Deer hunting outlook for the Carolinas 2019-20

Whitetail hunters can expect reasonably good seasons when they take to the woods in the Carolinas over the next few weeks. Here’s why….

What will the upcoming deer seasons hold in store for hunters in South Carolina and North Carolina?

If you listen to the biologists who head up deer management for the states’ respective wildlife agencies, well, probably some pretty good hunting.

And one of the reasons, well, was what has happened the past couple of seasons.

Charles Ruth, the deer-project leader for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, hopes a two-year trend of increased harvests will continue. Many deer survived several extra seasons thanks to tremendous rain events that caused SCDNR to actually close the season in some flooded areas in past autumns.

Jon Shaw, the deer-project leader for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, thinks hunters in his neck of the woods will have a much-better season than last year. That’s partly because they’ll be more used to new regulations that affected two-thirds of the state. And they likely won’t lose as many days in the woods because of the bad weather.

Here’s what they have to say:

Some South Carolina deer have been “protected” the past two seasons because of flooding that actually closed some areas.

South Carolina

Ruth believes hunters in the Palmetto State will have a good season, beginning Aug. 15 in the Lowcountry. The harvest was up 5% in 2018 over 2017 levels, and the 2017 harvest was better than the 2016 harvest.

“I have a sense that things are starting to creep back up a little bit,” Ruth said. “I don’t know how much. But in talking to folks, they say they’re seeing more deer than they saw five or six years ago. Weather permitting, we should have a good season.

“We heard some noise because of 2015 and 2016, when we had floods and the hurricanes. I don’t know if the harvest is coming back or it’s just that the last two years have been up because of all the deer leftover from the storms. But I think we’re starting a slight, upward trend.”

Harvest is on an upswing

Ruth said no specific areas in South Carolina have seen bigger harvest increases or significant decreases, with the exception of the Pee Dee counties. And that’s where most of the closures after huge rain events were located.

“The harvest seems to hop around some,” he said. “We’ve had some closures the past couple of years, a lot of them in the Pee Dee. But I don’t know what may pop out as far as increases or decreases. I wouldn’t be surprised if the harvest goes up another 5% this fall.”

James Sims’ 1602/8-inch Fairfield County buck was the biggest typical taken in South Carolina in 2018.

Ruth said changes in deer-tagging regulations and season limits that have taken effect over the past two seasons may have had an impact on hunters’ attitudes, and as such, on the harvest.

“I don’t know if the season changes helped the deer, but our antler records were great this cycle,” he said. “Was that because we’re on an upswing, or because we’ve had so many of those bucks that were left over from the two seasons of rain?

“What’s interesting is that over the past two years, with new buck limits and required deer tagging, we’ve seen back-to-back increases that were mostly in terms of the doe harvest. Maybe we’re taking some pressure off the bucks. That may support the increase in our record-book entries this past cycle.”


seasonsSC Deer record book has big year

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources released its report on the 2019 Deer Antler Records, and the 2018 season was apparently a good one for trophy hunters in the Palmetto State.

According to Charles Ruth, the big-game project manager for SCDNR, 242 deer — 232 typicals and 10 non-typical — qualified for the record book, with 198 of them taken last fall. That was an increase of 10 deer over the 2018 scoring sessions and 29 over the 2017 scoring sessions.

The top whitetail scored in scoring sessions held around the state in March was James Sims’  Fairfield County buck, which scored 160 2/8 inches typical. It is the biggest typical ever killed in Fairfield County.

Sims had enough trail-camera photos of the buck since 2016 to be intimately acquainted with it. He nicknamed it “Waldo.”

He finally killed the buck at dark on Dec. 7. His buck had a 5×6 typical frame with a sticker point and a split brow tine, plus a 19-inch inside spread and main beams that measured 28 1/8 and 27 3/8 inches.

Two 162 7/8-inch bucks tied for the largest non-typical scored: Daniel Barnhill’s Horry County buck and Joseph Hozey’s Abbeville County buck.

Top county contributions to record book

Aiken County produced the most record-book bucks scored this past March: 21. Aiken is the No. 1 all-time county for record-book bucks with 529 out of the 7,469 that have qualified since the program’s inception in 1974.

Horry and Laurens counties placed 13 bucks each in the record book this year, followed by Anderson County with 12 and Orangeburg County with 11.


North Carolina

North Carolina hunters had a bit of a rough season in the fall of 2018, what with a hurricane, a tropical storm and an early December snowstorm contributing.

“It was a wet year,” biologist Shaw said. “It seemed like every time I had a chance to hunt, it was raining.

“There was a definite reduction in the amount of hunter effort in the first part of the season. There was probably some compensation at the end of the season, but I don’t know if it caught up. There’s a definite chance that it didn’t.”

But the biggest difference, and 15% drop in harvest, was more likely associated with regulation changes in the eastern half of North Carolina that cut in half the number of bucks a hunter could tag (to two) and cut back on the number of antlerless deer allowed.

“I did expect a (lower harvest) last season,” Shaw said. “We had some big differences in regulations, and I expect this year’s harvest to stabilize somewhat, maybe increase in some areas. That bodes well for this year.”

Shaw said that, early last season, before the big rain events, “We saw a lot of deer.” But the regulation changes in the eastern half of the state forced the harvest down quite a bit, even with the harvest in the western third of the state rising by about 7%.

Western third of state is on an increase

“In the eastern half of the state, the buck harvest and doe harvest both dropped, but the buck harvest dropped at three times the rate of the doe harvest, and we saw a slight change in the age structure of the harvest,” he said. “We were a little surprised at the decline in the button buck harvest. That could mean that, in addition to being more selective in the bucks we’re taking, we’re become more selective in the does, too.”

Shaw believes the herd in the western third of North Carolina is on a definite increase. Part of it may be attributed to better habitat — at least on private lands; don’t expect the U.S. Forest Service to do any timber thinning on national forests that would help wildlife and non-game animals alike — and part of it is just part of a cycle.

Observation numbers are up

“We saw our deer populations recover in the east and then in the Piedmont and Foothills in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and now western North Carolina is coming on,” he said. “Improved habitat may be part of it, but I think we’ve just got an emerging deer herd in that part of the state.”

Don’t underestimate the effect of moving  limited antlerless days from the end of the region’s short gun season to the beginning.

Shaw said that the Commission’s Deer Hunter Observation Survey produced the biggest numbers of deer observations last fall since its inception in 2014.

“I expect that, if we don’t have any hemorrhagic disease, we’ll see better numbers this fall,” he said.


Get started early for September archery bucks

Several tips and tactics can help prepare hunters for North Carolina’s archery season, which begins statewide on Sept. 8.

Hunters Devin Lane of Cameron, N.C., and Dennis Lower of Sanford, N.C., key on seven factors, including the presence of deer, scouting, food, wind, scent control, camouflage and weapons skills.

Both men prepare early.

“I check out as many as seven or eight (potential hunting sites) by setting up trail cameras, starting in early June,” said Lane, who arrowed a main-frame 5×5 buck with 13 sticker points last September that scored 1757/8 and is North Carolina’s No. 2 all-time non-typical by bow.

Baiting is very effective in early season

“When I get a picture of a big deer, that’s where I’ll put out corn (in June). I set a ground blind or tree stand three weeks before the season starts. I don’t  ‘glass’ fields. Deer are just about everywhere now, and they will come to bait piles.”

Dennis Lower’s Lee County buck is North Carolina’s all-time best non-typical taken by crossbow.

Lower, who also hunts from a ground blind, took a 5×5 main-frame buck with nine sticker points last October that’s North Carolina’s No. 1 all-time non-typical by crossbow. He estimated that he had 2,500 trail-camera photos of his big buck during the 4 ½ years he watched it mature until he dropped the monster at a corn/sweet-meal bait site.

Keep the wind in your favor

Lane won’t hunt from a ground blind unless the wind blows from his bait pile toward him. But he still sprays his clothes and boots with scent-killer spray. He wears black clothes in his blind, including gloves and a face mask. He shoots through a 1 ½-foot triangular window.

Lower also hunts only favorable winds from a ground blind. He zips down his window just 3 inches because his Ravin crossbow requires such a small opening.

“I don’t wear camo,” Lower said. “I hang my clothes outside on tree limbs to avoid human odor. And I start carrying corn in May.”

Stand placement is crucial

Lane places his stands and bait piles just inside woods lines.

“I learned if I found a good spot in the middle (of property), I bumped too many deer going in,” he said. “So I avoid that now.”

Both men practice shooting, although Lower doesn’t need as many reps with his crossbow. Lane shoots 30 arrows per day with his Mathews Creed compound bow.

“I can hit a target’s heart-lung area consistently at 40 yards, but I set up (blinds) 25 yards from my corn pile,” Lane said.

Both hunters drilled their trophy bucks behind the left shoulders for pass-through shots. Lower’s crossbow bolt traveled 17 yards and Lane’s arrow flew 25 yards. — Craig Holt


Find, identify early season  food sources

Deer season is often classified in multiple categories, with the pre-rut and rut getting most of the attention. But the early and late seasons also offer excellent hunting opportunities. And, right now, hunters are thinking early season deer in the Carolinas.

Veteran hunter Darrell Madden of Semora, N.C., who has targeted big deer for years, and starts the season understanding local food sources.

“For many hunters, it’s easy to think generally in terms of food sources. But actually it’s something that will change significantly during the season,” he said. “Understanding the seasonal food pattern is a key to producing the visual connection to deer.”

Madden said a good thing in the early season is that deer haven’t be hunted hard or shot at, but even so, scouting must be accomplished without pressuring deer.

Deer can be patterned in early season

Deer often use agricultural crops like these soybeans as cover as well as an early season food source.

“The lack of pressure improves hunting when early season food sources are identified,” he said. “For example, when I see deer using a specific food source when I’m scouting, it’s a strong likelihood that they’ll consistently feed at that source. Better yet, they usually do so at approximately the same time every day. Once pressured later in the season, that advantage is lost.”

Madden said food sources vary a great deal across the Carolinas. But scouting specifically for localized early season food sources is not difficult.

“For some hunters, large agriculture fields will provide easy access to an outstanding food source,” he said. “Soybeans are an extremely good source that provides good nutrition for deer. A wide range of food exists on agriculture lands, with corn, peanuts and cotton among others.

“The key is once you identify a source, you’ll need to pinpoint the best sites on the large fields for deer ingress and egress,” he said.

Don’t overlook persimmons and other small food sources

Madden said many prime food sources may be small, with persimmons an excellent example.

“Depending on the specific type of oak, some acorns are ready to drop early and can provide outstanding hunting opportunities,” he said. “Last season, we had acorns falling very early in my area, during September. And deer were all over them.

“Finding these areas does require some research and scouting to identify mast trees with plenty of acorns, but also the trees where they fall early,” he said. “Later, as other acorn trees produce, deer will usually move if another source is superior.”

Learning to distinguish large, white oak trees from red oaks will help hunters pinpoint different sources as the season progresses.

Madden said hunters can perform some “self-help” by planting food plots with a blend that includes early season foods. Location is a key. You don’t want to compete with soybeans right across the road. Situate a plot not far from bedding and watering areas, but away from crops.

“I’ve found no substitute to putting in the effort to hoof it and scout the land I plan to hunt to identify prime food sources,” he said. “Even if not all the sources are used during early season, it helps me track deer movements as they transition among various food sources.”— Terry Madewell


Let technology give you a scouting edge

Public land gets a bad rap across the Carolinas. Millions of acres of untouched land are available for hunters willing to put in the work.

Finding a good location takes a lot of effort and boot leather but is worth the effort. South Carolina’s all-time No. 1 buck was killed on public land. But if you want a good buck, you have to be willing to go where other hunters won’t.

Use technology, including internet mapping, to locate areas that deer frequent, including pinch points, edges, chunks of heavy cover, and trails and logging roads.

Thankfully, in today’s world of technology, we can hone in on specific places by doing some internet scouting. Before hitting the woods, visit Google Earth and/or use a smart phone app such as OnX Hunt to find places to start your scouting.

OnX Hunt shows property boundaries, landowner information and hunting-unit boundaries. By adding a layer of topography, you can find funnels, saddles, pinch points and other places deer will likely use for travel.

Nothing replaces walking

But as good as this is, it doesn’t replace actual walking and scouting the land.

The old adage is true; most hunters will not travel more than a few hundred yards from where they park when hunting public land. If you are willing to, get as far back as possible. Then move in early and stay late. Bucks pattern hunters, and they know when the woods get busy and when they get empty.

One thing often written about is so true. Use other hunters to move deer past you. Most hunters only put in a few hours on stand. And then they get down and “scout” — and they’re actually pushing deer all through the woods. By committing to staying on stand much longer, you increase the odds of someone pushing deer past you.

On a hunt a few years ago, I watched a buck stand up in a cut-over and saw a hunter walk past him at 20 yards. The buck stood statue-still for 40 minutes staring into the direction the hunter walked. Then, he finally moved, just enough for me to get a shot. — Pete Rogers

Dan Kibler
About Dan Kibler 792 Articles
Dan Kibler is managing editor of Carolina Sportsman magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain.