While the rest of the nation’s deer hunters are thinking about mineral sites, game cameras, moving stands and maybe putting in winter food plots, hunters in Florida’s southernmost zone and South Carolina’s Lowcountry are in the stand looking for a buck.
Opening day for bow season in Florida’s Zone A, which comprises the counties around Lake Okeechobee, usually is the last Saturday in July or first in August. State wildlife officials set the date usually about the first of August. Why? Because, remarkably, that’s when bucks and does are in the pre-rut or even peak rut for that zone. It’s a quirk of nature the deer have adapted to within the climate to ensure successful breeding when the northern part of the country is covered in snow.
Just a couple of states north, hunters in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region in the southeast part of the state see opening day on Aug. 15. It’s on private land and wide open: Bows, guns, crossbows are all legal. State officials set the early date years ago. Hunters also can take advantage of bucks being in velvet this early, which is a drawing card for those in other states who want a unique trophy.
The two seasons are the earliest white-tailed deer seasons in the country. California’s blacktail season in the northern part of the state opens in July. But South Carolina and Florida lay claim to the whitetail openers.
“We’ve heard people say before that we have longest season and I don’t know about that, but I’m pretty sure we have longest rifle season,” said Terry Hiers, owner of Blackwater Hunting Services lodge in Ulmer, about an hour south of South Carolina’s state capitol, Columbia.
“Dollar for dollar it’s hard to beat South Carolina,” he said. “We don’t have as many record book bucks like some other Southeast states, but we have a liberal limit. We get a lot of interest from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and other states. It can be pretty hot but you just deal with it. Plus, we have the opportunity to shoot a buck in velvet and that draws some interest. It’s a pretty good draw.”
Hiers said their statistical records show most of the biggest bucks are killed during the early August period and during the peak rut in mid-October. South Carolina has three zones; the season ends on Jan. 1 in all of them. Florida has four zones with different Deer Management Units with antler restrictions. Florida’s season runs through late February in the northwest Panhandle region, but its other zones close earlier.
DDH Publisher Jamie Wilkinson experienced the South Carolina climate this week while hunting with the Mossberg Patriot rifle. He downed a nice buck Tuesday morning and got on the board for the season earlier than any of the DDH crew other than Editor-in-Chief Dan Schmidt, who scored in south Florida on a hunt with Mathews Archery.
“South Carolina is unique with its early season, no doubt,” Wilkinson said. “It’s always fun to experience different hunting situations throughout the country, whether you’re in South Carolina in August or up in the Midwest in late autumn or winter. Any hunt is a good one when you can see deer and visit with friends.”
Hunters deal with the late summer heat in Florida and South Carolina, and it can be oppressive. In south Florida, temperatures can be in the mid-90s by mid-morning and pushing 100 degrees later in the day. South Carolina may be as toasty, and both states have good ol’ southern humidity that makes you sweat walking out the door before dawn.
“Oh yeah, one thing is it will definitely be hot and humid,” Hiers said. “Generally in mornings our hunters will sit until about 9 a.m., but about 75 percent of deer will be taken in the afternoon. I don’t want anyone sitting in the stand if they’re uncomfortable. We drive right to the stand and drop off or pick up so you’re not walking and getting all sweaty. You just deal with it and plan accordingly.”
What’s more, the South offers myriad opportunities for hunting deer in near-native habitats.
D&DH Editor in Chief Dan Schmidt experienced that first-hand in late August when he traveled to south-central Florida to hunt whitetails with his bow and arrow.
Schmidt was a guest on an 11,000-acre free-range cattle ranch that also implements vast wildlife research programs. Because the land receives minimal hunting pressure, it provides ample opportunity to see how Southern deer behave during the rut, which starts in July and lasts throughout fall.
“It’s pretty amazing to see bucks chasing does when it’s 100 degrees outside, but that’s exactly what we saw,” Schmidt said. “It’s Bergmann’s Rule to a tee.”
Bergmann’s rule is an ecogeographic principle that states that within a broadly distributed taxonomic clade, populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions. And, in warmer regions, that means mammals can bree year-round because there is no ecological consequence like there is in the North.
Despite the year-round warmth, South Florida deer are not the “tiny, little whitetails” that most Northerners envision. These deer grow ample-sized bodies and antlers while subsisting in the lower-lying marshes in the Indian Prairie region between Lake Istokpoga and Lake Okeechobee. The dry prairie is now bahiagrass pastures, and the marshes are semi-native pastures interspersed with cabbage palm and live oaks.
On the first morning of his hunt, Schmidt spied a young doe walking carefully through a live oak hammock. Clouds of mosquitoes hung in the humid morning air as the doe stopped and snapped her head back to spy her backtrail.
Suddenly, a twig snapped. Schmidt clutched his bow.
“Braaaap.” The guttural sound of a buck grunt echoed across silent woods.
The hunt ended almost as soon as it started, and Schmidt was wrapping his hands around a 170-pound (live weight) buck with an 11-point rack. An initial gross score of 137 inches places would place the deer well within Florida’s Top 20 list all-time for whitetails out of nearly 10,000 entries.
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