Flying High in the Lowcountry

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Photo © Tom Samuelson

South Carolina's scenic ACE Basin offers some of the finest late-season duck hunting in the Atlantic Flyway

By Bill Nichol

Last season, many waterfowlers in the Southeast experienced one of the warmest seasons in memory. Yet, as I traveled to the South Carolina coast in January, a strong cold front swept over the southern Atlantic states. By the time I arrived in Charleston, ominous clouds had descended on the city, the temperature had fallen 30 degrees, and the thermometer hovered just above freezing.

The next morning a cold, heavy rain rattled the metal roof overhead as DU engineer Billy Webster and I climbed out of his truck and hauled hunting gear to the shelter of a farm work shed. "We must be crazy to go hunting in this weather," exclaimed Webster as he balanced on one leg and slipped a foot into his waders. Voicing my agreement, I leaned against a tractor tire and pulled on waders and a parka before facing the elements on my first Lowcountry duck hunt.

Steady rain mixed with plumes of thick fog while Webster and hunting partner Jason Flake launched their boats on the Combahee River. With our spotlight dimly showing the way, we cautiously navigated downriver. Eventually, the two boats cut through a gap in the riverbank where a dike had once separated the Combahee from a rice field. While rice has not been a major crop in the Lowcountry since before the Civil War, many of the region's wetland impoundments retain boundaries set by colonial planters.

The boats slowly motored down a channel between stands of tall reeds and dense native grasses. At one point, the channel widened to 50 yards, and a narrow island appeared in the middle of our path. The three of us deployed a spread of mallard, pintail, and blue- and green-winged teal decoys in a 30-yard opening between the island and the far reed bank.

As we hid among the island's vegetation, hundreds of wood ducks winged across a smoke-colored sky in groups ranging from two to 20. "Seeing these ducks is a good sign," Webster admitted. "This is the first time all year it's been cold enough to make these birds move around."

Our calls had little effect on these early birds. But by 8:30, the rain had lightened to a mist, and a chilly wind had dissolved the last patches of lingering fog. Under these improved conditions, the action picked up as birds soon began to stir from their hiding places. "Ducks to the right," Webster announced in an excited whisper. Back toward the river, three green-winged teal followed the channel toward our spread. Twenty yards above the water, the birds rapidly beat toward us with a tailwind adding to their speed. Webster and Flake rose to fire as the trio passed over the blind. Their shots produced our first two ducks and set the tone for the rest of the day.

Throughout the late morning, blue-wings and greenwings traveled up and down the channel, providing us ample shooting opportunities. Our bag continued to fill with teal when four big ducks appeared over the back of our hide. Slowing their wing beats in the wind, the dark birds cautiously dropped altitude as they passed our setup. "Those look like black ducks," Webster said as we called to the foursome.

Excited by my first chance at one of these prized birds, I anxiously watched as they approached. With the birds 35 yards above our heads, Flake and I teamed up to drop the closest of the four. As he lifted the fallen bird out of the water, Flake announced it was not a black duck but a mottled duck. "This bird's not as dark as it looked in the air," he explained. "And mottled ducks have this green tint to the speculum while a black duck's is purple." Far from disappointed, I was pleased to collect this resident species of the south Atlantic coast.

Natural Treasure

Riding back up the Combahee, I got my first good look at the unique blend of habitats found in the ACE Basin. To my right, an expanse of yellowed saw grass swayed with the wind, and lone cypress trees stood draped in Spanish moss. On the opposite bank, a dense tangle of live oak, tupelo gum, and palmetto fronds pushed right to the water's edge. The watershed of three rivers—the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto—collectively forms the ACE Basin, containing a mix of freshwater and brackish marsh, seasonally flooded bottomland hardwood forest, and upland pine-hardwood forest. Together, the basin's wetlands and adjacent forests represent the largest undeveloped region along the Atlantic Coast.

Conserving these natural coastal habitats presents Ducks Unlimited and its partners a unique opportunity. Because the majority of the ACE Basin is under private ownership, DU works with landowners to secure conservation easements on significant tracts of wetland and upland habitat. Since 1989, Ducks Unlimited's Lowcountry Initiative has permanently protected more than 93,000 acres in the region through this easement program.

One of the key properties conserved through the Lowcountry Initiative is Pon Pon Plantation. Located a few miles up the Edisto River from St. Helena Sound, Pon Pon encompasses a mix of impoundments, swamp, and towering pines. The plantation traces its roots back to the mid-1700s and was originally managed for rice production. But for nearly 80 years, its main focus has been ducks. In 1992, the Donald Dodge family placed Pon Pon's wetlands and woods under a conservation easement with Ducks Unlimited. Today, Pon Pon's current owner, George Dean Johnson Jr., who is also a Gold Legacy Sponsor of Ducks Unlimited, is committed to conserving the plantation's invaluable wildlife habitat and rich hunting heritage.

A Step Back in Time

The afternoon was sunny and cool as I drove up the winding driveway to the Pon Pon clubhouse. Out my window, rafts of dabblers were loafing and tipping up in the flooded impoundments flanking the road. Excited by the next day's prospects, I climbed the stairs of the handsome two-story lodge and was warmly welcomed by my host.

The lodge gradually filled with new arrivals, including Johnson's son Geordy, his brother Ned, and several friends from his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Swarms of ducks traded against the fading winter light as we gathered around a blazing outdoor fire to catch up and talk duck hunting. When the fire had settled to embers, we migrated to a newspaper-strewn table where Pon Pon manager William "Tadpole" Baldwin and his brother Richard had prepared a Lowcountry feast of local boiled shrimp and oysters.

The next morning, Tadpole divided the hunting party into sets of two and paired each duo with one of Pon Pon's guides. Before long, hunting partner Wallace Boyd and I were speeding along dark trails with another Baldwin, Tadpole's nephew Richie. The three of us waded out to a sled blind positioned between a stand of timber and a flooded cornfield. In the dim predawn, we deployed two dozen mallard, wigeon, teal, and wood duck decoys in a 40-yard patch of open water between the blind and the woods.

Climbing into the blind, we admired scatters of ducks trading against a dark sky. With several minutes remaining before legal shooting time, we sat back and listened as the whistles, tweets, and squealing calls of wood ducks, pintails, greenwings, and wigeon blended together in an early-morning symphony. "This is pretty incredible," whispered Boyd while some two dozen woodies lit almost noiselessly in front of our blind. "This is why I don't get much sleep the night before I come here."

Our watches and the sound of distant shots soon indicated the arrival of shooting time. With this signal, we loaded our guns and got to work. A foursome of wood ducks veered toward us from the tree line and dipped over our decoys. While they climbed back skyward, Boyd dispatched a handsome drake from the bunch. Moments later, a low-flying formation of roughly 15 greenwings began circling the spread. The three of us crouched behind the blind's palmetto fronds and watched them draw nearer with each pass. When the little birds rushed broadside, we sprang up and produced three splashes on the water.

Ducks continued to work steadily as light gray clouds streaked across the blue horizon. "Pintails, up high to the left," Baldwin said as he grabbed for the whistle around his neck. I glanced up to see five sprigs drop down to investigate our spread. Baldwin issued several soft trills from his call, while the birds made a wide bend toward the timber. They were crossing 30 yards in front when I picked out a fine bull sprig and emptied my magazine without touching a feather. Boyd, however, soon picked up my slack by making a double on a flight of passing wigeon.

Near the end of the hunt, I was one bird shy of my limit and waiting impatiently for the opportunity to redeem myself. It came minutes later when two wood ducks sailed by the right side of the blind. Drawing down on the pair, I pulled ahead of the drake and folded it into the first row of corn stubble.

With guns, ducks, and decoys strewn over our shoulders, the three of us departed the picturesque duck hole and headed to the clubhouse. Around the breakfast table, hungry hunters shared the highlights of their morning as they ate homemade biscuits, grits, sausage, and other southern staples.

After breakfast, I hopped into Tadpole's truck for a tour of the plantation that his family has managed since 1929. Our path wandered down a network of levees, alongside swampy forests, and under the shade of tall pines. As we drove, I listened to my companion tell Pon Pon's history and how he became part of it, from guiding his first hunters at age 13 to taking the reigns as plantation manager in 1997.

Johnson acknowledged that this strong commitment to waterfowling and wetlands has been a powerful force for conservation. "We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the Dodge family and especially to three generations of Baldwins for preserving a wonderful waterfowl habitat," he said.

The best way to thank past generations is to continue their work in the future. For Ducks Unlimited and its partners, this means ensuring the ACE Basin's natural environments and waterfowling culture remain intact.