For the February 2 Federal Youth Day, a group of old friends flocked to the Santee Delta for a weekend for which ducks provided a convenient, though inconsequential purpose. From one of the owners of Moreland Plantation, Thomas Morrison secured permission for fathers and sons to hunt the ancient rice fields. Guign and Riley Bradham; John William and John Smoak; Thomas, Winn, and Frank Thornhill; my son Ned and I — we rendezvoused at the Pole Yard Boat Landing. In a green aluminum boat outfitted with a cabin, we set out on the North Santee River.
Moreland is close to 300 acres and was once part of a group of plantations on Lynches Island that included Bellevue, Blackwood and Oakland. Moreland borders both the South and North Santee Rivers, and it is home to the venerable brick “Roundhouse,” the only extant storm tower in the Delta. These structures were built as high-ground shelters after hundreds of slaves drowned in the high waters of the 1822 hurricane. The ruins of several towers throughout the region still endure.
The Roundhouse was converted to a duck hunting camphouse some time around 1950; this creative repurposing would ensure the preservation of the historic shelter. The sporting life distinguishes itself from the work life because the former breaches the spiritual realm with a heightened frequency. At Moreland, we realized we were sharing our weekend with an eclectic hosts of ghosts: wildlife, flora, ancient crops, enslaved people, planters and hunters of the distant, yet somehow not-so-distant past.
Our Moreland experience was on a fine morning in a beautiful setting, but the relaxing hunt was slow-going in the way of birds. Youth-brandished shotguns from nearby Delta plantations and peppered the sky with steel shot. At Moreland, “We didn’t have enough open water or food for the ducks,” Thomas Morrison explains. The 2015 1000-year flood compromised the plantation’s dike, which only recently has been repaired. This work subsequently has allowed for the implementation of proper management.
Besides the memories in their minds and spirits, our boys did not go home empty-handed. Thomas’s friend Achi Treptow, SCDNR biologist and Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project Leader, dropped off daypacks courtesy of Ducks Unlimited, filled with camouflaged hats, duck calls and shotgun chamber safety plugs.
Thomas operates Farm Management Services, through which he enhances habitat and raises groceries for waterfowl and other wildlife. “I describe myself as a third-party contractor. When plantations need someone to help with planting or burning or anything that has to do with the property, that’s where I come in.” For ducks, he farms rice, corn, chufa and millet.
Morrison assists Moreland’s owners with various tasks, one of which includes managing water levels. “Once you get down to that end of the Santee Delta, you aren’t planting food for ducks. Your only option is brackish management of submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV, “which includes widgeon grass and spikerush. Ideally, you would burn this cordgrass and phragmites, so you could expose bare ground and manipulate the water. At that point, you can begin your widgeon grass cycle.”
Thomas Morrison has deep roots in the brackish Delta mud. His great-great-grandfather, James Brown Morrison, farmed rice on the Delta at Pleasant Meadow. “Back then, everyone on the Delta had summer houses in McClellanville — to get away from the malarial mosquitoes.” The elder Morrison’s descendants “all had a great love for the Delta.”
Across the river from Moreland is Brown Island, which the Morrison family owned during Thomas’s childhood. “We always called it Brown’s,” Thomas recalls. “My grandfather was Leland Morrison, Thomas adds with a laugh: “Yeah, he was a local!
“Brown’s was a highland island, but my grandfather, who was in the marine construction business, went around the island with a dragline and made a duck impoundment. My dad walked in front of him and stuck sticks in the mud to mark the location of the impoundment.” With a crane, Leland Morrison set an old camper on the dock, a makeshift shelter that functioned as a hunting cabin. We always talked about fixing it up, but we never did,” Thomas smiles.
The Santee Delta is a sportsman’s paradise, but especially for the Southerner, who embraces a Renaissance approach to the outdoors. “There’s just so much history up there,” Thomas reflects on his beloved Santee Delta. “Supposedly — and you can see evidence from all the cypress stumps — slaves cleared by hand the entire Delta from a little north of U.S. 17 all the way to the breakers on Murphy Island and Cedar Island.
“Before the construction of the lakes, the Santee River had the largest discharge east of the Mississippi, which is why they called it the Mighty Santee. Fresh water ran for miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
“On that Delta, you had a signer of the Declaration of Independence, members of the Continental Congress and a governor of South Carolina. The Delta was the site of the first rice mill, built by Jonathan Lucas — the Eli Whitney of the Rice Kingdom.” Lucas was operating the first rice mill before Whitney developed his cotton gin. “You have properties up there that have been in the same family for several hundred years”; such familiar generational Delta names include Manigault, Pinckney and Rutledge.
If he trusts you, Thomas might even take you to “a rice mill from the 1800s. The boiler and all is still over there. You know, the Santee Delta is full of cool stuff like that!” He protects the mill’s location with the secrecy one might devote to a favorite fishing hole. “People come out here and steal the old bricks,” which is a contributing factor to why the old storm towers — save the Roundhouse at Moreland — have vanished. Landmarks such as the old rice mill are “one of the reasons I love to take people out there — so they can see a part of the world nobody sees or knows about,” Thomas says.
“I go out to the Delta because there’s just so much history: South Carolina history and duck hunting history. Shooting ducks is really secondary, but it’s cool when you get to do it, you know,” Thomas explains. He began duck hunting in the Delta when he was in the third grade, adding: “I reckon I’ve been hitting it hard since I was able to drive.
“I like shooting ducks anywhere in a rice field,” Thomas remarks in describing his favorite setting. Primarily, he hunts the Delta “with a group called the Pine Grove Club, and we have had some fantastic duck hunting. The black duck used to be the King of the Delta. Now, we have a lot of pintails and mottled ducks. This place is still the best wild mallard hunting anywhere in South Carolina.”
Thomas’s love of hunting has cultivated a symbiotic passion for conservation. “The Delta is a place that’s pretty much unspoiled because of the wildlife management and conservation efforts of many landowners, the state of South Carolina, and organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.”
Morrison credits the engendering of his land ethic to his conservationist mentors: “There are four guys who have really helped instill in me a love for the Delta and waterfowl management: Mike Prevost, Kenny Williams, Bill Mace, and Phil Wilkerson. They have all worked as plantation managers on the Delta, and I have gotten to know them through years of hunting, family friends and doing work for them.”
For most of the 20th century, the Delta’s expansive and exclusive Santee Gun Club was privately owned. The property now belongs to the state and was rechristened the Santee Coastal Reserve. Thomas lauds the efforts of the DNR biologists and encourages hunters to enter their names for the drawn hunts.
“The duck hunting is really, really good! You get to hunt on 24,000 acres in the storied Santee Gun Club, the duck hunting mecca of South Carolina. You have an opportunity to shoot ducks where millionaire Yankee industrialists paid a lot of money to hunt, and you don’t have to own your own plantation!” Thomas laughs.
The Santee Delta has a great deal to offer everybody in love with the outdoors. Bird watchers come to check off the black-necked stilt from their list. “You will see all the mosquitoes and alligators you would ever want to see; the crabbing and shrimping are great, and anglers can reel both largemouth bass and spottail bass from the same waters.”
It is no coincidence that the first humans likely made their home in a delta. So too does the Edenic majesty of the Santee Delta welcome us to a prelapsarian paradise. The boys — young and grown — had a great time in the Delta with Thomas Morrison as our guide. We are already making plans to return this spring for a surf-fishing trip.