Old tactics and new strategies are shaping up as hunters prepare for another season. Vivid images of that trophy buck that was missed and those smaller bucks passed up last season flood the thoughts of hunters as the season approaches.
Preseason planning, surveillance and solid strategy will allow hunters to increase their odds of encountering a trophy. The state's deer population is stable, but there likely will be fewer hunters in the woods.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources' 2006 deer-harvest report revealed a decline in the overall harvest, hopefully resulting in a bumper crop of great bucks.
A national trend continues towards quality bucks through harvest restrictions, but are South Carolina hunters interested, and is South Carolina ready to make the move?
While the deer population remains stable, the hunting population is in decline. This past January, Charles Ruth, the deer- project supervisor of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), mailed a survey to 25,000 hunters across the state. The results were staggering. The statewide deer population remained stable at 725,000 animals, but the number of deer hunters continued to decrease - as well as the total deer harvest. Licensed hunters were down 9.5 percent, and the overall deer harvest was down 9.3 percent from 2005.
In 2006, roughly 220,000 deer were harvested, down from 245,000 in 2005. Fewer hunters equals fewer kills overall, but hunters had a 75-percent success ratio - tremendous compared to other states. South Carolina hunters killed 10.5 deer per square mile of habitat. With bucks taken over does, 52 percent to 48, the nearly 1:1 buck-doe ratio indicates a stable population, and hunters should expect a similar harvest if all else is equal.
Make no mistake, the top counties in South Carolina continue to spit out big trophy deer. Orangeburg, Aiken, Hampton, Calhoun, Fairfield, Colleton, Abbeville, Kershaw, Lexington, Anderson, and Williamsburg counties are considered tops for trophy bucks.
However, the overall leading areas in terms of total deer harvest per unit area - independent of age or sex - includes Bamberg, Union, Hampton, Allendale, and Chester counties.
This year's results compare favorably with results from previous years. During the 2006 scoring session, 136 sets of antlers made the record book, and during the 2007 scoring session, 168 sets were added.
"This is not the most records added in a given year, but it is up a little compared to recent years," says Ruth.
Statistically, only 1 out of every 1,000 bucks harvested qualifies for the S.C. Antler Records program (scoring a minimum of 125 typical or 145 non-typical Boone and Crockett points).
Quality, not quantity
Through public hearings, telephone and mail surveys, and hunter groups, American hunters are speaking out for seasons with tighter restrictions on buck harvests to improve the overall quality of their hunting experience.
Whitetail bucks do not fully mature until they reach their fourth birthdays, and selective harvests are necessary. Harvest records are too heavily weighted towards the 1.5-year-old age class. A common response is to limit the harvest of these young bucks through antler restrictions.
States are experimenting, looking for the right combination of management techniques that can please the majority -while finding the right recipe to make everybody happy. Many states have experimemted by segregating small hunt units with harvest restrictions.
In 2006, New York restricted the buck harvest in one game zone to animals with at least 3 points on one side. The total buck harvest in these areas fell, and the age structure shifted, with more 2.5- and 3.5-year-old bucks taken and fewer 1.5-year-old bucks killed.
Pennsylvania has antler restrictions statewide, with one zone requiring at least three points on one side and the other at least 4 points on one side. In the first year of the restrictions, survey results indicated a 52-percent increase in the number of 1.5-year-old bucks surviving.
In Texas, antler restrictions were introduced into a 6-county area for 3 years. A legal buck had to have six points or at least a 13-inch spread.
The results were phenomenal, with a reversal of the age-harvest curve. By the end of the third year, the percentage of 1.5-year-old bucks harvested had dropped from 79 to 29. Before the study, only 20 percent of bucks harvested were 3.5 years old or older, and at the end of the study, 71 percent killed were 3.5 years or older. Texas officials are proposing to expand the successful program to other counties as long as citizen support continues.
Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio are among states experienting with antler restrictions and seeing similar results.
South Carolina hunters are seeing results from programs across the nation and want the opportunity to harvest the same class of deer locally. Biologists are paying close attention to the progress other states are making, but mixed results from the deer meetings of 2006 have tabled current rule changes.
South Carolina has extremely liberal harvest regulations. However, almost every hunter would rather harvest a trophy buck rather than a basket-racked yearling.
According to SCDNR's historic records, 55 percent of bucks harvested are 1.5 years old. South Carolina's deer habitat is capable of growing many trophy animals, but most don't live long enough. Hunter attitudes are changing across the state; most hunters want more quality and are willing to sacrifice by killing fewer animals. On a smaller scale, hunters are taking the lead, managing more for quality bucks mostly through antler restrictions and a maximum annual harvest on their own lands and in their clubs.
In 2006, SCDNR held 12 meetings around the state, and the results were varied, with the most support for limiting buck harvest in the Midlands and Upstate. The first step for South Carolina is to reduce the annual buck harvest per hunter. Ruth believes that a more limited buck harvest would improve the deer herd across the state.
"Harvest data collected over the last 8 years suggests 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 5 bucks annually. However, these hunters harvest 20 percent of all the bucks taken each year.
"It would follow then, that if a limit was in place, there should be fewer bucks harvested, leaving more bucks to mature for the following season. Also, if (hunting) pressure shifts to females, then it is a win-win situation.
"Today's generation of hunters, with the aid of liberal laws, has killed lots of deer and is willing to sacrifice quality versus quantity."
The 2007 season remains the same for South Carolina as far as dates and limits.
"No proposals related to deer limits or tag programs are in the works for 2008," Ruth said. "However, considerations for 2008 proposals have yet to occur at the agency, since the 2007 legislative session just ended. It is likely that the DNR Board will contemplate these issues in the near future, and some recommendation or proposed legislation may be forthcoming."
A change in harvest restrictions is imminent if South Carolina is to line up with other states. Many South Carolina hunters travel elsewhere for a better chance at a trophy buck. South Carolina has the resources to grow quality deer, but poor management or no management will suppress our ultimate success.
2007 season concerns
Cyclical diseases are common in the animal kingdom, causing massive die-offs - usually having something to do with overpopulation. The state's herd is fairly stable and should remain stable over the next decade; however, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is crippling whitetails in other other parts of the United States. CWD continues to be contained in certain areas. Many states are still testing animals randomly. As of this past June, the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance has not reported any new cases outside of the previously-affected areas. Fortunately, DNR biologists have an ongoing CWD surveillance program.
"Annually, we take approximately 500 samples stratified at the county level such that the effort gives a 99-percent probability that disease would be detected if it were present in the population at a 1-percent level," Ruth said. "We do have concerns about the disease, however, South Carolina's geographic location and our historic position on prohibiting the interstate movement of deer puts (us) in a somewhat enviable position with respect to many other states. We will continue to be diligent in monitoring for this disease."
As for hemorrhagic disease, it impacts the population on a smaller scale and naturally flares up on a 3- to 5-year rotation. Hunters should expect to see some hemorrhagic disease every year, but should not be concerned.
Preparing for 2007
Preseason planning and scouting is an absolute must. Habitat management, along with surveillance, is a good place to start. Deer need nutrient-rich food resources, adequate cover, and abundant water to thrive. Providing resources will improve your herd and bring other deer in from adjacent properties.
Deer are browsers and will eat practically anything green and tender, especially along edges. Mowing, discing, and burning will encourage additional browse. Road edges should be mowed at a minimum, but light disking and planting nutrient-rich browse such as legumes and clover is optimum.
Deer are an edge species and need as much green edge as possible. Locate and fertilize around mast-bearing trees along existing travel corridors, setting up good ambush points. Encourage farmers to plant peanuts, soybeans, or corn to create a primary food source and to establish main travel routes to and from bedding areas.
Preseason scouting is essential when determining deer quality and abundance. Bucks are in bachelor groups early in the season, just before the hormones start flowing, driving them apart. Hugh McCrea of Big Woods Outfitters near Kingstree in Williamsburg County (www.bigwoodsoutfitters.com; 843-372-2252), plants peanuts, soybeans, and corn on his farms to attract deer and encourage antler growth.
According to McCrea, "The bachelor groups have showed up in the peanut and soybean fields, taking advantage of the fresh, nutrientenergy rich crops."
McCrea and his partner, Jason Brown, spend many hours scanning fields to get an indication of the next season's deer crop. They heavily endorse post-season scouting, which reveals many unknowns that aid in establishing strategies for the next upcoming season.
"Just after the season last year, we saw three real good bucks that would score over 130, plus lots of bucks just below in the 8-point range," McCrea said. "It is important to see where the deer are feeding and where there main travel corridors are."
"It helps us adjust our stand locations throughout our farms for the upcoming season," said Brown, who had one hunter, Robert Baker of Alabama, harvest a 203-pound bruiser with an 18 3/4-inch inside spread at Big Woods last year.
According to SCDNR records, the peak of the rut is from Oct. 6 through Nov. 16, with 83 percent of all does being bred. Consequently, 71 percent of all bucks are killed during that time period.
If there is ever a perfect time to take a month's vacation, it would be October. Unbred does are in full estrus. Competition among bucks for available mates peaks, allowing for more aggressive hunting tactics. Rattling, calling, decoying, and use of estrus doe urine lures are available to increase the odds of encountering a trophy buck.
The best recommendation for hunting the peak of the rut is to spend as much time on stand as possible. A big buck is as likely to be chasing a doe at noon as at dawn or dusk. Choose stands that overlook large, secluded fields, power line right-of-ways and clear-cuts. Get comfortable with a good pair of binoculars and scan the terrain for a hint of an antler or big body.
An overlooked tool for pinpointing deer movement is the lunar activity cycle. It affects all wildlife, and its attraction is at its highest around the peak phases: the full and new moons. Activity is as strong as it can be, giving hunters a greater opportunity to encounter deer. More specifically, the 24-hour day is split into 4 feeding periods: moon directly overhead, directly underfoot, and at each side of the horizon. Using the lunar-activity cycle should not be the only tool in a hunter's toolbox, but one just as important as many of others.
The bottom line is, use the lunar-activity cycle to plan your hunts will improve the chances of seeing that trophy buck.