August is “go time” for deer hunters in South Carolina, and most are making final preparations for the 2016 season opener. Opening day redefines the phrase “go time” because hunters seeking unpressured deer have more than ample opportunities.

Multiple opening days are available in the four game zones across the state. Hunters prepared to use a bow, muzzleloader and rifle may discover that hunting opening day parallels the movie Groundhog Day, because every few days from mid-August until Oct. 11 a new season opens somewhere, for some weapon. 

It’s a good thing, because a multi-dimensional hunter can trek from the Lowcountry to the mountains, enjoying opening day over and over.  

The season structure is detailed in the S.C. Department of Natural Resources regulations digest, and all hunters need to check closely for specifics of where they hunt. In some cases, just crossing a county line will make a big difference in the season structure between game zones.

Game Zone 3, which includes 15 Lowcountry counties, has the most-liberal season with archery and gun hunts opening on Aug. 15, with a number of either-sex days. There’s no limit on antlered bucks and a limit of one antlerless deer per day on either-sex days or with individual antlerless tags.

The 12 counties in Game Zone 4, which includes the Grand Strand and Pee Dee counties, has an archery season opener on Aug. 15. Gun season opens Sept. 1. The same buck and antlerless deer limits listed in Game Zone 3 apply here. 

In Game Zone 2, which includes 12 Midlands and Upstate counties and parts of three others, archery season opens on Sept. 15, with a limit of one antlerless deer per day and a season limit of two. Primitive Weapons season is  Oct. 1–10. Gun hunts open Oct. 11.

Game Zone 1 comprises the northernmost parts of Oconee, Greenville and Pickens counties. Primitive Weapons season runs Oct.1-10.  Rifle hunting opens Oct. 11.

Consult the SCDNR regulations digest for specific buck and doe harvest restrictions and limits. Also closely check antlerless deer days for each game zone, because they are not all the same.

Charles Ruth, the deer project coordinator for SCDNR said South Carolina’s deer herd is stable, with good numbers statewide. 

“Numbers of deer available ... are good throughout the state, with some areas naturally being better than others simply because of better habitat,” Ruth said. “Overall, the 2016 season should provide plenty of opportunities for hunters to see and harvest deer.”

Ruth said 2015 harvest figures are part of the reason he feels confident about the 2016 season. He said hunters last fall were plagued with an historic rain event in October and unusually warm weather late in the season.

“South Carolina deer hunters harvested more bucks during the 2015 season than during the 2014 season,” he said. “Overall, harvest numbers were down, but that number is not as bleak as many thought possible because of poor hunting conditions.The silver lining is the overall trend is perhaps positive for the 2016 season.”  

Ruth said a slight decrease in the overall harvest last year relates specifically to the poor hunting conditions.  

“The poor weather began the first week in October, with a 1,000-year rainfall and flooding event spawned by Hurricane Joaquin in the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “The magnitude of this event forced a temporary season closure for all game species in parts of 15 coastal counties. Although these closures only lasted five to 10 days, the aftermath of the flooding in these areas and throughout the state created access and other problems for deer hunters. Additionally, hunting was negatively impacted by ongoing rainfall and unseasonably warm temperatures for the remainder of the deer season.

“Considering that the harvest was down only slightly, I think with good weather we would have had an up year in 2015,” he said. “Given that same parameter of good weather, I believe the harvest in 2016 will be up. In looking at the harvest and talking with hunters, there were likely a lot of deer that would have otherwise likely been taken last season but were not harvested because of inaccessibility and poor hunting conditions. This simply means these deer will be available in 2016, and with respect to bucks, they will be a year older.” 

Ruth believes he knows why the buck harvest was up and the doe and overall harvest were down.

“I suspect that following the flood, many hunters became a little less selective in terms of bucks and wanted to get a buck under their belt,” he said. “This same thing may have held true as the season progressed, with ongoing rain and unseasonably warm weather. Also, hunters have been taking the pressure off of does over a number of years because they simply are not seeing as many deer over much of the state.”

Ruth said that considering the estimated deer habitat in South Carolina, hunters killed about nine deer per square mile statewide in 2015, compared to 9.6 in 2014, still a very good total compared to other states in the southeast, many of which have noted a downward trend in harvests.

Comparing counties, South Carolina’s most-productive county was Bamberg, where 18 deer were taken per square mile, followed by Greenwood with 15.5, Spartanburg with 15.2, Abbeville with 14.6 and Hampton with 14.1.

The top five counties for harvest per square mile were Anderson with 18.1 deer per square mile, Hampton County with 17.9, Spartanburg County with 15.0, Bamberg County with 13.9 and Orangeburg County with 13.1.

The top five counties in total harvest were Orangeburg, Hampton, Colleton, Williamsburg and Spartanburg. In 2014, the order was Orangburg, Colleton, Williamsburg, Hampton and Berkeley, a good indicator of consistent harvests. 

Ruth said hunter interest on Wildlife Management Areas remained high last year, with around 60,000 licensees having a WMA Permit. WMAs represent lands owned by SCDNR, other state-owned lands enrolled in the WMA program, U.S. Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by SCDNR as part of the WMA program. 

Ruth estimates that 6,706 deer were taken on WMA lands last season, 3,840 bucks and 2,866. That was a 7-percent decreases from 2014 harvest figures.

Ruth said hunters interested in trophy bucks can also rely on data accumulated by the SCDNR over a long period.

“The South Carolina White-tailed Deer Antler Records Program began in the spring of 1974, and since that time, 6,389 sets of antlers have been officially entered onto the list,” Ruth said. “Each year, SCDNR biologists and technicians measure approximately 500 sets of antlers. Generally, only about one-third of the antlers that are measured make the records list. To qualify, a typical buck must score 125 Boone and Crockett points, and a non-typical must score 145.

Through the 2015 scoring sessions, which included 2014 season data, Orangeburg County is the all-time leader with 469 record-book entries. followed by Aiken with 450, Fairfield with 267, Anderson with 252 and Colleton with 248. 

“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 2016 season, based on data over recent years,” Ruth said. “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.”