Draw on Deer

Good bucks and an open hunting situation once made Fants Grove a fairly dangerous place to be until the SCDNR began granting permission only by permits.

Clemson and SCDNR use a permit system and antler-size limit to convert Fants Grove to a safe-hunting, big-buck area.

Location, location, location.

As it is in real estate, location is of utmost importance when it comes to deer hunting as well.

For Jimmy Fricks, that means hunting essentially in his own back yard.“Fants Grove is only about 12 minutes from my house — that was the biggest thing at first,” Fricks said. “Now that they’ve adopted this management program there, hunting at Fants Grove is even better.

“I’d drive hours to hunt there if I had to.”

A growing number of hunters are doing just that — particularly bow hunters who are intent on a quality hunting experience and a possible opportunity for a trophy buck.

Fants Grove is a 8,000-acre property owned by Clemson University and located within minutes of the school’s Upstate campus. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources made Fants Grove a near-exclusive hot spot for bow hunters seven years ago in an effort to relieve over-crowded conditions during the property’s open rifle season.

“There got to be so many people out there, cars were bumper to bumper and it became an unsafe situation,” said Richard Morton, a Clemson-based wildlife biologist with the DNR. “The university and us were both aware of it. We decided at that time to go to a draw hunt.”

Bow hunters now have exclusive hunting rights Oct. 14-Dec. 7, and the only gun hunting at the property takes place when the DNR conducts two draw-only hunts for a total of 130 rifle hunters in mid-December.

The rifle hunt, too, has proven popular. With roughly one hunter per 100 acres, there is plenty of elbow room, providing for a more enjoyable hunting experience and as well as enhancing hunter safety.

When drawn for the rifle hunt, a hunter essentially qualifies for a day-and-a-half of hunting at Fants Grove, beginning with a safety talk, followed by an evening hunt, then day-long access to the property the following day.

“It has gone over really well,” Morton said. “We’ve gotten a lot of compliments about it. The only problem that pops up sometimes is because it’s such a late-season hunt, the weather can mess things up. A couple of years ago we had a lot of ice on the first day of one of the hunts and that made things difficult.”

But certainly not impossible. Morton said rifle hunters typically bag around 35 deer, bucks and does, during the two hunts each year at Fants Grove. Bowhunters typically take between 70 and 100 deer during their two-month hunting period.

For all hunters, the limit is two deer, including no more than one buck — and that buck must have at least four points on one side. This Quality Deer Management approach has proven effective, and the fact that eight weeks of the season are set aside for bow hunters only has appealed to a growing number of hunters who can’t seem to relax at public lands where their hunting efforts are typically confined to two weeks.

“That has made it attractive to dedicated bow hunters because it gives them a place where they can go in and pattern deer and not have to worry about the gun season opening up,” Morton said.

An area of rolling hills featuring a diverse array of habitats — ranging from early successional clearcuts to older hardwood stands — Fants Grove is an intensely-managed tract that appeals to deer and hunters.

“Whatever you like to hunt, it’s there,” said Fricks, who has been bow hunting at the property for 10 years. “You’ve got dove fields and the transitions between the fields and the woods. You’ve got the lake (Hartwell). You’ve got selectively cut areas that encourage food growth underneath. You’ve got small pines, mature pines, mature oaks. I like to hunt where you’ve got a little bit of all of it.”

Such a location was precisely where Fricks was hunting last Nov. 22 when he bagged the buck of his life.

“I had spent the past two or three years trying to figure out the buck pattern in that area,” Fricks said.

Suffice it to say Fricks figured it out. His deer stand was nestled along an edge where hardwoods and 15-foot pines converged, and he felt confident in his location even as the morning hours passed uneventfully.

By early afternoon, the wind had picked up considerably and Fricks was making plans to call it a day. But only moments before he planned to climb down from his stand, a doe strolled by, prompting him to stay put a while longer, particularly with the rut in full swing.

The wind was strong and swirling, which also may have played into the hunter’s hands. Within 20 minutes, a big buck materialized, working his way across several doe trails while making his way directly toward Fricks’ stand.

“It was one of the windiest days I’ve ever hunted — if it had been that windy that morning, I wouldn’t even have gone out there,” Fricks said. “I actually believe he winded me, but the wind was so crazy he didn’t know where I was.”

Once the buck was in sight — walking along the edge just 20 yards away — Fricks had little time to ponder his next move. He stood up, grabbed his bow and drew.

“I wasn’t ready for him,” Fricks said. “He was coming at a fast pace, right across in front of me. I didn’t have much time to think about what I was going to do.”

Fricks offered a grunt with his throat in an effort to stop the buck — to no avail.

“I don’t even think he heard me because the wind was blowing so hard,” Fricks said. “I don’t like to take a shot with a deer moving, but I didn’t have a choice.

“I guess in a way it was lucky for me that it all happened so quick because I didn’t have time to fall apart. I’m not used to seeing big bucks like that.”

Fricks didn’t know exactly how impressive the buck’s antlers were, but he knew without question the deer had the minimum four points at at least one side of its rack.

“It only took one glance to see that he was something special,” Fricks said.

Fricks’ 12-yard shot hit the buck in the shoulder, and the arrow only penetrated deep enough to puncture one lung. Fricks climbed down from his stand and found where the buck had broken the arrow off when it plunged into a deep thicket.

“I could tell he had very little arrow in him — probably about 6 inches worth,” Fricks said. “So I marked the first sign of blood and went on home. A deer like that will go a long way if you push him, and I didn’t want for that to happen.”

Fricks returned promptly the next morning with two friends, and they eventually discovered Fricks’ trophy buck about 350 yards away from his stand after hours of diligent searching. It was worth their effort.

Fricks’ 3 1/2-year-old buck, which weighed 175 pounds, toted a beautifully-curved rack with an 18 1/8-inch inside spread. The rack had 10 points — a main-frame nine-pointer with a split brow tine — and had a long tine of 11 inches.

The antlers grossed more than 150 points and netted 138 5/8-inch Boone and Crockett score after deductions, easily qualifying it for inclusion in the state’s all-time record book, which requires a minimum score of 125 for typical sets of antlers. It also qualified for Pope and Young certification with a score of 137 3/8.

Fricks, already a man of few words, was left totally speechless when he glanced upon his buck for the first time.

“I couldn’t say a word when I saw it,” Fricks said. “It was unbelievable. I’ve been hunting for a long time, and you always dream about the big one. And I knew this one was it.”

Fricks says the trophy-management approach at Fants Grove not only encouraged him to pass up smaller bucks, but also has made him a better hunter.

“You can’t shoot the illegal deer, so you’ve got to just sit there and watch them, and you learn that way,” Fricks said. “I’m much more management-minded now. I don’t ever take the small ones anymore, no matter where I’m hunting.”

For Fricks, deer-hunting success is determined long before opening day arrives.

Fricks has been deer hunting for nearly 30 years, and like most hunters he began as a gun hunter. When he decided to give bow hunting a try, most of the time he left the woods frustrated. For a while he considered giving it up completely.

“It was hard for me to make that transition to the bow,” Fricks said. “I just couldn’t seem to get the right setup, the right location. When you’re hunting with a gun, you don’t have to get nit-picky with it. But you’ve got to be that way with a bow because you’ve got to get that buck within 20 yards for a good shot.”

But Fricks never gave up on the bow, and about 10 years ago “things just started clicking,” he said. It is, he said, all about scouting.

“I’ve learned to see the woods better now,” Fricks said. “If I’ve scouted out a good location to hunt, then see a deer from my stand, I consider that a success.

“I consider my scouting time to be when I’m really hunting. Most of my hours are spent scouting out of season. To me, that’s the main thing. I don’t go in there and mess around during the season — the deer know when you’re in there.

“I had put in plenty of time in previous years trying to figure out the buck pattern and the doe pattern in that area. It paid off for me because it finally all came together.”

Knight Cox, a forester who oversees the property for Clemson University, has divided Fants Grove into eight “research units,” and the units are rotated annually, with one area off limits to hunters each season.

Such an approach enables managers to detect and monitor trends in habitat, hunter success and deer movement at specific areas of the property. The management implications are numerous, and the DNR’s Morton is convinced the end result will be better hunting for everyone.

“Clemson does an excellent job of managing the forest,” Morton said. “And I think we’re getting fairly close to where the (deer) population — total numbers and ratio wise — needs to be.”

The nearby 4,000-acre Keowee Wildlife Management Area, another Clemson University-owned property about 5 miles from Fants Grove, is a bow hunting-only area but has more-liberal regulations: a two-buck limit with no minimum-antler restrictions.

But even the bowhunters who frequent Keowee have indicated they’d rather have tighter regulations. A recent hunter survey showed 74 percent of the hunters at the area would like to see the same one-buck-four-points-to-a-side restriction at Keowee that’s in place at Fants Grove.

It’s all about allowing bigger bucks to “grow up,” so to speak.

Just ask Jimmy Fricks.

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