WINTER COLUMN: Hunting big bucks and big checks
This is, by far, one of my favorite weeks of the year. Time to sneak out of the office and double-down on a proper outdoors extravaganza.
It's all about the big bucks — on the hoof and in the wallet.
The Lowcountry's famously long deer season opens on private land this week, and thousands of us hunters will head out before dawn Wednesday morning to take a shot at an early-season buck.
If that weren't enough to keep me up at night with excitement (sadly, it is), my fishing buddies and I hope to take another crack at catching a “Miracle” mackerel this weekend. The Key West Boats Fishing for Miracles King Mackerel Tournament, one of the Lowcountry's longest-running and most popular competitive fishing events, offers a grand prize of about $25,000 for the biggest fish.
So all I need is a 130-inch-class buck and a 40-plus-pound king mackerel. Easy-peasy, right?
The deer stands are ready, the food plots lush and green, the game cameras clicking away.
By 4 a.m. Wednesday, I should be perched about 15 feet up a tree, sweating through my camo and swatting mosquitoes.
Why? Just take a look at the big boy pictured here. One of our game cameras caught this mature buck checking out a food plot a week or two ago. He's no record-book giant, but he's surely a nice Lowcountry buck. We suspect there might be a few even better ones running around, too.
Opening day isn't for everyone; bugs and heat serve as an effective deterrent. But thick-skinned hunters know that velvet-antlered bucks are extremely predictable in late summer and often can be spotted visiting food plots in daylight hours ... at least until the first bullets begin to fly.
“There will be a pile of bucks killed the first three or four days of the season, then it'll be like a spigot is cut off and you won't see a buck until mid-September,” said Charles Ruth, deer project supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.
Asked last week to give Lowcountry deer hunters some early season advice, Ruth explained that once bucks begin dropping their antlers' protective covering in late August and early September, their attention begins to shift from food to sex.
“The bucks are ready, physiologically, to breed after they drop their velvet,” Ruth said. “Every day you go into September, the anxiety in males increases. By the time you get to the end of September, you're going to have that odd doe coming into estrus, and these bucks will be zipping through the woods looking for her.
“People are always asking me when is the best time to hunt. For me, I would want to hunt the last five days of September all the way through Halloween.”
Luckily, this schedule works just fine for me: Hit opening day of deer season, then head back out on the water for a little live-baiting for king mackerel.
During about 10 years of fishing Miracles, my buddies and I have caught a few nice kings and picked up a few cash prizes, but we've never come close to the jackpot.
It would be truly miraculous, of course, to out-fish those high-dollar crews that run the tournament circuit. You know the ones: 30-plus-foot center consoles, triple outboards, corporate sponsors, lots of patches on their matching fishing shirts.
Seems as though such teams have taken the lion's share of winnings during the past few years. Back in the earlier days of the tournament — this is its 19th year — the winners were more likely to be regular, run-of-the-mill weekend warriors, like the guy down the street.
Who knows? Maybe a local small-boat angler will give those semi-pro guys a run for their money this year. After all, given halfway decent weather, almost anybody can luck into the winning fish. And that's the cool thing about Miracles.
To prove the point (and perhaps provide some strategy tips), I looked back through 10 years of coverage by The Post and Courier's Tommy Braswell. Anglers usually withhold most information about how, when and where a big king was caught, but Braswell managed to glean some clues from the winning teams:
2011: Team Sperry-Net Profit, captained by Bryan Baxter, caught a 40.60-pounder in 70 feet of water using live mullet. The fish was caught about noon.
2010: Juggernaut, captained by Bert Harvey, caught a 34.1-pounder while fishing with live mullet.
2009: Black Cat, captained by Jamey Stewart, caught a 42.90-pounder while fishing south of Charleston with live menhaden. The fish was caught in the first minutes of tournament fishing, as the crew was still putting out baits.
2008: Reel Hooked, captained by Shane Hicks, caught a 38.32-pounder just off Charleston about midday.
2007: Juggernaut, captained by Bert Harvey, caught a 38.84-pounder in 80 feet of water about 40 miles south of Charleston.
2006: Two Sons, fished by brothers Bobby and Brad Byars, caught a 34.79-pounder at the Charleston Jetties late in the afternoon on the final day of fishing. The brothers were down to their last two live baits.
2005: Partners Ship, captained by Ray Leone, caught a 39.07-pounder about 1 p.m. on the first day of fishing.
2004: Gusto IV, a 55-foot Ocean Yacht owned by Dennis Lee, caught a 41.29-pounder in 180 feet of water using live menhaden.
2003: Couch Boat, owned by Thomas Hutto III and Josh Cantwell, caught a tournament-record 52.69-pounder on the only strike of the day. The huge king capped an outstanding tournament: all of the top 30 fish weighed more than 31 pounds.
2002: Channel Surfer, a 17-foot Boston Whaler owned by Michael Shiver, caught a 39.69-pounder just outside the Charleston Jetties about 3 p.m. on the first day of fishing. Shiver, who was using a ribbonfish for bait, had never fished a tournament before and was competing as the smallest boat in the fleet.
This year's tournament, which benefits MUSC Children's Hospital and the Coastal Conservation Association, will be fished Friday-Saturday out of Ripley Light Yacht Club. Registration and the captain's meeting will be Thursday afternoon and evening at the yacht club.
For tournament details, rules and registration forms, go to fishingformiracles.org.
For more tips on king mackerel fishing and for photo galleries and coverage of the Fishing for Miracles tournament, go to tidelinemagazine.com.
Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.