The Piedmont is also home to a number of large reservoirs and at least two major rivers. Overlap these two priceless recreational venues, and even a casual observer will see that some of the most remote areas of hunting land are adjacent to easily navigable waters.
Enter the deer hunter who owns a boat. Imagine pulling your rig into a spacious, public landing, launching your boat, motoring a short distance on well-marked, easy to travel waterway (even at night) and easing into a pristine creek bottom or hardwood stand virtually undetected.
Choosing your ride
Before getting into the where, let's take a look at the "how." South Carolina ranks high on the national list of household watercraft ownership. Granted, the jet ski and cabin cruiser are probably ruled out immediately, but what makes a good "hunting boat?"
Steve Matt of Eureka Springs, Ark., is an avid deer hunter and fisherman. Retired from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, he is a Field Staff Pro for Yamaha Outboards and G3 boats. In that position, he has been able to master the art of slipping up on unwary big game in remote locations from the water.
He provided pointers for selecting a hunting boat.
"Versatility is the key," he said. "Most boats that are good for hunting also do double duty as a fishing boat - and the opposite is not always true. I like an expansive, open front deck and a boat with a wide footprint to provide ample room for hunters and gear."
Hunters who access unpressured land will need to bring their own stands if they intend to hunt from an elevated position. Two or three hunters plus weapons, gear and tree stands will require a good bit of room.
"I also like a lot of dry storage," Matt said. "Most anything that I might need or that I would ordinarily keep in the truck will have to go on the boat."
That list includes rain gear, additional clothing and the typical assortment of calls, flashlights, rope and other deer-hunting essentials.
"For hunting in colder weather, it's nice to slide in behind a windshield when running up the lake, and I'm not a big fan of carpet when it comes to tracking in and out of muddy bottoms or transporting a fresh killed 200-pound buck," Matt said. "I want a rig that I can roll through the drive-in carwash on the way home and not have to hassle with a lot of cleaning."
One of the greatest benefits of accessing your honey hole by water is a quiet approach, and the recent surge of whisper-quiet, 4-stroke outboards is a feather in the cap of deer hunters.
"The new 4-strokes are awesome," Matt said. "I located a nice 8-pointer on some land near Table Rock Lake in Missouri. After three hard days of hunting that buck, we knew he was holed up back in a hard-to-reach draw down near the water. My brother and I slipped in on him near a creek drainage to the lake, and my brother Paul killed him. That buck became the centerpiece to a big ad campaign for G3, and we never would have been able to get anywhere close to him without the boat."
Deer hunters can achieve the same success by storming the beaches on some Upstate lakes and waterways. Best of all, the land is completely public and readily available for the price of a WMA permit.
So if you're interested in joining the "Deer Marines," there will be plenty of places a where a boat will put you way ahead of the game - especially the big game.
Jocassee Gorges WMA
Tom Swayngham is the regional biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for Oconee County, which is in Game Zone 1. Deer hunting in the Jocassee Gorges is not for the faint of heart. The lowest elevation on the WMA is Lake Jocassee, and it's uphill from there, practically straight uphill.
"The Jocassee Gorges property is hard to hunt," Swayng-ham said, stating the obvious. "There are very few hunters up there, and the deer get almost no pressure."
Looking at the landscape from the water or a topo map, the creek drainages on the upper end of the lake are the easiest to access. Unfortunately, they are also the least attractive to deer.
"Those creek drainages are choked with mountain laurel and rhododendron, neither of which holds much value to deer. A deer hunter's best plan is to come in on a creek drainage and find his way up to one of the saddles that runs between ridges. A saddle with a good crop of acorns will draw deer a long way off," Swayngham said.
What hunting in this area lacks in ease of entry, it makes up for in the size of the deer. Most hunters report that the deer they see are good ones; 8-pointers are common, and body weights are typically 40 to 50 pounds heavier than the same deer from flatter terrain. This is presumably because deer have to be beefier to withstand a lifetime of climbing hills.
Another plus is that the mid-slope hardwood saddles are also likely places to see a black bear. A week-long bear season in Game Zone 1 is open during mid-October.
Four public boat ramps are available for hunters on Lake Jocassee: two at Devil's Fork State Park and two at the Jocassee Landing.
Widely known as a growing residential area, Lake Keowee spans the border between Game Zones 1 and 2. No public lands border the lake in Game Zone 2, but there are scattered tracts in the upper section in Game Zone 1.
Crescent Resources, a landholding and developing subsidiary of Duke Power, is the primary landholder. Although no single large tract of WMA exists on Keowee, several smaller tracts are leased from various landowners, including Crescent.
"The tracts on Keowee, particularly the Beatty tract, are more accessible from the road- side," Swayngham said, "and accordingly, (they) get heavier hunting pressure."
Hunters using boats still have a bit of advantage as the pressure tends to push deer deeper into areas that are further from the road and closer to the lake. The best boat ramps to access these tracts are Mile Creek, Stamp Creek Access, and Fall Creek.
Keowee WMA/Fants Grove WMA
Lying fully within the boundaries of Game Zone 2, Lake Hartwell provides easy access to two expansive WMAs. On the uppermost end of the Seneca River is the Keowee WMA, which is divided into several smaller tracts that are designated as "archery only."
The northernmost tract of Keowee WMA allows gun hunting. Like the smaller tracts on Lake Keowee, the Keowee WMA tracts are not as remote as the Jocassee Gorges property, and subsequently, they see their share of hunting pressure from the roadside.
Richard Morton is the regional wildlife biologist who oversees both the Keowee and Fants Grove WMAs. He concurs that hunters may have an advantage in both locating and hunting deer on these properties.
"Two things that benefit the boating hunter are that, in some cases, effects from the lake may provide better habitat for deer," Morton said. "Lake winds can bring slightly warmer temperatures off the lake during the early season and protect blooms and buds. This benefits deer in the form of more soft mast like muscadines and hard-mast crops such as acorns.
"The other benefit is that the open-lake area permits more sunlight penetration into the forest, and more growth draws more deer."
Morton's desk is located in the SCDNR Clemson Regional office at the northern tip of Fant's Grove. He recommends that hunters not only access the Fants Grove property by boat to hunt, but also make use of them when scouting.
"I can see the benefits of covering a lot of area by visually scouting stands of trees from the water," he said. "Once a good stand is located, boaters can even check the acorn crop with binoculars; once a good acorn stand is found, it's just a matter of finding scrapes, rubs, or trails leading into the area to know where to set up."
Morton also said that cuts washed into the landscape from drainages that lead to the lake make for good funnel areas.
"The deer will often use those funnels to make their way down to the lake to get water or feed on new grass that springs up in the backs of coves," he explained.
Accessing the Keowee WMA is easy from ramps located at Holder's Landing, Lawrence Bridge, and Twelve Mile Creek. The northern end of Fant's Grove is best accessed from Twin Lakes Ramp, which also supports overnight camping. The southern end is serviced from the smaller ramp located at 18 Mile Creek. Directly across the lake from Fants Grove is Oconee Point, which offers both boat launching and camping from the Corps of Engineers property.
Lake Hartwell –USACE
Built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps maintains a right-of-way all the way around 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell. Though all of this land is, by law, public property, little of the Corps' buffer zone is suitable for hunting due to the close proximity of housing and developments.
The Corps has, however, designated several tracts as open for deer hunting. These areas include 211 acres at Glenn Ferry, 369 acres at Choestoea, and 138 acres at Weldon Island. Each tract is accompanied by a boat ramp and landing of the same name that are the primary access points for both land and water entrance.
Zack Harkness, the USACE natural resources manager, said, "The USACE properties on Hartwell Lake are open for hunting in accordance with state hunting regulations and seasons. However, in the interest of safety, big-game hunters are encouraged to use archery equipment. Gun hunting is permitted on the two islands."
While several smaller islands dot the reservoir along both the Seneca and Tugaloo River arms, the two largest islands located at the forks of the rivers, Andersonville and Shaw islands, are of primary interest to deer hunters.
McCalla State Park
If the unspoiled beauty of undeveloped Lake Russell isn't enough of an attraction, smack dab in the middle of the reservoir, at the fork of Rocky and the Savannah rivers, is McCalla State Park.
McCalla is part of the state wildlife management program, comprising 20,500 acres of public lands surrounded on three sides by Lake Russell. The area is known for its natural beauty and unspoiled wilderness areas.
A few Piedmont area deer hunters also know that this area, located in Abbeville County, is home to some trophy whitetails. Only the upper portion is readily accessible by road; the interior and perimeter sections are only accessible by boat, launching from an ample number of public boat ramps operated by the South Carolina State Parks Department.
According to Billy Fleming, the SCDNR's regional biologist for Abbeville, McCormick, and Greenwood counties and the areas around Lake Russell and Thurmond Lake, "Before the McCalla land was leased over to PRT by the Corps, there was a good bit of timber cutting in that area. Logging roads and trail brakes were cut that allowed better access from the paved roads at Tater Hill and McCalla Park. Since then, those areas have grown up, and foot access from the road is almost impassable. To get down there, you almost have to go by boat."
The deer land inside McCalla is typical of that found around other areas of Abbeville County, with plenty of pines and stands of hardwoods left along ridges and in bottoms that were too difficult to log.
A bonus is that the old Savannah River and Rocky River basins were early meccas for wild hogs, which quickly relocated to the forested land when Lake Russell was impounded. Deer hunters report frequent sightings of wild hogs when deer hunting at McCalla.
Clarks Hill WMA
Further down the Savannah River, the balance of human population versus deer population swings in the favor of the hunter. While most of the areas of the Clarks Hill WMA are accessible by both land and water, again, the pressure drops the further you move away from roads. In some areas of the WMA, the distance and terrain just won't permit much foot access, and the deer some figure this out.
This summer's drought has dropped Thurmond's water level, resulting in some positives and negatives for boating hunters.
"The drought makes finding water a consideration for deer, which head to the lake for both water and cooler areas," Fleming said. "There is also a lot of new-growth grasses that are thriving at water's edge, while the other natural crops suffer."
The drawback is that navigation in the low-water conditions, particularly before daylight and after dark, can be treacherous. Hunters need to use extreme caution after dark.
Public land is also located along the Savannah River below Clarks Hill Dam. This area represents some of the longest-established deer land after deer and turkey restoration efforts in the early 1950's.
Before you go
The rules and regulations that apply to these public lands are as varied as their terrain. While only archery hunting is permitted on some areas, firearms may be permitted but limited to shotguns on others - or the distance the hunter must be from the water in order to use firearms may be controlled. Hunting on Sundays is prohibited on all WMAs, and all other WMA rules apply.
It's best to check the regulations that apply to the area you intend to hunt. While crowding is usually not a problem, select several areas to hunt, and if you pull into a cove and see two or three other boats beached in the area, move to an alternate spot. Of utmost importance, in the words of Fleming, is "Be safe, but also use and enjoy this land. Pressure builds every day to allow private development of public lands. This land is yours, get out there and enjoy it."