Looking for a quality public land waterfowl hunt? This overview of South Carolina's public hunts can help you plan a great trip. (November 2007)
Photo by Robert Sloan.
Resembling scratches and dust on an old movie, rain poured down at all angles in front of the boat's spotlight. Visibility was further reduced by thick, rolling fog.
Everybody on board may as well have had his head inside a wet white pillowcase because that's what it felt and looked like.
Guided by GPS technology and the experience of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' (SCDNR) employee, however, our boat made it safely down the South Santee River to a dock at Cedar Island on the river's north shore.
It was late January, and although the weather had been very warm and it was late in the season, I was still optimistic about my hunt.
The marsh was eerily quiet as I paddled to the blind I had drawn. Normally, duck sounds fill the air. I hoped the birds were merely hunkered down because of the rain and fog. The pothole in the marsh that held the blind was littered with pulled vegetation, an indication that the ducks -- or at least some coots -- had recently been feeding there.
The thick mat of floating vegetation reduced what little waves rippled over the pond. I put three widgeon decoys toward the outside edge of the grass where they would bob lifelike in the ripples. I did the same with three pintail decoys on the other side, and put a pair of blue-winged teal decoys in the center of the grass.
A pair of ringed-necked ducks arrived before shooting time only five yards in front of me, and departed before the big hand struck 30 minutes before sunrise. Next, a lone pintail drake decoyed nicely, only to have me whiff on it with two shots.
Ouch! Not a good way to start the morning.
My bag started to fill with a fully plumed drake widgeon that fell from a pair. The high-pitched twill of a pintail called my attention to the sky. Another lone drake was descending fast, and he hit hard, but belly-up.
A flock of five widgeons toyed with me before they landed beyond shotgun range. After about an hour, I got another drake widgeon with a shot off to the left before the action slowed.
I played with pintails the rest of the morning. They'd call. I'd call back, and with their necks craning, they'd sail right into the decoys. It was a gorgeous sight. It wasn't until a pair of green-winged teal buzzed my spread late in the morning that I saw another legal bird. The drake greenwing complemented my bag before it was time to pick up for the morning.
Herein lies the benefit of public-land duck hunts conducted by SCDNR. These hunts are, on average, good to excellent. Circumstances beyond the department's control may hinder success on any given area during a season or day's hunt, but these hunts routinely are better than freelancing it in public waters.
The Category 1 wildlife management areas (WMAs), the areas where hunters are selected by a drawing, average two to three times more ducks per hunter per day than the average waterfowler out on his own on public or private waters. During the 2006-07 season, hunters on Category 1 WMAs killed nearly three ducks per man per hunt.
There are seven WMAs that support drawn duck hunts. Most of these areas are concentrated in the Coastal Plain, but some are found in the Piedmont and near the mountains. Because of the size of some WMAs, they are broken up into smaller parcels that are hunted on different days. In all, there are 12 different locations where hunters may apply.
Of these 12 spots, the top area last season was Murphy Island at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA. Here, hunters averaged 4.28 ducks per day. Hunters averaged 3.88 ducks per day at the Cape, also located at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, placing this area second. Santee Delta WMA East was third with 3.47 ducks per man.
Springfield/The Cut at Bear Island WMA was fourth with 3.35 ducks per hunter. Broad River WMA anchored the fifth spot, where hunters averaged 2.70 ducks per hunt.
Even though the slots for the 2007-08 season have been filled, an overview of some of the WMAs and how they've fared during the last season can give you an idea of what to expect if you were drawn this season or aid you in making a selection for the 2008-09 duck season.
SANTEE COASTAL RESERVE WMA
Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, between Charleston and Georgetown at the lower reaches of the Santee River, is viewed as the best WMA for a duck hunt. It is a great place for waterfowl, but its success continues to erode. Parcels of some other WMAs now support gunning as good as Santee Coastal Reserve WMA.
The WMA consists of three parcels, the Cape and Murphy and Cedar islands. Santee Coastal Reserve WMA averaged 3.64 ducks per hunter over the three parcels, which was down over a duck per hunter from recent seasons. During the 2003-04 season, hunters averaged 4.7 ducks, which fell to 3.9 and then to 3.7 during the two following seasons.
Murphy Island was the top parcel on the WMA last season, whereas the Cape was top for the two previous seasons. Hunters averaged 4.28 ducks per hunt last season on Murphy Island, followed by 3.88 ducks per hunter on the Cape.
Cedar Island routinely brings up the rear, and last season was no exception. Hunters averaged 2.26 ducks per hunter on Cedar Island during the 2006-07 season. Great hunts happen on Cedar Island, but they are hit or miss, so don't be fooled by its cellar-dweller status. It can and does produce high-bird days.
Santee Coastal Reserve WMA is the place if you want a varied bag. Hunters killed 18 different species of waterfowl there last season. But don't go there expecting to kill mallards. Gadwalls and green-winged teal usually make up about 40 percent of the total harvest. Northern shovelers, widgeons and blue-winged teal normally round out the top five species. In addition, hunters will see plenty of pintails, mottled ducks, scaup and ring-necked ducks and may even get a crack at a snow goose.
Pre-constructed blinds are provided for hunts on each area of Santee Coastal Reserve WMA. Hunters draw for these on the morning of their hunt, and SCDNR staff provides transportation to blinds. These are stable, well-constructed blinds that feature a bench and an area in front of the blind to hide the paddleboat.
All waterfowl areas of the WMA are old rice fields that feature holes and former dit
ches, so hunters should wear chest waders. If you plan to use a retriever, be mindful of alligators, especially if the weather has been warm. Also, note that the number of decoys is limited.
More information can be provided by calling SCDNR at (843) 546-8665.
SANTEE DELTA WMA
If there was a WMA that is a microcosm of Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, Santee Delta WMA is it with an added feature.
Santee Delta WMA is located a couple of miles upriver of its larger sibling and is bisected by Hwy. 17, cutting the WMA into what is called the East and West sides. The East side, characterized by open marsh, resembles Santee Coastal Reserve WMA in miniature. The West side is timber country, where ducks spill through tree canopies into decoys spread out below. It is like no other WMA the state owns or manages.
With green-winged teal swarming over the East side during the 2006-07 season, it was the better of the two parcels. Here, hunters draw for pre-constructed blinds and use a provided paddleboat to reach the blinds. Ninety-four hunters killed 152 green-winged teal alone, nearly half of the East side's total duck harvest. Shovelers accounted for another quarter of the harvest. Gadwalls and blue-winged teal combined made up another 15 percent of the harvest.
Hunters averaged 3.47 ducks per man last season on the East side, up from 2.95 during the 2005-06 season.
Hunters on the West side, where you have to provide your own boat, blind and decoys, often have mallards on the brain. As such, they forgo chances at other species that cover that side, such as green-winged teal and wood ducks. This can cause the average to suffer and not be a true depiction of the parcel's potential.
Hunters averaged four ducks per man during the 2005-06 season when green-winged teal and wood ducks comprised 65 percent of the harvest. This was mostly because of the absence of mallards that season. Last season, the mallards returned, making up 45 percent of the total West side harvest, whereas woodies and greenies fell to 41 percent. If you want to come out of the marsh with a full bag when hunting on the West side, take wood ducks and green-winged teal as they appear, and then try for some mallards. Otherwise, you might end the day with only a mallard or two instead of five or six ducks.
For more information about hunting at Santee Delta WMA, you can contact SCDNR at (843) 546-8119.
BEAR ISLAND WMA
If you have been hunting on SCDNR WMAs for any length of time, Bear Island WMA is no stranger. It's fair to say that a majority of the state's duck hunters that hunt on public land have had at least one hunt at this old-time property.
Duck hunts have been held at Bear Island WMA, situated south of Green Pond in Colleton County, for over four decades. The WMA is a complex of former rice fields that are now managed primarily for waterfowl. Hunting takes place on three parcels within the WMA's boundary.
Bear Island WMA hit a low spot in its long history when the prolonged drought took a toll on its habitat a few seasons ago. During the 2002-03 season, it averaged only 1.7 ducks per hunter. It has rebounded, with hunts now averaging over two ducks per hunter.
The Springfield/The Cut section has been the best producer of the three Bear Island WMA areas. Last season, the area averaged 3.35 ducks per hunter, which was down slightly from the 3.7 average recorded during the 2005-06 season but still ranked fourth for all areas last season.
Gadwalls were the top species last season. Green-winged teal, pintails, shovelers and blue-winged teal, in that order, rounded out the top five and accounted for 50 percent of the total harvest on the Springfield/The Cut. Mottled ducks, wood ducks and widgeons also made a respectable showing last season.
During the 2005-06 season, the East and West sides each averaged 2.4 ducks per man for the year. The average fell last year, with the East side coming in at 2.15 ducks per hunter and the West side at 1.40.
Hooded mergansers were the top species harvested on the East side. They comprised about 17 percent of the total harvest. Close behind were mottled ducks and green-winged teal, both at 13 percent, and blue-winged teal at 12 percent. Shovelers and gadwalls each accounted for about 10 percent of the total harvest. Ruddy ducks also made a strong showing in the total harvest on the East side.
Because the harvest was so low on the West side, a change of a duck or two in the harvest could really swing the numbers. Of the 73 ducks harvested on that parcel, widgeons were the top with 19 birds taken (26 percent). Fourteen hooded mergansers, 13 gadwalls and 10 buffleheads were also harvested. A few mottled ducks were taken, as well as one or two birds of five other species.
Bear Island WMA information can be obtained by calling SCDNR at (843) 844-8957.
BROAD RIVER WMA
Even though the majority of draw waterfowl hunting is located along the coast, Piedmont and Upstate duck hunters don't have to drive two hours to find good public-land duck hunting. Broad River WMA, located in Fairfield County near Winnsboro, is an area that routinely ranks as one of the top five waterfowl WMAs.
Despite several recent seasons of busted food production, hunters at Broad River WMA have been coming out of the blind with an average of two to three ducks per man, which is norm for the area.
If you want to kill mallards on public lands, Broad River WMA is the other area to go. The 39 mallards taken last season were second in the state to only Santee Delta WMA West. The top species during the 2006-07 season was wood ducks followed by green-winged teal, mallards and ring-necked ducks. These are routinely the most common species at Broad River WMA, but gadwalls also made a respectable showing last season.
Unlike WMAs on the coast that are characterized by areas of soft bottom, most of Broad River WMA is consistently shallow with a firm bottom. Nonetheless, it is advisable to wear chest waders when hunting here for maximum moisture protection.
To determine more about the duck hunts at Broad River WMA, contact the Region 2 office of SCDNR in Columbia at (803) 734-3886.
More detailed harvest summaries are posted on SCDNR's Web site at www.dnr.sc.gov. Hunters can find a detailed harvest summary from the preceding season as well as weekly summaries for the current season.
Applications are available each season beginning in late September. Application deadline is normally in late October, with successful hunters often notified by the beginning of November. You can download an application at SCDNR's Web site, pick one up at a regional office or call SCDNR Columbia office at (803) 734-3886. Hunts are $50 per hunter.
Successfully drawn hunters will need a valid state hunting license, a WMA permit, HIP perm
it and state and federal duck stamps.
Many hunters involved in the drawing don't have a feel for how it works. Several seasons ago, SCDNR initiated a preference-point system in an attempt to allow everyone who applies a chance to be drawn at some point. The kicker is you must apply every season to keep your point(s).
You are given one preference point for the following season's drawing if you are not drawn. Therefore, you have one point when the next season's drawing is held, which gives you a better chance of being selected over someone who was drawn the preceding year or who is applying for the first time.
If you apply every season and don't run afoul with the lowest preference point per application if applying with others, then typically you can expect to be drawn every other season or every third season.