The dashboard clock clicked over to 2 a.m. as a weary-eyed waterfowler exited onto the east-bound ramp of Interstate 26. “Hour and a half,” he thought as he eased his rig onto the road that would take him to South Carolina’s Lowcountry. This late in the season he had high hopes for some good shooting, even though it just didn’t seem like the ducks flew like they used to.
“Maybe today” was his prayer as continued his eastward trek. Palmetto State duck hunters may be familiar with this scenario, especially those who travel to the coastal region of the state from the midlands and western counties. There’s no doubt the coastal region is famous for its attraction to ducks, which at times can be plentiful. What many commuting hunters don’t realize is in the course of crossing the state, they’re driving by overlooked, under-utilized duck waters. South Carolina is blessed with an abundance of rivers and creeks that wind their way across the state. These waterways provide plenty of waterfowl resting and feeding grounds resident populations and those making more southerly migrations. The types of waterfowl likely to be encountered by S.C. river hunters include a mixed bag of mallards, wood ducks, mergansers and a host of other puddlers and divers, depending upon the time of season and size of the streams. Don’t rule out the possibility of slipping up on some of the state’s many resident Canada geese while hunting moving water. Equipment, locations, and strategies differ greatly from the standard duck hunting setup, but the results, especially as the weather gets cooler, can be exceptional. Equipment Hunters may target ducks at rivers and creeks by using several techniques. Floating or slowly paddling down a waterway in search of congregations of ducks is effective. If a hunter previously has identified a section of water that attracts waterfowl, then boating into that area and setting up also can be effective. Float hunting between setups offers the best of both worlds. Both scenarios require a boat. A small, flat-bottom stable boat is recommended. Boats for hunting moving water can vary from small johnboats to kayaks to specialized “sneak” boats. The common factor is any watercraft has to be capable of floating in shallow water. “Sometimes drought will cause rivers or smaller creeks to have areas that are only a few inches deep“ said veteran duck fanatic Tommy Price of Anderson. Price said skinny-water areas often lie upstream of a deeper quiet pools that hold ducks. “Few things will spook a flock of ducks quicker than having a boat grind to a halt on a shoal before the hunter can get into range,” he said. “I’d also recommend wearing a set of chest waders because there are times when you’ll have to get out of the boat to clear an obstruction or pull the boat over a logjam.” Not only must the craft be able to navigate shallow water but it also will need a low enough profile that one or two hunters can crouch down behind a piece of camouflage without arousing suspicion. Andy Williams, owner of Black River Marine in Orangeburg, has float hunted for river ducks since he was a teenager. Williams leans toward a smaller johnboat such as a 1436 for floating near ducks. “With all the stumps and log jams we have down here, a lesser boat won’t hold up to the abuse.” Williams said. The use of decoys varies when hunting moving water. Because of a johnboat’s or kayak’s limited storage space, three or four decoys will be all that’s necessary if decoys are used. It’s best to equip decoys with short anchor lines and heavier than average weights. Blind material differs. Floating a stream to get near ducks requires only the bow of the boat be used to conceal hunters. Duck calls, like decoys, should be used sparingly at small waters. Ducks seek out rivers and streams to rest. Calling can help persuade ducks passing high overhead to swing down for a closer look but calling while floating, with no decoys for the ducks to identify, is unnatural and can cause them to spook. Unless going to a specific spot, the use of a dog also may hurt when it comes to stealth. Dogs may get excited, whine or worse, make movements that will warn ducks the hidden hunter and Labrador coming near them isn’t just a big floating log. A dog also has difficulty exiting and reentering a small floating craft. January is no time to take a swim, even in shallow water. Shot loads and choke patterns should accommodate quick and relatively close passing shots. Locations South Carolina’s best float-hunting waters will be small enough that ducks winging up or down the waterway will be within range of a floating hunter. Wider rivers and creeks may not have enough water flow to keep the floater progressively moving downstream. Streams also should have an easily accessible “put-in” and “take-out” locations. A stretch of curvy water between bridges makes for an ideal float trip. Another potential spot is the upstream stretch of a tributary emptying into a lake or reservoir. Delta areas of larger bodies of water offer some good “ducky” water and floating into these areas later in the day can help a water wing-shooter fill his daily limit of quackers. Hunters should allow plenty of time to complete a float. Two points on a map may only be a mile or so apart by road but may require more time to navigate their twists and turns, not to mention obstructions that must be portaged. Good water to check out for S.C. float trips include the Saluda River, beginning along the Greenville/Pickens border until it ends at Lake Greenwood. The Reedy River upstream of Greenwood is another likely choice. At the other side of the state, stretches of the Broad and Wateree rivers north of Columbia provide good float hunting. Hunters looking to float hunt south of Columbia should try the swift upper reaches of the Edisto, Combahee/Salkahatchee, Great and Little Pee Dee rivers, plus the Lynches River. These waters fan out into slower wider streams as they wind eastward and may lend themselves to more conventional duck hunting than floating. “The further up a river you can start the better,“ said Williams, who favors floating through flooded hardwood flats. Williams said acorns dropping into shallow water will draw numbers of wood ducks and mallards. Variations in stream flow may spell the difference some years whether a hunter should float or set up. Many lesser-known rivers and streams can offer fantastic hunting for a hunter willing to give them a try. Waters that are navigable by boat are generally considered to be public waters. Adjacent landowners have may have ownership of the shoreline and possibly the stream bed, so hunters who stay in a boat can avoid trespassing. Check with local authorities before hunting a stretch of water to make sure passages are permitted. Strategies Float hunting means launching at an upstream location and taking out downstream. Doing this most effectively requires two hunters and two vehicles. One hunter can float a stretch but will need to arrange for pickup or paddle back upstream. With the growing use of kayaks or sneak boats for duck hunting, two hunters can hunt from separate boats in tandem. With two boats, a leap-frog approach can be used with boats alternating at “taking the point.” Hunters interested in float hunting need to concentrate at winding stretches of rivers or streams. Ducks rest and raft in the slack waters created behind points and bars. The curvature of a stream often allows hunters to float within gun range before coming within sight of the birds. “Hunters need to remain as quiet as possible and learn to scull a boat quietly to get into position,” Williams said. “Hunters who make noise will see a lot of ducks but will have trouble getting close enough for a shot.” Two boats also allow hunters to stretch the width of the waterway hunted with their crafts hugging the shorelines in order to flush ducks that may hold behind a blowdown or logjam on a straight stretch of river. Hunters need to keep each other in sight in order to establish “no-shoot” zones for the sake of safety. Another tactic is to have the lead boat “run and gun” with the trailing boat lagging back 80 to 100 yards. Many times jumped ducks will swing back around and offer a passing shot for a hunter in a trailing boat. Another option when ducks are spooked too far in advance of the boat is to deploy decoys and wait for the flock to regroup. “Pull the boat up behind a point, sand bar or blowdown that will afford some camouflage and hold tight.” Price said. “Give the ducks at least 15 or 20 minutes to return to the area. Spend that time listening intently for the sound of ducks landing up or downstream of the location or a hen calling out to the flock.” Savvy callers sometimes can convince a flock to regroup at their decoy spread. Also be prepared for ducks to swim back to the location rather than fly. Wood ducks, which will make up a majority of the species targeted by float hunting, are notorious for sneaking back into a flock with the stealth of a wild turkey. If none of the flock returns to your location, make note of the spot for future trips and resume your float downstream. Ice Water Float hunting or setting up at moving water are effective techniques throughout the season but really shine when cold temperatures cause local still waters to freeze. In years past, the timing of cold weather has often coincided with migrations of ducks from up north arriving at the area. With no still water to land in, these ducks will key at quiet pools of river stretches that don’t freeze. It may even be worthwhile to set up at likely looking spots and plan to extend the float to an all-day outing, giving each hole a good 20 to 30 minutes and even throwing in a some hail calls after setting up if a spot looks good. Float hunting or just setting up at a favorite moving water location offers S.C. duck hunters opportunities often overlooked by other hunters. Floating rivers and streams gives the duck hunter a constantly changing view and appeals to attention-deficit hunters who have trouble sticking with a blind once the sun gets up. In fact, river locations may have more appeal to ducks later in the day after daybreak feeding periods have ended and it’s time to look for resting areas.