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ACE Basin waterfowl with Jeff McLain

By Ford Walpole


Lowcountry native Jeff McLain grew up duck hunting with his father Jim in the waters and marshes of the ACE Basin. When Jeff was seven, he harvested his first duck— a green-winged teal drake — in the big marsh areas near Wiggins and Dale.

Back then, the McLains were exclusively river hunters, limited to the public areas around private plantations, many of which are now federal and state-owned and offer a limited number of draw hunts. “River hunting on the public areas has always been hard, and it has gotten to be even more so now,” McLain says.

He notes a common mistake of the river hunter: Setting up on the marsh right next to a plantation. “When you put yourself up against a big crop, it is hard to hunt.” In such a setting, frustrated hunters witness high-flying, out-of-range ducks at a food source. “Back when we hunted public areas,” Jeff explains, “we went into the big marshes so that we didn’t have to compete with all the food on the plantations.”

Jeff recalls an early duck hunting tale that the passage of time has eventually seasoned with humor: “When I was an inexperienced kid of about eight or nine, my dad and I were hunting our blind on public marsh. Dad left me unsupervised in the blind to go talk to the game warden, and I shot what I thought was a big duck right in front of the two of them!”

The “duck” ended up being a cormorant, for which there was no season in those days. The gracious conservation officer delivered a mere verbal warning to the eager young hunter, while sternly encouraging Jim McLain to help his son “work on his waterfowl identification!”

 

 

As the sport has become increasingly popular, Jeff laments a decline in sportsmanship among novice duck hunters. “On the river, we built blinds out of palm fronds. You knew the other hunters on the river, and we all had a mutual respect for each other. Now, more people are using the resource, but they have not been taught that proper hunter etiquette,” he notes. “One of my father’s deciding factors for getting us off the river was this lack of respect for all of the work we did on our blinds. You had gotten up early, waited at the landing on a hazardous day and a lot of times, people would be hunting your blind when you got there.”

In 1985 when Jeff was 12, Jim McLain bought a share in Block Island, a piece of land accessible only by boat. “When we first went out to Block Island, for the first five years, we had a Coleman safari-style tent made from army canvas,” says Jeff. After Hugo, the McLains built a 16-foot by 16-foot cabin with a tin roof and cypress siding. The family outfitted the one-room structure with propane lanterns, a dinner table and camping cots. This year’s upgrades included solar lighting, new siding and a new roof.

Block Island consists of 90 acres of controlled water impoundments and another 90 acres of natural habitat. The impoundments are bordered by a dike constructed during the 18th century, during the heyday of Carolina Gold rice production. These days corn, millet, peas and sunflowers are some of the modern crops on the island. The club has sought consultation from wildlife biologists and local farmers for input on the best management practices for area wildlife. McLain declares that “the Baldwin family has more knowledge than anybody as to what will grow and when and how to grow it; they are the experts in that area.”

The hunting property once included nine owners but now consists of six shares. Although the McLains have seen a complete turnover of partners since they first joined, “the Block Island shareholders definitely have a camaraderie and a love for the property and the marsh. We are all in pursuit of wet and wild ducks, and we have very passionate duck hunters in this club,” Jeff says. Each owner has his own family cabin. On shooting days, three sportsmen from each group of shareholders may hunt from one of the eight blinds, which are rotated throughout the season.

“Man, there have just been so many years of blessings out there,” Jeff says, reflecting on his time at Block Island. “We have had far more good days than bad days! Ultimately, Block Island is just the best place to hunt ducks. One year, my father and I were hunting with Bill Youngblood, his son Will, and Miles Crosby. It was one of the heaviest bird days I have ever seen.

“At legal light, there was a bee-hive frenzy of thousands of birds. They were flying in on the pond right in front of our faces. The ducks were like jet fighters flying past you; when they turned, you could hear them spin and turn whipping through the air as they spun past you. We all limited out within the first five minutes!” McLain says.

“We shoot all kinds of species on Block Island: Specklebelly, snow and Canada geese, pintails, mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged and green-winged teal, canvasbacks, redheads, wigeon, ring-necks and greater and lesser scaup,” Jeff continues. “It is a real melting pot of waterfowl.”

During duck season Jeff and his family launch at the boat landing on Friday afternoon and head out to Block Island. “We usually grill a nice, thick ribeye steak, which we eat with a salad, baked potato, and asparagus. Afterwards, we sit outside watching the ducks come into the pond under the greatest sunset,” he says.

Duck hunting compels many sportsmen to travel in pursuit of waterfowl, but not Jeff McLain, who has left town for ducks on fewer than a half a dozen occasions during the last 20 years. “I love everything about hunting ducks at Block Island,” he declares. “The ACE Basin is one of the last great places of its kind. You feel that spirit of the wild when you are out there.

“The ACE is the second largest basin in the world. Only the Amazon is bigger, and while different, our wildlife is just as diverse,” he says with a firsthand confidence — having been fishing in Bolivia. “It is impossible to describe, but I have an intense desire to be there and interact with these animals. I have always wanted to be a great wing shot — shooting live birds with accuracy,” he adds, citing an appropriate goal, considering his Scottish ancestry.

 
 

“When everything is right, Block Island is one of the best places in the world to hunt ducks,” McLain says. “One tip on that peninsula at the bend of the river makes a great flyover. Of course, if there is no weather up north, there won’t be any ducks here. But when South Carolina does have ducks, we are going to hunt as good as any of the other much larger plantations nearby.”

Jeff emphasizes the importance of cultivating hunter etiquette, and the Block Island shareholders endeavor to be good stewards. “Duck hunting is a lot like a dove hunt,” he explains. “When the plantations are shooting, it moves the birds. But if plantations are not hunting, the guys hunting the public areas don’t get any birds. This is one of the main reasons Block Island chooses to hunt on Saturdays — so that everybody on the river can enjoy the ducks.

“Every hunter is not entitled to that ground, but they are entitled to those birds,” says McLain. “If we hunt on Saturday, it’s going to lead to better hunting opportunities for everybody, and they will get the privilege of hunting. Private landowners understand the weight of what they hold as a resource, and we realize that what we hunt belongs to all of us. We aren’t just hunting birds. It is our heritage, our culture, and who we are as Southerners to protect and conserve this sport. I cannot think of any better conservation effort than to teach children and others to hunt.”

Retrievers are essential for successful duck hunting, and over the years, the McLains have had some fine dogs. Currently, Jeff’s son Jeffrey works birds with Aimee, a calm yellow lab and Sonny, “a chocolate monster who does a great job.” Jeff’s father Jim introduced Indi, a Boykin Spaniel, to duck hunting, though the dog initially was trained to flush quail by his original owner. “Indi is a little machine!” Jeff says. “He is so small he has to bounce to see over the grass, and he is an uncontrollable spirit when it comes to retrieving ducks.”

Chester, a big chocolate lab given to Jeff when he was a teenager — a “once-in-a-lifetime type of dog,” he says. “When birds came in from behind you, he would give one thump of his tail to let me know; you wouldn’t even have to look. Once he wagged his tail, you could turn around and shoot. One time we were hunting a pothole. We picked up all the birds and headed back. Chester wouldn’t leave though, and after a while he came back with two more ducks. He knew there was still more business out there. He was so good that he would retrieve a beer bottle cap from the bottom of an eight-foot-deep swimming pool!”

Jeff McLain loves every aspect of duck hunting, a sport he considers to be “one of the hardest venues — with the water and the elements and the mud, and all of the things that can go wrong.” The uncertainty contributes to the thrill: “There is no calculation that makes a duck hunt make sense, and that goes for people who hunt plantations and public rivers,” he says. “To the guys who do this, duck meat is more valuable than gold!”

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 fordwalpole@gmail.com.


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