"A hunter I checked out during one of our hunts at Botany Bay and had taken a nice 8-point buck from Pockoy Island put it best," said biologist Dean Harrigal of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "He said he'd killed a good many deer in his lifetime but never one where he spent time in the stand listening to the sound of waves crashing on the beach."
A close inspection of the map reveals that South Carolina's coastline isn't all beach. The mainland is protected from the open Atlantic Ocean by a myriad of barrier islands, saltmarshes, shallow inlets and bays. Much of the acreage is undeveloped, leaving the developed areas to perch precariously on stretches of stable ground. Having learned to adapt to human encroachment on their habitat, coastal deer move fluidly between richly manicured lawns and gardens and thick-growth understory encircled by plough mud and oyster shell. Deer densities in coastal areas tend to remain high, while body weights are generally lower than their inland relatives.
"Coastal deer are unique; where else would you decide when to be in the stand based on the local tide charts?" Harrigal asked. "When the tide comes in, it pushes deer out of the marsh and onto higher ground. On most of our coastal WMAs, it's not out of the question to occasionally see a buck with a 17- to 20-inch spread, either."
Other than using stick and string, Harrigal said it's pretty much public-land hunting from there. It's up to the hunter to pattern the deer - the further off the beaten path you get, the better your chances will be. Climbing stands and ground blinds are suggested, as no permanent stands are available.
If the thought of listening to the ocean crash in the background while you wait to arrow that deer intrigues you, here are some of the best public lands to scratch that itch.
Old Island Heritage Preserve covers 400 acres in coastal Beaufort County, near Hunting Island State Park. The preserve consists of one major portion of uplands and several smaller, isolated pieces of hard ground. The uplands are surviving dune ridges surrounded by acres of saltmarsh and tidal creeks. The dune ridges are dominated by live oak, loblolly pine, and cabbage palm.
"Old Island has a high deer density and low hunter pressure, owing mostly to the fact that it's a very primitive area that few hunters are willing to make the effort to hunt," said Jay Cantrell, an SCDNR biologist who manages both Old Island and neighboring Victoria Bluff HP. "Deer swim the creeks between there and Fripp Island, where they reach high numbers."
Old Island Heritage Preserve is only accessible by boat. Put in at Russ Point Landing at Fripp Inlet on the south end of Hunting Island State Park. Travel across Fripp Inlet to either Old House Creek or the Story River. The preserve is on the right side of Old House Creek and the left side of the Story River. The uplands are difficult to access without crossing expanses of salt marsh.
Archery season begins Oct. 1 and runs through Dec. 12 at Victoria Bluff, which consists of 977 acres of pine-saw palmetto flat woods, longleaf and slash pines and saw palmetto. Adjacent to the surrounding creeks, the terrain is typical mainland maritime forest, dominated by live oak, cabbage palm, and slash pine.
"Victoria Bluff is right in the middle of a highly developed area between the Waddell Mariculture Center and the outlet mall in Bluffton," Cantrell said. "It's very accessible from SC 278 and Sawmill Creek Rd., so the local hunters tend to hunt it more than some other areas, but there are still good deer densities and a good opportunity to harvest deer on this property."
According to biologist Sam Chappelear, exclusive bow-hunting opportunities exist on the Sewee Special Use Area in the Wambaw WMA, at Botany Bay WMA on Edisto Island, Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve and Santee Coastal Reserve.
Bay Plantation WMA, located off of SC 174 on Edisto Island, offers exclusive archery-hunting opportunities at various times from September through December.
SCDNR acquired the 643-acre Dungannon Plantation HP to protect one of the state's top nesting colonies of the federally-endangered wood stork. The WMA consists of two primary habitat types: 320 acres of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp and 323 acres of mixed upland forest. Dungannon is located off SC 162 between Rantowles and Hollywood.
"Dungannon is an archery-only property, and the season opens Oct. 15 and runs until Dec. 1," Chappelear said. "It's also a great place to take hogs with no limit."
The Sewee Special Use Area of Wambaw WMA is one of the earliest archery opportunities in Charleston County. Hunters may take to the woods on Sept. 1 for buck only and begin to take either-sex deer from Sept. 15 until the end of the year.
"Only archers may hunt deer throughout the entire specified season, which lasts four months," Chappelear said. "Bowhunting may also be conducted anytime deer hunting is allowed except, on hunt days scheduled for deer/dog hunting on the remainder of Wambaw Wildlife Management Area ."
The Santee Coastal Reserve WMA near McClellanville, better known for its duck hunting, offers archery-only deer hunting on the mainland through the month of November.
According to Harrigal, three WMAs offer the best public deer hunting in Colleton County, but typical of most coastal areas, each property is broken up into several parcels.
On Bear Island near Green Pond, archery hunters get first crack at the deer with a week-long season from Oct. 7-15 before gun hunters have to draw for chances to hunt. Donnelley WMA has a similar setup, but with a slightly longer window of opportunity. Open hunt dates are October 1, 3-5, Nov. 1-5, and Dec. 1-3 and 5.
"Donnelley has some antler restrictions," Harrigal said. "Bucks must have a minimum four points on one side or a 12-inch spread, so there's a better chance at seeing more quality deer."
Unlike either Bear Island or Donnelley, where a bow-season date is akin to drawing a tag to hunt, deer hunting on the St. Helena Sound HP isn't for the faint of heart - or for hunters who like to drive to their stands. St. Helena Sound is comprised of six islands, each more primitive than the next, that can only be accessed by boat. Permits for camping and hunting are available from the McKenzie Field Station (843-844-8822).
"Otter, Ashe, Beet, Warren, Big and South Willoman Islands make up the Heritage Preserve," said Cantrell, who shares responsibility for managing the islands with Harrigal. "Primitive camping is available on Otter Island, but other than that, these locations are as undeveloped as they come."
Cantrell suggest ground blinds as more hunter-friendly than climbing stands, and he said snake boots and bug suits are highly recommended.
"These islands tend to be thick understory breaking away to marsh savannah," he said. "Finding a small opening and setting up on it may be the best way to get a shot at a deer."
Georgetown-area archers have two choices for deer hunting public lands.
Samworth WMA was a gift from Thomas G. Samworth. The SCDNR manages about 1,300 acres of wetland impoundments, 200 acres of uplands and agricultural fields and 88 acres of longleaf pine. Deer hunts take place on impoundments only and is limited to long weekends during October.
Nine miles of dikes, accessible by foot only, provides access for hunters at Santee Delta WMA. Like Samworth, hunt dates are scheduled for Thursdays through Saturdays in October.
Sandy Island WMA, between the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers, was in the WMA program up until last year but has been dropped.
Lewis Ocean Bay, Waccamaw River and Little Pee Dee Heritage Preserve WMAs cover a total of almost 25,000 acres. They have an archery-only season in September and/or October before gun seasons open. The 568-acre Cartwheel Bay HP was acquired to protect one of the few known Carolina bay-longleaf pine savanna complexes in South Carolina and allows archery-only hunting throughout its split seasons from Sept. 15-Oct. 1 and Oct. 10-Nov. 5.
Deanna Ruth administers the Heritage Preserve program along the coast, but being the sister-in-law of Charles Ruth, SCDNR's deer-project leader, she keeps her eye on the deer-hunting potential these properties hold.
"Lewis Ocean Bay has a good road system, so it gets hunted more than the others," she said. "Cartwheel Bay Heritage Preserve off of SC 917 is archery-only the whole season. It's more of an island property surrounded by crop lands. With its thick stands of pocosin pines, you're looking at better bedding and hiding areas than feeding areas. You can play that to your advantage by determining travel routes to intercept deer coming and going."
Further inland, the Little Pee Dee and Waccamaw River HPs are more typical of riverbottom hunting than coastal hunting, but at 10,247 and 5,347 acres respectively, they're hard to overlook as potential deer hotspots. Ruth said the key to hunting both properties is to remember to stay within the river corridor, where white oaks - and subsequently deer - are plentiful.
"It's easy to isolate yourself from other hunters if you'll do a little walking," she said. "We planned our archery seasons on these lands so that one is open if the other is closed, so there's no worry about not being able to hunt.
Archery dates are Sept. 15-24 and Oct. 1-15 on Little Pee Dee and Oct. 10-22 on Waccamaw River.