Today, it seems that a few hens might be collected during the late overlap of marsh hen and duck seasons, when an unknowing hen wanders across a duck blind, but that's about the extent of effort put into it. Most hunters get their early season fix hunting teal on the water or chasing deer inland. At the same time, many fishermen are gearing up for some action-packed fishing for fall redfish and specked trout.
So put together an old sport in need of a boost and a rapidly emerging market of plastic-boat paddlers looking for action. The end result is a very sporting approach to both hunting and kayaking. Hunting marsh hens from a kayak is like looking for a needle in a haystack, except needles aren't very good at playing hide and seek and marsh hens are professionals at it.
So is Mike Eady.
Talk about a charmed life; Eady spends his nights as a manager at a Hooters in Myrtle Beach and his days as a kayak fishing guide with Black River Outdoors Center (843-546-4840) in Pawley's Island. Having grown up in Georgetown County, Eady is no stranger to hunting marsh hens, but he only recently made the connection between the old sport and his newer passion.
"I think if more paddlers gave this a shot, they'd love it," Eady said. "You can go anywhere the birds can go during the flood tides. In fact, it's real easy to paddle over the top of them, because when you get close, they'll hide down in the grass mats, and sometimes try to swim away just under the water."
The season is typically split into two segments for marsh hens - including king, clapper, sora and Virginia rails - and common moorhens and purple gallinules. Season dates are Sept. 18-22 and Oct. 13 to Dec. 16. The first, early segment, is scheduled around the prevailing high tides.
"We try to plan the season dates when the tide is the highest during that early, 6-day season," said biologist Dean Harrigal, waterfowl coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "At that time of year, the water gets high from the flood tide, and the grass has generally stopped growing and may even be receding a bit. That leaves the marsh hens and rails exposed for those few hours between sunrise and sunset."
Although any expanse of marsh grass along the coast might hold ample marsh hen numbers, Eady prefers his old stomping grounds along the Sampit River in Georgetown. The area offers two prime areas: the old rice fields and dikes upstream from the International Paper Plant, and the edge waters downstream at the upper ends of Winyah Bay.
"The Georgetown County Parks and Recreation also recently completed a new water park right between those two areas," Eady said. "It's called the Carroll Campbell Marine Complex. It's a great new location, across the river from International (Paper), and it's right off of Highway 17 before it crosses the river."
Palmetto paddlers who hunt these waters should be aware that the daily bag limit for king and/or clapper rails is 15 birds per hunter, and the limit for and moorhens and/or purple gallinules is 15 birds per hunter. The daily limit for sora and/or Virginia rails is 25 birds per hunter. Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset, and waterfowl hunters must possess the appropriate hunting license, plus the required federal and state waterfowl stamps.
When it comes to waterfowl hunting, most ammunition manufacturers prefer to tout their product's extreme killing power far downrange. Steel shot has been an underdog since non-toxic loads hit the scene 20 years ago. Additionally, waterfowl markets were the prime targets when gun manufacturers developed the 3 ½-inch chamber for 12-gauge shotguns to get a compromise on the killing power of a 10-gauge with the popularity of the 12.
So which gauge and load is best for hunting marsh hens? Neither of the above.
"A lot of these birds won't fly 'til you get right on top of them," Eady said. "You practically have to hit them with the boat paddle to get them up. It's kind of like quail hunting; the birds aren't all that fast and pretty much go straight away once you get them up from where they're hiding."
Paddlers pursuing marsh hens could probably do worse than using a paddle as a weapon, but for the sake of the sport, shotguns are still preferred, and the preferred gauge and load is a 20-gauge scattergun packing non-toxic shot in little bitty sizes.
Recognizing the increasing demand for low-cost, non-toxic loads for upland, target and waterfowl shooting, Winchester re-engineered the way steel loads are built and perfected a new way to manufacture corrosion-resistant steel shot. The result was the 20-gauge Winchester Xpert Steel Game Load 2 ¾-inch, ¾-ounce No. 7 load. Featuring a muzzle velocity of 1325 fps in dove-sized loads, the steel load in an Improved Cylinder choke provides ample close range knock-down without completely demolishing the target.