Duck hunters to feel impact of drought

Season opens today through Saturday

COLUMBIA -- As migratory ducks return to South Carolina from their summer up north, they'll discover what has been clear to locals for months drought has hit the state hard.

Unless the weather takes a quick, wet turn (unlikely according to long-range forecasts), it'll be a dismal season for ducks and hunters in the state. Duck hunting in South Carolina begins with a short season today through Saturday and continues Dec. 15-Jan. 26.

Some of the ponds usually prepared specifically for migratory ducks at Santee National Wildlife Refuge will be uninviting puddles this year.

Owners of private land managed by hunters to attract migratory ducks report similar problems.

"A lot of places I have hunted in the past have never had problems (with water availability) and this year, they are," said Bill Short, state committee chairman for Ducks Unlimited.

Hunt clubs plant grains that ducks like to eat, then flood the fields when the ducks begin to arrive from Canada and the plains states. Many land managers had enough water to grow the crops this year, but don't have enough water now to flood the fields. And ducks won't stop if they don't have water.

'Aren't any customers'

"It's like the grocery store is open and has plenty of food, but there aren't any customers," Short said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that because Lake Marion is about 6 feet lower than normal for this time of year, water won't be pumped from the lake into nearby impoundments at Santee National Wildlife Refuge.

The Santee refuge typically serves as winter home to 10,000-14,000 migratory waterfowl, according to federal estimates. A midwinter population survey of the eastern coastal plain found about 100,000 in an average year, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Puddle ducks that prefer shallow ponds will find some suitable habitat at the refuge, but diving ducks that need deeper water will have to look elsewhere.

Waterfowl experts suspect some ducks simply will shift to open areas of large lakes. Or the interior drought could mean there will be larger flocks on the coastal impoundments flooded by brackish tidal water. Or maybe some ducks will settle for feeding in dry farm fields, a practice seen in the Midwest but uncommon here.

The few inland areas with usable ponds might be overwhelmed with birds, said Dean Harrigal, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Because of the drought, the state agency closed Sandy Beach Waterfowl Management Area to duck hunting this season and will not flood the Hickory Top Greentree Reservoir Wildlife Management Area, further limiting the duck hunting alternatives.

Short thinks most migrating ducks will keep going south until they find suitable water.

As for hunters, they might need to gas up their vehicles for some long trips to other states. Severe drought conditions stretch south to lower Georgia and west to the Mississippi River.

Arkansas is looking pretty good.