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Murrells Inlet: Dwindling waterfowl brings call for sanctuary

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Bill Chandler has killed more ducks in Murrells Inlet than almost anybody, but he says it’s time to stop.

Houses, docks and commercial development ring the interior of the inlet now. Chandler remembers the day when there were no houses on Garden City Beach, just big sand dunes. He doesn’t object to duck hunting but points to the fact that the inlet’s duck population has dwindled to a fraction of what it was 50 years ago.

Chandler and his wife, Anne, like to sit on their dock and watch nature awaken as the sun comes up over the water. Hunters in boats anchor off a muddy flat nearby waiting on ducks roosting in marsh grass to get up and fly to the river.

“When they fire that first shot,” Chandler said, “the ducks are out of here within 10 minutes.”

Chandler would like to see Murrells Inlet become a bird sanctuary. He said he finds all kinds of shore birds that have been shot and killed. “The duck hunters frequently stay until 11 o’clock,” he said. “They have come to shoot birds. I went up Oak Creek and saw about eight different shore birds floating. It’s rare to see one floating, and these were floating. There was a loon dead out here last week.”

Gates Roll, a naturalist who leads inshore expeditions, said he still sees ducks on the inlet but a lot are diving ducks, not considered edible. “Fish eaters,” Anne Chandler called them.

Roll said he can understand why duck hunters enjoy the inlet. “They’ve got a lot of investment getting all the way out here,” he said. “After two shots, you are not going to want to leave. A lot of duck hunters that hunt elsewhere laugh about the idea of hunting in Murrells Inlet because of the setting. We are one of the fastest growing places in the nation. Murrells Inlet is still the true Lowcountry in many ways but an island surrounded by a lot of sprawl.”

Roll, who grew up on the inlet, said most residents favor hunting. It just no longer makes sense to hunt in the inlet. “This is a limited resource,” he said. “Four duck hunters can sound like a war zone.”

While the Chandlers watched the sun come up on a chilly morning last week, a single merganser flew overhead. “It’s not illegal to shoot those,” Chandler said, “but they won’t pick them up off the water.” Roll said he had seen dead mergansers left at boat ramps.

Tom Hora, a nephew of the Chandlers who stopped by to watch birds at sunrise, said 99 percent of the pleasure of duck hunting for him is watching the birds in nature rather than shooting. A good duck hunter won’t shoot a duck he can’t eat. “If you are best friends of a duck hunter and he sees you with a merganser, he will give you a hard time because you don’t know your ducks,” he said.

Chandler said thick fog over the inlet didn’t stop hunters early last week from shooting. He said he couldn’t see the end of his dock in the fog but heard shots. He and Anne went inside for their own safety.

“You can go in the river,” Chandler said, “and those guys pulling trailers can be in there as quick as they can here. Birds they shoot over there will be wood ducks, primarily. They used to be mallards, but the odds are good it will be an edible duck. Over here, it’s as likely to be a bufflehead.”

Chandler said he will always be an advocate for hunting. He’s won duck calling and skeet shooting contests and had a dog, Waccamaw Tinker, win four national championship trials. In high school, he and his brother would take their shotguns on the school bus so they could hunt on the way home. “Back in those days,” he said, “we shot in Murrells Inlet before and after legal time. There were no game wardens then. There’s still not any, but there are no ducks now.”

He said people who appreciate nature often grew up with parents who hunt and fish. He’s given all his grandsons guns. “I’m for them having a place to shoot,” he said.

But the inlet is changing, he said. There are birds here that were never seen years ago: from pelicans to wood storks. He senses there is community support for making the inlet a bird sanctuary. “If I was 10 or 15 years younger,” he said, “I would start a crusade. But a man once told me if you are going to crusade you have to be willing to stand in a pool of blood. This needs somebody driving it.”

Despite changes, inlet still has appeal for hunters

Duck hunters are very good bird watchers.

They have to be to keep from breaking the law.

Mark Ferrell, an officer with the state Department of Natural Resources, says hunters should be able to identify a species by sight, sound and flight pattern before firing a shot. Teal and wood ducks are not in season at the same time, and there are fines for exceeding bag limits. Some ducks are good eating; others are not.

For Roddy Cross, who began duck hunting with his father, being outdoors early in the morning is part of the pleasure. “I’ve been going to the same spots since I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “The attraction is the chase. I want to pass it down to my little cousins to understand the concept of taking food and not just shooting. Being in nature is a big part of it.”

Murrells Inlet, he said, is not the wild place it was in his childhood, though he still enjoys hunting there. “It’s terrible now compared to when I was growing up,” he said. “You could see 200 ducks. Now you are lucky to see 20 or 30. The good thing about the inlet is you never know what’s coming through. Sometimes you get birds that are normally not in the area for a day or two, migrating south to feeding grounds.”

Naturalist Gates Roll calls Murrells Inlet the beginning of the Lowcountry. It’s the first protected place in the state for birds flying south to rest and feed.

River Harmon prefers the swamps along the Waccamaw as far north as Bucksport. He thinks the weather hasn’t been cold enough to push the ducks south into Murrells Inlet. “One thing I like about the inlet is there’s always something flying,” he said. “You may not be able to shoot it, but you can see something flying.”

Nick Williamson hunts mallards in the inlet and wood ducks on the Waccamaw River near Sandy Island or in Sand Hole Creek. He goes to the ocean in the afternoons to shoot sea ducks. “The only time I go in the inlet,” he said, “is if it’s raining or a heavy overcast. There are not that many ducks in the inlet.”

His favorite thing about hunting, he said, is being in a boat with his dog away from distractions. There’s nothing else that matters,” he said.

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