South Carolina’s lengthy season for white-tailed deer allows hunters many opportunities for recreation in the woods. The state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) divides our state into four game zones. Regulations and the duration of the season differ by region, with Game Zone Three — which covers the southern Lowcountry — enjoying the longest season, beginning August 15 for antlered deer on private land.
Either because they continue to enjoy summer activities, or to avoid the August heat, many deer hunters wait awhile before shouldering their guns and heading afield. Nonetheless, according to Brian Casey, of Greenville, S.C., those who don’t get out there and enjoy the early season are missing out.
Casey grew up deer hunting with his grandfather on family land in Amelia County, Virginia, near Richmond. “Back then, we only dog-hunted and we couldn’t hunt with firearms until right before Thanksgiving,” he recalls.
Casey and some friends lease a couple of hundred acres of timberland in Waterloo, near Greenwood, but he primarily utilizes that property for spring turkey hunting, though he occasionally hunts deer on the Upcountry parcel — but primarily only on those weekends in which Clemson has a home football game.
For more than a decade, Casey has been a member of a still hunting club in lower Orangeburg County. It’s where he focuses on the majority of his deer hunting endeavors. Every chance he gets, Brian heads south, a drive that takes “two hours and fifteen minutes from the door of my house in Greenville to the door or the clubhouse at the farm.” Casey and 13 other club members (heirs to a former dog-driving club) still-hunt a working farm on of a couple of thousand acres; crops include corn, peanuts and soybeans.
For Casey, “some of the fun hunts this time of year are in the soybean and peanut fields right before dark when the deer start feeding. We have a handful of stands along a power line maintained by Santee Cooper. It precludes the deer from staying hidden. Before they can get to the field to eat, they have to cross that power line and get out in the open.”
Brian explains the rewards of hunting, particularly during the early part of deer season. “For somebody from the Upstate, the early season is a unique treat because you get to see bucks on a beautiful Lowcountry property. This time of year, you get to see bucks in bachelor groups. Not long after the beginning of the season — in the first couple of weeks — bucks start breaking apart. So because of the later season back home, you never get to witness these bachelor groups.”
“Just the other night,” he continues, “I had four mature bucks together cruising and chowing down — just hanging out eating grass. This time of year, I might see as many as eight bucks together; that is just so cool and it’s something you never get to witness when you hunt later in the season.”
“Once the bucks start losing their velvet after a few weeks into the hunting season, they start breaking off into individual loaners. The only other time you get to see multiple bucks on a still hunt is typically during the rut — when the bucks are chasing does,” Casey notes. Indeed, these first few weeks seem like a simpler, innocent time, before nature’s inevitable, romantic competition begins to complicate, yet also enrich the lives of bucks.
This time of year also allows for better logistics for the hunter who travels such a long distance to his destination. “Relative to the early season,” Casey goes on, “another glory is that I can work a full day of work on Friday, get in the truck and be in the Lowcountry before the deer start moving. Typically this tine of year, it’s so hot the majority of the deer move right before dusk — in the last 30 minutes before dark.” That tendency likewise adds to the sporting challenge, since right at dusk, the bucks form a close-knit, affable herd.
“When it starts getting dark and the bucks all intermingle, you can’t pick one out in the scope. It’s so dark and they stay in tight groups. When they do stop, they all stop together,” Casey remarks with frustrated admiration. “To get an individual buck in the crosshairs of your scope right before dark is a difficult task. I tell you that it can be nerve-racking when you see the silhouette of a big ole mature buck and you can’t do anything about it! That’s what happened to me last week!”
Velvet antlers add an additional visibility-related challenge to late-summer hunting. Casey explains: “When you are trying to quality manage deer on the hoof, you really have to be careful when you are hunting bucks that are still in velvet. If you only look at the antlers, you might end up shooting a smaller, 150-pound, eight-pound buck in velvet.” Such a potential miscalculation is because “90 percent of the time you are looking at bucks, they are not in velvet and deer in velvet look a lot bigger than they really are. So, you need to age your deer by studying his body size and shape.”
Once you have properly assessed the quality of your buck, deer size is yet another beneficial aspect of hunting this time of year. “If you harvest a buck right now, he is typically at his largest — because he has been eating all summer and hasn’t even started thinking about chasing does. When bucks do start looking for does, that’s when they lose all their body mass,” Casey notes.
As the early season offers a unique window into the patterns and appearance of our prolific, yet ever-elusive white-tailed deer, it is an opportunity reserved only for those hunters fueled by a true zeal, a fanaticism, perhaps. These dedicated hunters embrace a willingness to don hunting clothes when it seems much too soon, an endurance for heat and mosquitoes, a keen eye and a realization that the nights last longer — especially when having to tracking their prey after pulling the trigger.
Brian reflects: “Another thing I’ll touch on that you don’t have to deal with as much in the Upstate is snakes. A buddy harvested a buck the other day and in tracking his deer, we were in the power line getting ready to go into the woods. You can see trailheads where deer travel and they are where I was going to look for his deer. Right when we were getting ready to step in, a copperhead crossed the trail right in front of me.”
Casey reminds us that pursuing our passion is not always convenient. It requires patience, hard work and a significant commitment of time, talent, treasure and travel. Ultimately, though, the inner peace of deer hunt is worth it all. Amid an increasingly chaotic and complicated world, the sport awakens a spiritual kinship with our hunter-gatherer forebears. Casey’s trophy bucks support this claim, but perhaps not so soundly as his love of deer hunting and the excitement in his voice when he begins talking about white-tailed deer. “I just enjoy the outdoors,” he goes on. “Deer hunting helps me decompress from everyday life. I love the fellowship of my club: the hunting, the cooking, the eating and the socializing — all of it!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.