Plantation agriculture came into existence in the late 17th century when the cypress and tupelo forests along the coast were cut to make way for indigo production. Rice planting hit its high water mark before the 19th century rolled around. Today, these historic rice fields and their rice trunks provide habitat for ducks but actual rice production is mostly absent.
Migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds all require various types of habitat and differing water depths, which are controlled by the manipulations of the rice trunk. The first trunk used in the Lowcountry likely was a concept brought over from Africa and may have been as simple as a hollow tree trunk with some type of plug in it. Today the “Combahee-style” rice trunk dominates the impoundment landscape where habitat maintenance is both a science and an art form.
Ross Catterton is the area manager for the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area, which has 5,500 acres of impoundments that are prepared each year for migratory waterfowl. Anyone visiting Bear Island WMA on a DNR draw duck hunt can see how many other species of birds flock to the ideal habitat along the banks of the Edisto River; birds like bald eagles, white pelicans, wood storks, blue geese and songbirds galore.
Catterton said, “The rice trunk is the length of the embankment and has a door on the inside and a door on the outside that allows us to let water in or out as we desire. I manage 28 separate impoundments that range from 30 acres to 500 acres and it all starts with rice trunks and flashboard risers to manage water levels and salinities. Essentially the rice trunk is a gravity-flow system because the water follows the laws of gravity during tidal changes.”
Though then term rice trunk alludes to rice production, there is currently very little of that crop planted any longer along the S.C. coastal plain. For a wide variety of reasons, the days of rice attracting hordes of migratory ducks to S.C. are dwindling. Jim Clarke of Georgetown has experience managing rice and he cites aggressive use by rice birds and black birds as being the number one downfall of a rice crop for waterfowl use. These birds simply decimate the crop before waterfowl migration begins.
Having returned from a recent trip to Southwest Louisiana to observe a large rice production area at Grosse Savanne, I can relay that large tracts of rice still do attracts large amounts of waterfowl. On October 8, I witnessed about 10,000 blue-winged teal using their 2,500 contiguous acres of rice, which had already been harvested. However, with their warm and humid climate the rice is left to grow a second growth crop, which is a perfect scenario for the discerning hunters that visit their lodge.
This gathering of winged creatures was not limited to waterfowl, since both wading birds, shore birds and even songbirds joined in the fracas. Witnessing this type of migration stopover activity makes one want to give thanks to the Creator for both the habitat and for the wildlife that uses it in this symphony of flight. Still, planting their rice each year is a test of fortitude and goes against the grain of economic viability, so credit is due to the Sweet Lake Land and Oil Company for their perseverance.
Back in S.C. recalled tales from the not too recent past of rice production still cause hearts to flutter. Dean Harrigal is the SCDNR waterfowl biologist and is based at Donnelly WMA. “The largest aggregation of wood ducks I have ever seen was in our inland impoundment one year it was planted in rice,” said Harrigal. “It’s a little like watching fireworks because the ducks move in and the show is brilliant, but it doesn’t last that long before they have cleaned it out and move on. The number one crop for waterfowl today is corn, with Japanese millet a close second.”
To plant corn and focus on growing panicum grasses, freshwater impoundment managers must draw down the water by spring to farm the land. Then they continue to keep the pond dry in summer to encourage growth of the panic grasses (good luck this year considering the rains we had this spring and summer). In November they will manage the panicum by mowing or burning it — which makes it more desirable to waterfowl when flooded. Other plants prized by waterfowl found in the freshwater impoundments are smartweed and red root.
“Matthews Canal was dug in the 1800s and comes into the Edisto River at Willtown Bluff,” said Catterton. “This freshwater system can be used to ‘freshen up’ the water on the east side of Bear Island. If we want saltwater, then that comes from Mosquito Creek near Bennett’s Point.” The cost-effective management tool that makes all of this possible is the rice trunk, an ancient design that is hard to improve upon.
Jeff Dennis is a long time outdoorsmen. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com.
This column was initially published in the November 2013 print edition.