It’s time to plan and prepare for the 2015 deer season, with the opening of the season in a number of Lowcountry counties only a couple of weeks away. There are bows and guns to be sighted in, shooting lanes trimmed, food plots fertilized and stands to be tidied up.

A successful strategy includes finding great places to hunt, as well as harvest goals, and those two factors are often related. What’s the deer herd look like in your area? Is a trophy buck a reachable goal? How many does need to be taken out of the herd?

Charles Ruth, a biologist who oversees whitetail deer for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said last year’s 9-percent drop in the deer harvest just bears out an alarming trend.

“The harvest numbers depict a continued long-term decline in the total number of deer harvested in South Carolina since 2002,” he said. “I feel the surveys portray an accurate assessment of the deer harvest in South Carolina.”

Ruth said that the outlook for the 2015 season would be, in a word, “stable.”

“Barring poor weather conditions in 2015 — and weather was part of the reason for a harvest decline in 2014 — I think the overall herd health is that we should see a harvest similar to 2014.” he said. “We did have a small harvest increase in 2013 over the 2012 season, but the long-term trend is down. Right now, the annual harvest seems like a saw blade with a jagged edge — a bit back and forth and somewhat uneven from year to year. But South Carolina still leads southeastern states in terms of deer harvest per unit area. So the hunting is still excellent on a comparative basis.”

South Carolina hunters killed 202,952 deer last year, according to SCDNR data, not quite two-thirds of the deer killed during the record season of 2002. Ruth pointed to a loss and change in habitat, plus the expansion of the state’s coyote population, as playing big roles in the deer herd’s decline.

“Given this data and declining numbers and the extremely difficult and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes,” he said. “Coyotes now have to be part of deer-herd management in terms of future planning for harvest recommendations and doe harvest.” 

Studying harvest data can point hunters in the direction of more-productive hunting areas, according to Ruth.

“This can be helpful for any hunter looking for a good general area to find a lot of deer,” he said. “Hunters utilizing public lands for most of their hunting can also use the information because the WMA harvests are included in the overall county harvest.”

Ruth said harvest numbers are presented in county-by-county format with simple total harvest and harvest per square mile or “unit area.” He said this is the best way to get an “apples to apples” comparison between counties.

“One good measurement of harvest data is the number of deer harvested per square mile,” Ruth said. “The overall harvest rate statewide in 2014 was 9.6 deer per square mile. The top producing county in the state in 2014 was Bamberg County with 18.0 deer harvested per square mile, a very good harvest rate. 

“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 another way to examine harvest figures is a simple county total harvest.

“Total harvest does not compensate for county size differences and thus not directly comparable,” he said. “It does remain a way to determine how a specific county fared from previous year’s harvest numbers for that county.

The top five counties in total harvest last season were: Orangeburg, Colleton, Williamsburg, Hampton and Berkeley.

Ruth said hunter interest on Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) remained high, with 59,408 licensees having a WMA permit. He said 7,215 deer were harvested on WMA’s in 2014, a 15.9-percent decline from 2013 levels. 

Ruth said a lot of public land is available in South Carolina and deer hunters statewide make good use of that opportunity. 

“Deer hunting on the WMAs is generally good and is sometimes is an overlooked opportunity for hunters,” Ruth said. “Like deer hunting on private lands, good habitat is crucial for both numbers and large deer. Find these prime habitat areas that have diversity of age classes of vegetation and food sources. Expending scouting effort to find prime habitat in isolated areas can lead to excellent hunting.”

Ruth said that hunters can target areas that traditionally produce big bucks by relying on more SCDNR data.

Ruth said more than 6,000 bucks have qualified for the state record book that SCDNR has kept since 1974.

“Each year, SCDNR wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians measure approximately 500 sets of antlers. Generally, only about one-third of the antlers that are measured make the (record book),” Ruth said, noting that the minimum score for entry is 125 Boone and Crockett Club points for typicals and 145 for non-typicals.

“The purpose of the (program) is two-fold. First, because of the increased interest in deer hunting exhibited by sportsmen, it is a way to recognize outstanding whitetail deer taken in South Carolina. Second, it provides management information that allows SCDNR wildlife biologists to identify areas that produce quality deer. 

“When particular areas stand out, it is important to attempt to recognize the underlying characteristics that produce outstanding animals. For hunters, the top areas identify potential hot spots for producing big bucks in South Carolina.”

Ruth said the all-time leader for trophy bucks is Orangeburg County with 457 sets of antlers on the list. Rounding out the top five counties are Aiken with 435, Fairfield with 264, and Anderson and Colleton each with 246. 

“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.

 “The opportunity to harvest trophy bucks remains good for the 2015 season 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. The last three (years) were the three best in the past 10. While total harvest numbers may be down, 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.

“We are recommending specific management changes that must be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor before being implemented,” he said. “But these changes that are supported by most deer hunters, based on our many meetings across the state, will help better manage our deer herd and harvest.”