Carolina's Best Small-Game & Upland Hunting

Carolina's Best Small-Game & Upland Hunting

Small-game opportunities abound in South Carolina this month, especially for squirrel and rabbit hunters. To find late doves and quail, you'll have to do a lot more scouting. (December 2009)

Sometimes you'll discover a good small-game hunting opportunity in the most unusual way. The time was October, and I was actually bowhunting for deer along the edge of a Lowcountry swamp. The deer stand was nestled in a big oak and I was focused on a major deer trail leading into the back corner of a lush, green food plot.

But an annoying thing was occurring that I found very distracting to my deer hunting. I was being pelted by falling cuttings from squirrels feasting in the tree above me. Not just one or two tree rats, but multiple squirrels were in this tree. There was also a couple more in an adjacent tree. I heard squirrels skittering around in the dry leaves below me as they scampered from tree to tree. I'm sure I identified at least a dozen different squirrels within 20 yards of me that evening.

And I heard many more just out of sight. I was afraid they'd actually make so much noise they would keep the deer away. But as is usually the case, they settled into their nests just abut the time deer began stirring. But I did mark that place down as high priority for squirrel hunting once deer season ended.

This story is one that seems to be recounted by many hunters during the past couple of years. While small-game hunting does not enjoy the popularity it once did, there are still plenty of hunters looking for opportunities to get into the woods during December and January.

After talking to wildlife biologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), there is one consistent pattern throughout the state. And that is the squirrel population is in good condition and is providing excellent hunting.

Plus, still-hunters and dog-hunters have plenty of squirrel-hunting opportunities. Dog-hunting for squirrels seems to actually be on the increase, especially with the abundance of squirrels in recent years.

Based on information from wildlife biologists, there is also some good hunting in localized areas for rabbits; however, the rabbit population is not as plentiful overall as the squirrels. Quail hunting is even less dependable, but again there are isolated areas where hunting can be enjoyed. Finally the late-season dove-hunting opportunities are available, but are often primarily dependent on doves being pushed into, and through, our area by weather during the late seasons. But the opportunity to enjoy a good dove hunt does exist.

Let's take a look at the squirrel hunting first.

We'll begin in the Upstate with Tom Swayngham, the Regional Wildlife Coordinator for the SCDNR out of the Clemson Office. Swayngham said that squirrels are doing very well throughout that portion of the state.

"There's an abundance of excellent squirrel habitat in this area of the state," Swayngham said. "Squirrels prefer mature hardwoods, and while there is a diversity of habitat in the area and even on the wildlife management areas (WMAs), there's no shortage of hardwood forests, bottoms and drainages to hold big populations of squirrels.

"There are a large number of WMAs with good populations of squirrels for this season," he said. "All three major areas of the Sumter National Forest will have outstanding squirrel hunting in specific areas. A couple general areas I'll mention are the Tyger River and Stevens Creek areas. However, a hunter will need to find the specific habitat areas in each place -- but that's generally not a problem. Basically, all a hunter needs to do is look for hardwoods. There are plenty of hardwood river and creek bottoms that will be outstanding, in addition to the ones mentioned."

Sam Chappelear is the wildlife biologist in the Charleston area and is familiar with most of the WMAs and private lands in the lower part of the state.

"The squirrel population is doing abundantly well in this part of the state," he said. "There's a lot of hunting on the WMAs for squirrels both by still-hunters and hunters using dogs. The use of dogs for squirrels seems to be increasing in popularity and these hunters are posting good success. It's a sport where there's a lot of action and is a great way to introduce youth to the sport of hunting."

Chappelear said that although Hurricane Hugo ravaged the huge Francis Marion National Forest 20 years ago, there has been considerable recovery in squirrel habitat. He said it will take time for continued re-growth of hardwood areas, but he is getting good reports of squirrel hunting there.

"Sometimes hunters have to work a bit to find good hardwood squirrel habitat, but it is there and providing good hunting," he said. "If someone is willing to put in a little effort to seek out the right habitat areas, I'd certainly recommend the Francis Marion National Forest for good squirrel hunting.

"Another area that may be a bit overlooked for squirrel hunting is the Edisto River WMA in Dorchester County," he said. "Here, a hunter may have to also do a good bit of walking, but if they'll walk down some of the primitive roads, they will discover some beautiful hardwood bottoms that provide outstanding squirrel habitat. This is sort of a well-kept secret that serious squirrel hunters should investigate."

Chappelear also said the Bonneau Ferry WMA in Berkeley County does not get a lot of squirrel hunting pressure, but perhaps it should get more.

"For one thing, on half of the Bonneau Ferry area, you must have a youth with you in order to hunt it," he said. "This eliminates a good bit of hunting pressure. However, it does open up a wonderful opportunity to get young hunters in the squirrel woods where there should be plenty of game to hunt. Squirrel hunters do have very good success here."

Some of the coastal WMAs do not have a lot of prime squirrel-hunting habitat, he said. However, the more inland a hunter goes, the more opportunity to find excellent habitat.

"I'd recommend getting maps of the areas and checking out the ones that have plenty of hardwood areas. For squirrels, it's usually about having the right habitat. If hunters will do a bit of research, they can find some WMA areas with localized excellent habitat and enjoy excellent squirrel hunting."

Both Chappelear and Swayngham said that there are also plenty of private lands that will have excellent squirrel-hunting populations. Once deer season ends, small-game hunters can sometimes get permission from landowners to hunt small game. If a hunter belongs to a hunting club that has plenty of hardwood areas, when big-game seas

on is over, typically small-game hunting is allowed. Be sure to check that as a potential opportunity if you do belong to a hunt club.

While not as abundant in a relative sense as the squirrels, rabbits do offer some good hunting opportunities. As with squirrels, it's all about the habitat.

"Rabbits like early successional vegetation," said Tom Swayngham. "When and where the habitat is available, they do well throughout the state. However, the problem is that much of the (habitat) has matured to (the point) where there is not as much of this type management. So, rabbit hunting in our part of the state is not as good as it used to be.

"The population of rabbits is cyclic in nature," he said. "However, it is really tied to habitat in the big-picture sense. While there are some WMAs where we have good habitat for rabbits, the trend on private lands is for less rabbit habitat than in past years. There's just intense forestry management in terms of growing timber on private lands. Because of that, there's generally less brush and briar type habitat that is typical of what rabbits prefer."

Swayngham said that hunters need to look for the less intensive areas where there is more habitat diversity. The odds of finding this type habitat are usually better on public land where a variety of uses are part of the management plan, he said.

He said that hunters need to check out a number of WMAs for late-season habitat for rabbits. There will be some isolated areas that provide very good hunting.

Also, he noted that the quail hunting aspects for late season would be served by doing the same.

"The quail basically face a lot of the same issues as the rabbits," Swayngham said. "But unfortunately for quail hunters, this game species is actually in worse shape in terms of quality habitat. Plus, as a species they are not as adaptive as rabbits. Many years ago, quail and rabbit habitat was abundant in our area, but now the use of big equipment and herbicides, the building of subdivisions and conversion of land to pastures have all combined to decrease prime habitat. Rabbits are the more survivable species and it's difficult for them.

"However, there are some places where we do have some good quail hunting," he said. "One place is some of the habitat around Lake Thurmond. Some of that would be classified as fair for quail."

Swayngham said the SCDNR and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are working in a cooperative venture to cooperate with landowners to hopefully find ways to produce more quail habitat. He said for best potential for quail hunting success, hunters need to get out and search and they can find those scattered islands of habitat for both rabbits and quail in the Upstate.

In the lower sector of the state, there are some good rabbit-hunting opportunities for those willing to search them out, Chappelear said.

"One of the best ways to produce good quail and rabbit habitat is through prescribed burning," he said. "The Forest Service at the Francis Marion National Forest has been doing prescribed burns for a while. They are now doing even more summer burning, which knocks back the sweet gum and other understory. We're now beginning to see a lot more grasses and forbs, and those should be very good for quail. As a side note, this is also good management for wild turkeys as well."

He said that this management practice also creates potentially more productive rabbit habitat. It's an excellent small-game management tool for the lower part of the state.

The best way to find the right habitat is to just get out and look, he said. Because different areas are burned each year, the successional growth needed for these species will change annually.

He added that hunters should check out WMAs for the right habitat for rabbits and quail and odds are good you'll find isolated areas of good hunting.

The final late-season small-game opportunity we'll cover is dove hunting. Generally, the public dove fields prepared by the SCDNR are aimed for the early-season hunts, when public interest and use is extremely high. However, both Swayngham and Chappelear agreed that there is potential for excellent late-season dove hunting when conditions are right.

Chappelear said that some of the best places in the lower part of the state for late-season dove hunting include the Botany Bay Plantation WMA/Heritage Preserve in Charleston County, the Donnelly WMA in Colleton County, the Samworth WMA in Georgetown County and the Webb WMA in Hampton County.

In all of these places, hunters will need to confirm that doves are in the area. Chappelear said the tendency is for late-season birds to migrate in quickly and leave just as quickly. However, there be times when the hunting is excellent.

Swayngham said the same is true in the Upstate. Most public dove fields are primed for early-season hunting. However, many will still have food sources in late season. Find these at the time doves are migrating through and enjoy excellent success.

There is one additional bit of information that hunters can use to help pinpoint late-season small-game hunting. Each year, the SCDNR prepares both quail and rabbit hunter surveys and from this we can glean specific information about where these species are most prevalent.

The latest information from the surveys is from the 2007-08 hunting seasons.

According to the survey, through intensive field observations, South Carolina quail and rabbit hunters maintained detailed records of their hunting excursions throughout the year and provided the data to the DNR Small Game Project for analysis. Hunting data compiled included the number of quail coveys flushed, covey size, number of rabbits jumped, the dates and counties where hunts occurred, and the amount of time expended in pursuit of these species. The S.C. State Council of Quail Unlimited assists with funding for the supplies necessary to conduct the surveys.

Survey results for the 2007-08 hunting season show Georgetown, Clarendon, Calhoun, Lee and Richland were the top five counties for quail. The top five counties for rabbits jumped per hour were Saluda, Fairfield, Chester, Newberry and Hampton, according to biologists with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Small Game Project.

Statewide survey results indicate a slight decrease in the number of quail coveys flushed per hour and a slight increase in the number of rabbits jumped per hour when compared with the previous year. The quail covey flush rate was 0.58 coveys/hour during the 2006-07 season, down from 0.59 coveys/hour the previous year. Quail hunters in the top five counties reported flushing an average of 0.71 to 1.79 coveys per hour. The rabbit jumping rate increased from 1.27 to 1.37 rabbits/hour during the 2007-08 season.

The Northern Coastal Plain, defined as a seven-county area from the Charleston-Georgetown county line

north to the North Carolina line and inland to Dillon, Florence and Clarendon counties, claimed the highest rate of quail finds at 0.87 coveys per hour. Piedmont quail hunters had significantly less success than those hunting in other regions of the state, said Billy Dukes, DNR Small Game Project supervisor.

The Rabbit Hunter Survey indicated an increase in hunting success during the 2007-08 season following three years of declining success. A majority of rabbit hunting by survey cooperators (75 percent) occurred in the Piedmont. The Southern Coastal Plain exhibited the highest rate of rabbits jumped per hour (1.44), among regions with a minimum of 25 hunts, said Judy Barnes, wildlife biologist with the DNR Small Game Project.

Billy Dukes said quail and rabbit hunters are welcome to participate in the small-game surveys. More participation will help ensure continued accuracy and usefulness of the surveys.

Duke said quail and rabbit hunters across the state that are willing to assist in this project, which requires taking careful notes on their hunts, should write to DNR Small Game Project, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202. Indicate if interested in participating in the Quail Hunter Survey, the Rabbit Hunter Survey, or both. Survey materials will be mailed to cooperators in mid-November, just before the opening of statewide quail and rabbit seasons.

While squirrel hunting seems to be the prime small-game late-season opportunity, there are reasonable opportunities for rabbits and doves. To a lesser extent, quail can also be successfully hunted.

The key to success on any of the species is to find the right habitat and you can enjoy successful late-season, small-game hunting in South Carolina.

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