Getting our ducks in a row
South Carolina boasts a storied history of waterfowl hunting, a sport that continues to thrive — though not without challenges, changes and tireless effort. Riley Bradham is passionate about ducks, both as an enthusiast of hunting the rivers and also as a sporting artist who focuses on creating etchings of waterfowl. He reminds us that the elder generation of hunters enjoyed black ducks, mallards and canvasbacks that once flocked to Lowcountry saltmarshes, a setting where, for decades, the hooded merganser has all but reigned supreme among game vacationers.
Longtime wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal points out that changes in waterfowl hunting have not always been for the worse. For example, he acknowledges that the black duck range has contracted over the years and “mallards certainly have drifted away from the coast,” across the state; nonetheless, since 1962, “one out of every four or five ducks harvested in South Carolina have been mallards.” Before Harrigal retired from DNR, countless sportsmen remarked about a decline in mallard harvests; “people remember shooting mallards, but were they shooting a lot of them?” he wonders.
As a duck hunter, Bradham has witnessed a threat to the Lowcountry coast materialize. “A stunning and clueless increase in human population and development along the coast has impacted our ecosystem. The effect is not always measurable until a sudden negative result —such as a decline in duck numbers — manifests itself.”
Development and increased human population have put pressure on duck hunters who hunt natural marshes accessible from public boat landings. Of course, such challenges are nothing new for those who pursue this popular pastime. For years, such hunters have sought their spots in the wee hours of the morning, catching hours of sleep in cold johnboats as they await legal shooting time. In such historically popular natural areas, increasing numbers of hunters continue to sharpen the wariness of already skittish migratory waterfowl.
Bradham points out that changes in duck hunting have often proved beneficial for waterfowl overall. “The managed system has presented itself as a superior alternative to ducks. Animals learn to imprint and birds have become more imprinted to seek the sanctuary of the managed wetlands instead of the natural marshes.”
Molly Kneece, wildlife biologist with SCDNR expands on the concentration of ducks on well-managed properties: “Ducks are master samplers of the environment. For example, when ducks arrive on a new area, they move around, testing impoundments and natural wetlands to learn what that area can supply to meet their needs. Types and abundance of food, water levels and refuge areas are all important. Disturbance is another key factor. Areas where ducks can feed and loaf without being flushed or otherwise disturbed on a routine basis are more likely to hold ducks.
“State-owned properties, as well as many privately owned properties on the coast having managed impoundments really work hard to maximize desirable food for wintering waterfowl,” Kneece goes on. “These areas are also able to manage their hunting pressure to minimize disturbance on these desired fowl, which makes them more likely to concentrate on those areas, as well. In public tidal areas, food can be less abundant. Also, disturbance is much higher, so ducks might naturally be seeking those more quiet, managed areas that also provide a full plate.”
When some hunters wonder if fewer ducks come to S.C. these days, Harrigal clarifies that “they might not come to traditional places, but they are coming to different places across the state — and in different patterns. In S.C. and elsewhere, there is more available habitat now than there ever has been. The last 30 years have seen a big explosion in improved habitat. For instance, further inland in S.C. and other states, the return of the beaver has had a good impact since beaver ponds make great habitat for waterfowl,” he tells us.
Ducks now scatter out from areas they once frequented and they find habitats in our state’s river systems and oftentimes “no longer have to come all the way to the coast. Birds might continue to go to traditional places, but they are also going to spots where people haven’t been looking.” For instance, “there are spots up the river system in the Pee Dee that hold ducks that would have come to the coast 20 or 30 years ago,” Harrigal notes.
He also cannot emphasize enough the immeasurable impact of weather on duck hunting. “Migratory birds only migrate as far as they need to go to meet their biological needs. So for us in S.C., warmer temperatures of only two or three degrees several hundreds of miles away in any direction mean ponds don’t freeze and the ducks don’t need to move if they’ve got plenty of food. Some migrate regardless, but weather has bearing on when and where they migrate. Even a small warming trend in the winter makes a big difference.”
Molly Kneece reminds us that warm temperatures are not the only weather concerns facing S.C. duck hunters. “Tropical weather events in recent years have certainly kept coastal waterfowl staff busy. During the last year, WMA properties such as Santee Coastal Reserve, Bear Island and Samworth have tackled many projects to improve the structural integrity of our impoundments. These projects include building new dikes where large portions of existing dike are highly eroded, stabilizing smaller portions of dikes with wooden bulkheads and re-topping dikes to repair erosion and increase elevation of the dike for keeping water on extreme high tides out of impoundments. Rice trunks have been installed to improve our water management capabilities.
“Invasive plants such as phragmites and water hyacinth have been treated to prevent further growth and expansion within our wetland areas. Countless days and man-hours have been invested: adjusting and monitoring water levels, mowing and burning in appropriate wetland habitats to maximize the types and amount of food we can grow for waterfowl.
All this effort is put forth to ensure the highest quality habitat for wintering waterfowl on our managed areas in coastal South Carolina.
“Efforts to manage DNR waterfowl properties have always been a high priority and continue to be,” Kneece ensures us. “Extra funding sources have allowed us to contract out some work on these areas to help us get our feet back under us as we have had to make unforeseen significant repairs as a result of five consecutive years’ worth of hurricanes and flooding events.”
Changes in hunting seasons further affect S.C. duck hunting. “Dead ducks don’t migrate!” Harrigal declares with understandable certainty. “Everybody in the South clamored for a longer season. When we extended our season 20 years ago, we had to give the same opportunity to the states in the Northern Tier and they opened their season earlier. That provided a lot of opportunities for inexperienced, juvenile birds to be killed.” These northern harvests impact us because “a lot of our ducks — especially mallards — come from the Great Lakes.”
The health of S.C. duck hunting is evident in the data. “You know a duck’s been in S.C. when he shows up dead!” Harrigal laughs. “Ducks reported harvested by individuals participating in the HIP survey (Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program) and Wing Survey (Migratory Birds Parts Collection Survey) show strong numbers.” For example, Georgetown County is in the top four percent of total harvest in the nation, on a county-by-county level.
Information from these surveys “provides a great metric to assess harvest trends on the state level from year to year,” Kneece says. “Data gathered from this survey indicate a consistent harvest trend in S.C. in recent years and show that S.C. ranks at number two in total harvest in the Atlantic Flyway. Harvest trends for our top five harvested species (wood duck, ring-necked duck, American green-winged teal, mallard and gadwall) also remain stable.”
More managed state areas are now accessible to the public through draw hunts. “I have been on several hunts at Bear Island and the duck hunting was fantastic!” Bradham says.
Kneece comments on the consistent success of these hunts, as well as hard work put in behind the scenes: “Category One Lottery Waterfowl Hunt Areas have held steady in numbers of ducks and harvest in recent years. I would venture to say that our Category One areas have always offered quality hunts and will continue to be managed to a high standard to produce quality habitat and hunts in the years to come.
“Our staff takes a lot of pride in conducting these lottery hunts,” Kneece assures us. “However, preparation for lottery hunts begin long before duck season. Our most important work occurs in the spring and summer when staff manage each impoundment to maximize beneficial vegetation that will attract and hold wintering waterfowl. A significant amount of monitoring and oversight occurs over the spring, summer and fall to ensure the best possible habitat is available for waterfowl.
“Once waterfowl season arrives, this monitoring continues to ensure the hunter has a quality experience. Lottery hunt experiences begin the day before the hunt is conducted. Hunt areas are scouted by staff the morning prior to the hunt to determine the areas with the largest concentrations of ducks and to determine the best approach to maximize harvest potential the following morning,” Kneece explains.
“Finding large concentrations of ducks is just the first step; staff also take into consideration the best cover for hiding, wind direction the following morning, how to direct a hunter to the best cover at their hunt site and consider any other information that may be helpful to the hunter the following morning. Our approach is to consider what we would want someone to tell us, if we were hunting that location the next morning site-unseen; that is the information we always strive to relay to a hunter.”
Kneece and the entire DNR staff approach their objective with an evident passion and dedication. “After scouting, equipment is checked: paddle boats and paddles are put at designated hunt locations for the following morning, large transport boats are fueled, navigation lights and radios are checked, lifejackets are counted and adequate numbers of marsh seats and sleds are on standby. The next morning, it’s go-time! Lodges and check stations are abuzz with excited hunters and staff. It’s the time of year that hunters and staff anticipate all year!”
Regardless of the best-laid plans of mice and men, our ducks simply never do get lined up in a row. Harrigal encourages the duck hunter to evolve with birds and the sport, reminding him or her not to stumble upon failure by clinging to past experiences. He offers proverbial wisdom, which reminds us that duck hunting has a great deal to teach us about life. “With ducks and politics, everybody has got their own opinions.” Ducks and baseball are similar in that “there are a lot of statistics that may not mean anything in the long run!”
Finally and perhaps most important: “You know what ducks and the stock market have in common? He asks, before replying: “Last year’s results are no guarantee for future returns!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.