Only a few weeks earlier, I had poured over past Wildlife Management Area (WMA) hunt results and upcoming season dates in deciding what dates to select on my application. But because I always select "any date" on the application, I might get a date at the opposite end of the season on a WMA that was not one of my top choices - or I might get my first pick.
As I tore into the envelope, I had the same feeling of anticipation, wondering whether Grandma had put a $10 or $20 bill in my card. The hunt I got was not my first choice of WMA and date, but at the same time, it wasn't a rejection letter, either. I had been drawn to hunt Cedar Island at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA on the next-to-last hunt of the season.
I routinely pick the last hunts of the season on any WMA I choose. The reason is not the challenge of late-season ducks; instead, I play the odds that the weather will be cold.
My penchant for cold weather is not the pie-in-the-sky notion that more ducks will show up. I just prefer to hunt when it is cold. Sometimes there has been ice, but other times, it's been short-sleeves and mosquitoes.
As my hunt approached, the weather looked ominous. The forecast was for a down-the-back-of-the-neck rain and fog.
By the time I paddled to the the blind I had drawn, I didn't know if I was wet from perspiration or the weather seeping through my well-worn hunting coat.
The blind was on a peninsula in a marsh pothole, but the wind was entirely wrong. I ditched the boat at the blind and did a quick, pre-dawn surveillance for other possible hiding spots close by.
About 20 yards behind the blind, a pocket of calm water was littered with floating pieces of spikerush, a clear indication that ducks or coots had been feeding. As I put out my seven decoys - a pair of wigeon, a pair of blue-winged teal and three pintails (two drakes surrounding one hen), I hoped it was ducks and not coots.
A pair of ring-necked ducks came in and left before shooting time - a good sign. Later, I whiffed on a drake wigeon before downing one and and a nice bull pintail. Another drake wigeon and a green-winged teal fell before my hunt was over. All morning, I was kept alert by decoying pintails.
I didn't get a limit, and that's fine, but my hunt was better than most had that morning. We all take pride in our waterfowling, but I don't attribute my success that day to being a superior hunter or good shot. Rather, I feel it comes from doing a few little things, many of which are shared by another veteran WMA duck hunter.
"It only takes one season to see the whole cross-section of duck hunters," said Bill Mace, a wildlife technician for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) who has seen all kinds in his 31 years of carrying hunters out to the marsh. "You never know who is coming through that door each morning."
Mace said, all things being equal, it is fairly easy to predict which hunters are going to kill some ducks.
"Some folks show up here like they just walked out of a Cabela's or Orvis catalog," he said. "This might be their only duck hunt all year, and that's fine, but all they know is what they've read or seen others do on television or a hunting video, which usually doesn't apply on our hunts. Others, you can tell they have spent some time in the marsh."
Because of the gamut of 1,000-plus duck hunters that are drawn each season to hunt on WMAs that support lottery duck hunts, Mace offered several suggestions to help make your hunt the best it can be - based on his experience working WMA hunts and hunting WMAs himself. While each area is different, many are similar enough that each tip could apply.
"The first thing hunters should do when they arrive for their hunt is listen," Mace said. "The local WMA personnel working the hunt have first-hand knowledge of what has been occurring, how the birds are behaving and what seems to be working the best for killing some ducks, because they work on the area and see what's happening.
"You don't have to take all of our suggestions, but if someone recommends initially setting up 20 yards from a blind in a particular clump of grass when they are dropping you off at your blind, you can bet that is good information.
"Unless we think otherwise, we always suggest that hunters start in the blind. All SCDNR personnel try to rotate their blinds to reduce pressure, because they want to see everyone have a good hunt, whether it is early or late in the season.
"Most of the time, the blind is going to be fine for a good hunt. However, some times the wind, or something, isn't quite right, and in those cases, we let the hunters know that they have the option to move a short distance to improve their chances."
Mace said hunters could do a lot to improve their hunts before they even step into the marsh. He said that because so much preparation for your hunt begins in the dark, having a good flashlight is imperative.
"A bright light is important," Mace said, "because you have to follow stakes marked with reflective tape to get to a blind. If it's raining or foggy and you have flashlight with low batteries, you are going to have a hard time. Once you get behind, you begin to rush, and then someone slips and falls in, which is not a good way to start a hunt."
You don't need to bring a 10-million candlepower spotlight, but a good 2- or 3-cell flashlight is suitable. More recently, small-profile headlamps have become popular for hands-free operation.
I wouldn't venture into in any WMA marsh without a good set of chest waders. If it's rainy, they offer extra protection against the elements, and the extra couple of inches over hip boots are good insurance if you inadvertently stumble into a hole or ditch.
"When I see someone show up for a hunt with hip boots or knee boots," Mace said, "it's a good bet they will come back wet."
Another piece of equipment that Mace recommends is a face mask.
"When we go out for the first pickup of the morning, it is amazing to see how many hunters forget the basics of duck hunting," Mace said. "Long before hunters can see us coming, we will see them standing up in the blind with their white faces shining.
"If they are going to stand up and watch the ducks, a good face mask or face paint would really improve their odds. Even though they may see lots of ducks flying around, many people seem to forget that these birds have been shot at for months before they get here. They are wary, even if it is an opening-day hunt here."
Both Mace and I try to be a minimalist when it comes to a WMA duck hunt. One way to do this is carry only a few decoys. This keeps you flexible in case you need to move, but it is also more natural.
"We have hunters show up with a decoy bag bigger than Santa Claus's," Mace said. "I've found you don't need that many decoys. I rarely carry more than a dozen decoys when I'm chosen for a WMA hunt. When you need to move it, is easier if you have only a few decoys to pick up.
"If you watch the birds, you don't see giant flocks of ducks sitting on the water. What you normally see is scattered bunches that collectively look like a lot of ducks at first glance. By bringing only a few decoys and placing them in small bunches, you are mimicking what is naturally occurring."
Because mallards are widespread across the country, almost every duck hunter has mallard decoys. Ducks get used to seeing spreads of mallard decoys and avoid them like the plague.
I prefer decoys that ducks don't routinely see and have a fair amount of white on them. On coastal WMAs where mallards are rarity, I opt for pintails, wigeon and sometimes blue- or green-winged teal. Any of the nearly two-dozen species of waterfowl found in South Carolina will decoy to these species, including wary black ducks and mottled ducks.
In addition to decoys, the other piece of equipment where I buck the trend is a duck call. It's something that Mace has found most hunters should swallow, too.
"I once had a fellow come up to me when we got off of the boat and said he left his duck call back in his truck," Mace said. "The guy was panicky and afraid he was going to have a bad hunt. He wanted to know if I had one I could lend him, which I didn't. I told him not to worry, because he was probably better off without one. He ended up having a great hunt.
"There are several reasons why you don't need a call. Most hunters show up with a mallard call. On most of our WMAs, there aren't many ducks that quack. Most whistle or make calls other than what comes out of a mallard call. Most hunters blow a call too much anyway, and some not that well either.
"Again, remember, by the time a duck has gotten to South Carolina, it's heard nearly every duck call on the market.
"I recommend that hunters just leave them at home," Mace said. "If they want to bring a call, they are better off with a pintail or wigeon whistle instead."
Hunters selected for WMA lottery hunts are limited to 25 shells with the current 6-duck bag limit. The reason is so hunters pick their shots and avoid burning out a blind or area of marsh.
"The majority of WMAs around the state have a lot of ducks using them," Mace said. "A lot of times, even if you have a veteran hunter, people get excited at all of the birds flying at first light. Conse-quently, they don't pick their shots, and they just start shooting, often wasting a bunch of shells before finally scratching down a bird.
"It is best to remain in control and carefully pick your shots. Hunting pressure is limited on the WMAs in an attempt to ensure a good hunt with close-working birds. So, there is no reason to sky-bust on any WMA hunt. If there are birds around, you should have plenty of opportunity for good shots."
Once you start taking some birds, Mace recommended a few other things to make your hunt enjoyable.
"Any time someone gets out of the blind to walk around, it is a good idea to carry a boat paddle," he said. "No matter if you are hunting in the Piedmont or on the coast, the marsh has holes, and it is best to find and avoid them if possible.
"Along the coast, all of the impoundments have old ditches, and if you are not used to looking for them, you can fall in one at a moment's notice. It's always good to probe ahead of where you plan to walk with a paddle."
Many coastal WMAs have a lot of thick vegetation surrounding ponds. A downed bird in one of these patches of vegetation can be a chore to find.
"Having a good dog is an asset," Mace said. "I would only recommend bringing a dog that is well trained and under control. Otherwise, you might spend all of your time disciplining the dog and less time hunting.
"If you have a cripple or a bird that falls into a piece of thick vegetation, a good dog can save you time looking for it. Not only does this prevent a lost bird, but you also spend more time hunting rather than bent over searching for dead duck."
One word of caution is to be mindful of alligators. All coastal WMAs support alligator populations. Under normal weather conditions, alligators have usually quit eating by the time duck season rolls around.
Dogs are most at risk along the deeper ditches on the perimeter of impoundments or deep ditches that cut through the marsh. There could be alligators in the shallow ponds near blinds, but more than likely, they are in deeper areas. If there is any doubt about alligator activity, call ahead to the WMA where you will be hunting or leave Fido at home.
Hunters will rarely get drawn for a lottery duck hunt more than about once every other season. That's infrequent enough to make each WMA hunt special. So pay attention to the details, and hopefully you will get the most out of your next WMA duck hunt.