I like to hunt deer, too, but I prefer it during colder weather. I would much rather be in a tree stand bundled in camouflage that weighs more than a Kleenex. Unfortunately, the cold weather usually arrives about the time the deer season closes.
Duck hunting partly fills the cold-weather urge, but there are times when I'd like to be hunting without wearing chest waders, too. Since deer are out, this means small game.
Quail are about as abundant as Lowcountry snowflakes, so forget them. I don't own any beagles, so all that's left are late-season squirrel hunts. That works, but it sure would be nice if there were some other hunting opportunities to stretch the time until spring turkey season opens.
Well, now there is, and it is not something you can do many other places.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has for years allowed wild hogs to be hunted on wildlife management areas (WMAs), mostly during deer seasons. Often there was no bag limit. The sentiment was, kill all you could.
Hogs are an introduced species that are detrimental to wildlife habitat. Their rooting causes tremendous damage to roads and coastal impoundment dikes as well as destruction to native flora. The objective of WMA managers was to eliminate the hogs.
Hunters tried to do their part during limited opportunities in the fall, but the hogs persisted. The hog population on a given WMA might get knocked backed for a few years, but like a dreaded zit before prom night, they'd reappear, seemingly overnight and with a vengeance.
The hogs' ability to rebound so quickly is aided by several factors. They are nomadic by nature and will move some distance in response to food and hunting pressure. Further, they are prolific breeders.
Sows can begin breeding at 6 months of age and can have up to two litters per year, with an average of four to six piglets, but as many as 10 to 12 are possible when food is abundant. It doesn't take them long to repopulate an area.
This boom-or-bust cycle has continued, offering little relief to WMA land managers. However, the increase in white-tail deer populations has provided an additional chance to kill more hogs.
Historically, some SCDNR personnel were leery of providing additional hog-hunting seasons on WMAs after the deer season had closed for fear that hunters might attempt to illegally take deer at a time when deer populations were in recovery mode.
Well, deer have recovered, and the enforcement problem has subsided. As a result, several WMAs have been opened to hog hunting after the close of deer season.
Some of the first special WMA hog hunts were held during late winter, and hunters were limited to using catch dogs and handguns. These hunts occurred at places such as Donnelley, Webb Center and Santee Coastal Reserve WMAs, and they were usually held on an as-needed basis.
These dog hunts for hogs are commonplace today, but still hunters have gotten in on the game. This is great for hunters who don't have dogs or don't know anyone who does - the latter being a very specialized and limited group.
Most of special late-season hog hunts on WMAs are in Game Zones 4, 5 and 6, all in the coastal plain.
Late-season hog hunts for still hunters in Game Zone 4 are available on Little Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve (HP) complex and Marsh and Woodbury WMAs.
"There is a special late-season hog hunt using dogs first on Little Pee Dee HP," said Jamie Dozier, an SCDNR wildlife biologist who until recently oversaw management of several upper coastal HPs. "After the dog hunts, still hunters have several days over two weekends to hunt hogs."
For hunters not familiar with Little Pee Dee HP complex, it would be wise to consult a map, since the area is broken up in several tracts.
"Little Pee Dee HP consists of seven different tracts of land in Horry and Marion counties along the Little Pee Dee River," Dozier said. "Not all of the tracts have hogs.
"The best parcel for hogs is the Grant Tract. As properties with the complex have been acquired, some of the tract names may have changed as parcels were consolidated. Another name for the Grant Tract is the Ward Tract."
No matter what you call it, Dozier said the Grant Tract is the parcel of land within the complex immediately north of Hwy. 501 outside of Gallivants Ferry on the Marion County side of the river.
"There is a real concentration of hogs on the Grant Tract," Dozier said, "but how accessible they are depends on the river stage.
"When the river is low, the hogs are spread out in the river swamp. When the river comes up, it pushes a lot of the hogs up onto the sand hills."
On still hunts for hogs at Little Pee Dee HP, no restrictions exist except that hunters can't use buckshot or dogs.
"Most hunters sit in tree stands at first light," Dozier said, "and then they spend the rest of the day trying to walk up or stalk hogs."
The still hunts at Little Pee Dee HP are March 6-15.
The 8,560-acre Marsh WMA is in Marion County where Hwy. 378 crosses the Great Pee Dee River.
"The late-season special gun hunts on Marsh WMA are during the first two weeks of March," said Sammy Stokes, SCDNR Region 2 wildlife regional coordinator. "We also have the same hunt at the same time on Woodbury WMA, which is 25,668 acres and located downriver of Marsh WMA at the confluence of the Great and Little Pee Dee rivers. The only difference is there a special hog hunt with dogs on Woodbury prior to the still gun hunts.
"On both Marsh and Woodbury WMAs, no dogs or buckshot are permitted. Both properties are very large and encompass a large amount of river swamp. I would suggest that hunters spend their time in areas relatively near the river on both properties.
"If I've recently been on the properties, I might be able to give hunters some insight of where I've seen hogs. However, my best advice is for them to do some scouting beforehand.
"Hogs don't have home ranges like deer, and their movements are dictated by food availability. They may not be in a particular area over an extended period of time."
Moving into Game Zone 5, Stokes said Great Pee Dee HP (2,725 acres) in Darlington County offers a still hunt using guns - similar to that held on Marsh and Woodbury WMAs - from Feb. 4-16. His advice for hunting Great Pee Dee HP was the same as the other areas; look for pigs down near the river.
"Santee Dam WMA offers one of the most liberal late-season hog hunts," said Buddy Baker, SCDNR Region 3 wildlife regional coordinator. "Hunters can go after hogs on the WMA from Sept. 1-March 1 with archery equipment and Sept. 15-March 1 with muzzleloaders."
It's a little bit involved to hunt Santee Dam WMA. The 575-acre tract is located in Clarendon County below Wilson Dam, which holds back Lake Marion. Access is by boat only. Fortunately, the closest boat landing is across the river on the Berkeley County side. It is called Wilson's Landing, and it is located at the end of S.R. 31 outside of Eadytown.
Two other WMAs in Game Zone 5 that offer late-season still hunts are Santee Delta and Samworth in Georgetown County. Both of these WMAs are primarily waterfowl areas, but they offer hunts to reduce the damage from hogs to the impoundments.
Hunts are a little more restrictive than on other WMAs. Hogs may be hunted only from elevated stands with shotgun loaded with slugs or muzzleloaders. No buckshot is permitted.
Santee Delta WMA covers 1,722 acres between the North and South Santee rivers. It is split nearly in half by U.S. 17. Samworth WMA cover 1,588 acres, with most of the property in the river delta between the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers. Hog hunting on Samworth is limited only to the impoundments and not the mainland portion of the property.
The 2008 late-season still hunts on Santee Delta WMA are March 19-21. Hunts at Samworth are March 6-8 and 27-29.
The late-season still hog hunts in Game Zone 6 are concentrated on three WMAs in the lower portion of the game zone. Hamilton Ridge, Webb and Palachucola WMAs in Hampton and Jasper counties all have late-season hog hunts that differ slightly from the hunts elsewhere in the state.
The hunts on all three areas are March 20-22 and May 8-10. That is not a mistake. Hunters can hunt hogs on these WMAs after spring turkey season.
The other thing different is these hunts are listed as still-and-stalk hunts with both firearms and archery equipment permitted, but no buckshot. Hunters can hunt from elevated stands, if they choose, and with the exception of Santee Dam, these are the only other WMAs where archery equipment is permitted during the late-season hunts.
"Hamilton Ridge WMA is by far the best area," said Jay Cantrell, SCDNR wildlife biologist who manages all three WMAs. "Webb has some hogs, but they aren't as prolific, seem to be more scattered and seasonal in their use of the area. Palachucola has virtually no hogs, but I'm not complaining."
Cantrell attributes the difference primarily to habitat. He said Hamilton Ridge and Webb have much more river floodplane, more wildlife openings and fields and more naturally regenerating clearcuts than on Palachucola.
"The few hogs we see on Palachucola are in the hardwood areas off of Hwy. 119 and south of Webb Road near Indigo Vat, which is an oxbow lake near the Savannah River," Cantrell said. "Because all three areas are open at once, I wouldn't recommend hunters concentrating their efforts on Palachucola.
"Webb has some hogs," Cantrell said. "We seem to have just enough to be a nuisance in the spring when we are planting corn. That's when we see the most sign on the area, so the late-season hunts would be good times to come to Webb.
"A good place to look for hogs on Webb is along Boggy Branch, which forms the boundary between Webb and Hamilton Ridge. There is good access to this area off of Hamilton Ridge Road on Webb."
Cantrell also recommended that hunters look for hogs in the river swamp of Webb WMA. He said the best location seems to be the bottomland hardwoods south of Bluff Lake, with the Savannah River nature trail, which begins just past Bluff Lake, providing good walk-in access to the area.
"A lot of hunters are drawn to wildlife openings," Cantrell said. "These areas can be very hit-or-miss. We see damage in these spots, and hunters can call ahead or check with staff once they arrive to determine if we have seen any fresh sign around any wildlife openings or fields."
Cantrell said Webb WMA is worth hunting for hogs, but the real numbers are on Hamilton Ridge.
"Hamilton Ridge is a hog mecca," he said. "The area is infested with them. They can be found almost anywhere on the 13,281 acres.
"There are several thousand acres in the floodplain, with about eight miles of frontage on the Savannah River," Cantrell said. "Much of the floodplane was clear-cut by the previous owner, creating excellent hog habitat. The area is thick with regenerating vegetation, and many of the sloughs and drains have mature oaks that provide plenty of food."
Cantrell said two major creek drainages on Hamilton Ridge WMA are good spots to find hogs. Boggy Branch, the border between Webb and Hamilton Ridge, was mentioned for hunters starting on Webb WMA. Cantrell said Hamilton Ridge hunters could access Boggy Branch via Van Wirt, New Ground and River roads.
"Soloman Branch on the northern end of the Hamilton Ridge WMA is the other hog hotspot," Cantrell said. "Soloman, Rum Branch and Bragg roads all provide access to this area."
Cantrell had some other advice for hunters coming to one of these three WMAs.
"I recommend hunters spend some time scouting. We have a great network of roads for riding and walking.
"Call ahead and talk to us. We are out there a bunch and can give you a good idea where the hogs are located," Cantrell said. "We want to see them harvested, so we'll do our best to point hunters in the right direction."
Hunters interested in pursuing late-season hogs are urged to consult the 2007-08 SCDNR Rules and Regulations booklet.