Hunting Carolina's WMA Ducks

Looking for a quality public-land duck hunt? This overview will tell you what you need to know to plan your draw hunt duck trip.

By Walt Rhodes

The paddle down the old rice field ditch wasn't supposed to be long. But with dawn barely starting to crack to the east and duck noises on the wind, it seemed like the ditch was longer than Interstate 95.

You begin to doubt yourself in the pre-dawn darkness at a time like this. Did I listen to the directions to the blind correctly, or was I overanxious to get in the marsh and missed a key detail? Are these weathered poles with reflective tape leftovers from last season or are they the right ones?

I continued down the ditch convinced I was headed in the right direction. Within a couple of paddle strokes, I could see a shoebox-shaped image in the darkness. My flashlight caught the double wrap of reflective tape, a marker indicating that this was the blind I had drawn.

Duck noises still lingered all around. If I closed my eyes and blocked everything out of my mind, I could plainly discern the peeps and whistles of green-winged teal, the quack of a mottled duck, the trill whistles of pintails and the raspy cadences of blue-winged teal. The sounds were like a train whistle coming from around a bend in a mountain, it indicated something awesome was coming.

The wind was pushing lightly from the west. The small pond of open water on the downwind side of the blind offered a convenient landing zone.

I checked the depth of the water and mud in the pond with the paddle. With the bottom seeming fairly hard and the water only knee deep, I piled out of the paddleboat, steadying myself with the paddle and subconsciously tugging my chest waders up for insurance. My frame pushed me a little deeper in the mud than anticipated. A good thing I wore chest waders, I thought.

Seven decoys were all I put out. Two drake pintails cornered a hen to my left, a pair of greenwings mingled near some marsh grass right in front of me and two drake widgeon decoys swam in the open. The white of the drake pintails and widgeon were as bright as moonbeams, just as I had hoped.

A minute before shooting time I loaded the 20 gauge. The shotgun - the first one I ever owned - still felt good in my hands, even after 20 years.

A lone drake green-winged teal was first over the decoys. He never knew what popped him out of midair. A couple more small flocks of greenwings knew what startled them, and they kicked in the afterburners unscathed. The next bird of the hunt was a drake blue-winged teal.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Things changed after I retrieved that second bird. The overcast skies indicated a front was coming, but the winds weren't supposed to shift until the afternoon. They were definitely now tending from the east and picking up.

The ducks continued to fly, but unfortunately they refused to decoy. The earlier action indicated the ducks weren't blind-shy. However, the wind was forcing them to pitch over the blind before coming to the decoys, something that was putting the birds on edge. I had to take action if I wanted to kill more ducks.

I immediately scooped up the few decoys and moved about 75 yards away to another small pond. The decoys were hastily placed in the same arrangement as before. My blind now consisted of sitting in the mud and water in a small clump of taller marsh grass.

It worked perfectly.

I quickly downed a drake shoveler to put me halfway to my six-bird limit. Another drake green-winged teal was picked out of a decoying flock 20 minutes later. It was time to be a little more selective with four birds in the bag.

A drake gadwall started checking out the spread. He murmured a couple of times as he circled overhead. Fearing flaring him, I kept my head down and peered out from under my hood across the water. Rather than look up, I'd wait until I saw the bird just over the water before I moved.

Pop, pop, the 20 gauge caught him on the second shot.

It was about 9:30 in the morning when things started slowing down. I still needed one more bird, so I waited. I wouldn't hesitate to take another teal or shoveler if they came by, but I was hoping for something grander.

The whistle was unmistakable. Pintails were giving my tiny spread the once over. I whistled back, and before long two drakes started cupping their wings. What a sight, like angels descending from heaven. A single shot rolled one of the sprigs, and my limit was complete.

Getting a limit on draw duck hunts conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) is not a given by any means, but the hunts are better than average and there are things you can do to help put the odds in your favor.

SCDNR has been offering these hunts on certain wildlife management areas (WMAs) for over three decades. On average, hunters harvest two ducks per person, which is double the statewide average of the common waterfowler.

If you closely followed the trip at the beginning of the story, you should have picked up on several details that would make your draw duck hunt more successful. Your first step is to listen closely to what on-site personnel say. Being on these properties daily, they have a feel for where the ducks are and how they are moving.

Pay attention to directions to your drawn blind. You don't want to waste valuable pre-hunt time before your hunt paddling around in circles. Further, listen to any instructions or tips personnel offer concerning your blind. Often you have the option of moving 100 yards or so if wind direction is a factor or the ducks are blind-shy.

Two valuable pieces of equipment are a good flashlight and chest waders. A 3- or 4-D- cell flashlight with new batteries is recommended. It might be clear when you leave your house, but out on the marsh it could be foggy. A strong flashlight will help you find reflective tape marking the path to the blind.

If you hunt on a WMA in the Piedmont or Upstate, hip boots might be all right, but on coastal impoundments chest waders are suggested. With today's lightweight neoprene chest waders, you're crazy not to wear them for the added protection. It only takes one misstep to ruin a hunt.

You should travel light as well. Some hunters show up with every conceivable piece of equipment, plus enough decoys to float the Titanic. Your gun, limit of shells, a pair of gloves, a call or two and a fe

w decoys are all that is needed.

I prefer to stay away from large spreads and much calling, if I call at all. Most duck hunters put out a large spread of mallard decoys and blow a quacking duck call like an auctioneer.

A small sack of decoys of oddball species (I prefer ones with white) allows you to be mobile. Mallards are rare at most coastal WMAs - the only exception being the west side of Santee Delta WMA. The only other duck that quacks like a mallard in a coastal marsh is a mottled duck, everything else whistles or peeps. Whistle-type calls are fine, or better yet, leave the calls at home. Farther inland, a mallard call will probably help, as long as you know how to use it.

There are other little tricks that hunters employ on these hunts to be successful. Back at the check station after the hunt, watch who has the ducks and listen to what they did.

Duck hunters wishing to get in the lottery for SCDNR draw duck hunts are too late for this season. Applications for the approximately 1,400 slots are typically available in late September, and the deadline is late October. Selected hunters are notified by early November. To obtain an application, you can write SCDNR, attn: Duck Hunts, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC, 29202 or call (803) 734-3886. You may also visit on the Internet at www.dnr.state.sc.us.

To help you make your selection or for those hunters drawn for the 2004-05 season, here's an overview of some of the top areas.

SANTEE COASTAL

RESERVE WMA

Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is located in Charleston and Georgetown counties near McClellanville. Duck hunting takes place on three areas of the property known as Cedar Island, Murphy Island and The Cape, which are hunted on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, respectively.

All hunts take place in coastal impoundments, also called rice fields, from pre-constructed blinds that hunters draw for on the morning of their hunt. Blinds are well spaced and gunning pressure is rotated so that the birds should not be blind-shy. Because of transportation by boat and the remoteness of the property, hunters are limited to one bag of decoys.

Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is everything but a mallard hole. Hunters have a crack at harvesting over 16 different species of waterfowl. Blue-winged teal are routinely the top species harvested followed by green-winged teal. Gadwalls, widgeon, lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks and shovelers are other abundant species. The area is also good for pintails.

Most hunters leave Santee Coastal Reserve WMA with some ducks. During the 2002-03 season, 253 hunters harvested 971 ducks for an average of 3.8 ducks per person, which was up over one duck per person from the previous season. Last season, the average climbed again to 4.7 ducks per person.

Harvesting ducks at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is never a sure thing. A lot of first-time hunters to the area get overwhelmed by the number of ducks flying at first light and waste their shells. If you stay calm and carefully pick your shots, you'll have a good hunt.

SANTEE DELTA WMA

Santee Delta WMA is the mallard hole on the coast - if you're drawn for the right side. Located upriver from Santee Coastal Reserve WMA in Georgetown County, the Santee Delta is split by Hwy. 17 N into the East and West sides.

The West side is the mallard side. The impoundments on this side are almost completely filled with flooded cypress trees, giving hunters the closest experience to timber hunting outside of the Mississippi Flyway. Because of the timber, hunters also kill a large number of wood ducks here, and green-winged teal are often found winging around the trees, too.

Hunters selected for the West side have to supply their own boats and decoys. You draw for an area of the West side, then use your boat to reach that spot. There are no pre-constructed blinds, something to keep in mind if you're looking for a leisurely hunt.

The East side is entirely different. The impoundments are more like marshy ones found at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA. As a result, species composition on the East side varies from the West side. Green-winged teal are numerous, but so are blue-winged teal, shovelers and the occasional gadwall and pintail.

Hunters drawn for the East side only have to show up with their guns and shells. Blinds, boats and decoys are provided. However, you can bring your own decoys.

The average harvest per hunter since 1995 is routinely above three ducks. During the 2003-04 season, 141 guns harvested 469 ducks.

BROAD RIVER WMA

Broad River WMA is another choice for waterfowlers hoping to kill some mallards on a public-land duck hunt. Relative to other WMAs in the draw hunt program, Broad River WMA is not large, but it is a consistent producer.

The WMA is located in Fairfield County near the town of Winnsboro. Twelve hunters are selected for each Saturday hunt that takes place in planted fields, usually corn.

Mallards account for about a third of the total harvest, and last season was no exception. Abundant rain during 2003 limited agricultural activities on the area, which limited the number of hunters drawn for the season, but hunters still killed 38 mallards out of the 132 ducks taken. Ring-necked ducks and wood ducks each made up 20 percent of the harvest and green-winged teal and widgeon accounted for another 10 percent each.

SANDY BEACH WMA

Another small but consistent producer of ducks is Sandy Beach WMA. Located in Berkeley County as part of the larger North Dike WMA on Lake Moultrie, Sandy Beach WMA has been ranked as one of the top duck areas over the last five years.

It was the top duck WMA during the 2001-02 season with an average of 4.5 ducks per person. Hunters averaged 3.6 ducks per person during the 2002-03 season. The average fell to 2.8 ducks per person last season.

Don't let the declining numbers fool you, this is still a good area to apply for. The personnel do everything humanly possible to ensure you have a good hunt. Most hunting takes place from pre-constructed blinds that are regularly moved if need be, and staff will move you, when possible, if your blind is slow.

Hunts are held on Wednesdays with no more than eight hunters gunning over mostly planted fields. Decoys and transportation to the blinds are provided by SCDNR.

Mallards, wood ducks and green-winged teal are the typical top species harvested. Last season, hunters harvested 10 different species, including pintails, widgeon, gadwalls, blue-winged teal and ring-necked ducks.

BEAVERDAM WMA

Another small area that is often overlooked by hunters applying for the lottery duck hunts is Beaverdam WMA in Anderson County. T

his is unfortunate, since its numbers have been comparable with the best WMA hunting in the state during the last few seasons.

Hunters at Beaverdam WMA have averaged 2.5 to three ducks per person over the last three seasons - respectable numbers for any WMA. Because of the small size of the area, only six people are selected for each Saturday hunt, which takes place from three blinds, two in a 10-acre flooded corn field and one in a six-acre pond that floods natural foods.

Wood ducks have been the top species, usually comprising 30 to 50 percent of the total harvest at the WMA, but last year was an exception. Ring-necked ducks accounted for two-thirds of the harvest, followed by mallards and wood ducks. Green-winged teal are taken with regularity at Beaverdam, too.

Duck hunters who are veterans to the draw duck hunts will notice Bear Island WMA is missing from this year's discussion. The area in the ACE Basin near Green Pond is still in the draw duck hunt program, but success has been limited in recent seasons.

Hunters have averaged about 1.7 ducks per person the last two seasons. These are still good numbers for a public hunting area, but they are much below the area's historic average.

Despite its recent drop in success, Bear Island WMA and the adjoining Springfield WMA still host a variety of ducks. Like Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, over a dozen different species were harvested last season. Blue-winged teal were the top species last season, followed very closely by hooded mergansers. Mottled ducks, shovelers, lesser scaup and green-winged teal were other abundant species in the bag.

Bear Island WMA still offers a good quality hunt, but repeat hunters should be aware that the hunt might not be what they expected based on experiences of earlier trips.

The overall quality of waterfowling in South Carolina has been waning in recent seasons. Despite this trend, WMAs managed by SCDNR that support draw duck hunts still offer hunters a reasonable chance at harvesting some ducks if they pay attention to the details.



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