By Matt Winter
Published in Tideline magazine, September/October 2013 edition
Those Hammond boys sure are serious about deer hunting.
Over their combined decades of rifle and bow hunting, rumors have circulated about how far Don and his son, Scott, are willing to go to outwit old bucks and does. One seemingly tall tale involved placing fake hunters in tree stands so that deer would get used to the shape of a person moving in the trees.
“Yes, I have absentee hunters,” Don recently admitted with a grin.
Don makes his stand-in hunters by spray-painting a crab-pot float with dark colors, then attaching it to a clothes hanger adorned with a black plastic bag. He hangs the contraption where a hunter would sit. The finished product sways in the breeze, mimicking the head and shoulders of a person shifting around in the stand.
“Let’s put it this way,” Don said. “They’re good enough that from a distance, they fool my dog, who will sit there and bark at them.”
The ruse has paid off for Don.
“One of the oldest bucks I’ve ever killed, a buck I hunted for years and years on one of our plantations, walked right under my stand without ever looking up.”
The use of “absentee hunters” was just one of many tips and tricks divulged by the Hammonds during a preseason interview with Tideline magazine.
The two Hammonds (along with other hunters in the family) log more than 120 deer hunts per year on various tracts of private land. Over the years they’ve harvested many hundreds of deer, including more than a few trophy-class Lowcountry bucks.
Scott, manager at Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply in West Ashley, hunts almost exclusively with a bow these days. Don, a dolphin migration expert and former S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist, uses a rifle (shoulder problems ended his passion for archery).
Here are some of their secrets:
When to hunt
South Carolina’s deer season runs from Aug. 15 in some counties through Jan. 1. Over those months, hunters must adapt their tactics as deer move from their summer behavioral pattern through pre-rut in September, a “trickle rut” from October through early November, then the post-rut through the end of the season.
Naturally, the Hammonds hunt through the entire sequence, and have developed techniques for each time period.
But if they had only one week to hunt during the entire season, just one chance, which week would they pick?
Scott and Don both singled out the third week of October, which they say typically represents the peak of the rut in coastal counties.
In terms of time of day, the Hammonds hunt both mornings and evenings, and only rarely mid-day. Scott says he usually stays in the stand only about two hours, but during peak rut times will sit much longer.
“We have killed big bucks at 9 a.m. during rut,” he says.
Both also might extend their sit times during a full moon. Don has kept a hunting log book for 15 years, and a review of his data shows that “they will move earlier in the afternoon and they will continue to move later in the morning on a full moon.”
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, wrap-around rifle rests. He also uses camouflage 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 saplings and zip-tie them up in the tree around me to give me a backdrop.”
When bow hunting from the ground, Scott adheres to his father’s “more is more” philosophy and uses a fully enclosed ground blind. He keeps all the windows closed except the one he plans to shoot through, which minimizes the chance of being spotted or scented by an approaching deer.
When picking locations for stands or blinds, 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 many 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 hunt a variety of private properties, including one plantation where “they do extensive planting for ducks, quail and turkey,” Don said. “That’s what they really manage for. We’re just part of pest-control management. That’s how bird hunters view deer!”
Because their hunting area is already planted, the Hammonds don’t have to manage their own crops of corn or soybeans. But Don knows the perils involved in such early-season food plots.
“Unless you plant a big enough field of it, deer will wipe it out before you even get a chance to hunt it.”
After early crops are harvested on their leased lands, the Hammonds will “put in fall greens, maybe oats and winter wheat, so they’ll have some green through the winter.
“Your turnips, mustards, thing like that, they’ll do really well and withstand some heavy browsing.”
The bottom line on planting, Don said, is that hunters should test their soils and do the research needed to determine what type of crop will grow best on a given property.
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 bow hunting 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 there 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 fool-proof.”
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 bow hunting 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 of 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 Rubbermade 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.”
Don recommends storing hunting clothes with branches from sweet gum, myrtle and pine trees. “They’re all very strong smelling and common to the areas you’ll be hunting.”
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.
“You don’t need a flashlight, you’re not going to break a twig or stomp through leaves. Is that overly anal? Maybe, but it seems to help.”
Even the best hunters sometimes succumb to boredom in the tree stand and shift their attention to a smart phone, tablet or paperback book.
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.”
Scott also advises that hunters pay close attention to the ever-present birds and squirrels. “They will alert you to the presence of deer, believe me.”
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.”
Pick your shots
Countless hours spent in the woods watching fawns, does and bucks, have taught the Hammonds the value of patience — not just waiting to see deer, but waiting to see the right deer.
“If you shoot the first rack buck you see,” Scott said, “you won’t want to know what was coming behind him.”
Indeed, hunters with itchy trigger fingers typically don’t score trophy animals. Those older and wiser animals, Don pointed out, usually won’t just amble into a field.
“Usually the fawns are first ones to come out,” Don said. “They’re followed by the slightly older does, the year-and-a-half, two-and-a-half year old does. If you sit there long enough and be patient, then maybe after 10 or 15 minutes you may see the matriarch come out. She’ll kick all the rest of them out there before she ever sticks her nose out.
“Same thing with bucks. Even during the rutting season, you will find multiple rack bucks running together. You’ll have a 41/2- to 51/2-year-old buck accompanied by a couple of 21/2-year-olds.
“They just kind of flank them.”
Waiting to see what happens pays off in big bucks and unforgettable moments, Don said, remembering one particularly good hunt.
“Two huge deer, bigger than anything I had ever killed at that time, came out to fight. It was an 8- and 10-point, and they came into this clearing from opposite sides. It was like two prize fighters with their teams coming in. They both were accompanied by multiple nice bucks that just stood back, flanked them and watched them fight.
“It was the darnedest thing I had ever seen.”
Once a hunter has decided that a deer meets his or her criteria, the moment of truth arrives. So where should you aim?
Scott, the bow hunter, said he’s learned the hard way to wait for the right moment and angle before releasing an arrow.
After losing a few deer due to poor arrow placement, “I’m way more patient now,” he said. “I do not shoot a deer with a bow unless it’s broadside or quartering away.”
Scott advises bow hunters to practice visualizing the three-dimensional path the arrow will take through a deer. It helps, he said, to aim through the deer, to its far shoulder.
Don, on the other hand, reloads his own rifle ammunition and takes great pride in long-distance marksmanship. He shoots a 140-grain, Nosler ballistic tip bullet through a .270 caliber Remington 700 CDL with a Swarovski scope and a 24-inch barrel.
“That round has been an exceptionally good performer,” Don said.
Don prefers spinal shots, which typically drop the animal in place.
“Big bucks can take a lung shot and go a long distance on that last breath,” he said.
“But for 98 percent of population, go for the boiler room. The lung shots, right behind the shoulder and back about 6 inches. Anywhere in there. You’ve got a 12-inch circle.”
Both Scott and Don stress that hunters should put the time and effort into developing the skill and familiarity with their equipment to make humane, quick-killing shots.
Losing a wounded deer, Scott said, is devastating. “We’re going to spend hours looking for it. It’s personal. As long as we can find any blood whatsoever, we keep looking. And then we start cutting circles.”
“You’re not doing yourself a service,” Don said in agreement, “and you’re not doing the animal a service, by not checking that you are on.”