Many of those Atlantic Flyway ducks will pass right through South Carolina, but a large portion will make the Palmetto State their home for the winter. The Santee Cooper area is known to support high volumes of ducks, but recent reports from hunters include deliberate harassment of some of the large rafts of ducks on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie.
Specifically, hunters or boaters have been observed steering their boats directly into large rafts of ducks to take a closer look and drive the birds to neighboring hunters – or for some other unknown reasons.
Hunters may be unaware that the harassment of these wintering ducks – known as "rallying"– is extremely detrimental to the wintering flocks and can results in poor hunting for all. It's also illegal.
South Carolina almost always ranks among the top three states for duck harvest on the Atlantic Flyway, and the Santee Cooper lakes cover 170,000 acres – 14 percent of South Carolina's total surface-water area, offering migratory waterfowl critical resting and feeding areas along their migratory route.
"The wintering grounds are a critical phase of their lifecycle," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Station, who monitors the Atlantic Flyway states of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. "They depend on these areas with abundant food and little or no disturbance.
"Disturbance forces ducks to expend an unnecessary amount of energy."
Ducks forced to flee from boaters intent on "rallying" them will search for new places to feed and rest.
"We have studied migratory birds long enough to understand that birds have traditions," Station said. "They have found wintering grounds over the years to their liking with consistent good quality habitat and light disturbance. Continual harassment of birds on these wintering grounds over a season or a couple of seasons will force these birds elsewhere, and they will never come back.
"Birds respond to a dynamic environment, and will utilize the entire flyway to their advantage, abandoning these highly-disturbed areas."
Clark McCrary of Columbia has hunted the Santee Cooper lakes and the Cooper River for nearly 20 years. The comeback of prime habitat and the return of ducks into the area have kept this seasoned hunter local and targeting ducks within South Carolina waters.
"It's a shame to finally have the habitat back where we draw a good number of migratory ducks to public water, and we cannot hunt them because folks disturb newcomers before they get a chance to feel comfortable again on this body of water," McCrary said.
Rallying ducks is considered harassment and is illegal. Sgt. Rhett Bickley, a wildlife enforcement officer based in Berkeley County, is part of a team looking to crack down harassment of wintering rafts of ducks on waters in the Santee Cooper area.
Bickley said rallying is defined as intentionally flushing birds by a motorized craft of any kind. Additionally, anyone rallying, shooting rallied birds, or in conspiracy to take or harass birds by the use of these tactics can be charged with several federal and state violations.
"Hunters caught and convicted of these illegal activities will be penalized, and can experience significant fines and license suspension," he said.
Hunters who witness rallying or other waterfowl violations should call 800.922.5431 and notify SCDNR, which will send enforcement officers to investigate.