Duck season is still in full swing, and woodcock season runs all month.
It is an understatement to say that most South Carolina bird hunters do not focus on woodcock, but hunters with dogs - especially transplanted Yankees - love them. Woodcock are a favorite of bird dogs because they are easy. Put your dogs in good woodcock cover, and they will find the birds. Woodcock are easy to smell, easy to point and flush, and easy to carry on a retrieve.
Yep, they are easy for the dog, but they are tough for the hunter. A woodcock's habit of flying in curly, corkscrew patterns through heavy brush makes the boss miss plenty of times, and dogs love that moment when they look around after a perfect flush, cock their heads to the side and appear to say, "What happened boss? I did my job; what about you?"
The attributes that make woodcock easy for dogs make them difficult for hunters who don't have dogs. When pursued, woodcock stay where they are, and hardly ever flush. A lone hunter without a dog, walking in woodcock cover, might pass any number of birds and never see or flush a single woodcock unless he accidentally trips over one.
Biologist Billy Dukes, the small-game project coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, is the Palmetto State's woodcock expert, and he said there are some opportunities for hunting this wily flier.
"In South Carolina, we have a very good, albeit patchily distributed, wintering population of woodcock ranging through the piedmont to the coast," Dukes said, pointing hunters looking for concentrations of birds to bottomlands associated with major rivers and their tributaries.
Whereas the best Northern woodcock coverts frequently are alder and poplar stands, South Carolina hunters should look for cane and privet growths indicative of the type of soil and moisture content attractive to migrating woodcock.
Based on research from the mid-1980s, the heaviest arrivals of woodcock historically are in mid-January, possibly a little earlier in the piedmont, but as Dukes and experienced woodcock hunters know, it depends - when they get here, they get here.
Woodcock live in soft, damp areas where earthworms and other edible morsels thrive, and unlike dogs and people who do not soil the area where they sleep and eat, woodcock don't seem to mind dropping their chalk-like excrement throughout their dining area.
Then, after eating, they laze around these honey holes, resting until they get hungry again.
Find soft bottomlands strewn with chalk-white droppings, and you have found woodcock.
Any good dog that passes downwind of one of these woodcock feeding areas will spin around instantly and investigate. If some person or thing has not pushed them away, there is a good chance a woodcock will still be there.
Woodcock are small birds, sporting amazingly effective camouflage, and they have learned that the chances of avoiding an early death are greater when they hunker down and hide rather than run or fly away.
When pointers, setters or any of the versatile breeds flash by these little birds and catch a whiff of scent with their highly refined noses, they normally freeze on a solid point, with little repositioning necessary. With a pointing dog, even a fairly big-running one, there is normally plenty of time to find the dog and get the shot.
When flushing dogs cross downwind of a woodcock, the reaction is just as immediate, but the follow-up scenes are very different. When a spaniel crosses the scent, the pace and tail action quickens dramatically, signaling that a flush is coming. The dog frantically bounds back and forth across the bird scent, homing in on the source, which is quivering on the ground hoping the whirling dervish will somehow whirl away.
The show normally lasts a few seconds, usually plenty of time for the hunter to get ready for a shot, and it ends when the dog finally locates the hiding bird, lunges with his teeth bared and the bird frantically flushes skyward.
Woodcock hunters who scour their coveted secret coverts are a little unusual, not motivated by hunger, large limits or oversized quarry, but rather by the love of watching good dogs work in the woods.
When it comes to January ducks, hunters within driving range of the Lowcountry's ACE Basin have expansive wetlands to ply their trade, but ACE Basin ducks are scarce most of the time unless you have access to one of the private plantations or are drawn for one of the state-sponsored public hunts.
Dean Harrigal, waterfowl program coordinator for the SCDNR, explained why.
"There just isn't much food in the tidal marshes for ducks to eat," Harrigal said. "On the other hand, private plantations and some state WMAs go to great lengths to attract and hold wild ducks."
Yes, there are actually plenty of ducks in the ACE Basin, but the average Joe who doesn't have connections needs to work pretty hard to find them, or he has to get lucky.
Jay Lovell is among those average Joes who ply the legally accessible portions of these coastal waters and make the most of what is there - which was not much last year due to low water and the absence of cold weather up north.
But he has high hopes for this year since early season activity and current scouting has been strong, and there has been cold weather up north.
Lovell and his friends generally hunt in the tidal zone, most of the time staying upstream of the brackish water, in freshwater, and using the higher portions of the tide to access old, abandoned rice-growing areas.
Tides come into play mostly as a factor limiting boat access: When the water is too low, hunters can't get into the old rice plantations or flooded marshes, and are limited to the main streams.
With water depths ranging from mud to 10 feet at different stages of the tide, Lovell deploys a sizable decoy spread that might include bluebills, a few pintails mostly as confidence decoys, some redheads, a few mallards and some black ducks, along with an assortment of five motion decoys when water depth allows access to the abandoned rice fields.
When shooting the rivers proper, he uses fewer decoys and often including wood ducks in the spread.
In the January season, many hunters leave the whirling-wing decoys at home, but Lovell uses them until he notices the birds flaring away.
In all public areas of the ACE Basin, hunters are restricted from walking above the mean high-water line, which essentially means you can't hunt out of the boat in the ACE Basin. The pluff mud would suck you in if you try to stand in the inter-tidal zone where it would be legal, but it is illegal to stand on firm ground on one of the dikes separating public navigable water from the privately owned rice fields and plantations.
About two dozen Category II WMAs are available for duck hunting, generally on Wednesdays and/or Saturday mornings during the regular duck season, and some of them can be productive.
A list and descriptions of areas can be found at www.dnr.sc.gov under "Migratory Bird Regulations."
"Hunters frequently ask me the location of honey holes for ducks that other people don't know about," Harrigal said. "Well, with an estimated 20,000 duck hunters in South Carolina, if there are ducks using an area, there will be hunters trying to shoot them."
There really are no undiscovered honey holes, but there are under-utilized areas where energetic hunters can find a few ducks to shot. River flowages, creeks and beaver ponds are productive small waters where a limit of three wood ducks would make a fine day's bag.
Harrigal mentioned the Wateree and Santee systems, plus rice fields accessed through broken dikes along the Cooper River.
"With the state as dry as it has been, scouting is everything, and finding water is the key," he said. "If you find fresh water, you are probably going to find birds."
Hunting woodcock and ducks begins with a hunt for water. Find beaver ponds, flowing streams or impoundments with food and cover, and you find ducks. Find moist - but not wet - river and stream bottoms with cane and you may find woodcock.
January hunting is not easy, but it can be rewarding.
WHEN TO GO - The late duck season runs from Dec. 8 through Jan. 27. Legal shooting hours begin 30 minutes before sunrise and last until sunset, with a daily bag limit of six ducks in total. Species specific bag limits are available at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/. Woodcock season runs from Dec. 18 through Jan. 31 with a daily bag limit of three birds.
HOW TO GET THERE - Hunters preparing for action in the ACE Basin need to make scouting trips in the daytime before hunting days. Finding a hunting spot in the dark is next to impossible without a plan. Finding secret duck potholes and woodcock cover requires scouting. Few people will tell you their spots.
EQUIPMENT - A bird dog is a great place to start for woodcock hunting; any traditional pointing breed will do. Pointing/flushing dogs such as Springer spaniels will also do an excellent job. Woodcocks are not difficult birds to kill, but they are difficult to hit. Most flushes will be at close range, so a shotgun with an open choke, such as improved cylinder, is preferred. For ducks, non-toxic shot is required, and most waterfowl hunters go with heavier gauges with modified to full chokes. Decoy spreads are vital, and they vary according to location and species targeted.
MAPS - Top Spot waterproof map N233, showing details on much of the ACE Basin, is available from local tackle shops. The ACE Basin Project map is available on line or from SCDNR at 843-844-8957.