As the deer season quickly approaches, South Carolina hunters should be excited.

They have aided in the reduction of the population to healthy levels during the past few years. The quality deer management trend is growing, and bigger bucks should start surfacing across the state, especially from "sleeper" counties that don't usually see many trophy bucks. Counties that produce quality bucks should keep producing as well.

Look for many more quality bucks to be killed in 2006 with a respectable portion to be entered in the S.C. record book. Don't be surprised if a Boone and Crockett or a Pope and Young buck slips into the mix as well.

William C. Wyatt's 176 0/8-inches buck from Pickens County still leads as the number typical buck in South Carolina. However, as the quality deer trend continues to grow support, Wyatt's reign may be in jeopardy.

Antler Scoring

The 2005 deer season resulted in another great season for S.C. hunters, with modest harvests throughout the state and many new entries into the record book. Statistically, only 1 of every 1,000 white-tailed deer bucks harvested qualifies for the S.C. Antler Records program (scoring a minimum of 125 typical Boone and Crockett points or 145 non-typical points), according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

The 2005 scoring season saw 180 whitetails entered into the DNR's record book. The 2006 scoring season ended with another good showing of big bucks, according to Charles Ruth, DNR deer supervisor. (Actual numbers won't be released until this month).

The scoring sessions are held during the late winter/early spring of each year, and the 2006 scoring season reflected the 2005 deer harvest; although some deer are from previous years.

The 2006 season was great, but was not quite as shocking as the previous year. The 2005 scoring season added five times as many deer into the record books as 2004.

Hunter Attitudes Change

S.C. whitetails have plenty of available habitat for the herd to thrive and allow bountiful harvests, and hunter attitudes are changing across the United States and especially in South Carolina.

Nationally, hunters are seeing results from deer management programs across the nation and want the opportunity to harvest the same class of deer in this state.

S.C. hunters are beginning to manage for quality deer with larger body size that leads to bigger antler growth rather than the "old school" quantity-of-deer-comes-first approach.

The establishment of the DNR record scoring book in 1974 also gives hunters something to strive for, encouraging an increase in selective harvests.

2006 Deer Meetings

For many years in South Carolina hunters expressed concern over the unregulated harvest of antlered bucks.

Even though a five-buck limit is in place at certain S.C. game zones, currently enforcement of these limits remains difficult. However, more hunters are beginning to realize bucks - especially young bucks - are over-exploited and does under-harvested, which leads to an unbalanced adult-deer sex ratio.

DNR conducted 12 public meetings during January and February 2006 across the state to gather public opinion data related to the issue of a statewide limit on bucks, including a license-based tagging system to aid enforcement. But attendance was low, only 1.5 percent of all deer hunters registered in the state.

The most support for a five-buck limit came from the midlands and mountains regions. Some counties even supported a three-buck limit at the midlands. The coastal plain counties also supported proposed limits but to a lesser degree.

Ruth said a limited buck harvest would improve the deer herd across the state.

"Harvest data collected over the last eight years suggest that it could," he said. "The common perception that a small percentage of hunters exploit the current system and harvest large numbers of bucks is essentially true.

"For example, only 4 percent of hunters harvest more than five bucks annually. However, these hunters harvest 20 percent of all the bucks taken each year.

"It would follow that if a limit were in place, there should be fewer bucks harvested, leaving more bucks to mature for following seasons. Also, if buck-harvest pressure shifts to females, then it's a win-win situation.

"Today's generation of hunters, with the aid of liberal laws, have killed lots of deer and are willing to sacrifice quality versus quantity. More quality deer will be available year after year as more antlered deer succeed into the next season with one, two, or three more years of growing."

As an example, Aiken County is one of the top big-buck counties in the state with a vast majority of bucks taken from the Savannah River Site.

The site's deer-management approach is primarily based upon "age promotion" (delayed harvest). The Savannah site is broken into management blocks that are hunted once each three years.

This technique allows deer to have a two-year period of sanctuary and an opportunity to mature.

Population Trends

The 2006 deer season in South Carolina is expected to be another fruitful year. Hunters are targeting more does in regions where needed and more quality deer are being produced every year.

The state's deer herd is closely tied to habitat (and harvest numbers).

Historically, the mountain region hasn't had a lot of deer and likely never will because mountain-county deer habitat isn't great for deer. However, whitetail bucks living in the mountain region usually have big bodies with large antlers. Hunters can expect to see a few good deer to be taken at western counties during 2006.

The piedmont and the coastal-plain regions have always had a good deer population since the massive clear cuttings of the 1970s and '80s.

Early successional growth (small, young tender plants) provided a surplus of food resources during this decade, adding to the fecundity of the deer herd.

"The piedmont and coastal plain, as a single component, aren't carrying the exorbitant numbers (of whitetails) that were once there 10 years ago, which is a good thing," Ruth said.

Extensive pine plantations don't have lots of food diversity, which reduces the carrying capacity (plants to nourish deer) at these regions.

With fewer deer produced, similar deer harvests and more emphasis on killing does should cause the 2006 deer season to produce a surplus of record-book deer in the mid-lands and coastal plain.

Many hunter groups in the mid-lands and coastal plain have incorporated sound management into their harvesting regimes, including population control by killing more does and reducing buck harvests.

Best Counties

Orangeburg, Aiken, Hampton, Calhoun, Fairfield, Colleton, Abbeville, Kershaw, Lexington, Anderson, and Williamsburg counties are considered the top places for large antlered white-tailed deer.

Orangeburg, according to DNR statistics, provides the most record deer, and that's not surprising since it's the top agriculture-producing county in the state.

Hunters should expect these counties once again to produce a bumper crop of quality whitetails during the 2006 season.

Sleeping Giants

Hunters often overlook public Wildlife Management Areas as good sources of quality bucks.

Many of the public lands contain large, adjoining blocks of land that can be difficult to access, especially at the coastal zone. These large blocks of wilderness provide big bucks a safe harbor from hunters and other causes of predation.

However, public lands can be more difficult to hunt than private tracts because access often is difficult and they have tighter hunting method restrictions.

Don't be surprised if a few top bucks are killed at WMAs during the next few years.

Season Preparation

Habitat management is practically the same as wildlife management.

Without good habitat, wildlife can't exist or will leave an area, seeking better conditions.

Deer need nutrient-rich food, adequate cover, and abundant water to thrive and grow - along with minimal pressure on young bucks.

Habitat management at farms can be planned using a variety of methods.

Since deer are "edge" species, land managers should provide as much "green edges" as possible. Roads edges should be mowed at a minimum, but light disking and planting nutrient-rich browse such as legumes and clover is a good idea.

Fields and food plots make great feeding zones for daytime and night feeding. If land-owners are interested in wildlife and create new fields, they should plan to leave or make as much edge habitat as possible at their fields.

They also can use "stratified edges," which create a variety of plant species. Stratified edges are produced by mowing different zones on a rotational basis (allow the zones to have different levels of plant growth).

Active timber management promotes habitat for deer, especially after harvesting operations and following a burn. The opening of the forest allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and promotes the growth of tender forage for deer.

As part of a timber-management plan, land-owners can leave forested corridors throughout the property for the deer to travel through and grow food stuffs.

Deer tend to use food plots that are secluded and adjacent to cover. Land-owners who clear cut can help deer populations by harvesting selected blocks of woods using a set rotation, cutting in oblong sections to promote edge. 

2006 Concerns

Deer managers believe the state's deer population is fairly stable and should remain so during the next decade.

However, Chronic Wasting Disease crippling cervid (deer, elk) populations (and deer hunting) exists at other parts of the United States.

The closest documented case of a CWD outbreak to South Carolina has occurred in West Virginia. So Ruth isn't totally alarmed by the prospects of the fatal deer disease working its way to the state in the near future.

"DNR has no big concerns for 2006 with respect to CWD," he said. "It is still not here.

"We feel like the infected areas of the nation are greatly geographically separated from our herd, (far) enough to prevent us from having any real concerns."

As for other diseases, such as hemorrhagic epizootic (blue-tongue) disease, it impacts the deer population on a smaller scale, naturally flaring up during a three-to-five year rotation in the state's deer herd. Hunters can expect to see hemorrhagic disease in some S.C. deer every year, but it's not a herd-threatening concern.

A successful 2006?

The last few years the first portion of the season has been hot and unpleasant for deer and hunters.

Deer don't not move as much during heated days in the fall as compared to cooler, more seasonable conditions during later months.

Cool weather during the rut from October through November usually offers hunters chances to see more deer and have more opportunities to harvest big bucks.

So Ruth's advice for hunting during 2006 was understandable and practical.

"Spend a lot of time in the woods from Oct. 1 through Thanksgiving," he said. "Watch for cold fronts and find a way to get in the woods as much as possible.

"Watch out for droughts, too. They seem to be bad for habitat but are definitely good for the hunter, increasing his odds.

"Periods of drought concentrate the deer at water sources and provide ambush points for hunters."

Although whitetails move less during the hot, early portion of the season, that time can be as an advantage for hunters, especially in South Carolina.

The state's Lowcountry hunters get a jump-start with the deer season beginning in mid August. However, the early season usually is overlooked as a time to bag a trophy buck.

Many hunters naturally want to wait until the jet stream brings chilly air into the region, but they may be missing some golden hunting opportunities. The reason is less pressure on deer.

The woods are full of big bucks during the early season because whitetails - after having six months of vacation from hunting pressure - are less spooky because their daily behavioral and movement patterns been undisturbed for so long. Wise hunters take advantage of early-season deer predictability, which disappears by the latter months of the season.

Moreover, a deer's home range during the late summer/early fall is much smaller than during the rest of the season.

For most of South Carolina, the peak of the rut falls during the last few weeks of October and first few weeks of November, depending upon moon phases and the section of the state in question. Moon peaks, specifically the new moon and the full moon phases during the rut, are usually the hottest for deer movement.

Hunters should look for big bucks on the prowl during the middle of the day during those times as dominant male deer seek out estrous does. To increase the odds for bagging a trophy buck, hunters should be in the woods during cool late-Oct.-through-early-November days and the transition time of the new moon. And they should hunt from sunrise to sunset.

October through November during the last two hunting seasons hasn't been optimum, but good deer still were killed throughout the state. With a more normal and cooler late fall, chances are more hunters will take more trophy deer in 2006.