With nearly half of the 60-day duck season remaining, there couldn’t be a better time to hunker down in a bush-covered blind to get a limit of mallards, wood ducks and green-winged teal.
Most of the migrating birds have already arrived, and the weather is turning cold, making for perfect duck-hunting conditions. Ducks are looking for places to feed and rest, and most hunters are trying to figure out which places are in line with the flocks’ daily travels. While the perils of travel and winter conditions continue to attract ducks to places littered with high-energy food sources, some of the best places to kill a limit are far from nature’s grocery stores. Duck hunters need to check out their local rivers, lakes and other public bodies of water for an awesome late-season shoot.
More ducks are killed in January across South Carolina than any other part of the season, and projections last summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate a population of migrating ducks well above the long-term average. Hunters should have plenty of shooting available in the coming weeks right when bone-chilling temperatures arrive in the southeast.
According to the National Climatic Data Center, January is the coldest month, often bringing ice, snow and arctic conditions into the southern agriculture belt. While ducks find rich food sources along their daily travel routes, resting areas become just as important during the day.
Del Avins manages River Oaks Farms in Rimini, which features 350 acres of flooded grain and chufa within a gunshot of Lake Marion. Even though Avins concentrates on his impoundments throughout the year, he encourages hunters not to ignore Lake Marion’s public waters.
“The Santee region is productive in late season,” he said. “It is such a big lake, with lots of habitat available around it in agriculture and miles of rivers and branches.”
As January arrives, the major migrations of ducks ceases, and all of the migrants in South Carolina get constant beatdowns from gunners in every habitat imaginable, including the state’s huge collection of waterfowl impoundments.
“The ducks that are around have been here for a while and become shy from consistent hunting pressure,” Avins said.
Even though River Oaks Farms’ impoundments are only hunted twice a week, the birds become accustomed to the hunting schedule. It can be a tough time of year for them, but there is always some flooded place available to rest away from high hunter-traffic areas.
“Ducks are looking for dense cover or big, open water where they can get away from high-pressured areas around impoundment,”he said. “Private-land food sources can get hard to hunt, especially around the last full moon when the ducks feed mostly at night and rest during the day.”
Hunters can target late-season birds in these resting areas or places with large, open-water habitats. The open water of Lake Marion allows ducks to raft up and keep their eyes peeled on their surroundings. It’s safety in numbers with a 360-degree view. A large group is less likely to become victim to steel shot and a Labrador retriever than singles or small pods.
“The main river channels are also good places to look. The flowing waters are less likely to freeze, and these waters provide excellent places for resting ducks to hide,” he says.
T.J. Hallman, plantation manager at the Territories Saluda River Preserve, will move this month to big bodies of water to find resting ducks. In fact, he doesn’t start duck hunting hard until after Jan. 1, when the real cold weather arrives along with a final wave of birds. He likes to hunt ducks in resting habitats during the late season on public waters.
“We usually get a solid stream of cold fronts around the first of the year that freezes up waters north of us and brings in a final push of ducks into South Carolina,” he said.
South Carolina will also experience enough cold weather to freeze duck impoundments, roost ponds, and flooded swamps, and that’s what excites Hallman the most.
“Our region is covered with feeding and resting areas out the wazoo, but when they freeze over, they head to the big water on lakes and rivers with flowing waters that will not freeze,” he said.
In the upstate around Chappells, there are plenty of flowing waters to find ducks. Greenwood, Murray, and Strom Thurmond are reservoirs controlled by hydroelectric facilities that feed major river systems, including the Saluda and the Savannah along the Georgia state line. These flowing rivers are dam controlled and will always provide open water for ducks to rest and possibly feed.
“The water from hydroelectric dams coming out of the bottom of the lake is much warmer than the air and surface, providing not only current, but free-flowing water during those low-teen and single-digit mornings,” said Hallman, who said open-water duck hunting late in the season is more about targeting resting areas than feeding areas.
“We find the majority of our ducks in resting situations on moving water: in the backs of big blowdowns, inside banks of sharp turns, and in the mouths of every drainage creek, split, or cove,” said Hallman, who believes scouting is critical for finding out where ducks will congregate this month.
“I do a lot of research on ducks with Google Earth and by scouting,” he said. “If I ride down the highway and see ducks in the backs of a cove on the lake, or tucked in a farm pond, I’m always trying to find out if there is a waterway nearby that we can set up on. Get on them when they are congregated in the backs of coves, on lakes, or resting in the eddies of a free flowing river.”
Timing and duration is also important in January. For hunters looking to score a 6-duck limit, it should be an all-day affair because some of the best hunting is well after the early morning start. Typically, Avins’ hunts at River Oaks Farms end at 11a.m., however, some of his best hunting in the impoundments is right before cutoff time.
“We usually do better on birds flying later in the morning during the late season,” he says.
Avins will hunt right to the cutoff time in Januarsy, but he’ll evacuate the impoundments quickly to allow the ducks to come in and use them for resting during the afternoons. Hunters targeting resting birds on the large bodies of water should keep alert all-day.
Whether hunting along the coast or in the Upstate, the last month of the duck season can be well worth the effort, especially when winter weather and hunting pressure has pushed ducks into their late season posture.
“With a good set of eyes and some accurate shooting, a late-season mixed bag limit is never out of the question,” says Hallman.