Capers Island is a classic, undeveloped barrier island located about 15 miles north of Charleston between Dewees Island and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The island lies about three miles from the mainland, is approximately three miles in length, and only accessible by boat. It encompasses 850 acres of maritime uplands, 214 acres of front beach, 1,090 acres of salt marsh, and over 100 acres of brackish water impoundments.
Capers is the southwestern end of a 60 mile stretch of the South Carolina coast that is owned either by the state or federal government, and is protected from any type of development. This uniquely unspoiled coastal area includes the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the Santee Coastal Reserve, and the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.
One of the most fascinating features of Capers Island is its front beach known as the “bone-yard”. Its name is due to the old tree skeletons and stumps left as a result of erosion and bleached out by the sun. Capers has been eroding an average of 15 feet per year since 1875. Visitors can stroll in and out of this sculpture garden of weathered trees which goes on for about 3 miles. Walking the front beach of Capers gives visitors a feel for what our barrier islands looked like before beachfront houses and condos arrived. Capers “bone-yard beach” is a favorite place for photographers, beach combers, or someone looking to experience a truly amazing natural creation.
The island contains diverse habitats supporting abundant wildlife. Visitors may observe alligators, white-tailed deer, raccoons, and loggerhead sea turtles. The McCaskill Trail, which starts at the dock on the south end of the island, provides great access for serious birders and casual hikers alike. Birds, such as herons, egrets, ibises, bitterns, and various waterfowl species are common in the brackish impoundment adjacent to the trail. Each year ospreys nest on Capers near the front beach. It has become common to see Bald Eagles soaring over the island in recent years. The creeks and marshes adjacent to Capers are alive with oysters, shrimp, hard clams, crabs and many species of fish such as sea trout, red drum, flounder, black drum, king whiting, spot, pompano, and croaker.
During most of the year, the endangered brown pelican is common along the beach. During the winter, only a few pelicans remain in the area. In the fall, winter, and early spring, huge flocks of common surf and white-winged scooters, along with greater and lesser scaup ride on the ocean just beyond the breakers. Common and red-throated loons, and double-crested cormorants often join them. Ruddy turnstones occasionally search for isopods and other invertebrates along the driftwood.
When winter weather conditions are right, gannets may move in close to the beach to fish, and rarely, a few great black-backed gulls winter in the area. The endangered peregrine falcon is another unusual winter migrant, preying on the many ducks and shore birds. The impoundment area on the southwest end of Capers provides some of the island’s most diverse wildlife habitat. The larger impoundment is connected to the estuary by two water control structures so that the water is brackish. The impoundment attracts many species of birds especially from late fall to early spring when wintering waterfowl migrate through the area. Puddle ducks, teal, mallard, widgeon, black duck, pintails, and gadwalls are the most abundant. Diving ducks such as canvas-backs, redheads, ruddy ducks, scaup, ringnecks, and buffleheads also visit the impoundment along with hooded and red-breasted mergansers, and coots.
Most of South Carolina’s long-legged wading birds, including white and glossy ibis, wood stork, herons, egrets, and least bittern all frequent the impoundment. These birds do not nest on the island. The shallow water also attracts a variety of smaller shore birds, which often feed close to the dike. Yellowlegs, willets and dunlins are fairly common. In the spring, an occasional avocet, black-necked stilt feeds in the impoundment. On the salt marsh side of the dike, clapper rails are abundant but seldom seen. A bushy dike hides a smaller impoundment towards the beach from the main impoundment. During the last few summers, roseate spoonbills have been observed feeding in the impoundment along with large groups of wood storks. Since 2006, there has been a flock of white pelicans seen in the impoundment and along the intracoastal waterway near Capers during the fall.
The smaller impoundment, which also can be approached from the beach, usually harbors a population of night herons that roost in the surrounding trees. The remains of duck blinds still dot the impoundments but neither hunting nor fishing is allowed. There is no other standing water on Capers except for the sloughs between the old dune ridges.
The front beach of Capers Island is an excellent place for surf fishing. Spottail bass, also called channel bass, are the surf angler’s greatest prize. Spottail bass in excess of 30 pounds are caught regularly off the South Carolina coast. Other popular surf fishing species are bluefish, summer and winter trout, and flounder. Occasionally good catches of sheepshead and black drum are taken around the stumps on the front beach. The best fishing generally is in the fall and spring, and the variety of species caught depends somewhat on the season. The creeks that wind through the marsh support shrimp and crabs and a variety of inshore game fish including trout, spottail bass, flounder, black drum, sharks, whiting, pompano, spot, and croaker.
The Native Americans were the original inhabitants on Capers Island. A few shell middens consisting of oyster, clam, whelk, and periwinkle shells are found on the southwestern tip. The Seewee Indians had a village near Bulls Bay and a fort near the west side of Toomer Creek (across the waterway from Capers) in 1685. There are shell remains on Dewees Island that date back as early as 2000 BC.
In 1659 three French Huguenot brothers from Wales, Richard, Gabriel, and William Capier, after refusing holy orders from their father, sailed to America. In 1679 they settled on what is now called Capers Island. Gabriel and Richard lived on Capers Island and the sea coast of South Carolina, and their families after them for 175 years or until the Civil War in 1865.
Capers, known as Sessions Island, from 1675-1705 and Capore Island until 1722, was one of many sea islands the King of England proclaimed for the Crown upon discovery. He later issued grants for the colonists who grew indigo, sea island cotton, corn, sugarcane, celery, asparagus, cauliflower, snap beans, melons, peaches, strawberries, blackberries, beets, and carrots.
Ownership changed hands a dozen times from 1868 until 1975. The Magwood family owned Capers in the early 1900’s. In 1924 Coulter Hyler, a candy manufacturer, whose hearts desire to live on a sea island in South Carolina, purchased Capers for $35,000 and Dewees Island for $25,000. The Reynolds Corporation purchased Dewees and Capers in the late 1950’s for hunting and fishing. In 1961 the Reynolds Corporation built the 100 acre impoundment on Capers Island for waterfowl hunting. In 1972 the Royals purchased Dewees and Capers Island. The State of South Carolina purchased Capers from the Royals in 1975 for 2.8 million dollars and designated Capers as a State Heritage Preserve in 1977.