Big, wooded mountains require special deer-hunting tactics

Hunting deer in big, forested mountain country like South Carolina’s Jocassee Gorges requires some special approaches and tactics. Here’s what one veteran hunter does to put his tag on big, mountain bucks.

Hunting in the big, open woods of the mountains offers deer hunters challenges they don’t face in flatter country. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

At first, it was to try something different. 

Now it is an obsession. 

Growing up in South Carolina’s Midlands, deer hunting was centered on pine plantations and cutover properties, a few oak ridges mixed in, as well as some agriculture fields. 

Over the past few decades, with the advent of food plots and baiting in many areas, hunting methods have changed. Instead of going and looking for the deer, we are now manipulating the ground to make the deer come to us. Whether it is planting peas or soybeans, or dumping bait piles, it’s different. 

I had been missing some of the challenge of the deer hunting I had done in my youth, so several years ago, I began hunting a big expanse of public land in the South Carolina’s northwestern corner, an area known as the Jocassee Gorges, which encompasses 43,500 acres along the border with North Carolina. Merge this with protected lands in both North Carolina and South Carolina, and the Blue Ridge Escarpment protects slightly more than 150,000 acres combined. The Gorges, as they are known, are the most-rugged and mountainous areas in South Carolina, and they offer hunting challenges unlike any other. 

Hunters need to study topography in a mountainous area and determine areas where deer movements will be concentrated because of an area’s ups and downs. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

This rich land is steep — by southern measurements — and vast. Even advanced woodsmen and women are prone to some orienteering challenges. With ridges traveling in all directions, steep drainages and valleys, it can be somewhat challenging to find one’s way — especially in the dark. 

An area with productive oak trees is a big plus for mountain deer hunters because deer will find acorns as soon as they start falling.

The Jocassee Gorges attracts hunters of all types, mostly during the bear season that runs for two consecutive weeks in October: one week of still-hunting followed by a week of hound hunting  for bears. Contrary to popular belief, the hounds do little to disturb the bucks in these woods. With so much country to wander, it isn’t too difficult for a hunter to locate an area away from the bear hunters. With gun season for deer closed during bear season, it’s archery only for deer during the hound season for bears.

How does one begin to hunt big woods? Where do you begin? Joel Smith, who lives in South Carolina’s Pickens County, begins with maps. The Jim Timmerman map of the Jocassee Gorges is available at the Table Rock State Park Visitors Center. It is a detailed map of the area and shows all roads, trails and access points. These maps help you eliminate much of the land.  

“Spend your time looking over the maps to find areas to concentrate on,” Smith said. “Then, it’s all about the boot leather.”

Smith recommends scouting year-round to find trails, bedding areas, old rubs and typical deer sign. Locate these areas and scout them regularly. 

Since COVID-19 became an issue, public lands have been getting more crowded. Smith said he has had to go deeper and deeper into the Gorges to avoid human traffic. Smith emphasized being aware of hikers in the Gorges and on other public lands. These lands are open to the public, and with dozens of hiking trails meandering through the area, you are bound to have interactions with hikers, who seldom wear safety orange and are usually talkative. Be patient; they are trying to enjoy a day afield. Smith said to avoid interaction, locate your hunting areas as far from these trails as possible. 

“I am going as much as 3 miles from my truck to avoid other hunters,” he said. “Going this far eliminates excessive human pressure that will alarm the deer.”  

With deer densities much lower than in other areas, big-woods deer are more prone to reacting to pressure than deer that are more accustomed to human interaction. Studies show that most hunters stay within ¼-mile from a road or trail. To find undisturbed deer, go where others will not. The farther you are from other hunters or hikers, the better your chances are for finding trophy bucks. 

When looking for likely spots, Smith keys in on ridge lines and saddles. 

“I made the mistake early on and concentrated on drainages. Unfortunately, the drainages concentrate feral pigs and they tend to move the deer out of those areas,” he said. 

After learning this, Smith moved up the mountains and now spends most of his time on saddles— lower areas between two higher points — or along ridgetops. 

“Saddles are critical in the mountains, because they is where deer and other animals cross over the ridges.” said Smith, who likes to focus his attention on travel corridors that are approaching or crossing these saddles. As a bowhunter exclusively, he believes this gives him the best chance to ambush a buck.  

“These saddles can be as narrow as a few yards to as wide as several hundred yards,” he said. 

Once you locate a saddle, scout it thoroughly and look for the trails the deer are using to access and cross it. If you see the sign, you know a buck is in the area. 

The big woods of the Jocassee Gorges have a variety of fauna and food available for deer. A vast expanse of mast-producing trees covers thousands of acres; it can be overwhelming. But by locating active food sources and bedding areas and setting up between the two, you are more likely to find your deer. 

Smith said some of the hunting is the week of bear season reserved for dogs — even if it’s archery only. 

“I sit and listen to the dogs running bears and stay alert, because I know they are pushing deer everywhere,” he said. “I really enjoy that week because I know I will see a lot of deer.” 

Hunting deer in the big woods can be challenging, for sure, but by spending some time scouting and locating bucks, it is possible to find and kill some of the biggest bucks in your state. 

A quick search through the records books shows that these mountains host some giant bucks. Hunters who are more willing to go after them are the ones who are more successful and are often rewarded with a trophy of a lifetime.

A portable game cart can make a long trek out of the woods with a slain deer much easier than a drag. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

He’s down, but not out

Retrieving your deer from the big woods can be a chore unlike any other. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in many places, so hunting the big, steep country of the Jocassee Gorges and other wild areas of the Carolinas, including the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in North Carolina, requires some interesting tactics to get your deer from the woods. 

It is not uncommon to be several miles from your vehicle, and dragging a big buck that far is not realistic for most people. First, consider field-dressing your deer to remove as much weight at possible. Leaving a good percentage of the body weight behind is going to lighten the load considerably. 

Some options for getting your deer from the woods include:

• A sled, such as a Beavertail or Jet Sled, is designed to haul gear over rough terrain. Often used by waterfowl hunters, these sleds are excellent choices for dragging deer from the woods. The thermoplastic design is durable and tough and reduces the friction along the ground. One tip: take some rope to tie the deer into the sled so it doesn’t slide around in the steep terrain.

• A game cart. Like a wheelbarrow, a game cart places the deer on wheels and allows you to push or pull the deer along with little to no friction. A cart is worth its weight in gold. Semi-pneumatic tires are standard for game carts. Consider replacing them with pneumatic tires to help get over rough ground. Again, strap or tie the deer to the cart to keep from it falling off. 

• Pack the deer out. Western hunters have been doing this for centuries. Cleaning the deer where it fell and butchering it in the field makes the pack-out a lot easier. You can quarter it or do a complete de-bone. To be legal in South Carolina, you cannot transport a deer without the head intact. If you are packing out your deer, you must pack out the head intact to be legal.  Caution: when packing out the head, cover it with hunter orange to keep an accident from occurring.

About Pete Rogers 163 Articles
Pete Rogers of Taylors, S.C., is employed with the USDA Wildlife Services and has been a sporting writer and photographer for over a decade. He has a real passion for trapping and enjoys sharing his outdoors experiences with his wife and five children.

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