Vanishing act by deer leaves lots of hunters puzzled

Trophies from earlier hunts adorn the lodge at Ravenwood Hunt Club.

In the Lowcountry, after God, country and family, there's deer.

Young and old spend the entire year primed for fall season to open. They scout stand sites, set up motion-detecting cameras, run the dogs and watch the ground for telltale hoof prints. A freezer of venison makes a winter; a rack on the wall is a story to tell. Hundreds of acres of corn, oats and rye are planted, and bags of corn are dispersed to lure big bucks out of the bottoms.

But sometimes they just don't come. About 750,000 deer are estimated to live in South Carolina. About 250,000 bucks and does were reported harvested last year. This fall, hunters find themselves sitting over food plots alone.

"They're not seeing the deer," said Trey Hoffman, of Palmetto Deer Processing in Moncks Corner.

"The deer just aren't coming out to the fields," said Kyle Jones, manager of Echaw Creek Plantation in Berkeley County.

"It's not that the deer aren't there. There's plenty of deer track. There's plenty of deer moving," said Jacob Casa, of Ravenwood Hunt Club in Ravenel.

What it is, is the acorn. Maybe the best nut crop in 10 years is raining out of the oaks into the bottoms. That's like Haagen-Dazs to the deer, said Michael Cordray, of Cordray's Venison Processing in Ravenel. And when there's ice cream lying right at your hoof, you're not going to go looking for corn.

The summer rains that brought the acorns also brought honeysuckle, greenbriar and other browse, or grazing food, that deer prefer. All that and warm weather has deer staying in the bottoms to feast and laying low until the late night chill. It's one of those natural cycles. The better years for growing deer food usually turn out to be better years for acorns.

Some hunters are bagging deer. On Friday morning, more than 30 harvests already had been brought into Cordray's processing plant a few hours after opening. Two club hunters who brought in five deer said 20 more were spotted. But a lot of the success has been among hunters who take on the sludge into the deep woods to stake out an acorn-rich oak tree.

So the season's a bust? Not so fast. Hunters said deer were moving when the night turned cold Thursday. Last night, the season's first freeze warning was issued by the National Weather Service, Charleston, for Berkeley and Dorchester counties. The cold is thought to get them moving.

"The frost will kill the browse and sour the acorns. I think the hunting will be a lot better," Jones said.

"It ought to be pretty positive for the rest of the season," Casa said. "The bottom line is, you're not going to be able to harvest any deer sitting in your house."

Reach Bo Petersen at bpetersen@postandcourier.com or 937-5744.