From traipsing out to the blind in pitch darkness through hip-deep, icy water in heavy waders, to the soft pink glow on the bellies of incoming ducks as the sun rises, to the comradery, coffee and photos after the hunt, duck hunting offers the perfect bliss of life for many in the Midlands.
South Carolina is a destination for ducks migrating south down the Atlantic Flyway, which spans more than 3,000 miles and ranges from the ducks’ breeding grounds as far north as northern Quebec, all the way down to a wintering habitat in Florida. The Atlantic Flyway is the most densely populated out of the four North American flyways, much to the appreciation of South Carolina’s hunters — in the 1960s through the 1980s, the upper Lake Marion region alone would see more than 150,000 mallards every winter.
About 18 to 20 different North American waterfowl species find migratory and wintering habitat in South Carolina, and resident wood ducks even consider the state conducive year-round and stay for breeding. The highest number of different species are usually found in the state as the waterfowl make their way back up the flyway during spring migration, long after duck season closes, in late February through early March. Fall migration, however, peeks in late November through December, and it is then that the state has the highest volume of ducks sweeping the early morning skies.
Marion Moise Moses fell in love with the sport as a child tagging along with Frank Moses, his father, in the flooded timber of the Santee and Wateree Swamps as well as on Lake Marion. “We would often times spend the night at the old dilapidated cabin in the swamp with all the ‘old’ guys and cook a fine Southern meal of whatever was harvested that day or caught on a bush line,” remembers Marion. “I can still smell the grease from the old open-air cook shed where many a fine gathering took place and many a good meal was served. It is from those hunting trips that I was exposed to some of the best outdoorsmen I’ve ever known. Some of the personalities and characters from those days, many of which are no longer with us, would make an episode of Duck Dynasty with Uncle Si Robertson look normal.”
Marion shares that he still enjoys going with his father on the Santee/Wateree River, now often with Ashlee, his wife, and Elizabeth, his sister, in tow. “As we got a little older, my father would also take us on trips to Arkansas to hunt the flooded timber and chase the mallard and the prized pintail duck. However, it always seemed more rewarding to me to harvest a duck right here in our own beautiful state of South Carolina,” says Marion. “My father instilled in my brother, sister and me the value, beauty and appreciation of the great outdoors. We are so blessed here in South Carolina with beautiful rivers, lakes, swamps, coastal marshes, creeks and agricultural land. He taught us to be grateful for the natural resources right here in our own back yards. We really do have a diverse landscape in South Carolina that offers a wonderful variety of outdoor experiences.”
It is a lesson that Marion took to heart. He explains that there are so many different things he loves about duck hunting, only some of which involves the actual shooting — being outside in nature, sitting in a duck blind with the dog nearby and a shotgun in hand ready for a new adventure, the whispering hum of wings as early birds glide in before daylight, and just spending time with friends to enjoy God’s gift of the outdoors. “I don’t know who said it first,” quotes Marion, “but there is something about being outdoors in nature that makes a man feel closer to God. That for sure applies to me.”
In high school, Marion enjoyed early morning hunts from Pack’s Landing with friends Andy Pack, Jimmy Lee and Del Avins. Heading into the Sparkleberry swamp in jon boats hours before daylight, they would pick out a spot to hunt and then sit and tell stories or take a nap until night started to fade into the dusk of early morning.
“The first wing beats of the wood ducks would start fluttering through the swamp, and the mallards would start cackling above the tree line,” reminisces Marion. “Inevitably, no one would have a watch on, so we would just wait until we heard the first blast from afar echo through the swamp and assume it was legal shooting time. Half the fun was just navigating through some of the prettiest black water swamp you’ll ever see.”
Now, however, Marion’s primary hunting companion is his 4-year-old Boykin Spaniel, Emmie. South Carolina’s state dog, the Boykin Spaniel was bred initially during the early 1900s in South Carolina for flushing wild turkeys in the Wateree River Swamp and then later for retrieving. According to the American Kennel Club, “Most individual Boykin Spaniels have a special personality and enthusiastic field ability that no other dog can match.” Boykins, on average weighing 30 pounds, are especially useful when duck hunting out of a boat, compared with 70-pound Labradors. Marion explains that his passion for duck hunting is now even less about harvesting the ducks than it is about watching Emmie’s beautiful work and her excitement in doing what she loves most.
“Whether hunting flooded timber from a boat or hunting a duck impoundment from a duck blind, Emmie knows when it’s time for her to go to work,” says Marion. “The early mornings, the cold weather, the heavy waders, the frozen hands, the lack of sleep all makes sense when I get to take my dog to go sit with me in a duck blind and watch her hunt. It has brought duck hunting to a new level for me.” Marion explains that it never fails to amaze him that she can see the ducks first. Sometimes he even watches her eyes to see where she is looking to know when ducks are coming in rather than scanning the skies himself.
Emmie is the niece of Tackle, a stud belonging to another Columbia duck hunter, Margaret Ellen Pender. “I am still a novice duck hunter, just entering my third year of chasing waterfowl, but much like dove hunting, which I began with my father, Eddie Pender, decades ago, there is comradery that permeates duck hunting that I treasure,” says Margaret Ellen. “I also love the excitement of rising before dawn, gathering just the right gear for the conditions, filling a thermos to bite back against the cold, wading into frigid water, hustling to set decoys, working together to cover the holes and then waiting with baited breath for legal shooting time to arrive!”
Margaret Ellen concurs that a dog is a tremendous asset in duck hunting, especially when it is cold. “One of my best hunting buddies has a stunning black lab that swims like Michael Phelps — he glides through the water with subtle speed and amazing accuracy,” she smiles, though she has always owned Boykins herself.
While mallards are her preferred species of duck, due to supply and opportunity, Margaret Ellen mainly hunts wood ducks, also called “woodies” or “summer ducks,” as they are the most abundant wild duck usually found in South Carolina: “They fly like F16s and are beautiful birds … not to mention tasty on the grill!”
Another huge element of duck hunting, just as in any other type of outdoor sport, is the story telling of memorable hunts. Margaret Ellen recounts that the second year she was hunting, she trekked over to Manchester with one of her friends, Steve Guy, on an unseasonably warm morning. The regular group of guys couldn’t attend the hunt that day, so it was just the two of them navigating in the dark. Unbeknownst to Margaret Ellen until later in the day, they waded in a big circle in trying to find the blind, but thankfully they had arrived very early and still had plenty of time to set up before the birds flew.
“We had a real barn burner of a hunt with woodies whistling by us through the trees at warp speed,” Margaret Ellen says. “After we knocked down our limit, we made our way back to the truck, and I was carrying the birds. I was so excited over the time we’d enjoyed that I stopped paying attention to how I was walking in my waders … sliding my boot reverted to a normal gate and the next thing I knew my toe had caught a branch under the water and I went for a swim! Thankfully it was unusually warm that day so no harm was done except to my pride.”
Margaret Ellen’s friend and boss, Pat Dorn, is a fellow avid duck hunter who has been after waterfowl for more than 65 years, following his inaugural hunt with his two good friends, Carl Oehmig and Dicky Anderson, at age 12. He prefers to hunt over duck ponds as opposed to flooded timber, usually in strategically placed duck blinds that overlook a pond filled with planted corn, millet or chufas. He too most appreciates the dog work, sportsmanship of the query, fellowship with friends and the great outdoors as the best aspects of duck hunting.
Pat remembers one hunt with his two sons on a day when the wind was whipping the decoys around on the water and not a duck was in sight. Richard, then 10 years old, finally just fired on the decoys and sunk two of them. “He has never lived that story down!” Pat says with a laugh.
Once on a hunt at Bear Island, Pat lent his retriever, Pepper, to his friend Tom Hammond. Tom was unfortunate enough to shoot a “coot,” which is not a species of duck, although they are often together. Pepper made a beautiful retrieve for Tom, but after depositing the bird, he returned to Pat and refused to have anything more to do with Tom, indignant at a man who shot at water birds with the wrong scent. Pat says, “The dog is what it is all about for me. Good dogs have remarkable instincts and ability and they ensure that you don’t lose many downed birds.”
Marion’s favorite duck hunting memory is of what he considers Emmie’s first real hunt at 11 months old without formal training, and on a frigid 17 degree day. Emmie donned a neoprene vest to try to keep her warm. It unexpectedly also had the purpose of helping her break through ice all morning.
“The pond was frozen over with a sheet of ice, a very unusual occurrence since the ponds are brackish water and do not freeze,” says Marion. “The whole time Emmie was running alongside us through the woods, I was thinking that this was going to make or break her in becoming a duck dog. I also knew this was a special place, and I did not want Emmie to mess up the hunt for the other guys if she did not catch on to hunting.”
However, from the first kills of the morning, Emmie enthusiastically took off in the pond, breaking through ice as she jumped after two fallen ducks. When she brought in the first duck and placed it on the ground right beside Marion, he could not believe that she had performed so perfectly. He pointed her in the direction of the second duck and she headed back out and brought it in too. “I was the proudest dog owner this side of the Mississippi!” Marion says with a smile.
Despite being covered up in ducks, Marion relates that the best part about that day was watching his inexperienced puppy retrieve every duck for the seven fellow hunters, all of whom had a lot of experience watching a dog work a hunt. “Emmie was placed in a situation to shine or tarnish, and she acted like she had been hunting all of her life,” says Marion. “She went on long retrieves, short retrieves, blind retrieves, water retrieves and land retrieves. She would bring a duck back, and I would have to send her right back out there to go get another one on the water. Double retrieves doesn’t even describe what she was having to do. Emmie worked steady in some tough conditions, and at the end of the hunt, she had picked up 30 ducks all consisting of gadwall, widgeon, teal and wood duck.”
As it is easy to imagine, all duck hunters agree that their health is definitely better in November.