Preserv-ing the duck hunting tradition

Preserves allow hunters to enjoy duck hunting even if they are hours away from the closest flyway. (Photo by Nathan Key)

Hunting preserves offer access to waterfowl hunters

The band of hunters crouched low in the windows of the elevated duck blind as the sun began to light the sky, summoning mist from the impoundment of flooded corn. The sound of whistling wings began to permeate the air around them, although the source of the sounds was not yet visible. Less than two minutes later, a pair of mallard drakes materialized from mist to the left of the hunting area and cupped in to land between the rows of decoys interspersed in the stalks of corn.

“Take’em,” hissed the last man in the blind, who crouched behind a shivering black dog.

The hunters rose in unison and dropped the two birds with the second and fifth shots from the volley of steel sent from the blind.

Thus begins another Tuesday morning at Toney Creek Plantation in Belton, SC.

An hour and a half before the first shots were fired, it was Nathan Key’s job to wrangle the collection of duck hunters into organized groups, pair them with their guides and assigned blinds, and make sure everything was ready to go well before legal shooting light. Key is the manager at Toney Creek and guided at the duck preserve for 12 years before stepping into the lead role.

Allowing ducks to work, then commit to landing is important to provide a true duck hunting experience. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Beating the stigma

Preserve duck hunting is not a new trend among the waterfowling community, but in terms of inland geography and location, a good 31/2 hours from the coast and the Atlantic Flyway, it’s a form of duck hunting whose time has come. When he first started guiding at a duck preserve, Key admitted he was often forced to defend this style of duck hunting. Arguments claimed that released birds would contaminate native stocks, and that preserve hunting simply wasn’t sporting.

“The suggestion of inferior genetics in release birds, carrying diseases, and affecting wild populations was disproven in a study some years back by Delta Waterfowl,” said Key. “As for the sporting part, we expend a lot of effort and planning behind the scenes and well before the start of the season, to make sure our birds act every bit as wild as native ducks.” 

Duck season at Toney Creek starts in the spring, when hatchings are brought in at two weeks of age and integrated into the impoundments. Toney Creek divides their properties into roost ponds and feeding ponds. The roost ponds are 100 percent safe for the ducks, which helps to reinforce the roost to feed patterns that the game managers will rely on later during the hunting season.

One key to a successful duck hunting preserve is the presence of roosting areas that are safe for the ducks. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

“We strive to achieve a balance that keeps these birds wild but on a predictable pattern,” said Key. “They’ve always got food here. And we limit the hunting pressure, which in itself is a balance. If there’s too much hunting pressure, the birds will simply fly away and never return. If there’s not enough pressure, they won’t fly at all.”

Although the only federal requirement for release birds is to clip one dew claw off of one foot, Toney Creek bands all of their birds in an effort to better understand migration patterns of the birds that leave the property.

Positive response

“We’ve had bands returned from every state in the Atlantic Flyway,” he said. “From Maine to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and of course all over the state of South Carolina. It’s interesting to see where they go, because they are free to do so. We have no way of keeping them here. In fact, despite our best efforts, when wild birds do show up in our impoundments, they often take a certain amount of our ducks with them when they leave.”

Providing kids the opportunity to duck hunt helps preserve the sport of waterfowling. (Photo by Nathan Key)

As for the sporting aspect of the hunt. Key said they hunt 15 blinds on a handful of impoundments and only hunt two days a week – Tuesday and Saturday. He and his guides frequently have to change decoy set ups and rotate blinds to keep the birds from patterning the hunters, just as he might with wild ducks on a property out west.

“Birds will learn to avoid blinds and even figure out something is up if they see a congregation of trucks in one area,” he said. “We also don’t use motion decoys until late in the season, utilizing a strategy of no motion, then jerk cords for motion, then water-moving motion decoys, and finally the Mojos or spinning wing varieties.”

Public response to Upstate preserve duck hunting has been more than positive. Key said it’s a great way to garner interest in the sport with new hunters and get them some hands-on experience. Experienced duck hunters often book a hunt or two between trips to the Carolina coast or out west to Arkansas and the Mississippi Flyway areas. 

Good training for dogs

Another key motivator is the opportunity to work retrievers in real hunting situations.

“I’d say 50 percent of the hunters we have want to work their dogs,” said Key. “It’s a challenging situation for new and old dogs alike, because they get exposed to a lot of fast-paced shooting, they have to honor the work of other dogs in the same blind or same vicinity, and the cover we hunt over is very thick. So a dog’s marking skills have to be on point.”

Despite several offers to buy out blinds for the season, Key said they prefer to stay available to the public. Although they are often booked more than a season out, it keeps duck hunting accessible to kids and new hunters. And they try to be as cost-effective as possible.

“Because we are available to the public and see lots of new hunters, one of the things we try to do is train hunters,” said Key. “Much of the shooting is pass shooting. But we try to convince the hunters to let the birds work and decoy into the spread. That sometimes takes longer than a group that wants to get in, shoot their limit, and then get on about their day.”

In the end, Key sees release duck hunting in the same light as release quail hunting. In days gone by, quail were plentiful in the area and release hunting was frowned upon. But with changing habitats, wildlife populations and the desires of the hunters, preserve hunting is simply a way to preserve the sport of duck hunting so that everyone can get a taste for, or continue to enjoy the traditions, sights, and sounds of everything to do with duck hunting. 

Almost half of preserve hunters are interested in providing training opportunities for retrievers. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Rig ‘em and jerk ‘em

A lifelike decoy spread can be the key difference between a limit of ducks and going home wanting. Ducks flock together, fly together, feed, and rest together. A generation ago, veteran waterfowlers referred to their decoys as blocks. Even with advanced painting and materials, they might as well be blocks if they show no sign of life.

Spinning wing decoys became the rage, literally, during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Some hunters claimed they were too effective, charging unfair chase practices and overharvest of juvenile ducks. Some states even banned their usage. Along the way, when old timers wanted their blocks to move, they just tied a string to them.

Rig ‘Em Right Waterfowl introduced the Rig ‘em Right Jerk Rig. The rig includes a miniature folding anchor attached to a length of bungee cord and 100 feet of durable nylon line. The line provides pre-tied swivels for four decoys and allows the duck hunter to give lifelike movement to the entire spread with the pull of a single cord. The rig is easy to deploy and comes with a reusable string winder and two eye bolts for various setup options, all encased in a pocket sized stuff sack.

“Real ducks swim,” said Rig’Em Right Founder Matthew Cagle, “so we re-built the ultimate decoy motion device. It’s lightweight, compact, easily fits into a coat pocket or blind bag and sets up in minutes.” 

Cagle’s updated twist on the jerk cord concept gives motion for up to four decoys instead of just one or two, and is able to affect an entire spread.   

To learn more about the Rig ‘Em Right Jerk Rig and other great products, visit their website at 

About Phillip Gentry 821 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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