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Flying High in the Lowcountry

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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.

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