Dr. John Rheney

Dr. John Rheney

OK, I’ll openly admit it. I didn’t go hunting until this past weekend. I let the first 10 days of deer season drag by without donning the brown and green.

I had some reasons and it’s not like I wasn’t thinking about it. I did plant peas, put out corn and put out cameras, but I was disappointed in myself. I made a pledge not to waste any good hunting days as, at my age, you never know if you have 25, 10 or fewer more years where you can work as hard at it as I do and continue to climb into the stands.

My only salvation is that apparently every one else feels the same way. I see about 40 people a day in my dental practice and I did not talk to one person who had been hunting that first week. They all had the same statement, “I’ll wait until it gets cool.” Unfortunately, if it’s anything like last year, it won’t get cool until December. And by then, the deer will be nocturnal and their daytime movements from the rut will have passed.

I was thinking about that and wondered if this was a statewide phenomenon. I have been a proponent for shifting the season back one month from Aug. 15-Jan.1 to Sept. 15-Jan. 31 for years. I think there would be a little resistance from the few hunters that still covet a trophy mount in velvet, but most people including those who care for their dogs would probably be OK with it. Notice I said “shift” the season, not “cut short” the season.

Dr. Charles Ruth, when addressing the public hearings on the changes to the tag system last year, said there was no “biological” reason that the S.C. Department of Natural Resources would oppose this change. He has also agreed that anecdotally there is less participation in August hunting each year.

That is a slight shift in stance from DNR’s past positions. Twenty years ago when we were going through similar public hearings, DNR took a firm stance against a later season because some bucks drop their antlers in January.

More recently, DNR took a stance that a later season would deny hunters the opportunity to take a buck in velvet. At one point, taking an early velveted buck was considered a big selling point for out-of-state hunters renting in-state lands. As our deer have been increasingly managed for the better, we have more bucks reaching state record (and dare I say Boone and Crocket) proportions. Thus the yearning for velveted racks has dwindled because deer antlers cannot be scored for the record book in velvet. The velvet has to be cleaned off and the antlers dried for a period.

There are some reasonable arguments to not moving the season further back into January. None of them really has any biological repercussions for the deer.

1. Some bucks drop their antlers in January and more than one hunter has grabbed an antler to drag out a late season buck and had it pull off in his hand. Also a mature buck might be shot for a doe on lands where trophy management is the goal.

My answer to that is to have an antlered-buck-only season in January. No does. If strict trophy management is the goal, clubs can elect not to hunt. Most bucks taken are not trophy class, so an antler coming off is not a big deal. For those that do choose to have a buck mounted, the antler can be placed back on the skullcap rather easily by a taxidermist.

2. Hunters don’t like finding a rather mature fetus in a doe killed late in the season.

Biologically it doesn’t matter whether a doe is taken in September or December. The biological impact on the deer herd is exactly the same. NO does after the first of the year. Moot point.

3. The chance to take a deer diminishes after about Thanksgiving in our part of the state. December is often not a very productive time for most hunters.

I can attest to this on my hunting properties; but I am, as mentioned above, much more likely to be afield in January than I am in mid-August. So, personally, my chances are increased significantly.

The whole reason for changing the deer laws last year was because DNR says our deer herd has declined dramatically in numbers since 2000. So wouldn’t shifting the season back give more yearling bucks an opportunity to get out of the peanut fields, disband and survive until later in the season? That’s a good thing, right?

I would guess things will not work out for us in the long run as far as getting a later season. DNR is determined to make Upstate and Lowcountry seasons for all species the same in deference to Upstate hunters. When in doubt, they tend to change things statewide to mimic the Upstate seasons.

So if we in the Lowcountry cannot unanimously agree on shifting the season back and we continue to lose interest in August hunting, I think DNR will eventually take a divide-and-conquer tact as they did for S.454. And therefore we will have our season shortened to Sept. 15 or October like the Upstate season.

We have far more deer densities here than the Upstate does. There is not a “biological” reason for the shortening of our season, but all it takes is one handpicked rogue senator or representative (please see S.454) to set the wheels of change in motion.

Heck, they would probably just have the Upstate hunters take a survey on shortening our season and with their approval draft a bill to do so.

It could happen (and has happened) and be set in stone very quickly -- before any public comment could make a difference.

As far as deer seasons go, we have it pretty good. But, my, it could have been so much better.

Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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