Hunting seasons other than deer offer some great days in the field and plenty of hunting opportunities in South Carolina. (December 2006)
Photo By Ron Sinfelt
Sometimes I seek solitude when hunting small game. Squirrel hunting, in particular, is a great sport for an individual or for two buddies (or parent/child) to team up together. Rabbit hunting can be the same situation. You can stomp them up alone or in tandem with a partner. In addition, you have the option of enjoying a bunch of hunters with a good pack of beagles for some sensational hunting opportunities.
On a cold, quiet day late last December, I was alone, but longing for some company. The truth is I needed some help. I was in a dove field, hunting those late-season ghosts of the Southern skies. There were actually plenty of doves flying around. The biggest problem is there was no one else to help me keep the birds moving. They would fly into the field to feed and unless I just got lucky and they flew within range, I had to watch them on the ground and hope they'd fly over me on the way out.
I managed to get an occasional shot as a stray winged by, but I made a mental note to return with a few friends.
A group of us did return and the difference was amazing. There were actually many more doves than I had figured. Now with plenty of hunters in the field to keep them flying, we had an excellent hunt.
Excellent dove-hunting opportunities are not restricted to the opening season or mid-season hunts. If you pick your locations well, with the aid of a bit of scouting, you can find some excellent wintertime dove hunting. The last season of the year is vastly overlooked, but from a small-game hunting perspective, it has wide-open possibilities. Many of these birds will be those plump, tasty, grain-fed Northern birds. But the downside is they seem to have plenty of zip and sometimes appear to be flying in the stratosphere.
However, locate a field where they can forage, especially if there's a water source nearby, and you might be in for some very productive dove hunting. And unless you bring your buddies with you, you generally won't have too much competition.
This is one of the beauties of small-game hunting in South Carolina. For the most part, it's an overlooked resource. While deer hunting is the number one hunting sport for the majority of hunters, for too many hunters it is the only one.
It's still true today that many of the die-hard deer hunters, and turkey hunters, too, cut their hunting teeth on squirrels, rabbits, quail or doves. Hunting these small-game species is not only fun, but it will sharpen your woodsmanship and shooting skills.
The dove hunting noted above took place on private land and with a little checking around, you can likely find some good places and obtain permission to hunt private lands.
However, there are a number of outstanding public fields that are open for the late-season hunting, too. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has a current list of dove fields and specific regulations for each. Not all of them are open daily; some are only open a couple days a week -- so check the specific regulations. But you can likely find some excellent dove hunting near where you live on public lands. And from the experiences I've had, the hunting can be excellent. Most other early-season dove hunters will be occupied with other hunting endeavors by this time of the year. Waterfowl season, for example, lures many otherwise dedicated dove hunters away.
One of my small-game hunting passions is squirrel hunting. This is the first hunting sport I enjoyed as a youth and it still brings back great memories. If you haven't tried hunting squirrels with a .22 rifle, you might be surprised at the challenge. If you can bag a limit of bushytails with a rifle, you've accomplished something.
Squirrels are generally found just about everywhere in the state. I had been under the impression that perhaps the South Carolina Lowcountry that was hit hard by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was still suffering in the squirrel department. But after spending a good bit of time deer hunting in that area last season, I stand corrected. Every time I sat in a deer stand, I seemed to be in the midst of a swarm of squirrels.
Not all of these areas have grown back with big stands of hardwoods. But the re-growth and recovery has been such that there are certainly plenty of squirrels to hunt. You can usually find plenty of private lands to hunt by seeking permission, especially after deer season ends on Jan. 1, 2007.
But I'd certainly also recommend the Francis Marion National Forest as a prime place for squirrel hunting on public lands. With a quarter million acres to roam, you can certainly find some out-of-the-way squirrel woods to enjoy.
As a side benefit, anytime I'm hunting squirrels, which I prefer to do by stalking, I'm looking for turkey and deer sign as well.
Another great place to hunt bushytails is in the Manchester State Forest in Sumter County. There are a few local hunters who take advantage of this resource, but you'll find plenty of room and opportunities for yourself here. Some good small game ground can be found in the upland areas on Manchester, but if you take the time to scout out and hunt the areas in the Wateree River bottom, you'll likely encounter many more squirrels.
To be successful at squirrel hunting, you don't have to have a huge tract of land. Many of the small wood lots that are found in conjunction with open pastureland will produce surprisingly good squirrel hunting. I've seen plenty of these in areas like Newberry and Laurens counties, for example, that will harbor many squirrels. I've hunted a number of these places with good success. Instead of stalking, a hunt in a small wood lot requires a bit more of playing the waiting game. Get to your first place before dawn and set up against a big oak. After the squirrels get active and you shoot, often you can simply sit quiet for a while and they begin moving again.
At some point, if the tract of land is large enough, move out of that block of woods and slip into another, repeating the process.
One of my best hunts was in exactly such a situation. The landowner said he'd seen many squirrels in the various wood lots, but no one ever hunted them. When dawn arrived on the morning I was hunting, the woods were working alive with squirrels. I'd wait until I could shoot at least a couple within easy range before firing. After 15 minutes or so of me not moving, the woods would get active again. After taking a half dozen from the first spot, I moved across the field to another wood lot . . . and this one was
adjacent to a small pond, and I quickly finished my limit there. During the course of the morning I also saw several turkeys and two deer.
On large tracts of land you can use old logging roads to stalk squirrels successfully. Quietly covering plenty of ground can be a very effective technique and one that a pair of hunters can employ very successfully. The Mountain Hunt Unit of public land in Anderson, Greenville, Oconee and Pickens counties offers tremendous public hunting lands for squirrels.
This is not a scientific survey, but based on personal observations from the 2005 deer hunting season and the 2006 turkey hunting season, there seems to be plenty of squirrels throughout the state right now. Of all the small-game species, this is the one where you can probably hunt successfully in more places than any of the others. Doves, rabbits and quail are all found in abundance in localized areas. But each requires specific habitat needs to be plentiful. Squirrels are simply more readily available in more areas.
But that's certainly not meant to discourage you from hunting rabbits. In fact, my favorite time of the season to hunt rabbits is late season from December through the remainder of the season. Part of the reason is that, like most hunters, I enjoy late-season deer hunting. Also, the crowds have thinned out by midwinter and the rabbits are still plentiful.
Rabbits are found statewide, but the highest densities are localized hotspots. Rabbits do require the right habitat to produce high populations. In addition, as the season changes from November to early December, the shock of midwinter cold that we generally get changes what rabbits need from their environment, and which parts of the environment can supply those needs. They must have a food source, water and cover. With the onset of frost and hard freezes, keep that in mind.
Find fallow fields, with some agriculture lands nearby. Seek areas with some woods, creeks, ponds or rivers as a general habitat. Then key in on "edge" areas. This is my dominant tactic if I'm just walking rabbits up. Granted, this is harder work than hunting with dogs. But the enjoyment that comes from a brisk walk on a cold winter day is very rewarding, especially if you're getting occasional shots at rabbits. Old fence lines, old home sites, edges of grain fields and sunny hillsides on a cold day are favored places to stomp up cottontails. Two hunters walking together can be very effective in this manner. Sometime one will push through heavy cover while the other waits to take rabbits slipping out ahead. The obvious safety precautions of knowing each other's position are paramount, of course.
There are some outstanding areas for rabbit hunting in the Lowcountry, with Hampton County being an excellent choice. I first discovered the great rabbit population in this area when turkey and deer hunting. Fallow fields, tangled wads of briars adjacent to Lowcountry swamps and agriculture fields combine to make this county a prime place to hunt.
While not particularly noted for rabbit hunting, The Webb Wildlife in the Hampton County area does allow rabbit hunting and is actually a very good public area for this. As with all WMAs, for the various small-game species, check the specific regulations before going; but the many food plots that may be primarily intended for deer and turkeys will have residual benefits for other small-game species as well.
Another large area location that can provide good rabbit hunting opportunities is the Sand Hills State Forest. This 46,000-acre tract is in Chesterfield and Darlington counties. Both of these counties are very productive in terms of rabbit hunting. This large public-land opportunity certainly gives you plenty of elbow room. While talking small-game hunting at Sand Hills State Forest, there are some hotspots within this WMA that offer outstanding squirrel hunting as well.
In addition to the public-land opportunity for rabbits, the terrain in this two-county block is ideal for rabbits. I'd strongly advise checking with farmland or property owners that may also provide you with access to some outstanding hunting.
Quail hunting is the final small-game species we'll cover for this season. Much of the best quail hunting land across the state is highly managed for this species. Access to prime quail hunting is probably more difficult to find on public lands and the other three species we've discussed. The opportunities do exist, but they require more work to find.
One thing that I've learned along the way is that land that seems to be very productive for turkeys is often good for quail, too. This can be especially true if the land is occasionally burned using prescribed fire as a wildlife habitat management tool. With that in mind, you may be able to home in your search on pubic lands and WMAs in your area where this occurs.
There are several WMAs where quail hunting is permitted, with Donnelley in Colleton County and Moultrie in Berkeley County being two that have good potential for quail hunting.
The Lowcountry area of the state is prime for this species. However, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties are also outstanding places for quail. Moreover, the farther upstate you go, the more you have to search for ideal quail habitat. However, it is usually well worth the effort.
Another possibility is the quail hunting found on hunting preserves. Many of the preserves have flight-conditioned birds that offer excellent wingshooting opportunities. They are usually great places to see a good quail dog in action. One upstate area that is well known for quality quail hunting is Rivers Bend in Spartanburg County. This area, like many others around the state, is managed specifically for quail and typically you'll enjoy great quail hunting and shooting opportunities. It's also a great place to introduce newcomers to the sport of quail hunting.
Whether you hunt doves, squirrels, rabbits or quail, we have an abundance of small-game hunting opportunities in South Carolina. Small-game hunting allows you to continue to be afield after deer season. Also, if you're alert, it can help you get a pattern on late-season deer for the next deer season, and discover new hotspots for turkeys.
This roundup of small-game hunting ideas is by no means all-inclusive for the Palmetto State. However, it does give you some options to get started and I hope it will help you take advantage of our sensational small-game hunting.