Watching the fog burn off over a swamp in the Francis Marion National Forest is the perfect way to start a fall morning.
Many hunters using public land, like the Francis Marion or a local wildlife management area (WMA), or a parcel of private land, can be found perched 15 feet in the air watching the day start. Deer are what the majority of hunters hunt today. Deer hunters spent over 2 million days afield during the 2006 season and harvested nearly 250,000 deer.
However, as I watched the treetops materialize at dawn, I wasn’t in a tree stand nor was I bathed in scentless soap or clothed in scent-blocking camouflage. Nope, I was wearing an ordinary pair of camo jeans and my favorite chamois hunting shirt. The hunting vest that I was wearing had a faint smell of gun oil and a leftover empty cracker package in one of the pockets, a definite no-no had I been deer hunting.
But I wasn’t waiting on a 200-pound Muy Grande buck of the swamp to come bouncing out trailing a hot doe. Instead, I was scanning the canopy above me for a 1-pound bushytail, a gray squirrel that would be out shortly looking for an acorn breakfast.
In mid-October, many of the leaves were still on the trees. This is good and bad. As a squirrel feeds on acorns, you can hear the particles of shell careening off the leaves as they drop to the ground. It is also easier to see a squirrel shaking limbs as it moves about. The leaves help hide you from a squirrel’s sharp eyesight as you move into position as well. Another benefit with the leaves on the trees is they are not crunching underfoot.
The same leaves that help hide you from a squirrel, however, also help the squirrel hide from you. You might see where a squirrel is feeding, but it can be very difficult to locate and positively identify your target for a successful shot.
Before long, I heard some debris raining down from the top of a red oak. The leaves jiggled with the regularity of a feeding squirrel. I moved into position each time the limb shook, believing that if the squirrel were busy pulling off an acorn he’d miss me slinking through the woods.
I was right.
After feeding on one section of the oak, the squirrel began moving toward another limb. That was his downfall. He became very visible, and a load of No. 6s from my 20 gauge collected the first ingredient for a recipe of fried squirrel.
I put three other squirrels in my vest that morning before I left the woods for work. Although I heard some shots in the distance, I never saw another hunter and the woods seemed to be moving with squirrels. It’s rare to go deer hunting on public land without seeing another hunter in the process, and obviously even rarer to be able to pull the trigger multiple times.
Small-game hunting opportunities found around the state are usually like my hunt. You’ll hit the woods or thickets with few (or no) other hunters and normally find an abundance of game.
“There is a tremendous amount of small-game hunting available across the state,” said Billy Dukes, small-game project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). “Many species receive very little pressure since most hunters are hunting deer these days.”
Dukes is not kidding when he says most people are deer hunting these days. A survey conducted by SCDNR indicated that 134,750 hunters hunted deer during the 2006 season. They expended over 2 million days afield and harvested an estimated 221,320 deer.
The number of small-game hunters pales in comparison. It is estimated that there are fewer than 90,000 hunters in the state who hunt rabbits, squirrels, quail, doves, woodcock, snipe, rails, ruffed grouse and crows combined. Since some hunters more than likely hunt more than one small-game species, the actual number of small-game hunters is much lower. These hunters spent 75 percent less time afield than deer hunters.
You should have no problem finding a place all to yourself to hunt if you are after one of the small-game species.
“Squirrels are one of the most underutilized small-game resources we have,” Dukes said. “With so much emphasis on deer, we have seen the number of squirrel hunters in the state drop. We had about 120,000 squirrel hunters back in the 1970s, which has now declined to about 17,000 hunters.”
Dukes listed several public lands as good squirrel hunting spots.
“There is a lot of opportunity for squirrel hunting on the national forest lands of the state,” he said. “There has been a reduced emphasis on timber harvesting on national forest lands, so there is a lot of mature timber now. Further, the diversity of these lands bodes well if you are a squirrel hunter.”
The Francis Marion and Sumter national forests encompass over 616,000 acres. Dukes didn’t suggest a particular section of either national forest to hunt, but with that much land a simple scouting trip, such as a day hike, should nail down several good spots. The great thing about the national forest system is there is acreage within an hour’s drive of every major population center within the state.
Beyond the national forest system, Dukes recommended several WMAs for good squirrel hunting.
“The Webb Center complex in Hampton and Jasper counties is a good spot for the same reasons as the national forest,” Dukes said. “While obviously not as large as the national forests, Webb, Palachucola and, more recently, Hamilton Ridge WMAs cover over 25,000 acres of diverse habitat. It’s like a national forest in miniature.”
Another recent addition to the WMA system that Dukes suggested is the 25,668-acre Woodbury WMA in Marion County. While the property has seen much timber cutting over the years, there are several mature stands still available that support squirrels.
Other WMAs worth investigating for squirrels are Wee Tee, which is about 90 percent hardwoods but is prone to flooding from the Santee River, Draper in York County and tracts that comprise Jocassee Gorge. Like the national forests, Dukes said the diverse habitat found on state forest lands and national wildlife refuges also hold populations of squirrels.
“Rabbits track squirrels pretty closely,” Dukes said. “Access and a changing countryside on private lands has affected where you can go rabbit hunting.
“Our rabbit hunter survey that we conduct each year shows that most of the rabbit hunting occurs in the Piedmont, with a lot of that effort focused in the region around Anderson, Newberry, Laurens, Abbeville and Edgefield counties. The least amount of hunting was in the Pee Dee region, even though this area had the second highest rabbit jump rate in the state.”
The survey has been conducted for over 10 years. During that time, rabbit populations, as measured by jump rates, has varied little. Hunters jump between 1.39 to 1.76 rabbits per hour of hunting and harvest about a rabbit per hour. Statewide, it is estimated there are about 12,000 rabbit hunters who take about 123,000 rabbits annually.
“Even though they are large and diverse, the national forests don’t support much rabbit hunting,” Dukes said. “Without much timber cutting, there is very little early succession habitat that rabbits need.
“The places to look on national forests would be near any recent timber harvest operations. Most of these spots may be areas where they cut trees as a result of southern pine beetle damage. So, if you stop at a district office for help, ask about these types of areas.
“Other good spots on national forest lands or on SCDNR WMAs is around public dove fields. The field borders usually hold a few rabbits.”
Dukes said the Webb Center complex is good for rabbits, too. There is a good mix of agricultural fields and field borders on the properties, and the area has supported timber cutting, which is good for rabbits. The fact that a former employee down there used to keep a pack of beagles is a good indication about the rabbit hunting on the properties.
“Woodbury and Marsh WMAs should have some good rabbit hunting because of the timber operations that have taken place,” Dukes said. “The Bland and Oak Lea tracts of Manchester State Forest are good rabbit spots, too. There are fields and clearcuts scattered throughout both sections.
“In the mountains, the Garland Tract of Long Creek WMA in Oconee County is a rabbit mecca. The area is about 1,000 acres and it is abandoned apple orchard. It can be easily described as one big briar patch.”
Dukes said Bear Island WMA in Colleton County is another good rabbit spot. The WMA is traditionally thought of as only a waterfowl area, but the regulars know the rabbit value, which can lead to fairly high pressure on some days. An alternative, Dukes said, was Donnelley WMA just up the road from Bear Island WMA.
Because they cut some timber on the property, Dukes said Crackerneck WMA in Aiken County has some rabbit hunting. It also shouldn’t be overlooked for squirrel hunting.
It’s hard to believe that it is estimated that there are less than 7,000 quail hunters in the state. There was a time that it seemed everyone had a bird dog or two, and Saturday mornings were spent shooting only birds from covey rises. In less than three decades, the prince of game birds, as some call bobwhite quail, has declined to almost an afterthought.
SCDNR has conducted a quail hunter survey since the late 1980s. During that time, the average number of coveys found per hour has been on a gradual decline. It used to be hunters found about a covey per hour. Today, it takes about twice as long to find a covey. Of course, this doesn’t even compare to back in the 1950s before records were kept.
I once had an old guy from Horry County tell me that his brother, who was a rural mail carrier, carried a .22-caliber rifle with him and shot quail on occasion that were in the road along his route. That tells you how many there were in the good ol’ days.
“All things considered, the quail hunting on public lands is not too bad,” Dukes said. “Many of our WMAs have special regulations for quail hunting, and this actually creates fairly good hunting.
“Smart hunters figure out that the places with special regulations are the places to go. For example, McBee WMA in Chesterfield County has an excellent draw hunt. Other spots that have special regulations are Manchester State Forest and Draper and Canal WMAs.”
Dukes said the local Quail Unlimited Chapter has six focus areas on the Francis Marion National Forest. He also mentioned that Carolina Sandhills State Forest and Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge are potential quail-hunting spots.
“The Webb Center WMA used to be a draw hunt area for quail,” Dukes said. “It’s first-come, first-serve now but on limited days. There are some coveys on this complex of lands.”
There are other small-game species available and all of them have feathers. Woodcock, snipe, rails and crows all make sporting quarries and most aren’t bad on the table either. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be chasing these species on occasion, especially after deer season closes.
Woodcock are actually shorebirds that have found the uplands to their liking, as long as they can keep their feet fairly wet. Woodcock use their long bills to probe moist soil for earthworms. If the soil is too wet, earthworms can’t survive. Therefore, you won’t find timberdoodles in real boggy places.
The other habitat feature that woodcock prefer is cover, but not in the form of briar patches and weeds, like many upland species. They desire early succession habitat, usually in the form of high stem densities, either woody or vegetative. They use their cryptic appearance and the stems to avoid attacks from aerial predators.
Dukes suggested several areas to find woodcock. Almost any public land will have woodcock if there is a moist area on the property. Along the coast, the Francis Marion National Forest and places such as Donnelley, Santee Coastal Reserve, Edisto River and Webb Center WMAs will have woodcock.
The key feature to find on coastal properties is stands of switchcane, which is a reed that grows in the transition zone between pine uplands and bottomland swamps. You can successfully work switchcane for woodcock with or without a dog.
As you move away from the coast, any public property is good. Places like the sprawling Sumter National Forest is as good a spot as any. Here, you might still find some switchcane, but more likely, you will be searching the edge of beaver ponds and other similar wetland types.
No matter what type of habitat you are searching for woodcock, their telltale sign is splashes of white poop about the size of a quarter. Woodcock season generally runs during most of January and the bag limit is three birds.
“Snipe are a wonderful game bird that are overlooked,” Dukes said. “They offer great wingshooting and they’re abundant, once you know where to look.
“A good place to find snipe is along the margins of the state’s major reservoirs. These lakes often get drawn down during the winter exposing mud flats in the process. Snipe are shorebirds who don’t mind being in the
open probing flats for something to eat.”
Snipe are well camouflaged, and you will more than likely nearly step on them before they flush, uttering a snappy call during the rise.
“Another good spot to find snipe is flooded agricultural fields,” Dukes said. “If we get a lot of rain during the winter, scout these fields. Flooded dove fields are an awesome spot to find snipe.”
Because of the flat topography, wet dove fields on coastal WMAs are probably your best public lands bet.
Snipe season usually closes at the end of February. The daily bag limit is eight birds.
Rails get a look by some coastal hunters, but it is usually a small dedicated bunch. Salt marshes from Hilton Head to North Inlet have huntable clapper rail populations. What’s needed is a shallow-draft boat and a flood tide. Anytime the scheduled tide is 6.6 feet or above for the upper coast or 8.6 feet or above for the lower coast, the water should be high enough to float for rails, also called marsh hens by some folks.
Crows are the last species that don’t get much attention but are fun to hunt. The season runs from Nov. 1 to March 1 and there is no bag limit. Electronic calls are permissible on both public and private lands.
Set up along powerline rights-of-way, fields or wildlife openings and turn on the call. Crows will be descending on your location within minutes. After the action subsides, pack up and move a mile or so away and repeat the process. It is unlimited fun.
No matter which species of small game you’re going after, be certain to consult the Rules and Regulations booklet and the Migratory Game Bird brochure before going afield