Hunt the opening day of deer season here in the Lowcountry and you'll almost certainly have the chance to swat plenty of mosquitoes, accumulate a nice collection of chiggers and sweat off a few pounds of water weight.
But you also might accomplish a hunting feat possible in relatively few other areas of the country: Take a mature white-tailed buck in full velvet.
The hunting season for white-tailed deer (buck only) begins Thursday on private lands in Berkeley, Charleston and Colleton counties, with archery-only in Georgetown County until Sept. 1. (For complete regulations, go to dnr.sc.gov).
If you're not already obsessing over game cam pics and setting up excuses to miss work later this week, here are a few tips to get you fired up.
These tried-and-true tactics come from two of the Lowcountry's most die-hard hunters, biologist Don Hammond and son Scott Hammond, manager at Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply in West Ashley.
The two of them log more than 120 deer hunts per season, collectively, on various tracts of private land. Over decades of hunting together, the pair has harvested hundreds of deer, including many trophy-class Lowcountry bucks.
Scott hunts almost exclusively with a bow, while Don uses a rifle (shoulder problems ended his archery days).
The Hammonds use a mix of climbing, lean-to and hang-on tree stands, which they customize extensively.
For his rifle stands, Don uses metal conduit tubing to fabricate large rifle rests. He also uses camo material to almost completely enclose each stand. “I want lots of darkness inside, with little chance for wind to blow through and carry scent.”
Since Scott's tree stands must remain open to accommodate bow hunting, he adds extra camo to the tree trunk where the stand is attached.
“I'll cut pine samplings and zip-tie them up in the tree around me to give me a backdrop.”
When picking stand locations, the Hammonds look for edges where two or more habitats converge, natural pinch points where deer movement becomes funneled, and well-used deer trails marked with rubs and scrapes.
“If you're looking for bucks, that's where you'll see more of them,” Don said. “Especially if you can find a rather large tree that is being rubbed, or a large scrape that is fairly deep. That indicates that it's a historical scrape, one that's been used year after year.
“Scrapes are not used by just one buck — they are a general signpost. I've seen as may as four mature bucks work a scrape in the same evening. It's like they're trying to hide the odor or message from the previous buck.”
The Hammonds use corn to concentrate deer, which is legal and commonplace throughout the Lowcountry. Over the years, they've developed tactics that go beyond simply piling cob corn on the ground. Most importantly, they use battery-operated feeders that distribute shelled corn (kernels) at pre-programmed times.
Such feeders are particularly useful at bowhunting stands. Scott sets his feeders to distribute corn at the first crack of daybreak and then an hour and a half before dark — at either time, he's already in the stand before deer come in to feed within bow range.
“If you just have a big corn pile sitting there, they can come in 24/7 whenever they want,” he explained. “When I go into my bow stand, there's zero corn on the ground. Those deer have cleaned up from the evening feeding many hours ago. That allows me to get into my bow stands without spooking a lot of deer.”
So what about rifle stands? How far away should hunters place a feeder?
“As far as you're comfortable shooting,” according to Don.
A hunter who's honed his or her skill with a rifle could place a feeder up to 200 yards or more from a stand, he said. The farther away, the less chance of spooking deer.
Whatever the placement, hunters shouldn't expect giant bucks to simply walk out and stand under feeders.
“The last couple of years, all the deer that I have killed around corn have been does,” Don said. “… The bucks don't necessarily come to the feeder. They're going to come into proximity so they can smell whether there are any does at the feeder.
“So you hunt the periphery, where these bucks will move.”
Though a variety of special soaps, sprays, clothes and gadgets can reduce human odor, “you are not going to fool a deer's nose,” Scott said. “I do believe all that helps, but it's definitely not foolproof.”
The best defense against getting busted, Scott said, is to maintain a disciplined approach to “hunting the wind.”
“That's the single most important thing. I don't hunt that stand unless the wind's right. It took several years of bowhunting to get that ingrained in my head.
“No matter what's showing up on camera, no matter how much temptation you have, stay out. Because once that deer winds you from that stand, especially if it's a big buck or doe, they're on to you. Then instead coming right into that feeder the next time, they'll stop and loop all the way around until they get downwind of your stand. They'll scent-check to see if you're there.”
Even when hunting with good wind, the Hammonds go to great lengths to mitigate scent.
“My hunting clothes are sitting in a Rubbermaid container with old dead leaves and stems in it,” Don said. “And that's where they stay. I don't get dressed until I get ready to walk to my stand — not drive to my stand; I get dressed after I park.”
Both hunters swear by tall rubber hunting boots, which they keep clean with baking soda wash-downs. Scott actually keeps two pairs, a working set and one just for hunting.
The Hammonds also take particular care when visiting the feeders and other hot zones around their stands. They use rubber gloves when checking game cameras and keep the trails into tree stands cleared of scent-trapping vegetation.
“You may think this is crazy, but on every single path into my bow stands, everything's trimmed back at least 4 feet wide so I don't brush up against any limbs that could hold my scent,” Scott said. “Right before hunting season, I actually rake the paths into my bow stands.”
Even the best hunters sometimes succumb to boredom in the tree stand and shift their attention to a smart phone, tablet or paperback.
Invariably, that's when the big buck makes an appearance.
“You talk to hunters who say, 'I always bring a good book to my stand.' ” Don said. “Well, they're not going to be killing many deer. … If you're going hunting, you should be alert and paying attention from the time you get up in your stand.”
Scott and Don both advise hunters to focus on looking for the subtle signs of a deer's presence.
“You don't look for a whole deer,” Don said. “That's one of the biggest mistakes people make. They expect to see deer, but you really only see pieces and parts.
“Usually that is the first giveaway of a deer's presence: movement. Usually you're going to see a flicker of an ear or a flicker of a tail, or a discoloration of the brush that wasn't there before.
“Or you'll see a horizontal line (the line of a deer's back). A horizontal line in a vertical world is one of the big giveaways.”
Spotting these clues is critical, Scott said, particularly when hunting thick cover with narrow shooting lanes.
“Hunters always say, 'Oh, he got by me before I got my gun up.' ” Scott said. “But if you spot that flicker, you're already on pins and needles, you've already got your rifle up you're looking through the scope.
“Even if he's only in that shooting lane for two seconds, you've got him.”
Reach Matt Winter, manager of niche content and design and editor of Tideline magazine, at (843) 937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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