Hunters can fill their final whitetail tags by employing some common-sense tactics near the season’s last days. The early days of the season, when acorns rain down with the slightest breeze and deer seemed to be everywhere, are long gone.
October’s hunter’s moon, with a glory as timeless and enduring as the activity that gave its name, has faded into the mists of fond memory. Those happy, hectic moments of the rut likewise lie behind us.
Yet for all that has passed, the better part of two months of the season remain.
Some hunters quit outright around the end of October, muttering thoughts such as “they are all nocturnal now” or “it’s a waste of time to sit in a stand during the latter part of the South Carolina season.”
Others continue to venture afield with diminished enthusiasm and low levels of expectation.
Quite simply, as Hank Williams, Jr. once put it, these hunters are in desperate need of an “attitude adjustment.” For hard hunters, those willing to take the right approaches and spend the requisite hours, there are plenty of tricks of the deer hunting trade that can make the late-season experience an enjoyable and successful one.
Let’s look at some of the tactics and techniques you might want to consider utilizing as the nights lengthen and cold strengthens.
Hunting ‘back of beyond’
Whitetails react to pressure in predictable ways. They limit their daytime activity in areas where hunting takes place, and they seek refuge in places where hunters seldom venture.
Those who manage, through willingness to walk farther, hunt longer, penetrate swamps and thickets or simply venture “back of beyond” can come to grips with these deer.
A case in point comes from the lifelong experiences of Eddie Salter, a friend with whom I have hunted many times over the years.
“In states throughout the South,” he said, “one of the best places to find deer late in the season is in the middle of swamps or wetlands.
“I’ve probably killed more good deer by going into wet places no one else wants to hunt than any other way.”
South Carolina is full of places of this sort, and not just in the Low Country. Whether you access them by boat, canoe or wading, a few specifics merit attention.
Almost all swamps have elevated areas, or “islands,” and deer utilize these for bedding and feeding. Also, don’t overlook long-abandoned dikes because in many cases they become veritable deer highways.
Another aspect of what might be called the water equation is islands in larger rivers. Whitetails often swim to them as places of refuge (for example, when pursued by dogs), but if there is suitable food, they may remain there for much of the hunting season.
Getting to these areas may require a watercraft or the use of waders, but the extra effort certainly can be worthwhile. Of course, figuring out how to bring your deer out once you shoot it presents another problem, but I like what veteran Carolina hunter Joe Scarborough once had to say about this matter.
“If you kill a big buck in a difficult place, you’ll figure out a way to get him out of the woods,” he said. “Anyone who lets that stand in the way of venturing into remote areas has just admitted to a little bit of laziness.”
The link between deer and water is an important one, but getting back of beyond can involve more than wetland adventures. National studies indicate nearly 90 percent of whitetail hunting occurs within 1/4-mile of a road or trail, and one suspects that figure might be even higher in South Carolina. Certainly it sends a message to the late-season deer hunter — a willingness to walk can work wonders.
With today’s GPS units, no one needs to worry about getting lost, and it doesn’t require extraordinary physical strength to tote a climber way back in the woods.
Furthermore, South Carolina’s two national forests, Sumter and Francis Marion, offer plenty of public-land opportunities for just this sort of hunting.
When you venture far off the trail, you’ll find that other hunters and the pressure they provide actually work for you. They push deer into the area you hunt.
Mention of pressure pushing whitetails out of an area brings to the forefront a related consideration worth keeping in mind during the late stages of the season.
Typically, hunters who venture afield at this time of year will spend only a couple of hours in the stand, no matter whether they hunt in the morning or the afternoon. But by staying in your stand later in the morning and getting to it earlier in the afternoon, especially on hard-hunted acreage of the sort typically encountered at hunt-club lands, one can enjoy the advantages of other hunters making deer move.
Antsy hunters who move too quickly and too much often reward patient nimrods who stay put.
Indeed, if you have the time and tenacity, spending the entire day aloft might be the best of all approaches during the year’s final two months. Deer are likely to move, even if only a bit, during periods other than at first and last light, and all-day hunting puts you in place to take advantage of this type of activity.
A first-rate, consistently successful S.C. hunter, Roy Turner, regularly used this approach.
“Back before I was married and had kids,” he said, “I thought nothing of getting into a comfortable stand and spending the day. I’d take along some food to munch on and a bottle of water.
“The difficult thing was staying alert for hour after hour, but when you can do it, you’ll see deer when no one else does.”
In particular, this approach can involve moments of “mid-day magic.” It’s almost as if deer decide to get up from their nap, stretch a bit, perhaps eat a few bites or get a drink, then settle back down until late afternoon.
Turner, who enjoys the advantage of a sizeable tract of family property where he can hunt, has long been an advocate of another oft-overlooked approach.
“I love to still hunt,” he said, “taking my time to slip through the woods, watching a lot more than I walk. If you can slip along quietly, using sound woodsmanship qualities such as walking into the wind and choosing days when the understory is damp enough to keep noise to a minimum, it’s surprising how many deer you can see before they see you.”
Even if you don’t have the luxury of lots of ground to roam, Turner said individuals can hunt this way when they leave the stand in the morning for the trek back to a vehicle and do the same thing as they return during the afternoon.
“Take your time going to and from the stand, looking for any hint of movement or images that don’t fit (by this he means horizontal shapes in the middle of the vertical ones provided by trees),” he said. “You might get a deer this way at any time.”
Unless a hunter shoots exceptionally well off-hand, carrying a lightweight shooting stick is recommended for this type of hunting.
Another factor well worth keeping in mind involves deer behavior during periods of bad weather. The colder the weather, the greater the food needs of whitetails. That means during those relatively rare occasions when temperatures dip into the teens and it remains bitterly cold even during the day, deer will be much more active.
They have to be because it takes a lot of energy (i. e., lots of food) to offset the cold. With today’s cold-weather gear, there’s no reason not to stay comfortable.
Thinking along similar lines, be ready and willing to take advantage of extended periods of cold, driving rain or the occasional skiff of snow that hits South Carolina late in the season. If rain has kept deer hunkered down in their beds for much of a day, or even better, overnight, they likely will start moving and feeding actively as soon as the weather breaks.
When it comes to snow, it’s a dream scenario for the hunter in the Palmetto State. As Roy Turner puts it, “deer are a lot easier to see, you can learn a lot about their travel patterns as revealed by a fresh snow, and the cold weather gets them moving.”
All of these are things to keep firmly in mind anytime it snows or the forecast calls for snow.
Although common in some parts of the country, man drives or pushes don’t get a lot of use in South Carolina. For the most part that’s understandable, given a long season and the way such activity can interfere with deer activity or even drive them off small tracts.
But for years in a group of hunters who are good friends, such drives have been an integral part of the hunting rituals associated with the final day of the season. The reason is simple — any disturbances associated with driving won’t matter, since it will be many months before the rites of fall once more bring their annual period of joy.
Accordingly, a dozen or so of us normally spend a couple of early morning hours at stands, then gather for a mid-morning snack and strategy session. The remainder of the day will be devoted to a series of carefully planned drives, most involving small woodlots, thickets, or known bedding areas.
After each one, drivers and standers switch roles, so everyone has an equal chance of activity.
This isn’t the place to discuss the various techniques of man drives in detail, since it’s a subject deserving of detailed treatment in its own right. Suffice it to say that safety concerns are paramount, drives should be confined to private land, and things happen so quickly it’s difficult to be selective in what you shoot.
It might also be noted drives are a way to cram a lot of excitement, and quite possibly acquire plenty of venison for the freezer, into the space of a few hours.
Jim Casada is a deer hunter who has written, edited or contributed to several books about whitetails. These include two venison cookbooks and a collection of the deer stories of the great South Carolina writer, Archibald Rutledge. For more details on ordering Casada’s books or to subscribe to his free monthly newsletter, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.
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