When two wildlife officials with about 70 years of combined experience see a flock of ducks bigger than any they've ever seen before in South Carolina, things are looking good for the 2013 waterfowl season.

That's just what happened recently when Dean Harrigal, a DNR biologist and veteran duck hunter, was touring Bear Island with a colleague.

Riding in a pickup truck, the pair stopped and looked up to see a massive flight of waterfowl.

“They were real, real high, but we had a windshield full of ducks,” Harrigal said. It was “one of the largest flights of waterfowl in South Carolina either one of us had ever seen.”

Harrigal says his own recent hunting experience and reports from DNR-managed waterfowl sites point to a solid start to the late waterfowl season, which runs through Jan. 27.

“For the most part, in the ACE Basin, people are doing pretty good.”

Hunters in the Santee Delta area and inland on the Cooper River and Santee-Cooper lakes also seem to be bagging some birds.

How does Harrigal know?

“One thing I'm not getting is a lot of phone calls asking: Where are the ducks?” he said with a laugh.

On state-managed waterfowl sites, Harrigal said, “we're having a pretty good season. Anytime you average 2.5 to 3 ducks per gun on a public hunt, we're doing pretty good.”

His recent sighting of large flights in the ACE Basin may also indicate a nice push of ducks fleeing wintry Midwestern storms.

“The meat of the season begins now and until the end of January,” Harrigal said. “That's when the weather patterns are really going to start changing to the north and northwest of us.

“With big storms, things are going to get turned up. Hopefully, we'll see another influx of the proverbial 'new birds.'

Of course, Harrigal is quick to point out that “having ducks and killing ducks are two different things.”

Hunters still should determine a strategy.

“As is typical of waterfowl in coastal areas, the birds are mostly on the best-managed wetland habitats.”

Setting up on public waterways near intensely managed, private plantations is a solid bet for hunters using john boats and blinds, particularly as activity on the private lands picks up over the next few weeks.

The recent rains also could have opened up new possibilities for those who want to target wood ducks. Hunters might want to investigate newly flooded hardwood bottoms or beaver ponds.

“When it all shakes out, it will probably be a pretty good season,” Harrigal said. “Hopefully the best is yet to come.”

Waterfowl hunting requires a number of licenses and permits, both state and federal. Hunters need a state Migratory Waterfowl permit ($5.50), a federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp ($15, signed across the face of the stamp), a state Migratory Bird Permit (free) and a basic hunting license. If they're on Wildlife Management Area, hunters need a WMA permit, too ($30.50).

For full regulations, go to the waterfowl hunting section at dnr.sc.gov and download the “S.C. Migratory Game Bird Hunting Handbook.”

Shooting hours are from half-hour before sunrise until sunset, and those times vary slightly depending on geographic location (check the Migratory Game Bird Hunting Guidebook for a chart).

The daily per-person limit is six ducks. This aggregate limit can include any combination of teal, gadwall, ringnecks, shovelers and other common duck species. However, your take must include no more than four mallards (two hens), two pintails, one fulvous whistling duck, one black-bellied whistling duck, three wood ducks, two redheads, one canvasback, four scaup, and one black duck or one mottled duck.

Mergansers, sea ducks, geese, brant and coots have their own limits or seasons, so check DNR's site.

Waterfowl hunters must use loads with nontoxic shot and plug their guns so they hold only three rounds.

Hunters also are required by law to “make a responsible effort to retrieve all migratory game birds that they kill or cripple and to keep those birds in their actual custody while in the field.

Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com