Fort Mill Times

Brad Harvey: Ah, the good old days of hunting

As a young boy, long before I ever thought about hunting for deer, I was out chasing critters such as rabbits, quail and other small game.

Back then there seemed to be an abundance of all of them but, somewhere down the line, that started to change.

Quail were the first to become a rare sight. Areas we knew that always held several coveys became barren. Biologists say that this was primarily because folks found better uses for their land than allowing them to serve as quail habitat. Planted stands of pines and other such moneymakers won out over the fields of native grasses and overgrown hedgerows that quail need to thrive.

Next, we started losing our best rabbit hunting spots to development. Sure, there were always plenty of rabbits still around, but gaining access to them became next to impossible.

Just chalk it all up to progress, I guess. You don’t have to like it, but you sure can’t stop it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven by a road full of houses, pointed in their direction and told my daughter, “We used to hunt that place when I was young.”

Once I hit my later teens and started deer hunting, I never worried too much about the loss of these other sporting endeavors because those antlered animals offered something new and exciting.

We just didn’t have deer around here in my younger years and the thought of being a “big game” hunter seemed to be a graduation of sorts. I had to reach adulthood before I realized that I was missing something.

That’s one of the problems with youth of every generation. When we’re young, we don’t slow down enough to allow ourselves to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of the outdoor experience. Instead, our youthful eyes are focused on one thing and one thing only – finding success. Anything less feels like a wasted day.

For some reason, it takes growing up before we realize the great pleasure that can be found in the experience alone. Things like listening to a good rabbit dog working or seeing nothing but the tail of an old bird dog passing through the high grass until he suddenly locks down on point.

It never mattered that I always knew it was coming. When a covey of quail blew up in front of me it remained a startling occurrence.

There I’d stand, shotgun at the ready and looking hard for what the dog was pointing out, when they’d suddenly take to the sky in a flutter that would make me nearly jump out of my boots.

Sort of like the gray hair that’s quickly winning the battle on top of my head, maybe my fondness for those days long gone is just another sign of my age. Whether that’s the case or not, I don’t know. What I can tell you is that it bothers me deeply when I think about how my little girl, who loves everything about wildlife and the outdoors, has never gotten to take part in those experiences like I did and likely won’t.

Or will she?

In an effort to keep a close eye on what’s happening with our state’s wildlife, the biological side of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources recruits very active hunters to take part in season-long surveys for their Small Game Project. These hunters are requested to keep good, detailed information about their hunts and report it to DNR.

Information such as how many coveys of quail they jump per hour is jotted down along with a count of how many birds they saw in each. They record the number of birds that they harvest, the sex for each and save the wings so that the agency’s biologists can age them and extract other data.

Rabbit hunters that take part in the program note details like the dates hunted, counties they were hunting in, number of rabbits jumped, how many were taken and the total hours spent in pursuit of them.

Although the results compiled from this past year’s hunting seasons can’t exactly be called exceptional, I can’t help but feel encouraged by a couple of things.

First is the fact that, though slight, quail hunters saw an increase in the numbers of coveys flushed per hour of hunting compared to the previous year.

This was further proven by them bagging more birds per hour as well.

Rabbit hunters reported even stronger news, showing that they both jumped and harvested way more rabbits in the 2010-2011 season than in 2009-2010.

Rabbit hunting was shown to continue to spread in the Palmetto State. Counties with hunting activity reported increases for the fifth straight year, this time from 40 to 42.

These surveys do a good job of allowing us a little peek into the hunting situation for various species within our state. For example, this year’s results showed just where the best hunting for these small game could be found.

During 2010-2011, Abbeville, Hampton and Chester counties were first, second and third in overall hunter effort (hours hunted) for rabbit. Lee and Anderson counties rounded out the top five. With a minimum of 25 hunts recorded, Saluda, Lee, Chester, Edgefield and Anderson were the top counties in number of rabbits jumped per hour.

Quail harvest was higher in the Northern Coastal Plain than in any other region of the state. The reported average size of coveys that hunters encountered statewide ranged from 7.4 birds per covey in our neck of the woods to 11.2 in the Midlands.

Horry County showed the highest rate of coveys encountered per hour, followed by Charleston and Darlington counties. Darlington County also scored highest in the number of birds harvested per hour, tying Lee County for that designation.

Now, I know that I’ll probably never live to see the day that our own area is as good as it used to be.

As I mentioned earlier, much of the land has been claimed for other purposes and, last I checked, they’re not making any more of it.

Still, just knowing that we do have access to decent small game hunting within an easy drive and it’s improving is an encouraging thought. I might just have to load Maggie up in the truck and take her for the day.

That way, at least she’ll have some understanding of what her daddy has missed so much.

If you’d like to take part in these Small Game Project surveys, you can do so by calling the agency at 803-734-3609. They’ll be more than happy to get you involved.

Brad Harvey is a freelance writer in Clover. Visit his Web site at bradharvey or e-mail brad@bradharvey