Hunting this fall on Wildlife Management Areas looks very promising for a variety of species. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources designated WMAs typically produce excellent results for a wide variety of species. Some WMAs are managed for specific species and others for a variety of game.
Hunters need a WMA permit for these areas.
Here is a species-by-species look at South Carolina’s public-land hunting.
Deer hunting on WMAs remains very popular and productive in South Carolina, and hunters have great opportunities.
Charles Ruth, the biologist who oversees deer hunting for SCDNR, said hunters took 7-percent fewer deer on WMAs last season than in 2014, mirroring the overall statewide harvest blamed on poor weather conditions.
“We had entire WMAs, and portions of WMAs, closed at times during 2015 because of the floods,” he said. “Several WMAs were impacted, but Woodbury WMA in Marion County was mostly inaccessible because of flooding on the Big and Little Pee Dee Rivers. Marsh WMA was also heavily impacted as were WMAs around the Waccamaw River. We had to close roads on some of the coastal WMAs. Even when areas re-opened, some portions of the WMAs were difficult or impossible to access. This impacts harvest because areas were inaccessible to hunters.”
“Barring extreme weather circumstances, it looks like everything will be back up this season,” he said. “The silver lining is on WMAs, just as on private lands, I am very optimistic for the 2016 season being very good. A lot of deer that typically would have been harvested were not because of WMA access issue.”
Ruth said some of the top areas for 2016 include Woodbury and Marsh because of poor access last year.
“In the Central Piedmont Hunt Unit where the Sumter National Forest comprises a big portion of this WMA, excellent deer hunting exists,” Ruth said. “These are very good WMAs for deer hunting and are large enough to accommodate a lot of hunters.”
Ruth said excellent draw hunts are available on WMAs, and historically top areas include the Webb Center, Hamilton Ridge, Donnelley, Bear Island and Bonneau Ferry.
Ruth said some small, coastal WMAs offer excellent deer hunting:Botany Bay, Oak Lea and Cross Generating Station.
According to Dean Harrigal, SCDNR’s waterfowl biologist, hunting on WMAs is divided into two classes of hunting units: Class I and Class II.
Category I areas encompass WMAs subject to a draw hunt with applications. The applications are usually available by mid-September at www.dnr.sc.gov.
Harrigal said Category II sites do not have a draw-hunt quota and are open to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis. These are quality areas, and hunters can expect good hunting, but probably not as good as the draw hunts.
Last season was a productive one on Category I WMAs, according to Harrigal, who said hunters killed 2,648 ducks, led by gadwall (716), Northern Shoveler (348), green-winged teal (291), blue-winged teal (268), ringneck (209) and pintails (171).
Data compiled by the SCDNR for the 2015/16 Category I season indicate a productive season. With 782 hunters participating on Category I hunts, the average harvest was 3.4 birds per hunter.
Bear Island WMA near Green Pond had the highest total harvest with 1,169 birds taken by 289 hunters, nearly 40 percent of them gadwall.
“Overall the season for our waterfowl areas was excellent, but a couple of factors impacted hunting and overall harvest on the Category I areas last season,” Harrigal said.
Harrigal said the Santee Delta WMA was flooded and was significantly impacted from October 2015 until March 2016.
“The heavy rain created problems initially, and then with so much water upstream, continued releases to move that water out of those systems kept this area with too much water for most of the season. This did have a big impact on the hunting and impacted the overall Category I harvest. But this area should be fine for the upcoming season, barring any new extreme weather events.”
Harrigal said the number of wood ducks harvested in Category I areas was down due to a scheduled closure of the Hickory Top Greentree Reservoir.
“Hickory Top was not open last year, and it is the most-productive area for wood ducks,” Harrigal said. “No problem here; t’s simply a management prescription that we allow the area to remain dry once every four or five years. This increases the life of the mast trees, a necessary part of a Greentree site. It will be back up and available for the 2016 season.”
Harrigal said the total harvest in Category I dropped from the previous season but these two events impact the total harvest.
Michael Small, SCDNR Small Game Program Leader, said the big news for the upcoming season is that the daily limit has dropped from 15 to 12 doves per day.
“This is a statewide change, and it’s based on the specific needs of the dove population in South Carolina,” Small said. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service was on board with South Carolina keeping the 15-bird limit for the upcoming season, but the new 12-bird limit was approved by the SCDNR Board. That decision was based in part on inputs from dove hunters concerned about the dove population. Also, the harvest data we have documents the dove population and harvest has been down in recent years.”
Small said the population and harvest decline have not been drastic but certainly significant.
“We actually had some our best harvest years in a long time during the period from 2008 through 2010, so the quick downward trend soon after consecutive outstanding years was concerning.
“Dove hunters have had some tough seasons recently, and many spoke to the SCDNR Board about helping the population recover,” he said. “Dove populations can bounce back fairly quickly, so the limit of 12 is something that could be reconsidered if the population recovers in future years.”
The season structure for 2016-17 is similar to recent years, with three separate seasons.
The first season is Sept. 3-Oct. 15, with Sept. 3-5 hunting being from noon until sunset. The remainder of the season the hours are 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset.
The second season is Nov. 12-26, and the final season is Dec. 15-Jan. 17.
Small said public fields are looking very good for the upcoming season, and he expect 44 public fields, with seven more slated for youth hunts.
“Opening day of dove season and the first few days are certainly among the most popular hunting events in South Carolina,” Small said. “But the goal of the WMA public dove fields is to provide quality hunting throughout the three seasons. The fields are planted with that in mind and often, hunters are missing a good opportunity by not hunting later in the seasons.
“As is always the case, weather plays a role in how well the fields produce and this year because of timely rains a lot of the upstate fields are looking great,” he said. “Some of the fields in the coastal plain have been hampered with dry weather and high temperatures. I think we’ll have good hunting throughout but some areas simply will produce better crops. We do plant a mixture at most fields for season long hunting.”
Small recommend calling local field managers — phone numbers are in the listed in the Rules and Regulations digest — for information on the second and third seasons.
Small said a number of fields stand out for the upcoming season based on typical harvests and how the fields are looking.
“Last year, the Canal WMA was great, with around 5,000 birds taken the first week,” Small said. “In addition, Oak Lea is normally a very good area. It had a down year in 2015 but it is looking great for the 2016 season. Both Toumey A and Toumey B on Manchester Sate Forest produced great results last year and look exceptional again.”
Small said other WMAs including Ross Mountain, Piedmont Forestry Dove Center, Parksville, Bordeaux, Samworth and Donnelly should also be very good in 2016.
Small said all the public dove fields are well managed and have the potential for excellent hunting.
“We can’t guarantee success, but we do put in the effort to have the best fields we can and hope for good weather for the crops,” he said.
Small said one important factor for the future is the initiation of a new system of surveying dove populations on WMAs and across the state.
Small said SCDNR fired Dr. Michael Hook, formerly a dove biologist in Texas, and he has developed a protocol for identifying the dove population entering the season.
“The summer of 2016 is the first time we have been able to document the dove population prior to the season,” Small said. “It’s a great tool for predicting the population with high confidence in the data. In the past, we were only able to get a population idea after the season when bands were returned.
“This year, we surveyed the entire state, including WMAs, and (we) now have data regarding our dove population,” he said. “This is data we can carry forward and compare to future years for population trends. The population looks good in 2016 with 2.5 to 3.0 million breeding birds in South Carolina. Typically that means 2.5 to 3.0 juveniles per breeding bird. That’s a solid number, and with decent hunting weather, I think we’ll have a good dove hunting season.”
Small-game hunting suffered during the wet fall of 2015, but overall, the populations are in good shape. Small expects the 2016-17 season to be good for quail, rabbit and squirrel.
Small expects the Nov. 1-March 1 quail season to be a good one.
“I think we’ll have a good season overall and on the WMAs in particular,” he said. “Quail hunters in the Lowcountry had a wet season last year, and it impacted hunting access and harvest. Barring any significant weather extremes, we’re now in good shape on our WMAs.
“Our quail surveys in 2016 were good, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. “In addition to our surveys, we’ve received a lot of input from private landowners reporting good quail populations.”
Small said one of the best-looking WMAs for quail is the Webb Wildlife Center.
“The Webb Center is looking great, and thinning and burning has impacted the quail habitat in a very positive manner,” he said. “It looks fantastic.”
Small said Crackerneck, the Mason Tract in McCormick County, Belfast WMA along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service Carolina Sandhill’s area all look good.
“Habitat conditions for quail change considerably from one year to the next, with thinning, burning and other management tools impacting habitat,” he said.
Small said the rabbit population as a whole had a very good spring in 2016.
“Based on what I’ve seen personally, when conducting surveys for other species and inputs from others, we have a lot of rabbits, and a high number of half-grown rabbits,” he said. “They seem to be in good numbers everywhere we went. Granted, this is not based on science, but based on what we’ve seen this year compared to what we historically see. But it’s a positive trend.”
Small said habitat is crucial, and rabbit hunters should check WMAs for rabbit habitat prior to hunting.
“A couple of WMA’s that I believe will be good are Draper and Crackerneck,” he said. “Based on what we saw in the spring and summer in 2016, we should have good populations on a number of WMAs. Find the habitat and this year rabbits should be available.”
Small said this species is one that has thrived in recent years, and he sees no change to that trend for 2016. It’s one species that may be underutilized in some areas.
He said large stands of hardwoods and hardwood bottoms are key habitat, and the large WMAs, including the Francis Marion, and Sumter national forests, have excellent squirrel habitat interspersed throughout.
He said the Wateree Heritage Preserve WMA in Richland County, Liberty Hill WMA in Kershaw County and Edisto River WMA in Dorchester County are top squirrel areas.
“Good squirrel hunting is found in a lot of the WMAs in the Upstate, especially in the Clemson area,” he said.
“Delta South WMA in Union County offers excellent squirrel hunting habitat and should become a hotspot for rabbit and quail hunting in the future,” he said. “This WMA is now designated as a small game-only WMA once small-game seasons open,” he said. “Deer hunting will occur prior to small-game seasons. Currently, excellent squirrel hunting habitat exists, but we’re working on habitat improvement for both rabbit and quail populations. This is an area small-game hunters can expect to develop into a very good resource.”
Terry Madewell of Ridgeway has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.