By Walt Rhodes
Mesmerizing whistles and quacks and the unmistakable sound of feathers slicing wind indicated ducks were on the move. Once shooting time arrived, the invisible flyers responsible for all the racket would be revealed hovering over decoys.
For Hank Coombs of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, this was a familiar sound. Months earlier, he had enjoyed similar mornings hunting ducks in Saskatchewan. But the prairies were over 2,000 miles away now, and the only thing that rolled out before him this morning was the limitless horizon of the Santee Delta.
Coombs and his dad, Harry, were sharing a duck blind at Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near McClellanville, and they were about to experience a hunt that could be rated as great anywhere, even in Canada.
While widgeons talked over their descent with other flock members, odd knots of pintails threw in their deep, smooth whistles. Green-winged teal added to the waterfowl serenade with their raspy quacks. Blue-winged teal and lesser scaup whipped head-high over the marsh in aerial displays that would be the envy of the Navy’s Blue Angels.
The Atlantic Ocean surf pounded the beachfront to the east, but the roil was overwhelmed by talkative widgeons overhead. The start of the day sounded like a tobacco auction gone bad.
Father and son Coombs sat in the blind absorbing everything. Nothing else in their lives mattered at this point. All senses were on full alert as they soaked in the action.
Shooting time had arrived, and shotgun and trigger finger were about to meet. The decoys looked inviting to the widgeons overhead who already knew the particular duck pond was full of widgeongrass, their favorite food.
The ducks started raining down on the Coombs. The elder Coombs’ double gun barked, and widgeons began splashing dead in the water. Like father, like son: Hank stayed with his old man. The morning ended too quickly for the pair, but they shot their limits. A beautiful bag of widgeons was complimented with a brace of pintails. No one could have scripted it any better.
Not all draw-duck hunts offered by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) result in limits, but hunters usually have a reasonable chance at a good hunt.
SCDNR has been conducting draw-duck hunts on their WMAs for over 30 years. Success during that time has ebbed and flowed with breeding conditions on the prairies and with winter weather, which can affect migration; but by and large, waterfowl hunters have averaged about two ducks per hunter per day on draw hunts. That’s about twice as many ducks as are taken on a typical non-guided hunt on public water or private swamps statewide.
Personnel with SCDNR exert tremendous effort all year long to ensure that waterfowl hunters have the best duck hunt possible. Dikes are maintained and water levels are manipulated to promote the growth of vegetation attractive to ducks. On other areas, crops are planted and then flooded to attract waterfowl.
When the ducks migrate here in the fall, they usually find the WMAs to their liking. Once the ducks arrive on the areas, managers try to maintain quality hunting by reducing disturbance. This is done by limiting the amount of hunting and rotating blind sites.
SCDNR regulates the number of hunters by a lottery system. Interested hunters complete an application available in September each year and then hope that their names are pulled during the late-October drawing. Application fee is $50 per hunter.
Up to four hunters can apply on an application, but your name can only be on one application per year. Therefore, if you try to increase your odds by sending in more than one application, both forms will be eliminated from the drawing.
Approximately 1,400 slots are available each season. The number per WMA can vary annually because of factors out of personnel control, such as weather-related problems like drought or flooding. Fortunately, state budget cuts have not affected hunts, but they are cutting razor close.
Hunters not drawn will receive one preference point. As long as you apply every year, your chances should work out to be selected about once every other year. One note, however, is the computer looks at the preference points for each name on an application. If three people on the application have one preference and one person has none, the computer treats the application as having no points, which will reduce your chances of being drawn.
You can further increase your odds of being drawn if you check any date rather than limiting your choices to only one or two dates.
Although it is too late to apply for this season, here’s some information to help you decide where to apply next season. If you have been drawn to hunt this season, the following information will tell you what to expect on your hunt. These are the top areas from last season.
Located outside of McClellanville in Charleston and Georgetown counties, the property is broken into three parcels for duck hunting. Cedar Island is hunted on Tuesdays, Murphy Island on Thursdays and the Cape on Saturdays. All hunts take place in impoundments, or old rice fields as some folks call them, from pre-constructed blinds that hunters draw for on the morning of their hunt.
Hunters looking for an easy hunt should avoid Santee Coastal Reserve. Most blind sites are remote and require lots of paddling to reach them. To save space during transportation to and from hunting areas, hunters are limited to one bag of decoys. Retrievers are permitted, but hunters should be aware that the area supports numerous alligators.
If you want a crack at a wide range of species, Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is a good choice. About 16 different species of waterfowl are harvested in a given year. Snow geese occur on the area and hunters might see a stray redhead, oldsquaw or pure black duck.
One thing Santee Coastal Reserve is not a mallard place. If you wait to shoot a mallard here, you are going home empty-handed. Blue- and green-winged teal are usually the main ducks harvested. Gadwalls and widgeons have been numerous in the area, but with the recent decline in prairie-nesting habitats the harvest for these two species has fallen.
Last season, 236 guns harvested 972 ducks for a 4.12 ducks-per-man average. Blue-winged teal was the top duck followed by lesser scaup and green-winged teal. Hunters also harvested a respectable number of northern shovelers and pintails. Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is one of the best areas in the state to harvest a mottled duck as well.
For more information about Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, call their office at (843) 546-8665.
The small WMA is tucked into the larger North Dike WMA in northern Berkeley County. Despite its small size, Sandy Beach has ranked as a top three duck area for the last three seasons, anchoring the top spot for the 2001-02 season.
Success during that season was 4.46 ducks harvested per gun. The top species was mallard, making up one third of the harvest, followed by wood ducks and green-winged teal.
Hunters averaged 3.60 ducks harvested per man during the 2002-03 season, ranking the area No. 2 in the state behind Santee Coastal Reserve WMA. Mallards were again the top species, with wood ducks and scaup, in that order, rounding out the top three species taken on the area. Green-winged teal held the fourth spot. Just as at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, gadwalls and widgeons used to be a regular bird in the harvest here, but their numbers have fallen with the poor nesting conditions in the prairies.
Sandy Beach WMA is hunted on each Wednesday of the season. Because of the area’s small acreage, only eight shooters are allowed per hunt. Most of the hunting takes place in shallowly flooded crops, such as millet, corn, rice and chufas. SCDNR personnel move blinds weekly, if necessary, to ensure hunters have the best hunt possible. This is one of the few areas that do this, and the record speaks for itself.
You can call SCDNR at (843) 825-3387 for additional information about hunting at one of the top waterfowl areas in the state.
Broad River WMA has always been one of the best WMAs to shoot mallards. Typically, greenheads will make up 30 percent of the area’s total harvest. During the 2001-02 season, mallards were the top duck, with green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and wood ducks second, third and fourth, respectively. The average harvest per hunter that season was 2.08 ducks.
During last season, average harvest per hunter jumped up to 3.07 ducks, which is more typical of the WMA, but the species harvest composition changed. Ring-necked ducks comprised over 40 percent of the harvest, with wood ducks and mallards accounting for another 30 percent. Canada geese are a potential on every hunt, too.
The hunts at Broad River WMA take place on Saturdays, with only 12 hunters allowed per hunt. Habitat for hunting is planted fields that are shallowly flooded.
Broad River WMA is a good choice for Piedmont hunters who want to stay close to home or for hunters from the coast who want a change in scenery. If you are interested in hunting here and want to learn more, contact the SCDNR office in Union at (864) 427-4771.
During the 2001-02 season, the average harvest per person was 2.91 ducks, ranking it third in the state. Last season, the harvest fell slightly to 2.71 ducks per hunter, but this success rate was still above the overall WMA average.
Wood ducks are the top ducks harvested at Beaverdam WMA. This species will make up about 30 to 50 percent of the total harvest. Mallards were second, followed by green-winged teal last season. The two species were reversed the previous season. Wood ducks, mallards and green-winged teal comprise about 75 percent of the total harvest for the area.
Beaverdam WMA is very small. Consequently, only six people are drawn per hunt. Hunts take place on Saturdays. Hunting takes place from three blinds. One blind is located in a 6-acre pond that floods naturally and the other two blinds are strategically positioned in a 10-acre flooded corn field.
This WMA is a good option if you live in the Upstate and don’t want to travel to the other WMAs. Since most of the harvest consists of wood ducks, and the limit is two; looking solely at the average does not indicate the number of ducks using the area. If the other species are numerous during your hunt, you could leave the field with a hefty bag.
Feel free to contact SCDNR’s office near Clemson University at (864) 654-1671 if you would like to learn more about the duck hunting at Beaverdam WMA.
Some of Bear Island WMA’s luster has worn off in recent years, however. The recent drought complicated growing natural foods in the area’s managed wetlands or impoundments. Planting crops is not an option in these mucky, saline soils. With little food available for ducks, hunting success has fallen from the numbers most hunters remember.
Bear Island WMA is divided into three units. The West and East sides are hunted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Springfield Marsh is hunted on Saturdays.
Combined harvest success on the three parcels during the 2000-01 season was 3.44 ducks per hunter. This dropped off by one duck during the 2001-02 season, and fell again last season to 1.65 ducks per person.
The types of ducks harvested on the area in a normal year resemble those taken at Santee Coastal Reserve. Both species of teal usually comprise about 25 percent of the harvest, with a smattering of other ducks rounding out the total.
During the 2002-03 season, hooded mergansers were the top bird in the bag. The area has always harvested a lot of hoodies, but this was probably the result of having very few other species
Scaup, a recent winter resident to the coast’s managed wetlands, was second in the harvest, accounting for 17 percent of the harvest. Both teal species combined came in at about the same rate. Hunters also harvested a decent number of mottled ducks, a common year-round resident along the coast.
Bear Island WMA had been littered with gadwalls and as recently as the 2001-02 season, it was the top duck. However, like other areas that supported flocks of gadwalls, their numbers have dwindled with the drying of the prairies.
Now that more normal precipitation has returned, Bear Island WMA is expected to regain some of its former glory. You can call SCDNR at (843) 844-8957 to inquire about conditions and hunting at this WMA.
Two other popular areas not mentioned are Santee Delta and Santee-Cooper WMAs. Santee Delta had an off year last season. Several of its hunts were canceled due to the lack of ducks.
Santee-Cooper WMA, on Lake Marion near Eutaw Springs, has not supported hunts for several seasons because the Santee-Cooper lakes had been so low from the drought. Look for this area to be back in business now that lake levels are more normal.
The deadline to apply for this season’s slots has passed. Applications will be available in September 2004 for next season’s duck hunts. To obtain an application, you may pick one up at any local SCDNR office or write SCDNR, attn: Duck Hunts, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202 or call (803) 734-3886. You may also visit them on the Web at www.dnr.state.sc.us.
Your hunt might not turn out exactly like the Coombs’ did, but there’s a good chance you will go home with some ducks from a WMA hunt.
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