I’ve been duck hunting in the ACE Basin, Francis Marion National Forest and the Santee Delta for quite a few years, and I’ve yet to bag a pintail (a mallard, either, but that’s a different, equally sad story).

Woodies galore, plenty of teal, ringnecks, black ducks, gadwall and shovelers (“Super Lips!”). But no pintails.

Maybe my time has come. Waterfowl biologists along the coast are hoping for a strong start to the late duck season, which began this weekend. I hear there are a few pintails around.

Greg Lynch, a state biologist working on the Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project in the Santee Coastal Reserve near McClellanville, said last week he was expecting a great start to the public draw hunts in the reserve.

“There’s a pile of pintails here now, a fair amount of teal, and there’s always a bunch of shovelers,” Lynch said last Tuesday, adding that during a recent youth hunt one lucky hunter went home with a redhead drake.

Though the drawings for hunts in the famed preserve have long since been conducted, hunters plying the public waterways and private plantations of the Santee Delta could have a solid opening weekend, as well.

“The Delta’s got a good number of birds now. There are 6,000 to 7,000 birds sitting over there,” Lynch said last Tuesday.

Lynch said the number of birds within the intensively managed Santee Coastal Reserve seems about average, with a puzzling addition of a good number early-arriving pintails and less-than-desirable coots, snipe and grebes.

He noted that the same early influx of coots and grebes happened at the beginning of the 2010-11 winter, which turned out to be a nice cold season with above-average hunting.

“Maybe something different is going on this year. But it’s hard to tell. We’re just so weather-dependent down here. The birds up north have to get run off for one reason or another. The last couple of years we had a couple hundred thousand in areas along the Outer Banks of North Carolina; they just stopped there.

“We just have to have the cold weather. Last couple years we’ve been picking up people (duck hunting) in T-shirts. The mosquitoes and gnats have been driving everybody crazy.

“Birds just don’t move as much or feed like they should unless it’s cold.”

Lynch advises hunters hoping to join the delta duck action to look for unpressured public waterways where flocks might circle over as they approach private plantations and preserves.

Those ducks will sometimes drop down into a nice spread of decoys in the waterway.

“I’d say getting away from people is probably the most important thing.”

Hunters can access the Santee Delta via the Pole Yard landing on the North Santee River off U.S. Highway 17, or the South Island Ferry Landing just south of Winyah Bay. Hunters could also put in at one the many landings near Bull’s Bay and run north into the Delta.

South of Charleston, in the famed ACE Basin, the start of duck season also looks good.

Dean Harrigal, another state waterfowl expert, says they’re seeing the usual suspects in “our wetland complexes: a few pintails, some green wings (teal), some wigeon, blue wings (teal), gadwall and shovelers.

“There aren’t numbers to get super-excited about, but still, the ducks are there.”

It’s a little tougher to find out how many birds are holding within the Basin’s many vast private plantations, he said.

“People are tight-lipped down here. There are probably a couple of places that are loaded up, but you’ll never know.

“Bottom line, I think there will be enough ducks around for people to have a pretty good opener.”

Harrigal also confirmed what some of us have been noticing in the deer woods: There seems to be no shortage of wood ducks around the Lowcountry.

The end of the drought, capped by a deluge of rain this spring and summer, flooded countless acres of bottomland timber. Woodies seem to have flourished.

“Now we’re having a nice, dry fall, so these birds are starting to get bunched up in places.”

Duck hunters can access the ACE Basin from more than a dozen public boat ramps. The Willtown Bluff landing on the South Edisto River serves as one of the Lowcountry’s most popular jumping-off points for public waterfowl hunting. Other ramps include the Steel Bridge landing off U.S. 17 and Brickyard on the Ashepoo near Bear Island.

For full waterfowl rules and regs (there are many), go to dnr.sc.gov. But there’s more to mastering the rules of the road than knowing which licences are needed and the types and number shells you can load.

If you intend to hunt ducks from a john boat on public waterways, remember that on most lakes and some designated waterways, hunters must stay at least 200 yards from residences. (Check the state’s waterfowl guidebook for details.)

On all waterways, duck hunters must remain in their boat or risk running afoul of not only DNR officers, but also angry landowners and private-land hunters. Some duck hunters test the boundaries of the law by “navigating” their vessels into skinny tidal creeks bordering intensely managed plantations.

The question of “navigable water” is sometimes debated in magistrate’s court following a dust-up amongst hunters.

Hunters with area-specific questions should call DNR’s regional office at 843-953-9307 and ask for a local enforcement officer, Harrigal said.

Hunters should also watch where they point high-powered spotlights. Don’t shine another boat. If you’re already set up and you’re worried an approaching boatload of hunters may set up too close or run over your decoy spread, flash the spotlight into the sky a few times. They’ll get the hint.

When trying to launch your boat and park your rig at a crowded, pre-dawn boat ramp, don’t rush, pay attention and don’t get rattled. After you park, take a good look at your rig. Did you block someone in? Did you leave enough room for others to turn around at the ramp? Are you sticking out too far into the roadway?

Above, all, don’t set up too close to other hunters. Fifty yards is far too close, and most hunters would say 100 yards is too close, as well. There’s no good excuse for crowding waterfowlers who beat you to a spot.

Return of Braswell

I’m delighted to announce that longtime outdoors writer Tommy Braswell will be returning to these pages with outdoors columns of his own.

I will continue to contribute occasional columns and photographs to these outdoors pages, and you can spot even more of my stuff in Tideline magazine, the Lowcountry’s premier outdoors publication.