of harvest and trophy animals,” Ruth said. “I think we’ll be close again to what was harvested in 2013 depending on external factors that can influence harvest. One is hunter effort, and that can be a result of having good or poor weather for hunting on opening weeks of the various seasons and during the rut. Weather has an impact on the amount of hunter effort, and that correlates to harvest. In addition, local land-management activities and amount of predation by coyotes are other factors for localized hunter success. 

“Also, the opportunity to harvest trophy bucks remains good, based on data over recent years,” Ruth said. “While the number of record book bucks was down slightly in 2014, it was still a good year for big bucks. And while total harvest numbers may be down from 12 years ago, the chances of seeing big bucks have improved. Overall, South Carolina is in a good place right now in terms of the overall status of the deer herd.”