Charles Ruth, the supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' deer and turkey programs, phrased it simply and succinctly. While primarily discussing deer resources on WMAs, he added that his statement encompassed all other game species as well.
"There is a vast acreage of land in the WMA system available to hunters," Ruth said. "With the huge tracts of land in the
Sumter National Forest and the Francis Marion National Forest, along with the many, diverse smaller WMA tracts of all shapes and sizes scattered throughout the state, hunters in South Carolina have a great resource. With a little legwork and effort, hunters can enjoy prime hunting throughout the state for multiple species of game. And with that effort, they can literally enjoy hunting at a level close to that found on private lands - perhaps not quite the same, but close enough to offer excellent opportunities to be highly successful."
With inputs from Ruth on deer, small-game biologist Billy Dukes on squirrels, rabbits, quail and doves, and waterfowl biologist Dean Harrigal on ducks and geese, here's a look at some of the very best WMA opportunities for the 2011-2012 seasons.
Best bet: Sumter National Forest
According to Ruth, the big-ticket hunting area is the Sumter National Forest, which is comprised of three separate areas located in the Upstate as well as Piedmont areas, but there are differences in hunting success rates.
"In the Mountain Hunt Unit in the Upstate, the data on deer harvested per square mile in the Sumter National Forest is not as high as found in the central and western Piedmont areas," Ruth said. "However, that does not mean hunters cannot be successful here, and also I see some very positive intangible benefits from hunting the mountains. With appropriate effort, which is required anywhere you hunt deer, hunters can be successful. Plus they have the opportunity to enjoy a type of hunting unlike any other place in the state. The mountain area can be rugged, but it offers a unique big woods environment, which can be a great pleasure to hunt."
Best bets: Sumter National Forest, Crackerneck WMA, Woodbury WMA
Ruth again tabbed the obvious choice, the Sumter National Forest, as a prime place to hunt deer on public land.
"The harvest per unit area (last season) in the central Piedmont was 13.4 deer per square mile, and in the western Piedmont it was 10.6 deer per square mile," Ruth said. "These numbers are outstanding and are comparable to what is considered very good hunting on private lands in other southeastern states and on surrounding private property in our state.
"Again, hunters will get out of it what they put into it, and with legwork and map study, success is a high probability.
"The only downside is that while some trophy animals are harvested each year from these large WMAs, the basic mentality of deer hunters on bucks on WMAs is that if they don't shoot it, the next hunter will. So without the quality deer management control, the odds of a trophy are perhaps less than on private land, but the overall success rate is excellent."
Ruth also named the Crackerneck WMA and the Woodbury WMA as excellent deer-hunting possibilities.
"In both areas, the opportunity to harvest hogs as well as deer is very good, so an opportunity to shoot is very good," he said. "Plus, there are antler restrictions on these areas, and that will give public-land hunters a better opportunity to see larger bucks if that is their goal."
Best bets: Francis Marion National Forest, Webb WMA, Hamilton Ridge WMA, Donnelley WMA, Bear Island WMA,Bonneau WMA
"The Francis Marion National Forest is the obvious choice here," Ruth said. "The harvest numbers are not as high as the Piedmont, but deer are harvested here, and again, those hunters who put forth the effort are usually rewarded," he said. "Of this large area, the data suggests that the Waterhorn Unit provides the best success."
Ruth added that throughout the state, but perhaps especially in the lower portion of the state, much of the best WMA deer hunting is by draw hunt.
"I know we're thinking about deer harvest in 2011 now, but some of the very best areas such as Webb, Hamilton Ridge, Donnelley, Bear Island, Bonneau and other WMAs are hunted via a draw hunt process that takes place earlier in the year. I'd advise hunters to begin planning for those areas for next year, since the applications are usually out by July each year. There are truly some amazing hunting opportunities available, and I recommend hunters go on the (SC) DNR website and get involved in the draw process for 2012."
According to biologist Billy Dukes of SCDNR, small game abounds on many different WMA's throughout the state. Dukes said squirrels, rabbits and even quail are found in reasonably good numbers.
"The key to any of those species is habitat," Dukes said. "For squirrels, look for heavily-forested areas and seek out the hardwood bottoms and swamps.
"For rabbits and quail, look for areas that a more open and interspersed with fields are areas that have been cut have new growth on them. Rabbits and quail do better where there's more diverse habitat with the edge effect. The key will be for the hunters to check out individual areas to find the right habitat."
Best bets: Sumter National Forest, Enoree WMA, Tyger River WMA
"The Sumter National Forest, all sections, produces varying degrees of good habitat for all of these species," Dukes said. "For squirrels, there will be a great amount of habitat in these areas, especially the hardwood bottoms. In areas that have been cleared recently, there will be good numbers of rabbits and quail. Check the areas out personally and find hotspots for each species."
Also, Dukes said, the Enoree and Tyger River WMA's have a good diversity of habitat for small game.
Best bets: Pee Dee WMA, Woodbury WMA, Longleaf Pine Heritage Preserve WMA.
"In the Pee Dee area, for a diversity of small-game hunting, I'd consider the Pee Dee WMA in Florence County and the Woodbury WMA in Marion counties as excellent choices," Dukes said. "In addition, the Longleaf Pine Heritage Preserve Wildlife Management Area in Lee County is another good selection."
Best bets: Francis Marion National Forest, Webb WMA, Hamilton Ridge WMA, Palachucola WMA
In the southern part of the state, the top area that stands out, according to Dukes, is the Francis Marion National Forest.
"First, this place is huge and has a diversity of habitat," he said. "The area is actively managed, so there are a lot of openings and timber-harvest thinnings in the area. Plus, there are prescribed fires conducted here. This is of great benefit to several species, such as quail, and (it) keeps areas open that makes great rabbit habitat as well. Of course, get into deep swamps and hardwood areas and you'll find plenty of squirrels."
Dukes said it is hard to single out too many areas, but there are others that are in close proximity that also provide great small-game hunting: the Webb, Hamilton Ridge and Palachucola WMAs, all located in Hampton County.
"These areas are all actively managed and provide excellent hunting opportunities for a wide variety of small-game species."
According to Dean Harrigal, SCDNR's waterfowl biologist, public-hunting for ducks is as easy as "I" and "II". Essentially, there are two classes of waterfowl-hunting units; Class I and Class II. The SCDNR website specifically lists these areas and where they are located.
Harrigal said that the Category I areas encompass WMAs that are subject to a draw hunt in October, with applications usually available by mid-September, so it's not too late to apply now.
"These waterfowl areas have the best habitat and provide the most consistent hunting," he said. "They are the cream of the crop, and hunters are very likely to have a great hunt on any of these areas. If a hunter is drawn, it is about as close to a guided hunt into prime waterfowl habitat as you can get, without actually hiring a guide - and maybe even better, in many cases.
"These areas have a good variety of waterfowl species available, including wood ducks, teal, gadwall, ringers and others depending on the specific location. But overall, as it is statewide, the No. 1 duck harvested is the wood duck."
Harrigal said Category II sites do not have a draw-hunt quota and are open to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis.
"In the Category II areas, there is usually no one on our staff there, and hunters basically fend for themselves," he said. "However, these are still quality areas that we work and plant, so hunters can expect good hunting - but probably not as what would be expected on the draw hunts.
Best bets: Clemson Waterfowl Area, Beaverdam Creek Waterfowl Area. Enoree River Waterfowl Area, Lake Cunningham Waterfowl Area, Tyger River Waterfowl Area.
Harrigal said that in the Upstate, Clemson and Beaverdam Creek Waterfowl areas are two Class I Waterfowl WMAs; both will provide outstanding hunting, and you'll need to ensure you apply for the draw hunt.
"In the Category II areas in the Upstate, the Enoree River Waterfowl Area is an excellent option," said Harrigal, who pointed to Lake Cunningham Waterfowl Area in Greenville and the Tyger River Waterfowl Areas as others.
Best bets: Broad River Waterfowl Management Area, Marsh Waterfowl Area, Lancaster Reservoir Waterfowl Area, Little Pee Dee River Complex Waterfowl Area.
"In Fairfield County, there's the Category I site at the Broad River Waterfowl Management Area," Harrigal said. "That's an excellent choice for hunters in that area. In addition, in the Category II areas,
the Marsh Waterfowl area in Marion County is an excellent choice."
Harrigal also listed as good possibilities the Lancaster Reservoir Waterfowl Area in Lancaster County and the Little Pee Dee River Complex Waterfowl Area.
Best bets: Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee-Delta, Santee Cooper, Hickory Top Greentree WMA, Dungannon WMA, Moultrie WMA.
Harrigal said the best of the waterfowl hunting is to be found in the Lowcountry areas with several Category I sites, plus some excellent hunting on Category II sites.
"Some of the top areas for Category I include the Santee Coastal Reserve in Charleston County; the Santee-Delta in Georgetown County and the Santee Cooper area in Orangeburg County," Harrigal said.
"As for Category II areas, there are some really good ones here, with the Hickory Top Greentree area in Clarendon County being really good," he said. "Hunters had a banner year there in 2010. Also, the Dungannon area in Charleston County and Moultrie WMA in Berkeley County are excellent choices."
Best bets: Draper, Thurmond, Crackerneck, Pee Dee Station, Donnelly, Oak Lea, Canal Area.
According to Dukes, there are around 40 to 45 managed doves fields around South Carolina each year. All of them are managed for top quality hunting, he said.
"The vast majority of these prepared fields will offer good to exceptional dove hunting opportunities," he said. "DNR staff has an active hand in all of these fields, and we try to maximize the land for the dove resource. It is a very popular sport in our state.
"I would recommend anyone just going on our website and find the listing and any specific data regarding dates and times when the fields are open," Dukes said. "The odds are good you'll find excellent hunting. However, I can name a few in an all-inclusive summary that provide perhaps better than average hunting.
In the Upstate, Dukes said that the SCDNR's Draper tract in York County and the Thurmond Dove Field in Union Country are both excellent choices.
"In more of the (Midlands), the Crackerneck area in Aiken County and Pee Dee Station in Florence County are both very good," Dukes said. "In the lower part of the state, the Donnelly WMA in Colleton County is excellent, and the Oak Lea Area in Clarendon County is a huge field that provides outstanding shooting. Also, the Canal Area in Berkeley County is an exceptional site."
Overall, Dukes said to check the regulations digest for specific dates and times for dove hunts. He said the later seasons can produce excellent hunting and suggests either checking the area personally before going or calling the WMA contact listed on the SCDNR website for Public Dove Fields to get updated information on the amount of doves using the fields.
Dukes said that to summarize, for all species of game, it's imperative to check the rules and regulations for dates, times, limits and species available in 2011. Some changes may occur from year to year, so do not assume all WMA's will be the same as they were in 2010.
"There are also accurate maps on our website (www.dnr.sc.gov), and they are also available through our office," Dukes said. "Overall, 2011 looks to be a very good year to be a WMA hunter in South Carolina."