South Carolina waterfowl hunters must migrate like the birds they seek if they want consistent success.
For most South Carolina waterfowl hunters last season was an average one. However, like the previous season, flooding drowned the success rates at several bell-weather public hunting areas.
"We have 26,000 acres of waterfowl management areas, but only 10 percent were compromised by flooding," said Dean Harrigal, SCNDR's Waterfowl Program Coordinator and Regional Coordinator for Coastal Counties. "But those areas were hit with a one-two punch. First, we had the hurricanes. Then, the hurricane floodwaters had no place to go because of the king tides."
King tides are exceptionally high tides resulting from astronomical and atmospheric conditions. A rundown of WMA harvest statistics quickly reveals those that suffered adverse impacts. However, those impacts will only be felt in the short-term, said Harrigal, who made a sports reference for comparing harvest numbers.
"What do ducks and baseball have in common?" he asked. "The answer is, a lot of statistics that may not mean much. If we don't have floods, if food is abundant and if the winter weather is cold, we will have good waterfowl hunting. A habitat manager thinks in terms of five years, not five months."
Managed waterfowl areas offer some of the best hunting in the state. But, Harrigal said, the wetlands adjoining public WMAs also have great hunting when gunfire chases them out of impoundments. Hunters can deduce the best gunning days on nearby waters by checking the regulations for open hunting days on the WMAs.
South Carolina has two types of designated waterfowl management areas. Category I waterfowl areas have permit draw hunts. Applications are available in mid-September and due for processing in mid-October. Category II designated waterfowl areas are open to anyone with a WMA license during specified days and hours. There are about 10 Category I areas and 30 Category II areas.
Category I hunts are in high demand because the properties are intensively managed. Hunters can expect to have their applications drawn every 2.7 years if they apply for a particular hunt every year. Applying annually increases their chances because a preference point accumulates each year a hunter's lucky number does not come up.
"The most important thing when deciding which Category I area to apply for is matching the area to your hunting capability," Harrigal said. "The application for each area tells you everything you need to know regarding the difficulty. We usually provide all equipment except decoys. But, in some places we even give you a dozen decoys. We point you to your blind and tell you what to expect. While wood ducks have been our most common ducks, statewide, we are seeing more gadwalls along the coast. Our coastal areas have also produced good numbers of blue-winged and green-winged teal, pintails, ring-necks and redheads."
WHERE TO GO
Located 17 miles east of Columbia in Lancaster County, 3,677-acre Wateree River Heritage Preserve has a new Category 1 Waterfowl Management Area with about 30 acres of agricultural impoundments. This area hosts five draw hunts. During the first season in 2015-16, hunters took three wood ducks and two mergansers. In 2016-17, the harvest increased to 43 ducks and hunters averaged 3.1 ducks. Species included mallard, 1; American wigeon, 1; green-winged teal, 4; blue-winged teal, 1; northern shoveler, 1; northern pintail, 1; wood duck, 25; ring-necked duck, 7; mergansers, 2.
Located near Green Pond in Colleton County, Bear Island WMA has 5,443 acres of marsh impoundments divided into three units. The brackish marsh units grow wigeon grass, spike rush, bullrush and muskgrass while the moist soils units produce smartweeds, panic grass and sedges. When and where possible, SCDNR personnel plant agricultural crops.
Bear Island hunters took 1,180 ducks, averaging 4.4 per hunter. They represented many species that hunters are more likely to see in coastal habitats than inland habitats. Species were mallard, 14; black duck, 2; mallard-black hybrid, 4; mottled duck, 37; gadwall, 390; American wigeon, 69; green-winged teal, 263; blue-winged teal; 151; northern shoveler, 135; northern pintail, 70; wood duck, 4; scaup, 1; ring-necked duck, 1; bufflehead, 15; snow goose, 1; other ducks, 4; mergansers, 19.
Santee Delta WMA, located south of Georgetown, has 1,135 acres of managed wetlands. The East Area has three managed wetland units and the West Area has one, with all units managed for moist soils habitat. Managers provide hunters with decoys, boats and blinds on the East Area units. Hunters provide their own equipment on the West Unit.
The 2016-17 harvest was substantially better than the 32 ducks taken in 2015-16, which was a poor harvest caused by severe flooding. In 2016-17 Santee Delta hunters took 319 ducks, averaging 2.6 per hunter. Species included mallard, 70; black duck, 3; mottled duck, 7; gadwall, 28; American wigeon, 2; green-winged teal, 70; blue-winged teal, 11; northern shoveler, 43; northern pintail, 9; wood duck, 5; redhead, 3; ring-necked duck, 38; other ducks, 1; mergansers, 29.
Located in Charleston County, Santee Coastal Reserve WMA has 12,000 acres of managed marsh divided into The Cape, Cedar Island, and Murphy Island units. All three units are brackish marsh habitat. SCDNR personnel provide hunters with blinds, decoys and transportation to the blind sites. In some cases, they provide hunters with small boats to paddle to the blind.
"We took portions of two units out of the Santee Coastal Reserve hunt and adjusted hunter numbers based upon habitat conditions," Harrigal said. "If you look at the success rate, it was extremely good."
The total 2016-17 Santee Coastal Reserve harvest was 1,105 with an average of 4.2 ducks per hunter. The harvest was on par with 2015-16 harvest of 1,174, but below the 2014-15 harvest of 3,229 because of reduced hunting area. Species included mallard, 3; black duck, 6; mallard-black duck hybrid, 2; mottled duck, 24; gadwall, 301; American wigeon, 67; green-winged teal, 129; blue-winged teal, 217; northern shoveler,178, northern pintail, 98; redhead, 6; canvasback, 2; scaup, 9; ring-necked duck, 3; bufflehead, 35; ruddy duck, 7; snow goose, 1; other ducks, 15; mergansers, 2.
Beaverdam Creek is a Category I WMA in Anderson County with agricultural and moist soils units. Duck numbers are highly variable, depending upon whether waterfowl are using the area during hunting season. Management personnel provide hunters with decoys and transportation to the blinds. The harvest was 13 mallards and 3 wood ducks in 2015-16. In 2016-17, hunters harvested 66 ducks, and averaged 2.3 ducks per hunter. Species were mallard, 6; gadwall, 1; green-winged teal, 2; northern pintail, 3, wood duck, 45; ring-necked duck, 1; mergansers, 8.
Located in the Fairfield and Newberry counties, Broad River WMA offers a unique opportunity for waterfowl hunters near the middle of the state.
"Broad River is part of a major river system, so it is also a major migratory bird corridor," Harrigal said. "It has 60 acres of agriculture, 37 acres of moist soils habitat and a 14-acre greentree impoundment."
Broad River WMA hunters harvested 109 ducks, averaging 1.3 ducks apiece. Species were mallard, 30; black duck, 6; gadwall, 16; American wigeon, 1; green-winged teal, 27; northern pintail, 2; wood duck, 7; ring-necked duck, 20.
Harvest numbers for all Category I WMAs are available at the SCDNR website. However, only five Category II WMAs have check stations and waterfowl harvest numbers are no longer available for them. In the past, the top Category II WMAs were Crackerneck and Hickory Top.
Crackerneck WMA is open for waterfowl hunting Friday, Saturday and Thanksgiving Day. It consists of hardwood swamps along the Savannah River. Hunters harvest about 70 wood ducks annually.
Hickory Top WMA at Lake Marion has 1,000 acres of flats, islands and flooded hardwoods. It has a greentree impoundment that will be flooded this season. To preserve hardwoods, mangers leave it dry every fourth year. While 90 percent of the harvest is wood ducks, hunters take mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, green-winged teal, northern shoveler; ring-necked ducks and mergansers. Is open Monday through Saturday and has shoreline and islands outside the greentree impoundment where hunters can set decoys.
"At the Santee Cooper lakes, we have two other WMAs for waterfowl hunters," Harrigal said. "In recent years grass carp degraded the waterfowl habitat because they eat Hydrilla. Diving ducks that used to eat the Hydrilla are now a hit-or-miss opportunity. In years when we see a good number of ducks, most are redheads."
At Lake Marion in Orangeburg County, Santee Cooper WMA is open for waterfowl hunting Saturday mornings. This Category II WMA consists of shoreline areas and islands.
Moultrie WMA is a Category II area open to all mornings except Sunday. It consists of several miles of shoreline on Lake Moultrie in Berkeley and Orangeburg counties. Hunters have good access from several boat ramps. Lakes Marion and Moultrie become dangerously rough during strong winds that create the best waterfowl hunting conditions. Hunters should therefore use suitably large watercraft.
Within Moultrie WMA is a 600-acre subunit called the Sandy Beach Waterfowl Management Area. It is a Category I hunting area with SCNDR providing boats, blinds and decoys. During 2016-17 hunting season, Sandy Beach hunters harvested 157 ducks, averaging 3.8 per hunter. Species harvested were mallard, 42; black duck, 3; mottled duck.1; gadwall, 25; American wigeon, 5; green-winged teal, 21; blue-winged teal, 2; northern shoveler, 1; wood duck, 52; redhead, 1; ring-necked duck, 5.
Hunters can also find good hunting at other Category II WMAs that have public hunting waters adjoining them. For instance, At Crackerneck, hunters can launch at boat ramps along the Savannah River on days when the WMA is open with a good chance that hunters shooting inside the WMA will send wood ducks to the river. They can also hunt the river every day.
Little Pee Dee River WMA is another Category II WMA with a similar hunting opportunity. It has oxbow lakes within its 7,000 acres of lowland tracts. Some of the interior hunting spots are accessible by wading, but most require a small boat. While hunters can only hunt waterfowl inside Little Pee Dee WMA on Wednesday mornings, hunters who set up along the river can hunt seven days a week.
The majority of the ducks are wood ducks. However, hunters also take mallards, hooded mergansers and Canada geese.
Woodbury WMA has swamps and coves along Little Pee Dee and Great Pee Dee rivers. It has several boat ramps along the rivers and within the WMA to provide access. Wood ducks are the primary species, but hunters also take mallards, black ducks, hooded mergansers and Canada geese. Woodbury's internal waters are open Wednesday and Saturday mornings, but hunters can set decoys seven days a week along the rivers bordering the WMA.
Samworth WMA is a Category I Waterfowl Area near Georgetown with 266 acres of uplands and 992 acres of wetlands with 802 wetland acres divided into 13 wet soils units. The Carr Creek section within Samworth is a Category II area where hunting is legal Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Last season, flooding and dike damage precluded scheduled hunts. However, Samworth attracts hunters who use boats on public waters outside dikes.
"Samworth took the brunt of the hurricanes and king tides, so the habitat is in need of rehabilitation," Harrigal said. "It will be closed until four major breeches can be repaired."
A dedicated flock of sea duck hunters heads for the Special Sea Duck Zone at Winyah Bay, Charleston Harbor and the Sea Islands. With scoters, long-tailed ducks and eiders suffering long-term declines, the USFWS reduced the sea duck season to 60 days last season. Historically, the sea duck season ran 107 days. Nearly all sea ducks in South Carolina are white-winged and black scoters and the combined bag limit for scoters has remained four per day.
The sea duck season now runs concurrently with the regular duck season, eliminating two major reasons sea duck hunters once enjoyed the sport — bridging the gap between regular duck season segments and an earlier opening date that formerly occurred in October. Nevertheless, those addicted to sea duck hunting still have the opportunity.
For application details for public draw hunts, waterfowl harvest summaries for Category I WMAs, hunting area descriptions, and a map of goose season zones, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/hunting.