South Carolina's Top Public-Land Dove Hunts

South Carolina's Top Public-Land Dove Hunts

Our state contains a multitude of public-land dove fields. Here's the rundown on some of the better ones across the state. (September 2007)

Photo by Mike Marsh.

Dove hunting in the South is a big deal, and South Carolina is no exception. Outside of college football there is nothing that has such a near-religious following during the month of September as dove hunting.

Opening day and Saturday hunts are penciled in early. When college football games conflict with a hunt, compromises are pursued from all directions before a hard choice has to be made. Nonetheless, during any given dove hunt where more than two hunters gather, you will likely hear gunshots momentarily interrupting the radio play-by-play broadcast of a game.

Most Southern dove hunts are a social affair. I've been on great dove hunts farther from the equator, but for the total outdoor experience, the hunts in the South are unbeatable. The socializing with other hunters and friends before or after a hunt, or sometimes both, combined with the hunting make a Southern dove hunt a wonderful experience.

Access to a good dove field can be tough to come by. Long-time fields that are steeped in tradition usually require an invitation, which limits the hunting to a very select few. Other good private areas have a membership fee that may run as much as a small car.

You may get lucky and end up on a good shoot, but for most hunters in the state having a good dove hunt either means preparing the field yourself or taking advantage of one of the many dove fields around the state that are located on public land.

I will be the first to admit that the idea of hunting on public land may not be attractive, at least in some cases. However, having experienced many excellent dove hunts on public lands in South Carolina over the years, I will say you are missing out if you are not taking advantage of these public-hunting opportunities.

There are routinely over 40 public dove fields each season on wildlife management areas (WMAs) across the state. During the 2006-07 season, there were 46 fields located in 30 of the state's 46 counties. Unlike some public-land hunting, such as waterfowl, all of the better hunting is not restricted to the coast. Chances are there is a good field less than an hour's drive from your house.

"Our public dove fields continue to provide an excellent opportunity for dove hunting," said Billy Dukes, small game project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). "Last season, 2,697 hunters harvested 12,085 doves on the 29 fields we monitored during their respective opening hunts.

"Total harvest was up 24 percent from the 2005-06 season and up 89 percent from the 2004-05 season. The number of hunters was up 32 percent from the previous season.

"Even though the number of hunters increased," Dukes said, "the increase in harvest was much greater than the increase in the number of hunters, which indicates these fields are providing great hunting. Overall, these fields average over four doves per hunter annually."

Critics might argue that the number of hunters increased because the 2005-06 season came right after Hurricane Katrina, a time when gas prices spiked and, in some cases, gas wasn't even attainable. That's a justifiable conclusion, but these fields are supporting more hunters than seasons before Katrina.

"Growing conditions for crops does affect how well the public dove fields produce," Dukes said. "Unless it's a very localized weather event that affects a field, our fields suffer right along with the private fields."

SCDNR officials have noticed in the past that more hunters will hunt public fields in poor growing years because their fields may have failed. However, that doesn't appear to be the case for last season since it was a good growing year.

"Since the public dove fields program has been around for 30 years, I don't think it is taking that long for the word to get out, although it could be some of that. Maybe hunters have a few less places to hunt and are relying on the public fields," Dukes said.

Whatever the reason or reasons, the fields are producing. The top 10 fields last season all averaged over five doves per hunter. Unlike seasons past, some of the names are not the ones normally spotted at the top of the dove leader board.

Dukes reported that the top 10 fields (doves per hunter) last season were Draper Tract (7.64) in York County, Webb WMA (7.51) in Hampton County, Sandhills State Forest Wilkes Chapel Field (7.14) in Chesterfield County, Thurmond Tract (6.77) in Union County, Lake Wallace (6.16) in Marlboro County, Hallman Field (5.96) in Lexington County, Evans Property (5.70) in Anderson County, Sandhills State Forest Davis Field (5.40) in Chesterfield County, Crackerneck WMA (5.17) in Aiken County and Santee Dam WMA (5.06) in Clarendon County.

Results for some of the favorites were Donnelley WMA (4.39) in Colleton County, Canal WMA -- upper and lower fields (3.61) in Berkeley County and Oak Lea WMA (4.86) in Clarendon County.

Let's take a closer look at the top three fields from last season. Draper Tract is located about four miles east of McConnell in York County. Two 30-acre fields are available for public dove hunting. The fields are normally open on Saturdays only during the first season and Monday through Saturday during the second and third seasons. You are permitted to hunt only in the afternoon during all seasons.

Opening day participants are selected by drawing. You must apply to SCDNR by mid-August. For more information on the drawing for the Draper Tract, you may contact SCDNR at (864) 427-5140.

During last season's opening day hunt, 94 hunters shot 4,409 times and harvested 718 doves. Hunters averaged 46.90 shots, which was way above average for the 29 fields monitored, and needed 6.14 shots for each dove harvested, similar to the 6.12 average overall for all fields.

Put another way, the limited number of hunters allowed each person to do plenty of shooting. Since the hunters shot average, everyone went home with a mess of doves, a fact indicated by the average-per-hunter harvest (7.64).

The Webb WMA field has been around for some time, but until recently, it never produced this well.

"The Webb WMA field was a result of excellent field preparation by staff," Dukes said.

The field at Webb WMA is 35 acres and it is open on a

irst-come, first-s

erved basis during scheduled dates, typically on Wednesdays during all seasons. The dove hunts have to work around scheduled deer hunts on the WMA. Hunting is only permitted during the afternoon. For more information, you can contact SCDNR at (803) 625-3569.

Last season, 37 hunters showed up during the first hunt. They shot 1,386 times and killed 278 doves. Hunters took an average of 37 shots and killed a dove with every fifth shot. Like Draper Tract, Webb WMA was a case where a reasonable number of hunters were on the field and they were able to pick their shots and did not need to rush because someone else was going to get the bird first.

The Wilkes Chapel field on the Sandhills State Forest in Chesterfield County is located near the forest's headquarters. It is a 54-acre field that is usually open during Saturdays only during the first season and Monday through Saturday during the second and third seasons. Hunting is only permitted during the afternoon at all times.

The large field supported 184 hunters during the opening day hunt last season. They shot 6,910 shells and killed 1,314 doves. Similar to Webb WMA, hunters shot an average of 38 times and killed doves on about every fifth shot. Again, the field supported about the right number of hunters who shot well and had plenty of opportunities, which translated into a bang-up dove hunt.

"We have a lot of good public dove fields in the program," Dukes said. "Success is dependent on how good a crop on-the-ground staff is able to produce, which of course, varies every year. However, I think there are some good fields to keep an eye on.

"I believe some of the up-and-coming fields are the Thurmond Tract in Union County, Bourdeaux Field in McCormick County, Crackerneck WMA in Aiken County and the Hallman Field in Lexington County.

"The two fields at Sandhills State Forest also look to be good," Dukes said.

Even though Dukes based his opinions on last year's results, he said many of these fields are new, located in good dove areas of the state, and appear to offer much potential.

"Just because those fields were mentioned it doesn't mean other fields have declined," Dukes said. "In fact, it's probably the opposite.

"The other fields are still good, but by creating other good fields it may help take the pressure off the perennially top fields, thereby increasing hunter satisfaction as well as success."

In addition to the public dove fields that are open to anyone, SCDNR also supports special youth dove hunts. Eligibility for these hunts requires an adult 21 years or older to bring one or two youth 5 to 15 years old on the hunt. Adults are permitted to hunt, but they may not shoot when youth in their party are shooting. In fact, their guns must be unloaded, and vice versa. The bag limit is 12 doves per youth participant. Birds harvested by individual hunters must be kept separate, and in no instance may an individual hunter harvest more than 12 doves.

There were eight special youth dove hunts during the 2006-07 season. Most of the participants are selected by a drawing, so it is best to check the public dove field list ahead of time for drawing information.

It is difficult to gauge these hunts. Using doves harvested per hunter is not a fair measure, because youth hunters usually shoot a little poorer than adults. For example, youth killed a dove on about every eighth shot, whereas adults on the public dove fields average about a dove every sixth shot. Nonetheless, hunters averaged 3.28 doves per hunter for the eight fields open last season, with the McCullough Field in Newberry the highest at 5.39 doves per hunter.

Since many of these fields are open to general hunters at a later date, a better measure of how good the fields might be is the number of shots taken. During the youth hunts, the overall average was 27 shots per hunter, which is equal to the 29 fields open without the youth restriction. Thus, these fields have some birds as well.

All public dove fields are open on a first-come, first-served basis, except for those that have drawings to restrict the number of hunters. There is no entry before noon and no shooting after 6 p.m. during the first segment of the season. In addition to a valid hunting license, hunters are required to have a wildlife management area permit and a migratory bird permit. All state and federal laws apply.

A complete list of public dove fields is posted on the SCDNR Web site at www.dnr.sc.gov. Click on "Hunting" to locate the list.

In an ongoing effort to better manage dove populations, wildlife biologists have been banding doves for the last several years. The objectives of the pilot banding study were to estimate band-reporting rates, estimate preliminary harvest rates and obtain information to build a long-term banding project. The objectives were met, and now dove banding is operational in many states, including South Carolina.

"Dove banding is essential for the data-driven models used for managing dove populations," Dukes said. "We learned a great deal about our dove population as a result of banding."

Doves are banded during the pre-season period, primarily in July and early August. Since 2003, 5,604 doves have been banded in the state. There have been 401 recoveries.

"Ninety-three percent of our recoveries were within the state," Dukes said. "This indicates that what we do in relation to harvest management affects primarily our doves. In other words, we are responsible for our own resource.

"We have had 22 recoveries outside of the state. Most were just across the line in Georgia, but some other states included North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and Kentucky.

"This past season, we had the first two recoveries in Florida," Dukes said. "I'm surprised that it took this long before we had some recoveries there."

Thirteen doves banded outside of South Carolina have been recovered during the season here. The most came from Pennsylvania with four bands, followed by Ohio with two. Some other states included Maryland, Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri.

"About 88 percent of the recoveries occur during the first season," Dukes said. "This is not surprising since this is the period when most people are dove hunting.

"Around half of the total recoveries are during the first week of the season. While some people might think this is high, I would have thought it would have been higher given how many people are out hunting that first week of the season."

Other information that dove banding provides is a reporting rate. This is the percentage of banded doves harvested that are actually reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Banding Lab in Laurel, Maryland. Since everyone likes to kill a banded bird, you would think the estimate would be 100 percent, but it

's not.

The estimate for South Carolina is approximately 69 percent. This is higher than most states but not as high as the north-central region of the United States (the Dakotas and Nebraska), which averaged nearly 95 percent.

Bands also provide wildlife biologists with a measure known as harvest rate, which is the proportion of the population harvested by hunting, and survival rate, which is the annual probability of surviving from one year to the next.

"The harvest rate for adult doves from 2003 to 2005 was 6.3 percent," Dukes said. "The juvenile harvest rate was 11.6 percent, which is in line with the idea that juvenile harvest is twice the adult harvest. South Carolina has some of the highest harvest rates in the country.

"Survival rates averaged 39 percent for adults," Dukes said. "What this means is that if you were an adult dove, you have a 39 percent chance of surviving to your second birthday. For juveniles, the survival rate is 27 percent, which means you have a one-in-four chance of making it to your first birthday. For some states, their estimates were even lower.

"These figures are lower than what you see for many species of wildlife, but we know that the dove population has a high turnover rate," Dukes said.

South Carolina offers good public dove hunting and boasts a robust dove population, something it plans to continue to provide well into the future through diligence and careful monitoring.

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