Shooting animals out of season, keeping too many fish, ignoring size limits, night hunting — the folks I hunt and fish with would never knowingly violate these game laws.
But anyone who’s spent enough time in the woods and on the water knows that hunting and fishing regulations can get tricky. If you’re not careful, if you don’t do all the research required, you can unwittingly meander close to or over the legal line.
After I tagged along with some alligator hunters and wrote about the experience, we learned that the hunters weren’t supposed to release a gator they had snagged with treble hooks and reeled to the boat. According to Sgt. Angus MacBride with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, any alligator over 4 feet long should be harvested once it is has been “rendered into your possession.”
As tricky as alligator hunting regulations may be, they’re hardly the only game laws that demand attention to detail. Here’s my take on some of the easiest ways to get yourself in trouble out there, with some advice from MacBride:
1. No shore pass
Until two years ago, anybody could fish from shore without a license. No more. You need a license, whether you’re fishing from the beach, a dock, a bridge or a boat. You need one to cast a net, too.
2. Total or fork length?
Some, but not all, game fish must be at least a certain length to keep. Simple enough, but how do you measure?
Some size limits are based on “fork length,” which is measured from the tip of a fish’s nose to the spot where the tail splits into upper and lower lobes. A “total length” size limit is just what it sounds like, except that total length changes with some fish if you pinch the upper and lower lobes together when you’re measuring.
Yes, you should pinch. The game wardens will when they check out your catch.
3. Fish out of water
Debate continues to smolder in the fishing world over the ethics of holding fish out of the water for photographs.
However you feel about it, don’t do it with a sailfish — you’d be breaking federal law. All billfish caught and released must remain in the water, MacBride said.
Even though it’s legal to do so, anglers should not heft larger fish such as bull red drum and big tarpon out the water, MacBride said.
“These fish don’t have the internal structure to hold their organs the way we do,” MacBride said. “When you take them out of water, you’re causing their organs to slosh around.”
4. Early bird
Ducks have a bad habit of flying just before legal shooting time. You can see them, but you shouldn’t shoot them yet. Don’t give in to temptation, even if shots ring out around you. Just because someone else is blasting away 90 seconds before legal shooting time doesn’t mean you can.
Also, remember to add or subtract minutes from commonly reported sunrise time, depending on whether you’re north or south of Charleston.
DNR offers waterfowlers a great, free publication with the information needed to determine official sunrise and sunsets wherever you’re hunting. The publication, which also includes an on-the-wing ID guide and advice on field and impoundment preparation, is stocked at most DNR offices. You also can download a pdf at dnr.sc.gov.
5. Bad baits
Some anglers don’t realize that game laws apply to fish and crustaceans used for bait. Casting out undersized crabs for redfish? Rigging up a small dolphin for marlin and wahoo? Dropping that baby snapper back down for grouper? They all count toward your bag limit and most likely put you in violation of minimum size limits.
6. Circle hooks
If you’re craving a fried grouper sandwich or baked black sea bass filets, you’d better stock up on circle hooks. Federal and state laws require anglers to use non-stainless steel, non-offset circle hooks when fishing for species in the snapper-grouper management complex.
However, anglers should remember that sheepshead were de-listed from that complex (and given a minimum size limit and creel limit) at the beginning of this year.
MacBride said that anglers should still consider using circle hooks for these notoriously difficult-to-hook fish.
Catching them with circle hooks is “just about the easiest thing in the world,” MacBride said. “It just takes a little practice.”
7. Riding the rail
Don’t sit on a boat’s gunnel (the side) while it’s moving. Though not a game law, this is one of the quickest ways to draw the ire of the Coast Guard or DNR, and could lead to a ticket for negligent operation.
Worse still, hanging off the gunnels or bow could lead to a someone falling overboard and being run over by the boat.
“Boating accidents are horrific,” MacBride said. “Some end in fatalities.
8. Plug it
Waterfowl regulations limit the number of shells you can load in a shotgun. Plugs are the answer, but they don’t account for the difference between 23/4-inch and 3½-inch shells.
“We see this a lot in the field,” MacBride said. “If I can take your weapon and put more than three shells in there, it’s going to be a problem.”
And for goodness’ sake make sure you don’t let any shells with lead pellets sneak into your waterfowling bag. Most wardens will show no mercy. Non-toxic shot is the law of the land, and for good reason.
Most people know it’s wrong and wasteful to throw a dead fish overboard to make room in the bag limit for a bigger fish. But it’s also illegal. Just don’t do it. Ever.
MacBride said anglers can keep fish in a livewell and release them later, as long as the fish is still alive and well.
“But if you take a redfish out of a cooler that’s stiff as a board and throw it in the water for a bigger fish on the line, you’ve just violated the law.”
10. Hunting over bait
Nothing will tick off a game warden quite like finding someone illegally hunting over bait. So here’s the deal:
Using corn and other food sources to lure whitetail deer into range is allowed here in the Lowcountry but illegal in the Upstate. It’s legal on private land but illegal on public land. You can use feeders that automatically dispense food, but don’t keep them near where you might be hunting turkeys, waterfowl, doves or other birds.
Baiting birds is illegal across the board, and game wardens have been known to scour the ground around “dormant” deer feeders for even the smallest amount of leftover corn during turkey season.
“Here’s where we see large-tract hunting clubs run afoul of the law,” MacBride said. “People want to do the right thing and feed protein to their deer year-round. Then turkey season comes around, and they don’t realize that not only does the food have to be out of the feeder, but it also has to be completely removed from the ground, and then a 10-day time period has to expire before you can hunt it.”
To be safe, he said, hunters should remove and store all deer feeders weeks, if not months, ahead of turkey season.
Confusion also arises when it comes to the difference between hunting over a field planted in crops and a field that’s been baited.
Dove hunters are allowed to use machinery to “manipulate standing crops” right up to a hunt, as long as those crops remain in the field and nothing else is added to lure in doves, MacBride said.
Naturally, the rules are completely different for waterfowl. Hunters cannot manipulate crops in any way “outside of normal agricultural processes,” MacBride said.
“It does get really tricky, and people try to push the limits.”
Anyone with questions about the do’s and don’ts of field manipulation — or any other game regulation — should call 1-800-922-5431 and ask to speak with law enforcement officer from their area, MacBride said.
“We would rather answer 100 questions than have to write one citation to someone who just didn’t understand.”
Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.