South Carolina's Best WMA Draw Hunts for Ducks

Hunters have several great choices for South Carolina's lottery waterfowl hunts. Here's an overview to help you in the blind now and for applying next season.

Duck hunting in South Carolina is never guaranteed. You can go through hours of preparation before the season, have the best-looking rig of decoys in the marsh and be able to blow a duck call like Louis Armstrong played trumpet and still come home empty handed.

When the ducks don't come, there's usually one reason: Mild weather to the north has failed to push the birds into South Carolina. To put it simply, when winters are cold, especially to the north, ducks are forced farther south into the state. With birds scattered across the region, hunters from the Upstate all the way to the coast have good shooting.

During warm winters, however, hunters mostly have to rely on hunting wood ducks in local swamps. Sure, these birds are taken during cold winters, too, but other species that have spilled into similar habitats are added to the bag.

Locally, other factors can affect duck hunting success. Urban development on the state's large reservoirs has limited or even all but eliminated hunting in some places. The loss of hydrilla across the state has caused waterfowl to winter elsewhere. Even with the ups and downs of the weather and localized changes in waterfowl habitat, hunters still have an option for good duck hunting in the state.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has several wildlife management areas (WMAs) that offer excellent duck hunting. The 30-plus-years average harvest on these areas is roughly two ducks per hunter per day, which is double the statewide average during the same time period. In plain English, duck hunting on these areas is good, despite year-to-year changes in the weather.

SCDNR personnel go to tremendous lengths to support good hunting on these areas every year. Long before the season starts, crops are tended on some WMAs, and on others water levels are constantly checked and dikes are repaired.

Once the ducks come, good hunting is maintained by limiting disturbance. These WMAs would be overrun with duck hunters, and the ducks would be long gone, if the areas were open every day. To prevent this from happening, a lottery system is used to select hunters.

Interested hunters must fill out an application, with no more than four hunters per application, and indicate their desired areas and dates. There is a $50 application fee per hunter. A drawing is held in late October, and selected hunters are notified in early November. More than 1,400 slots are available each season.

While it is too late to apply for this season, here's an overview of some of the top areas. Knowing something about the areas will help you decide where to go and what you can expect to harvest.

Photo by Michael Mauro

Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is the state's newest and largest public waterfowl hunting area. Straddling the Georgetown and Charleston county line, in 1974 the property came to the state from The Nature Conservancy, which had been deeded the property through a gift from the Santee Gun Club. A stipulation of the transaction was that the club members could lease the hunting rights for 25 years. Following the expiration of the hunting lease in 1999, SCDNR assumed total control of the 24,000-acre property, which includes over 10,000 acres of managed wetlands.

Santee Coastal's marsh is divided into three parcels known as Cedar and Murphy islands and The Cape, with the latter being on the mainland. Hunts are conducted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and each parcel is only hunted once a week.

Hunters draw for pre-constructed blinds before each hunt. Because some areas can be accessed only by small boats and because the entire area is relatively remote, hunters are limited to one bag of decoys per blind. Retrievers are permitted, but hunters should be aware that the area supports an abundant alligator population.

Santee Coastal Reserve WMA hosts one-third of the total hunters participating in the lottery duck hunts statewide. During the 2001-02 season, 356 hunters harvested 1,032 ducks for an average of 2.90 birds per hunter. The annual harvest exceeds 1,000 ducks, and the area can be considered a "best-bet" duck hunting spot.

It is also reasonable to assume you could harvest any legal duck species on Santee Coastal; over 16 different species are harvested on the area annually. There is even a small flock of snow geese that winter on the marsh.

Gadwalls, blue- and green-winged teal and shovelers are consistently the most abundant species. Scaup, which normally average about 2 percent of the total harvest, averaged 14 percent last season. Ringnecks, typically an abundant bird on the area, were noticeably absent during the 2001-02 season. Widgeon hover just under 10 percent of the total harvest, and Santee Coastal is one of the best places to harvest a pintail.

To learn more about the area, call SCDNR's Santee Coastal Reserve WMA office at (843) 546-8665.

Bear Island WMA is probably the state's most notable public duck hunting area. There are two reasons for its reputation. One, it is one of the oldest WMAs in the state. It is a safe bet that nearly every ardent waterfowler in South Carolina has hunted at Bear Island. Two, none of those duck hunters can forget the area's longtime and colorful manager, the late Johnny Hiers.

Bear Island WMA is located at the lower end of Colleton County, roughly 14 miles outside the rural enclave of Green Pond. It is easily reached by turning off of Highway 17 onto Bennett's Point Road and driving until you nearly run out of road.

Similar to Santee Coastal Reserve WMA (only smaller), Bear Island holds hunts conducted in managed wetland habitats, locally called impoundments or rice fields. Bear Island is partitioned into three units called the East and West sides and Springfield marsh. The West and East sides and Springfield marsh are hunted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, respectively.

A pre-constructed blind, boat and decoys are provided for hunters chosen to hunt the East side and Springfield. On the West side, a blind is provided; however, hunters need to bring their own decoys and boat. Dogs are permitted, but Bear Island also has a large alligator population.

The types of ducks harvested at Bear Island WMA are similar to those harvested at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA. Both species of teal, gadwa

lls and shovelers are the most common ducks taken here. Again, the total harvest consists of about 10 percent widgeon. Mottled ducks are common at Bear Island, and a few pintails use the marsh, but mallards are essentially nonexistent, accounting for less than 3 percent of the total harvest.

Bear Island WMA hosts roughly 20 to 25 percent of the hunters in the lottery duck hunts, second behind Santee Coastal Reserve. Total harvest last season at Bear Island, including the Springfield marsh, was 715 ducks. The average harvest per gun during the 2001-02 season was 2.36 ducks, but in recent years the harvest has been over three ducks per hunter. The prolonged drought negatively affected waterfowl use of the area last season.

You can call SCDNR at (843) 844-8957 for additional information about hunting at one of the state's oldest and best-known public hunting areas.

If you are looking for a place to harvest mallards on a lottery duck hunt, Santee Delta is one of the best WMAs. Located in Georgetown County upriver from Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, Santee Delta WMA offers waterfowlers a contrast in habitats.

The area consists of 1,502 acres of impoundments, split into two nearly equal parts by Highway 17. To the east of the road, duck hunters will find typical wide-open coastal impoundments. An impoundment is also on the west side of Highway 17 but is almost completely flooded-timber habitat. It feels like hunting in a Mississippi River bottomland swamp.

Many hunters apply only for Santee Delta because of the unique habitat it offers and the consistent above-average success rates enjoyed by waterfowlers. The average harvest per gun during the 2001-02 season was four ducks, and the average since 1995 has been at or above three ducks per person.

Green-winged teal and mallards are always the top ducks taken at Santee Delta WMA. These two species account for almost two-thirds of the total harvest.

The majority of mallards are harvested on the West side. Numerous wood ducks are taken there as well. You will need to provide your own boat and decoys when hunting on the West side. Blinds are not provided, and most hunters usually stand by a tree or construct some sort of blind from natural materials. Last season, there was one account of a hunter getting his limit by hiding near a tree with no decoys and only occasionally calling on his duck call.

Pre-constructed blinds, decoys and boats are provided on the East side of Santee Delta WMA. Expect fast shooting on this side of the area, as green-winged teal and shovelers are the most common species. The occasional gadwall, pintail, widgeon and ringneck will make a pass as well.

For more information about Santee Delta WMA, call SCDNR at (843) 546-9489.

Sandy Beach WMA is a tiny parcel of the larger North Dike WMA that juts out into the north side of Lake Moultrie in Berkeley County. Don't let the fact that Sandy Beach WMA is small fool you, however. This area has consistently been one of the top harvest areas. It was ranked No. 1 last season.

The average harvest per hunter during the 2001-02 season was 4.46 ducks. Since 1997, the average has been above three ducks per person.

Mallards, gadwalls, wood ducks and green-winged teal are the prime species at Sandy Beach WMA. Collectively, these four species account for approximately 80 percent of the total harvest.

Hunts are held on Wednesday, with no more than eight hunters. The SCDNR staff provides decoys, blinds and transportation to the blinds. Because of the size of the area, personnel are able to move blinds on a weekly basis to ensure good shooting. As a testament to the area's success, many hunters are repeat visitors, hoping to relive excellent hunts from prior seasons.

Hunting is conducted from natural blinds situated over planted and natural food areas. While most hunting will be in water less than knee-deep, chest waders are still suggested, since you might have to squat in the water to avoid detection by circling ducks.

SCDNR staff (843/825-3387) can answer any additional questions you might have about Sandy Beach WMA.

Mallards are king at Broad River WMA. Besides the West side at Santee Delta WMA, the flooded fields at Broad River WMA are your other best-bet choice if you want to kill mallards on public land.

Broad River WMA is located in Fairfield County, roughly 10 miles west of Winnsboro. The area is not large - 12 hunters per each Saturday hunt - but the planted fields really attract waterfowl.

Mallards account for about 25 percent of the total harvest. Green-winged teal, wood ducks and ringnecks combine for roughly half of the total harvest. A smattering of other species fill out the remaining quarter of the harvest, with a shot at a Canada goose being a real possibility.

A total of 73 hunters harvested 152 ducks on Broad River WMA last season. This drop in average harvest to 2.08 ducks per person was uncharacteristic of the area. The average at Broad River has been closer to three ducks per person since the mid 1990s.

Broad River WMA has been in the draw-duck hunts for over two decades. If you are interested in hunting on this established area and want to learn more, contact SCDNR at (864) 427-4771.

Upstate duck hunters have very little opportunity for lottery duck hunts in their area. The only WMA in the program is Beaverdam WMA in Anderson County. Because the area is small, only six people hunt each Saturday.

Two blinds are located in a 10-acre flooded corn field, and the other blind is in a 6-acre pond that floods naturally. Wood ducks, green-winged teal, mallards and ringnecks comprise nearly 80 percent of the harvest here, with wood ducks being the top duck. Mallards are typically No. 3, making up 17 percent of the total harvest.

The average daily harvest last season at Beaverdam WMA was 2.91 ducks per hunter. This was up considerably from 1.25 ducks per hunter during the 2000-01 season.

Beaverdam WMA has only been hunted since the 1990-91 season. The average harvest languished at around a half-duck per person for several seasons. It has doubled in recent years and was as high as 3.1 ducks per hunter per day during the 1997-98 season. If you live in the Upstate and do not want to travel to the other WMAs that offer lottery duck hunts, Beaverdam WMA provides a reasonable alternative.

SCDNR's office in Pendleton can provide additional information about Beaverdam WMA. Feel free to contact them at (864) 654-1671.

Three other WMAs offer lottery duck hunts. Santee-Cooper WMA in Orangeburg County is traditiona

lly a great hunting spot, but the action is at the mercy of water levels in Lake Marion. Hunts were canceled last season because of the prolonged drought and low lake levels. For more information about Santee-Cooper WMA, you can contact SCDNR at (843) 825-3387.

Samworth WMA near Georgetown has hosted lottery duck hunts for over three decades, but declining waterfowl use of the area has caused some hunts to be canceled. Hunts will be held once waterfowl return to the area. The number for Samworth WMA is (843) 546-9489.

Youth-only lottery duck hunts are held throughout the season at Donnelley WMA in Colleton County. Green-winged teal and wood ducks are the top ducks harvested. The kids shot well last season, with an average harvest of 2.48 ducks per hunter. To find out more about this unique opportunity, call the Donnelley office at (843) 844-8957.

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