Paddle '™Em Up: Carolina's Small-Boat Ducks
October 04, 2010
Having a hard time finding a place to set up to duck hunt on big water in South Carolina? Try these options.
Paddling into backwaters while carrying just the basics can put you on relatively unpressured ducks in South Carolina. Photo by Jim Casada
By Jim Casada
Three generations ago, in one of his many enduring books on the outdoors, Hunter's Choice, South Carolina's best-loved sporting scribe, Archibald Rutledge, included a story entitled "Paddling Them Up." In it he described a method of hunting, which for reasons that mystify this writer, seems to belong to a world we have largely lost. The piece covers an incredible afternoon of waterfowling on the Santee River near his Hampton Plantation home along with reflecting on other hunts. One such outing saw what today might be reckoned incredible prodigality - taking a mixed bag of 25 ducks with a box of shells - but it was legal at the time and waterfowl were incredibly abundant.
Much has changed since that time period, and anyone who looks back with longing will understand why Rutledge entitled one of his books Those Were the Days. Non-toxic loads have replaced lead shot, migratory ducks seem to reach South Carolina much later (if at all) than they did then, waterfowling habitat has changed appreciably, and waterfowl numbers are way down.
Not all changes, however, involve doom and gloom. Thanks to the work of the South Carolina Waterfowl Association and lots of dedicated individuals, we have far more wood ducks now. Similarly, resident Canada geese have become so plentiful as to be a nuisance on golf courses and other locations.
But most significantly for present purposes, the technique Rutledge described and used so often, while widely overlooked, remains as viable as ever. With that in mind, what follows is a much closer look at the various aspects of "paddling 'em up" and what they can mean to the dedicated waterfowlers.
In essence, two kinds of watercraft lend themselves to this type of hunting: canoes and johnboats with shallow draft. Of course, there are several variations on these, such as sneak boats, one-man hybrid crosses between a canoe and a kayak, homemade rigs and others. Both canoes and johnboats are capable of going where no craft equipped with an outboard engine dares venture, and in addition, they have the great advantage of lending themselves to a quiet, even stealthy approach. That's just the ticket the adventurous waterfowlers wants to punch. One that will let him get back of beyond and do so in an unobtrusive fashion that doesn't disturb wildlife for two miles in every direction.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of craft. The lightweight nature of a canoe makes it easy to maneuver in tight quarters, lift over or portage around in-stream obstacles, and one can be launched almost anywhere. On the other hand, canoes are not particularly stable (a keel will add some stability), nor are they roomy.
Johnboats do have plenty of room, including space for decoys if you want to mix some "sit-and-wait" action with your paddling; they are quite stable, and they are more comfortable. The downsides of johnboats largely revolve around getting them in and out of the water (you need a launch area or at least something approximating one) and in taking them into or through really tight spots. Either type of craft can be equipped with a trolling motor, although keep in mind that you can legally hunt from a moving watercraft only if it is being paddled.
Whatever your personal preference, neither type of boat is particularly expensive, and with a bit of do-it-yourself gumption you can customize one quite nicely. Old pieces of carpet placed in the bottom of a johnboat or canoe will keep things quieter, and in that regard a wooden craft has real advantages over an aluminum one. A little work with camouflage spray paint will take care of blending with your surroundings, and if you want to make a quickly erected "blind" utilizing camo cloth stitched to slender river canes, that is easily accomplished.
Other touches, such as a special storage box in a johnboat, seat cushions, waterproof stuff bags or similar accessorizing, will be your choice.
TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES
Taking the paddling path to waterfowl involves one of two basic choices. It can be a one-man game or two friends can hunt together. If you hunt by yourself, there's never any worry about the whereabouts of the other guy when it comes to taking a shot, and you can strategize precisely as you choose.
When with a partner, the sensible approach is to take turns with paddle duty (or, it should be noted, you can opt to use a pole with a johnboat if you wish). The shooter sits in the front, gun in hand and ready to deal with any ducks that get up; the hunter with a partner does not have the disadvantage of losing the time it takes to drop a paddle and grab for his gun.
The paddler or poler in the back may get a shot at a duck getting up belatedly or in the occasional situation where they circle back, but his first job is to steady the craft and give the fellow in front optimal opportunities. You can change after an agreed-upon time period, after each duck taken, or maybe you will be lucky enough, as Rutledge was, to have someone who will do all the paddling.
Almost all the action will be jump-shooting, and you never know when ducks will get up within range. Most frequently it happens as you round a bend in the river or creek, although you can jump ducks on long, straight stretches if they are hidden by downed logs or perhaps resting in a little backwater.
Speaking of backwaters, you should always investigate any slough or navigable area off the main stream. These are plentiful along Lowcountry rivers and in swamps, but you'll find them in the upstate as well. Ducks use such sites as refuges, and the ability to get to them can afford you some interesting shooting. How well I remember, for example, exploring an inviting little finger of water - probably not more than 25 feet wide - on the Black River. A hundred yards or so back, ducks started getting up, and until we ran out of paddling water, every twist and turn saw more ducks in the air.
Whenever the current and conditions allow it, hug the shoreline closest to the direction of the next turn in the stream. That will keep you out of sight for the longest time and provide the greatest likelihood of ducks getting up well within range. Also, be alert to a couple of other circumstances.
One is the fact that ducks will at times - especially if you get right on top of them before they take wing - be so confused that they make a long circle back overhead after being scared off. Be ready for that to happen and you may get a longish passing shot or
Secondly, anytime you hear geese honking in the distance and goose season is open, have loads ready at hand to deal with bigger birds. Shuck your smaller shot out and stuff them in, ease to the shore or some place where you are reasonably well hidden, then wait. Often geese follow the course of the river when traveling, and on more than one occasion I've had them pass overhead within easy shooting range. Such events can add a welcome cherry atop the waterfowler's sundae.
A couple of other possibilities await those who paddle to ducks. If you see ducks on the skyline that seem to be landing in an area off the river, chances are excellent they are heading to a pothole or swamp. Providing you won't be trespassing on private land, it's often possible to sneak up on such spots for some brief, hectic action. Or if you come upon a protected shoreline spot or little hideaway with feathers, tracks and droppings all over the place, give some consideration to hiding your boat, building a little blind (or use the above-mentioned homemade one if available), and doing a bit of calling and waiting.
Statewide, there are hundreds of options for paddling up ducks. Portions of most of the larger rivers that wind their way across South Carolina are suitable for navigation only by a canoe or johnboat. Then there are the countless miles of creeks, many of them only 15 or 20 feet across and usually only a foot or two deep in most places, that attract ducks. These are too fast and too rough for hunting in the more rugged parts of the up country, but from the Piedmont to the coast, it's another story.
They are arguably the best of all destinations, although you will want to make sure they are really navigable. The wife of a good friend, who attempted a trip down one such creek a year or two after Hurricane Hugo blew through the part of the state where I live, still likes to remind him of what she calls "the idiot roundup." What had been planned as a four- or five-hour trip lasted more than twice that long, the last three hours of it in darkness blacker than midnight down in a cypress swamp.
The way to avoid such a problem is through a bit of walking, perhaps in conjunction with some scouting for whitetails prior to the opening of deer season in the early fall.
One other type of location that merits close attention is wetlands -anything from a pothole of a few acres to a large swamp - that can't really be waded and certainly can't be navigated with a boat and outboard motor. These are fairly commonplace in the Lowcountry (just be sure the area is open for hunting and you aren't trespassing) and surprisingly plentiful even above the fall line. Topo maps (see "Logistics" below) can be a real help in locating these.
Let's close with a few specific examples of the kind of paddling trips I'm talking about. Here in the upstate area where I live, two major rivers, the Catawba and the Broad, pretty much embrace the region. Both are wide, shallow, and in some places, fairly swift, rivers. Ducks use them like highways, and basically the only way to move on extensive portions of these rivers is by paddling.
In sharp contrast are little feeders like Fishing Creek and Turkey Creek, but in their lower reaches you can ease along in a canoe (though there will be places where you have to drag through shallows or push the craft over logs).
Speaking of Turkey Creek, on the other side of the state from my York County home there's another stream with that name, and along with Stevens Creek, it is a favorite warm-weather destination for paddlers. Or look at the upper Congaree and Enoree rivers, along with the Tyger River. Or elsewhere, study a map of the Sumter and Francis Marion national forests. You'll find interesting options in them.
The heart of the matter, for once, isn't finding a place to hunt. Rather, it's choosing a destination, studying where you plan to paddle, maybe floating it before the season on a sort of scouting mission, and checking to be sure it is an area open to duck hunting. With that information in hand and a sense of adventure in mind, you can paddle your way to a tiny piece of waterfowling paradise.
Canoes, in particular, can be quite unstable in the hands of the inexpert, and the need for rapid movement when jump-shooting ducks can pose the potential for tip overs. The same holds true when floating rivers with appreciable current or when trying to negotiate around, over or under obstructions in the water. In bitterly cold weather, in particular, a slip and a spill can be quite dangerous.
Several sensible precautions need to be kept in mind. If using a canoe, opt for one with a keel for added stability. Always carry an extra paddle. Keep a change of warm clothing in a waterproof bag should you need it. Wear tight-fitting waders (chances are you will be getting out at some point along the way anyhow) to keep the amount of water "taken on" at a minimum should you end up in the water.
Carry material that makes it possible to start a fire in a hurry. A cigarette lighter and some fat pine or some type of commercial fire starter can be stowed where they will be handy. If the stream is one where water releases from an upstream dam can change water levels to an appreciable degree, be ready for that. Finally, whether hunting alone or with a buddy, leave detailed information on where you will be should you run into trouble.
Float trips demand some logistical planning. You have to figure out where it is feasible to put in and take out your canoe or johnboat, have a solid idea of how long it will take to cover the distance between the two points, know of any possible portages (usually around dams in smaller streams), and arrange for a pickup when you reach your destination.
In the latter case, two hunters have an advantage in that they can each drive, leaving one vehicle at the finishing point.
Maps come into play in a big way, and the serious duck hunter who plans paddling trips needs to make such resources a part of his bag of hunting tricks. For starters, nothing beats having USGS topo maps covering the section of river you plan to float. Even if you know the area well, such maps may reveal some hidden sloughs or backwaters worth examining.
Beyond that, there's a book available that can be invaluable, even though it was in no way written with the duck hunter in mind. This is Gene Able and Jack Horan, Paddling South Carolina: A Guide to Palmetto State River Trails. It covers virtually all of the state's rivers (16 in the Lowcountry, 11 in the Piedmont and two in the mountains) that are navigable and that have the potential to provide duck hunting. Coverage even includes the Four Holes Swamp and the Congaree Swamp. While not all the areas of coverage may be of interest (or even open to hunting - be sure to check the regulations digest), for those that are, you will find detailed information on where to put in and take out, distances between such points, detailed maps, and other useful information.
Editor's Note: Jim Casada and his wife, Ann, devote an entire section of their cookbook, Wild Bounty, to recipes on waterfowl. Signed, inscribed copies of the award-winning book can be obtained from them for $24 postpaid (c/o 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730).
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