Public-Land Waterfowl Hunts

Public-Land Waterfowl Hunts

South Carolina has a number of options when it comes to public-land duck and goose hunting. Here's how to get the best out of what the state has to offer. (November 2008).

One of the best public duck hunting experiences in the state is a draw hunt on one of the managed waterfowl WMAs across South Carolina. Photo by Phillip Gentry.

It seemed like hours since the briefing at the Bonneau Ferry check station, where biologist Tom Harkins gave us the rundown on what to expect from this morning's adult/youth waterfowl hunt. Then there was the ride in the back of the truck to the blind site we had drawn at the briefing, the vigorous paddling of an old johnboat across the flooded pond to a floating blind. Now we were here with a good 20 minutes to get ready before legal shooting light. All the events of the morning were weighing heavy on my eyelids when the unmistakable squeal of a wood duck hen broke the silence of my pre-dawn meditation.

That sound was followed by a football-sized splash that couldn't have been more than 10 yards from the blind in which we were hidden. The three of us froze, not daring to breathe, much less peek over the side of the blind at our early arrival. Over the next 19 minutes, at least a dozen more splashdowns occurred next to the blind. Time slowed to a standstill.

With 30 seconds left on the clock, I pantomimed to my two sons -- giving my best "first sergeant leading his platoon behind enemy lines" impersonation. Laying out fields of fire using hand signals followed by the gesture to "lock and load," I counted off the last five seconds with my off hand. The three of us rose in unison to greet the day in a hail of steel and feathers.

Public-land duck hunting in South Carolina has a number of faces. The first and foremost of public-land hunting opportunities are the number of draw hunts on managed WMAs across the state. Additional opportunities are available on several "Category II" WMAs that are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis one or two days a week. Finally, there are "open" public lands. These are public waters and surrounding public access lands where hunting is available more or less according to the statewide regulations. Each area has its own personality, set of rules, and chances for success.

Dean Harrigal is the waterfowl project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Harrigal oversees the administration of the DNR's public hunts, as well as keeping up with harvest numbers and making seasonal recommendations that fall within the framework established by federal regulations.

Looking at the waterfowl hunting opportunities across the state, Harrigal can cover half the harvest with one species.

"Wood ducks are our bread and butter," Harrigal said. "Historically, woodies comprise 45 to 50 percent of the total harvested ducks in South Carolina."

Harrigal confided the possibility that federal regulations may allow an additional wood duck to be added to the daily limit within the next couple of years. This additional duck would increase the bag limit to three wood ducks per day.

"The problem is that federal biologists can't fly over wood duck nesting areas and get an accurate sampling of woodies like they do for other waterfowl that use Canadian prairies for breeding grounds."

Reviewing the total duck harvest for the 2007 season, 46 percent of the total consisted of wood ducks; the next most harvested species was mallards at 16 percent. Fourteen percent of the harvest was ringnecks and another 14 percent was the combined species of blue-winged and green-winged teal. Gadwalls made up a solid 2 percent, with a host of other species, including northern shovelers, American widgeon, black ducks, pintails, mottled ducks and mergansers weighing in with less than 1 percent of the harvest for each of the respective species.

Each year in September, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources offers selected duck hunts on designated wildlife management areas, also known as Category I Designated Waterfowl areas. Selection for these hunts is by virtue of a computer drawing, with unsuccessful applicants given "preference points" for the next year's drawing.

There are 17 draw hunt sites in the state. These Category I Designated Waterfowl Areas include Beaverdam, Bonneau Ferry, Broad River, Clemson, Santee Cooper, Sandy Beach, Samworth, Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee-Delta, Tibwin, Bear Island and Donnelley wildlife management areas. Hunting in Category I Designated Waterfowl sites is allowed only by computer drawing.

The vast majority of these hunt sites are in the coastal region; however, one site that is typically at the top of the list in terms of harvest numbers is located above the fall line. Here's a rundown of some of the top producers in 2007. Santee Coastal Reserve WMA

Located along the lower reaches of the Santee River between Charleston and Georgetown, Santee Coastal Reserve led the league last season with an average of 3.64 birds per gun over the duration of the season.

Santee Coastal Reserve consists of three tracts: the Cape and two islands, Cedar and Murphy. Though numbers have declined slightly over the last couple of seasons, Santee Coastal Reserve offers plenty of good habitat with more than 15,000 acres of lands that have been consistently well managed for over 100 years.

According to Harrigal, the top species of waterfowl harvested at Santee Coastal Reserve are green-winged teal, northern shovelers and gadwalls.

For more information about what to expect on a Santee Coastal Reserve hunt, contact (843) 546-8665. Bear Island WMA

This Colleton County WMA, like Santee Coastal Reserve, is split into three parcels. The three units are designated the East Unit, West Unit and Springfield/The Cut. The three areas combine for 5,500 acres of wetlands managed for natural vegetation to attract ducks and the occasional goose.

"Bear Island has a rich tradition of managed duck hunts," Harrigal said. "We've seen three generations of duck hunters -- fathers, sons and grandchildren -- applying for the hunt drawing as a tradition each year."

The harvest rate for Bear Island last season was 3.1 birds per gun. The top three species harvested included widgeon, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal. Based on some reintro­duction work years ago, Bear Island is a choice location for hunters looking to take a mottled duck.

Hunters looking for additional information about Bear Island should call the WMA office at (843) 844-8957. Broad River WMA

The shining star of the Upstate, as far as duck hunting WMAs go, is the Broad River WMA in Fairfield County near Winnsboro. With a success rate of 2.8 birds per gun, Broad River remains a consistent producer year after year and is the top location in the state for greenheads.

Broad River WMA provides a mixture of habitat among its 150 acres of agriculture and river bottom lands. The top three harvested species are mallards, green-winged teal and ringnecks.

The success rate last season at Broad River came amid a severe drought status. Project leader Dean Harrigal touts the hard work of the Broad River managers to make last year a success.

"The Broad River team under Bob Harkins really worked hard last year to get water in there. They had to pump water in from the Broad River to keep the water level up in the WMA," Harrigal said.

For more information about Broad River WMA duck hunting, contact the SCDNR at (803) 734-3886. Santee Delta WMA

Next on the list of successful waterfowl draw hunts is the Santee Delta. The Delta is split into two tracts, with SC Hwy. 17 as the dividing line between the East and West units. The entire WMA covers a little over 1,000 acres, with the East Unit consisting of mostly marshland, while the West Unit is surrounded by and studded with standing timber.

The numbers for the Santee Delta over the 2007 season were 2.21 ducks per gun on average. Green-winged teal were the primary harvest on the East Unit, while the West side produced green-winged teal, wood ducks and some mallards.

Being drawn to hunt the East side of the Delta is less cumbersome than the West, as West side hunters are required to furnish their own boats and decoys for the hunts.

For additional information about the Santee Delta WMA, contact the SCDNR at (843) 546-8119.

Supplementing the 14 regular draw sites are three WMAs that cater to youth duck hunts. Adults are allowed to hunt on the sites as well, but only if accompanied by a youth hunter under the age of 16.

These three draw hunts are Donnelly WMA, which led the youth list in harvest numbers with 3.7 birds per hunter, Bonneau Ferry, which came in second with an average 3.6 birds per gun and the Clemson Youth area, which had no water last season.

The management for these areas allows for some of the best duck shooting in the WMA system while providing for easier access hunts than some of the other areas on the draw list.

According to Harrigal, "Our Category I areas provide a very good waterfowl experience for anyone who is selected to hunt in any of the areas."

Considering how far one might have to travel to find better duck hunting than this, and how much travel costs nowadays, the quality of these hunts and the relatively modest price of $50 per hunter that is charged by the state to hunt one of these well-managed areas is looking more like a bargain every year.

"The key to making the most of the public duck experience in one of the Category I WMAs is to listen to the hunt managers before the hunt," Harrigal said. "The managers and technicians do all of the duck scouting for you. If they put you out at a blind and tell you to watch a particular area, it's because they've been monitoring the areas the birds have used over the last few days."

Another important tip is to be mobile. Harrigal recommends only putting out half of your decoys at the blind and then waiting until you see which area within your site the birds are using. Hunters are typically spread out enough that moving 100 yards or so will not infringe on another group of hunters. Spacing and proximity are excellent questions to ask the hunt managers so that you'll know how much leeway you have in case you need to move to get on more ducks.

Harrigal has some additional advice for hunters who are selected to hunt the state waterfowl lands. "Take what comes," the biologist stated. "Some of our hunters come to shoot only one or two particular species of birds and leave the hunt site disappointed when they could have gotten a limit of several species of birds they passed up."

Harrigal goes on to add that planning to be safe is the number one priority of his folks. "These guys put a lot of hard work into the areas so hunters can have a quality shoot. Be smart, play it safe, and all that is likely to happen."

The state boasts over 20 other designated wildlife management areas that are open to public duck hunting on a "first-come, first-served" basis. These areas, known as Category II WMAs, are only open certain days of the week; on the remaining days of the week, the areas provide a preserve for ducks. Some Category II areas do limit the arrival time of hunters and some post a departure time after which hunting is prohibited. In addition, some may limit the number of shotgun shells a hunter may possess on the WMA to encourage higher percentage shots.

Category II Designated Waterfowl Areas include Biedler Impoundment, Carr Creek (bounded by Samworth WMA), Little Carr Creek (bounded by Samworth WMA), Lake Cunningham, Russell Creek, Monticello Reservoir, Parr Reservoir, Duncan Creek, Dunaway, Dungannon, Enoree River, Moultrie, Hatchery, Hickory Top, Hickory Top -- Greentree Reservoir, Lancaster Reservoir, Turtle Island, Little Pee Dee River Complex (including Ervin Dargan and Horace Tilghman), Great Pee Dee River, Potato Creek Hatchery, Sampson Island Unit (Bear Island), Tyger River, Marsh, Wee Tee and Woodbury waterfowl management areas.

Hunting on Category II Designated Waterfowl Areas is in accordance with scheduled dates and times. These areas are typically not intensely managed, compared with the Category I areas, and may simply be public land where natural growth or habitats are conducive to ducks.

During the 2007-2008 season, the Category II areas took it on the chin because of drought conditions that affected much of the state. An example of this is illustrated by the harvest numbers from the Enoree River site. In the 2006-2007 season, hunters shot 382 waterfowl, but in the drought of 2007-2008, only 20 birds were harvested the entire season.

Not all Category II sites report duck harvest numbers due to lack of available manpower. Waterfowl project leader Dean Harrigal indicated that historically the top three producers were Hickory Top-Greentree Reservoir, located in Clarendon County, Crackerneck WMA, which is located in Aiken County, and Potatoe Creek, which is also in Clarendon County.

True public-land duck hunting in South Carolina may be one of the most overlooked hunting opportunities in the state and certainly provides the most available acreage. Public land is best defined by the "navigable waters" law, which essentially states that any water body that is navigable by boat is considered to be p

ublic domain. Navigable waters can range from a meandering stream high in the mountains to the open ocean.

Popular public-land waters include major rivers and reservoirs across the state. Public-land hunters are typically bound to boat hunting unless the surrounding shoreline is considered public domain. Utility companies such as Duke Power or SC Electric & Gas may have public right-of-ways to islands or shorelines around state waters. In these cases, hunters may boat into an area and set up temporary blinds on the surrounding land and must remove the blind or give up any rights to the blind when it is vacated.

Scouting is the key to successful public-land hunting. Ducks may use a particular area for a few days, then move on with changing weather or hunting pressure.

In recent years, a commonly harvested waterfowl species has included Canada geese, which were re-introduced to the state in the early 1980s after their numbers sharply declined in the Atlantic Flyway.

In a contrast to public duck hunting, the stronghold of Canada goose hunting in South Carolina occurs west of I-95.

"One particular reason for this reversal of waterfowl habitat use is that gators and geese don't mix," Harrigal claimed, referring to the burgeoning alligator population found along the Coastal Plains. Harrigal estimates the state's goose population to be somewhere around 80,000 birds and sees growth in their numbers for the future. "The annual goose harvest is somewhere around 20 percent of the total population each year and recruitment seems to be more than keeping up with the annual harvest."

So, with many opportunities on some available public lands, South Carolina duck hunters are poised to have a successful year. Only one ingredient is left open -- how much water we have. About that, Harrigal smiled and said, "Pray for rain."'‚'‚'‚

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