Carolina's Public-Land Waterfowl Hunts

Looking for a high-quality public-land waterfowl hunt? Here's the information you need to plan your draw hunt. (Nov 2006)

When I awoke on the morning of my draw duck hunt, the forecast still called for rain. By the time legal shooting time arrived, what fell from the skies could hardly be called rain.

I had been drawn to hunt at the East Side of Santee Delta Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Georgetown. There was only a drizzle falling when I pulled off Highway 17 North into the WMA's parking lot. Other hunters milled about before all of us gathered in the area's check station to draw for our blinds.

After being dropped off at the paddleboat that I would use to get to the blind, I stood for a moment to soak in the vastness of the marsh. The moist air dampened any highway noise from Highway 17, where traffic this time of day was light. The wind hardly budged and the thick rain clouds overhead seemed to press down heavily.

And the marsh was stirring with the sound of ducks.

Tucked between the North and South Santee rivers, Santee Delta WMA, while pushing nearly 2,000 acres in size, is only a tiny piece of real estate in the rivers' expansive delta. I took a glance to the east where the sun should have been sketching the sky orange before I shoved the boat off the bank. It was like looking down a long pipe: Darkness engulfed the horizon.

After the brief paddle, it didn't take long to set out the 10 decoys I had toted along. I snugly pulled the paddleboat in between the blind frame, and waited for legal shooting time.

I had time to relax, so I leaned on the blind frame and stared over the weeds covering the frame. A dull sound grew louder from the west. The rain was picking up.

The overcast sky seemed to be bulging with the form of an overfilled water balloon getting ready to burst.

It did.

In an instant I could not make out my decoys. A quiet marsh was now awash in a drilling and deafening downpour. All I could do was pull up my hood, tuck my head and watch my equipment start to float in the paddleboat like rubber ducks in a bathtub.

There was no lightning or thunder, but it was raining so hard I'm not sure I could have seen or heard any if there was some. The start of shooting hours, usually a time of high anticipation, came and went with the ease of flipping a light switch. I hadn't budged from the seat of the paddleboat.

Fifteen minutes into legal shooting time, I was frustrated and decided I was going to watch my decoys. Good thing I did because I plugged a gadwall that must have been flying by aviation instruments. The rain slacked off, and by later in the morning I had completed my three-bird limit (the limit at the time) with a pair of teal.

Over the last 16 duck seasons, I have gunned on six different parcels of marsh, some more than one season, provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in their draw duck hunt program. Like this particular hunt at Santee Delta WMA, all have been adventures that have left indelible memories.

Besides the weather, which always seems to play a role in a memorable duck-hunting story, the hunts hosted by SCDNR are unforgettable for several reasons. They are, on average, quality hunts. You might get pitched a shutout on your hunt, but hunters have averaged about three ducks per hunter over the last two seasons for all WMAs hosting draw hunts.

You never know what species of duck you might harvest. Some WMAs are certainly known for being a mallard spot or a place that typically shoots only wood ducks and teal. However, on any given hunt you have a good chance of killing something special. Nineteen different species, including snow geese, canvasbacks, pintails and redheads, have been harvested in recent seasons on the state's WMAs.

If that's not enough, the personnel at these hunts normally provide above-average service. They will go out of their way to help you succeed.

Much of that effort is expended before you even arrive to hunt. Blind sites, where provided, are carefully chosen and well brushed. On the morning of your hunt, rules and regulations are reviewed in an attempt to keep everyone legal; some form of transportation and directions to blinds are provided and advice about what to expect is dispensed. About the only thing SCDNR personnel don't do is shoot, retrieve and pluck your ducks, although the latter two thoughts don't sound like bad suggestions.

By the time you have read this, slots for the 2006-07 season will have already been drawn. However, this overview should help you know what to expect if you were drawn for one of the profiled areas or help you make your selection for next season.

Here is one note about the drawing that many people don't understand. Because of the popularity of these hunts, SCDNR initiated a preference-point system several seasons ago in an attempt to allow everyone who applies a chance to be drawn, provided they apply every season.

You are given one preference point for the following season's drawing if you are not drawn. Therefore, you have one point when the next season's drawing is held, which gives you a better chance of being selected over someone who was drawn the preceding year or who is applying for the first time. Those hunters will have no preference points. If you limit your selections, however, to only certain dates and areas, your chances of being selected are reduced regardless of how many preference points you have accumulated.

Further, if you apply with a group of other hunters (up to four hunters can apply per application), the preference point for that application is based on the hunter with the lowest number of preference points. For example, if you and two of your buddies each have two preference points but the fourth guy has zero, maybe because he's never applied before, then everyone on that entire application is treated as if they had no points. Like the saying goes, pick your friends wisely.

SANTEE COASTAL RESERVE WMA

Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is often viewed by waterfowlers as the premier place to go. It's large (over 14,000 acres of managed impoundments), and it's located in the delta of the Santee River, one of the state's main waterfowl wintering areas. It is still the top place in terms of harvest, but some of its luster has dulled in recent seasons.

Hunters averaged 4.7 ducks per person during the 2003-04 season. This average has fallen by a full duck per hunter, from 3.9 ducks per hunter in 2004-05 to 3.7 ducks per person last season. Parcels of some othe

r WMAs are now shooting as well as parcels of Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, most notably the Springfield/The Cut section of Bear Island WMA.

Hunts on Santee Coastal Reserve WMA are held on three parcels, the Cape and Murphy and Cedar islands. For the last two seasons, the Cape has been the best parcel, closely followed by Murphy Island, and lastly Cedar Island.

The top species on the Cape has been blue- and green-winged teal followed by gadwalls and usually ring-necked ducks or widgeon. Shovelers have been the top bird on Murphy Island the last two seasons followed by gadwalls or green-winged teal. Gadwalls were the top species on Cedar Island two seasons ago, whereas widgeon were tops last season.

The Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is also your best bet for shooting a variety of species. During the 2005-06 season, 16 different species of waterfowl were harvested. Green-winged teal, gadwalls, shovelers, widgeon and blue-winged teal, in that order, were the top five species harvested. Hunters did harvest a respectable number of pintails, mottled ducks and ring-necked ducks, and even seven snow geese.

Hunters draw for pre-constructed blinds on the morning of their hunt. SCDNR staff provides transportation to blinds. Because of this, the number of decoys permitted per hunter is limited. Hunters should wear chest waders and be mindful of alligators if they plan to use a retriever.

More information can be provided by SCDNR by calling (843) 546-8665.

SANTEE DELTA WMA

Located upriver of Santee Coastal Reserve WMA and about 10 percent its size, Santee Delta WMA is the little brother. But don't let its small size fool you. This WMA hosts over 150 hunters and the harvest averages two to three ducks per person.

Santee Delta WMA is located about halfway between McClellanville and Georgetown and is bisected by Highway 17. The two halves of the WMA are in stark contrast to each other.

The West side is more wooded. This is the mallard side that has made the WMA famous. It is usually the top species harvested on the West side, but last season, green-winged teal swarmed the timber and took the top spot. As can be expected, wood ducks are consistently in the bag on the West side. For the 2005-06 season, hunters averaged 4.0 ducks per person, up from 2.35 the previous season.

The East side is open marsh. Unlike the West side, where hunters must provide their own boats and blinds, blinds, paddleboats and decoys (you can bring your own) are provided on the East side. Green-winged teal are routinely the top bird on the East side with shovelers coming in at No. 2. Hunters on this side can expect to get a crack at mottled ducks, pintails and blue-winged teal as well. Ninety-one hunters harvested 269 ducks last season on the East side, an increase of almost a duck per man from the 2004-05 season.

Chest waders are recommended on this WMA as well. For more information about hunting at Santee Delta WMA you can contact SCDNR at (843) 546-8119.

BEAR ISLAND WMA

Having hosted waterfowl hunts for over four decades, Bear Island WMA in Colleton County has developed quite a reputation as a quality duck-hunting area. The drought in the early part of this decade didn't do the area any favors, but lately the WMA has turned its back on those misfortunes and has been making steady gains ever since.

Bear Island WMA only averaged 1.7 ducks per hunter during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. Since then, the average has climbed from 2.37 two seasons ago to 2.74 during the 2005-06 season. The area consists of three parcels, the East and West sides and Springfield/The Cut, with the latter section of marsh supporting one of the best seasons statewide last season.

The Springfield/The Cut section averaged 3.7 ducks per hunter, bested only by portions of Santee Delta and Santee Coastal Reserve WMAs. Green- and blue-winged teal and shovelers made up two-thirds of the total harvest. Hunters also killed gadwalls, pintails and a few mallards.

Last season, green- and blue-winged teal and shovelers were also well represented on both the East and West sides, where hunters averaged 2.4 ducks per man on each section. Widgeon were common on both parcels, but gadwalls and hooded mergansers were more frequent in the bag on the East side, whereas mallards were the No. 2 species on the West side.

Bear Island WMA information can be obtained by calling SCDNR at (843) 844-8957.

SAMWORTH WMA

Like Bear Island WMA, the 1,588-acre Samworth WMA in Georgetown County has been hosting duck hunts for a long time. Hunts were curtailed for a few seasons in the early 2000s but resumed with good results.

Samworth WMA was reopened in the draw duck hunt lottery beginning with the 2004-05 season. Twenty-four hunters harvested 73 that year for a season average of 3.04 ducks per person. Green-winged teal were 58 percent of the harvest. Another 33 percent consisted of wood ducks, and mallards made up 7 percent of the total harvest.

Success dropped off a bit last season, with 19 hunters harvesting 37 ducks. Green-winged teal were again the top duck, and when combined with wood ducks, the two species comprised 78 percent of the harvest. Hunters also killed seven mallards.

The results from the last two seasons are typical for Samworth WMA. Harvest data from the mid-1980s indicated that hunters averaged about two ducks per person and the majority of the harvest consisted of green-winged teal and woodies with an occasional mallard.

Hunting takes place on former rice fields located in the river delta between the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers. As such, chest waders are encouraged, since old ditches are often over hip-boot height, sometimes well over. Hunting is from pre-constructed blinds that hunters draw for on the morning of their hunt.

Information about hunting at Samworth WMA can be obtained by calling (843) 546-8119.

BROAD RIVER WMA

While most of the draw duck hunt locations are on the coast, Piedmont and Upstate hunters have a honeyhole in their back yard. Broad River WMA, located near Winnsboro in Fairfield County, is about as good as it gets, especially if mallards are in your sights.

Hunters have walked out of the marsh with an average of two to three ducks per man for the last three seasons, which includes two busted seasons of food production. Habitat management at Broad River WMA consists of planting corn and manipulating water levels for moist-soil foods. Floods on the area in 2003 prevented crop production and tropical rains ruined an excellent crop of corn in 2004. Even so, hunters averaged 2.93 and 2.29 ducks per person, respectively, during those seasons. Last year, 44 hunters took 128 ducks (2.91 ducks per hunter).

Mallards are usually the king at this WMA. The 42 mallards taken last season were second in the state to only Santee Delta WMA West. The total harvest on the ar

ea historically contained about 30 to 35 percent mallards. Ring-necked ducks, green-winged teal and wood ducks also stand out in the total harvest. Hunters at Broad River WMA can also expect a shot at widgeon and black ducks.

To determine more about the duck hunts at Broad River WMA, contact the Region 2 office of SCDNR in Columbia at (803-734-3886).

YOUTH HUNTS

The main youth hunt in the duck-hunting lottery is held at Donnelley WMA near Green Pond in Colleton County. The WMA routinely hosts close to 70 youngsters that have maintained about a three-duck-per-person average over the last two seasons. Green-winged teal and wood ducks comprise about two thirds of the harvest. The next generation of waterfowlers usually bag a reasonable number of blue-winged teal, shovelers and ring-necked ducks. For more information about youth hunts at Donnelley WMA, contact SCDNR at (843) 844-8957.

In addition to having a youth hunt during the Youth Waterfowl Day, a new trend is that WMAs are starting to have youth-only hunts during the regular duck season. Most have been held around Christmas when the kids are out of school. Last season, Santee Coastal Reserve, Broad River, Bonneau Ferry and Clemson WMAs all had hunts. Keep an eye out on the application if you are interested in applying for one these hunts.

Applications are available each season beginning in late September. Application deadline is normally in late October, with successful hunters often notified by the beginning of November. You can download an application at SCDNR's Web site at www.dnr.sc.gov, pick one up at a regional office or call SCDNR Columbia office at (803) 734-3886. Hunts are $50 per hunter.

Successfully drawn hunters will need a valid state hunting license, a WMA permit, HIP permit and a state and federal duck stamp.

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