Going public for waterfowl

Most hunters tend to call too much, resulting in spooky public land ducks. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Public gamelands offer great waterfowl action

Waterfowl hunting in the Carolinas is a very diverse pastime. Some of the choices available to a Carolina duck hunter include leasing or developing private lands or leases, freelance hunting on numerous public waterways, rivers and impoundments, and hunting public lands that are managed by state or federal agencies. Of these duck hunting opportunities, hunting public gamelands like WMAs, or Wildlife Management Areas may be one of the most available sites for a number of waterfowlers.

Waterfowl hunting on public gamelands generally falls into two categories, the first categories are first-come, first serve areas, usually limited to hunting on specific days of the week through the waterfowl season. The other categories include those that are more intensely managed, with hunter selection based on a drawing or lottery system conducted by the state agency, usually during the month of September, prior to the opening of the waterfowl season.

Regardless of which category hunted, these areas have developed some property-specific characteristics that should be taken into account before planning a waterfowl hunt. Accordingly, following a few tips can help you be more successful.

WMA and Public Gameland waterfowl properties in the Carolinas offer duck hunters some great hunting opportunities. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Get the lowdown

While some public lands, usually the first-come, first serve ones, may not have a specific property manager, those individuals who are charged with overseeing the property often have some valuable information that can help you on your hunt. 

On the draw hunts, pay close attention to the information given before the hunt. Property managers and agency technicians have been watching birds enter and leave the area since before the season started and will give some good tips on the best places to intercept birds moving onto the property.

While you have their attention, ask about species of ducks that have been seen and/or may possibly come in. Ask about recent hunts and any success or lack of success prior hunts have had and why.

Stay mobile

One of the characteristics of public land hunting is that the factors that influence bird movement changes day-to-day. If you set up in one area and notice that birds are either avoiding you for some reason, or show a preference for a nearby location, get up and move. 

It’s OK to start out in a blind, if one is provided, but being mobile will allow you to get where the birds are (or want to be) in just a few minutes. This means you’ll need to wear good camouflage and have your gear in a portable pack or vest so you can move quickly. 

If and when you move, try to take advantage of available natural cover to break up your outline or hide behind so you aren’t spooking birds.

Pack Light

Because WMA hunting often requires you to shift locations, it’s best to come to the property with only the essential items you’ll need for a good hunt. Chairs, coolers, gun cases, etc are best left in the truck. A good rule of thumb is if you can’t carry it on your person, you probably should leave it behind.

Packing light and being mobile are necessary to put yourself in the right areas to kill ducks on WMAs. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)
A jerk cord and a few decoys help hunters to be mobile and add movement to their spread. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Fewer decoys

On public lands, it’s a given that ducks moving around the property are going to get shot at. Accordingly, most of the shots you can expect will be pass shots rather than birds responding to a huge spread of decoys.

Motion is generally better than numbers of decoys. And while a robo-duck of some sort is great for providing motion, three or four decoys on a jerk cord are much easier to throw in a backpack and move, should the need arise. In addition, the jerk cord is much less likely to malfunction when you really need it to work.

Dog it or not? 

Some waterfowlers simply won’t hunt without bringing a dog. And some locations simply can’t be hunted without a dog to do all the retrieval work. In between those two scenarios is a consideration whether bringing a dog to a WMA duck hunt is going to help you or hinder you. 

Dogs that are less than exceptionally trained often have a hard time guerilla hunting ducks. Bringing a dog also means you’ll have to have some type of elevated place for the dog to perch in order to see the action. Some coastal areas may have other wildlife such as gators, pigs, or bears that could make it unsafe to bring a dog to a hunt. Consider all the possibilities before you make your decision.


Every public land hunter comes to the property thinking their individual calling skills are going to take birds from one area and bring them to his area. This is simply not true. It’s best to go into an area with the mindset to be invisible to everyone and everything. The only thing that should give your location away is a little decoy movement and a very little duck chatter. In other words, you want your spread to mimic what a real duck stop looks like.

Some consideration should be given to taking a retriever along on a WMA hunt. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Dance Partners

Drawing a public land permit may be the best opportunity to kill a widgeon, pintail, redhead, or whatever type of duck keeps you awake at night. The problem occurs when you spend the entire hunt looking for only that bird and let the gadwalls, teal, and mergansers that may give you shots get by.

It’s important to know what birds to expect. But it’s also important to make use of the birds you get.

Essential Gear

With mobility in mind, some of the most essential pieces of gear to take with you on a WMA hunt are chest waders, especially those with durable exterior lining. Next on the list is a shell belt, particularly if the number of loops coincides with the number of allowed shells. You can tell at a glance how many shots you have left. 

You will need a light to get to where you are going and one of the modern adjustable headlamps will give you all the light you need, hands free. Just don’t forget to take it off when it’s legal shooting light.

A modest sized backpack will handle up to a half dozen decoys, your private items like water, phone, and wallet, and can be hung on a limb to keep it out of the water. Two more pieces to consider are a sling to carry your shotgun across your back and an extendable wading staff that can help you keep your balance when wading in the muck, and extend out to reach that downed duck that’s just out deep enough that you can’t wade to it. 

Follow the rules

WMA and other public lands often have additional rules and laws that may not be in effect on private lands. Some of these rules are more restrictive. The most popular is a limit on the number of shells that can be carried onto the property by a single hunter. This is done to curtail sky-busting and force the hunter to concentrate on taking higher percentage shots.

Other rules may enforce boundaries on where you can hunt and where you can’t, even though it all looks the same to you. These rules are generally safety-oriented to prevent shooting too close to a residence or neighboring property. 

About Phillip Gentry 823 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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