Lowcountry Waterfowling: Tips for every experience level

Teal fly in the Santee Delta.

Ask most good ol’ boys and they’ll tell you the pecking order of Lowcountry hunting goes like this: Deer, then turkey, then waterfowl.

Just about anybody can hunt deer, whether on a small piece of private land, a big hunting club or deep in the Francis Marion National Forest. You just need a shotgun or rifle, the right licenses and some camouflage (and blaze orange on public land).

Turkeys are lot harder to hunt and a lot harder to find. You need more camo, turkey calls, ground blinds and special shotgun chokes and loads. You also need a good bit more know-how and access to relatively unpressured forest land.

Waterfowl hunting? That’s a different beast altogether. Boats, blinds, calls, waders, decoys and a good retriever are just the start. You have to gear up for an amphibious endeavor in cold weather and navigate a complicated web of federal and state regulations. Just identifying your prey is tough — recognizing a deer is a lot easier than telling the difference between a mottled duck and a ringneck zipping over your head in low light.

Access to waterfowl habitat is perhaps the biggest limiting factor. Buying land with impoundments or joining a top-dollar coastal hunting club can steepen a waterfowl hunter’s learning curve. But you don’t have to be wealthy to get into duck hunting. There are plenty of options.

Here are a few tips, for every experience and income level.

Waterfowl hunting requires a number of licenses and permits, both state and federal. You’ll 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 you’re hunting waterfowl on Wildlife Management Area, you’ll need a WMA permit, too ($30.50).

Start by visiting dnr.sc.gov. Navigate to the waterfowl hunting section and spend some time with some of their great guides, including:

S.C. Migratory Game Bird Hunting Handbook

“S.C. Waterfowl Hunting and Baiting Brochure”

“Ducks at a Distance: A Waterfowl Identification Guide”

This year’s late duck seasons run Nov. 17-24 and Dec. 8-Jan. 27. 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.

Separate total possession limits apply to ducks, so check online. Mergansers, sea ducks, geese, brant and coots have their own limits or seasons, so again, check DNR’s site or pick up a copy of the hunting guidebook.

One of the most important regulations requires waterfowl hunters to use loads with nontoxic shot and plug their guns so they hold only three rounds. Steel shot is the most common choice, though many hunters prefer more expensive but effective high-density loads. Don’t let any lead shot make it into your gear bags or boat during waterfowl season — DNR officers will have no mercy.

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. Hunters must immediately kill any wounded birds that they retrieve and count those birds to their daily bag limit.”

If you shoot a bird, you have to go get it. However, this requirement does not allow hunters to trespass on someone else’s land. So most hunters avoid shooting birds that might fall on private land or somewhere they or their retrievers can’t reach.

So you want to get into duck hunting but don’t have a dog or a boat? No problem. But you’ll have to restrict yourself to hunting in areas where you can wade to retrieve any ducks crippled or killed. Shallow impoundments and cypress swamps are great places to start. Wood ducks will be your most likely target; these beautiful, eerie sounding birds are quite common in the swampy hardwood bottoms.

“Wood ducks are the bread and butter of South Carolina,” says Dean Harrigal, a DNR biologist and veteran duck hunter. “Our wood duck harvest is usually in the top three in the Atlantic flyway.

“If you’re a South Carolina hunter and the first duck you killed wasn’t a wood duck, you’re probably an oddball.”

The creeks, cypress swamps and beaver ponds of the Francis Marion National Forest provide some of the best training grounds for new duck hunters. All anyone really needs are proper licenses and loads, a good set of chest-waders and a shotgun. (Check sc.dnr.gov for special regulations for hunting waterfowl in the forest.) Hunters should scout remote, hardwood bottom areas along creeks or the Santee River and mark likely spots with a GPS device, on a map and with flagging tape so they can find it again in predawn hours.

When wading through a swamp in the darkness, hunters should be careful to avoid falling into deep holes or tripping over cypress knees. For these and other reasons, hunting alone is a bad idea.

Learning to use a duck call can wait. It may be best to start off by listening to the sounds ducks make and finding where the ducks are instead of luring them in to where they wouldn’t normally be. Plenty of ducks have been taken without any hunter making the first “quack.”

Instead of tromping through swamps, newbies might prefer to test their duck-luck by entering DNR’s yearly drawing for public hunts. (The deadline for the 2012 entries was in October, but you can enter for the 2013 season.) There’s a $20 entry fee and forms can be found at dnr.sc.gov/hunting/drawhunts.

So many hunters enter the drawing that it usually takes two years or more to actually score a hunt, Harrigal said. But it’s worth the wait. Getting picked awards hunters access to some of the best (and intensely managed) waterfowl habitats on the East Coast, including Santee Coastal Reserve and Bear Island.

“These sites have some of our best waterfowl habitats and concentrations,” Harrigal said. Chosen hunters are given pre-hunt instructions by DNR staff at the sites.

“They provide hunters with a really nice duck hunt. It’s as close to having a guided hunt as you can have in South Carolina without actually having a guided hunt.

“It’s premier public hunting.”

Hunters can use one form to enter for multiple sites across the state. But they should research options beforehand.

“Each site is slightly different,” Harrigal said. “You need to look at the sites and match what your equipment needs are with the sites. For instance, on Bear Island East and Springfield, we provide you with boats, blind and decoys.”

Hunters who don’t get picked for one of these draw hunts could turn instead to public lands open to all-comers on certain days and times. Dungannon Heritage Preserve is a popular option, though it’s only open to waterfowlers on Wednesday mornings. The enormous swamp holds plenty of woodies, but hunters without dogs should shoot only in areas when they can wade in to retrieve their birds.

Harrigal also recommends that Lowcountry hunters consider making the hour-and-a-half drive to Hickory Top Waterfowl Area near Summerton, just west of I-95 at the west end of Lake Marion.

“When it’s on, it’s about as good as you can get for public hunting in South Carolina, on a first-come, first-serve basis. ... Two years ago it was absolutely phenomenal.”

Packed with water oaks and easily wadeable, this 400-acre “green tree reservoir” usually holds plenty of wood ducks and the occasional flock of mallards and teal.

Duck hunting boats run the gamut from sneaky kayaks to high-dollar, welded john boats with elaborate and expensive blinds.

Yellow and black Labs are the most common retrievers, particularly for those who hunt larger ducks in open or running water. Smaller Boykin spaniels are a favorite of swamp hunters.

With these two critical pieces of the puzzle — or a friend with both — you can hunt waterfowl on just about any navigable waterway (some preserve areas require a special permit). On most lakes and some designated waterways, hunters must stay at least 200 yards from residences. (Check p. 36 in the waterfowl guidebook for details.)

On all waterways, duck hunters must remain in their boat or risk running afoul of not only DNR officers, but also angry landowners and private-land hunters. Some duck hunters test the boundaries of the law by “navigating” their vessels into skinny tidal creeks bordering intensely managed plantations.

“ ‘Navigable water’ is generally correct, but that term is sometimes debated in magistrate’s court,” Harrigal said with a laugh. “The biggest issue most of the time is trespassing to hunt by pulling boats up onto dikes, or getting out and standing on dikes.

“When in doubt,” he advised, “stay out.”

Hunters with area-specific questions should call DNR’s regional office at 843-953-9307 and ask for a local enforcement officer, Harrigal said.

Most boat-based duck hunts unfold south of Charleston in the ACE Basin, north of Charleston in the Santee Delta, or inland on the Santee-Cooper lakes and upper Cooper River.

Inland areas have produced mallards and geese over the years, along with plenty of woodies.

“The harvest along the coast,” Harrigal said, “is largely gadwall and greenwing (teal) driven.”

In both the ACE Basin and Santee Delta, duck hunters on public waterways are “basically hunting birds that are trading back and forth between managed wetland complexes,” Harrigal said. “Those birds aren’t using those rivers to feed. They’re flitting around from pond to pond. Birds get shot at on one island, then go to another. They get run out of one plantation and go to another.”

Savvy public-water hunters anticipate the pressure being applied on various plantations and time their trips accordingly.

“You might not see a duck in the sky if you go hunting during the week,” Harrigal said.

Hunting these larger systems along the coast presents challenges, and novice hunters shouldn’t take these forays lightly.

“It’s big water, it’s specialized, and you need to be careful when you get into it,” Harrigal advised. “ … You need to be prepared with enough decoy lines to deal with the tides. You’ve got to have a boat big enough to take bad weather. A 14-foot john boat with 20 horsepower motor would be the minimum.

“When you think about it, it’s almost like offshore fishing. It’s specialized equipment and some dangerous run times. … You kind of need to know what the heck you’re doing.

“You can drown, no question about it.”

Duck hunters can access the ACE Basin from more than a dozen public boat ramps. The Willtown Bluff landing on the South Edisto River serves as one of the Lowcountry’s most popular jumping-off points for public waterfowl hunting. Other landings include the Steel Bridge landing off U.S. Hwy. 17 and Brickyard on the Ashepoo near Bear Island.

Hunters can access the Santee Delta via the Pole Yard landing on the North Santee River off U.S. Hwy. 17, or the South Island Ferry Landing just south of Winyah Bay. Hunters could also put in at one the many landings near Bull’s Bay and run north into the Delta.

Duck hunting on private land usually involves shooting woodies in a natural swamp or managing a pond or former rice field for teal, mallards, gadwall, ringnecks and other ducks.

“The vast majority of waterfowl in the Lowcountry spend their winters in managed wetlands — old rice fields, mostly,” Harrigal said.

The waterfowl management choice for most landowners boils down to planting and then flooding crops such as corn, sorghum and millet or manipulating water levels to produce natural habitats based on widgeon grass, smart weed and panic grasses.

“For some reason everybody has the corn-pond syndrome,” Harrigal said. “They think you have to have a corn pond to have ducks. That’s not necessarily true.

“But you do have to have the capability to manage the water level” to achieve success producing natural vegetation, he said.

If landowners instead decide to plant and flood crops to attract ducks, they must follow the letter of the law or risk getting into hot water over baiting.

“You can flood a standing crop and be legal,” Harrigal said. “You cannot manipulate a standing crop for waterfowl.

DNR defines baiting as: “The direct or indirect placing, exposing, depositing, distributing, or scattering of salt, grain, or other feed that could lure or attract waterfowl to, on, or over any areas where hunters are attempting to take them.

“A baited area is any area on which salt, grain, or other feed has been placed, exposed, deposited, distributed, or scattered if that salt, grain, or feed could serve as a lure or attraction for waterfowl.

“A baited area remains off limits to hunting for 10 days after all salt, grain, or other feed has been completely removed. This rule recognizes that waterfowl will still be attracted to the same area even after the bait is gone.”

For detailed guidelines for landowners, check the state’s waterfowl guidebook.

Duck hunters can be a persnickety lot. Here are a few points to keep you in good graces on your next trip.

Watch your lights: Gazillion-candlepower spotlights can help you get your bearings at night, but they can also ruin your night vision and mark you and your buddies as inconsiderate, novice hunters.

Don’t shine a spotlight at another boat. If you’re already set up and you’re worried an approaching boatload of hunters may hunt up too close or run over your decoy spread, flash the spotlight into the sky a few times. They’ll usually get the hint.

When it comes to running lights, check at home, then again at the ramp to make sure all are in working order. Check to make sure that blind materials haven’t obscured bow or stern lights. A ticket is bad enough, but running full-bore into another boat at night can have horrific results.

Park it: Ever try to parallel park a truck and boat trailer at Willtown Bluff? Ever try to squeeze a full-size pickup between the pine trees in the dirt lot at Dungannon Heritage Preserve? Vehicle maneuvering can get dicey at 4 a.m.. Don’t rush, pay attention and don’t get rattled. Remember that a couple of guys can usually lift a john boat trailer and pivot it into a parking space.

Before you walk away, take a step back and look at your rig. Did you block someone in? Did you leave enough room for others to turn around at the ramp? Are you sticking out too far into the roadway? Take the time to adjust if necessary.

Back off! Don’t set up too close to other hunters. Fifty yards is too close, and most hunters would say 100 yards is, too. There’s no good excuse for crowding waterfowlers who beat you to a spot.

Pass on iffy shots: Shooting at high birds forces ducks to flare and fly even higher. That’s no good for anybody.

Control your dog: If your excited retriever is likely to climb into someone else’s boat, attempt to retrieve someone else’s bird, jump into the decoy spread or bite or bark at the landing, keep it on a tight leash.

Rubber necking: Ducks have excellent eyesight. Nothing marks a novice hunter like a swiveling head. When a flock circles your decoys, keep still and be ready for the moment when they enter your shooting zone.

Loose Lips: If your buddy takes you to his special wood duck spot in the Francis Marion National Forest, don’t share it with anyone else. If you find a great place to tuck the john boat in between high-dollar plantations, don’t brag. If someone admires your bag full of ducks at the landing, be polite but evasive. Nobody expects a veteran duck hunter to spill the beans.

“Good duck hunters are like good fishermen,” Harrigal said. “They don’t talk about it.”

Reach Tideline Editor Matt Winter at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com