Luck of the Draw
The Webb Center WMA drawn deer hunt provides a great experience for novice and experienced deer hunters alike.
by David Lucas
Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, it took five years, but this past October, I finally got to experience one of the finest public hunting opportunities in South Carolina, the two-day hunt at the SCDNR’s James Webb Wildlife Center in western Hampton County. I had a great time and was lucky enough to harvest two- deer during the evening hunt on day one, which, for a novice deer hunter like myself, was quite a thrill.
Like a lot of folks, I am somewhat of a newcomer to the deer hunting game. I did go on a few “invited hunts” as a teenager, mainly dog drives that were as much social occasions as sporting ones, but my family was not really a deer-hunting one. When my granddad, dad, uncles and various older relatives came along, deer were largely a thing of the past in the region where we grew up. People hunted quail, and rabbits for sport and for the table (though it was easier to catch rabbits in a trap), along with squirrels and doves. That was about it. In their day, big game – deer and turkey – had been “hunted out” for decades, and even by the time I reached the age to start, deer hunting in the upper portion of South Carolina was really just starting to get popular again, thanks entirely to the tireless efforts of SCDNR (then the state Wildlife Resources Department) biologists in the 1950s and ‘60s, live-trapping and relocating deer and turkey from the coastal plain to the piedmont.
Long story short, my early hunting experiences involved mostly small game, and once college and career started, even those types of outings largely fell by the wayside. That changed when I took over the editorship of South Carolina Wildlife in 2009. Suddenly I was immersed daily in the culture and traditions of hunting, and, of course, by this time, white-tailed deer had long been far and away the most popularly pursued game animals in the state. Current SCW editor (then assistant editor) Joey Frazier started getting after me to go deer hunting with him, and wouldn’t take “no” or “I’m too busy” for an answer. I’m glad he did, and after taking a small buck on my first deer hunt in more than 25 years, I was solidly hooked. It was also his idea – hatched on one of those long, Pepsi-cola-fueled drives back to Columbia after an evening hunt down around Orangeburg – that we should put in for the Webb Center draw hunt. By then I was familiar with the Webb Center, having been there for meetings and to cover stories for the magazine.
Now I love history, and the Webb Center is chock full of it. Long before it was purchased by the state’s fish and wildlife management agency in 1941, the nearly 6,000-acres of "Belmont Plantation" was a King’s Grant property, bestowed upon the Tison family in 1737 by George II. Burned by General Sherman during the winter of 1865, the main house was rebuilt by Col. John Tison in 1890, and later served as a hunting lodge for friends and family of the wealthy Belmont family (of Belmont Stakes horseracing fame), who purchased it in 1902, just as many other war-ravaged former plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry were purchased. The property was renamed in honor of the DNR’s second director in 1975, and today, the rambling old house with its dark wood paneling and wide, inviting porches again serves as a hunting lodge during deer and turkey season. Stepping inside is like stepping back in time, and with just a little imagination, you might imagine yourself as a dapper New York industrialist, just down on the train for a weekend of sport with your swell pals, the Belmonts. (OK, a LOT of imagination, but still, it’s fun to think of those bygone days and what those hunts must have been like “back in the day.”)
Since its purchase by the state in 1941 the property has been managed intensively for wildlife. Controlled access in the form of computer-lottery drawn hunts allows the hunting public an equal shot at getting to go on a hunt at the property, but as we found, due to the extreme popularity of these hunts, the process can take some time. In our case, our party had to apply four years in a row before being successfully drawn in 2016. We were scheduled to hunt, when Hurricane Matthew came calling, forcing some of the hunts that year to be cancelled. Luckily, because our hunt was cancelled, we got to re-enter the lottery in 2017 with our “preference points” intact and were drawn for an October hunt this year. I’ve heard the SCDNR’s WMA program described as a “hunt club with over a million acres that you can join for just thirty dollars.” That’s true, and on the Webb Center hunt, the additional cost of putting in for the lottery gets you a hunt where the hard work of preparing the habitat, planting food plots and maintaining great stands across the property has already been done for you. This is a great opportunity for folks that are just getting started in hunting. The staff at the Webb are extremely knowledgeable, friendly and accessible, so chatting with them before and after the hunts is an opportunity for hunters with less experience to learn from the best.
For the experienced, it’s simply a chance to enjoy hunting at a keenly well-managed property, along with meeting and enjoying some great food and fellowship with fellow hunters from around the state. Oh, the food. No article about the Webb Center hunts would be complete without a description of the fine dinner and breakfast laid on by the ladies who staff the lodge’s kitchen. Fried chicken to die for, rice and gravy, collards with plenty of side meat and dessert, served after the evening hunt. Friends, I about hurt myself. And after the morning hunt, another spread of grits and eggs, side meat and biscuits awaited us. If I hadn’t seen a deer, the food and conversation alone would have been worth the trip.
As it was though, I was lucky enough to limit out on deer for the hunt the first evening. At the Webb hunt, participants can take two deer, doe or buck, and the bucks must have four points on one side, or at least a 12-inch inside spread. After dodging rain showers on the way to the stand and then some steamy conditions after, it wasn’t long at all before a mature doe entered the food plot I was sitting on, about 100 yards to my left. I took the shot. Later on, a large buck entered the far end of the field. After studying its horns through my binoculars, I determined it fit the bill. Shooting two deer in one sit was a first for me, and quite a thrill.
After a great meal and some time spent on the porch chatting with hunters from around the state, it was time to hit the hay. Having shot my limit of deer on the first hunt, I was hoping for a hog or perhaps a coyote to appear that morning. None did, but the rain had cleared out, the temperature was cool, and I was able to get some nice shots of bird life around my stand with my camera. All in all, a great morning, and I still had that awesome breakfast to look forward to.
If you’d like to try your hand at the Webb Center hunt, or one of the other lottery-drawn hunts on SCDNR-managed WMA properties, visit the web page for the lottery hunts program for more information and sign up instructions. You’ll be glad you did.