Photo by juddcooney.com
Tom Davis and I crept into our blind long before dawn. There had been a big flock of Canada geese in the field the night before. We assumed they were still around.
As I sat waiting in the predawn chill, I was feeling pretty confident. Our setup appeared to be perfect, and I was certain that once legal shooting light arrived, knocking down a limit of Canadas would be as easy as pie.
Dawn finally broke. There was not a single goose. They slipped away during the night.
I felt as if I’d been sucker-punched in the stomach. Davis and I had spent a lot of time planning our hunt and to have the geese leave before we got a crack at them was very disappointing.
I’d never hunted the Ash Creek Wildlife Area in extreme northern California before, so I figured we were completely out of business.
Davis knew better.
“Let’s pick up our gear and head back to the truck for some breakfast,” said Davis. “After breakfast, we can try to jump up some pheasants.”
When I think of pheasant hunting, I think of the rich agricultural lands that make up the Sacramento Valley. So I was a bit skeptical about our chances in far northern California near the town of Alturas.
We were double-teaming a plot of matted stubble for about 20 minutes when it happened. We’d pushed the length of the cover, which was thinning out quickly when a loud cackle, seemingly right under my feet, split the chilly air.
Startled, I fumbled with my long-barreled 12-gauge goose gun. Two long-tailed roosters exploded upward. By the time I got the gun to my shoulder, the birds had leveled off and were flying nearly straight away, one about 10 yards in front of the other.
Once I’d lined up on the rear pheasant and touched off the magnum load of No. 4 steel, the bird was probably about 40 yards away.
I don’t profess to be a great wing-shot, so imagine my surprise when both pheasants crumbled and tumbled to the ground.
Later, Davis brought down a bird of his own, and we called it a day after about two hours of pheasant hunting.
It had certainly been a quite enlightening morning: There we were, walking back to the truck with three beautiful roosters we’d shot on public land in an area best known for its waterfowl hunting.
The Golden State offers an array of outstanding public hunting areas that boast huntable pheasant populations. The primary focus at most of these areas is duck and goose hunting. The pheasants are there, but they go overlooked by most hunters who focus on the monster Canadas or a brace of greenheads.
Let’s take a look at some of the North State’s public-land ringneck hotspots.
SACRAMENTO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Sacramento NWR is California’s premier public waterfowl- and pheasant-hunting area. Between October and January, hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks pass through the refuge as they travel along the Pacific Flyway.
The refuge is nearly 11,000 acres of marsh, permanent ponds and tangled uplands. The bulk of the refuge’s pheasant population will be found in the upland areas, but don’t overlook the edges of the marshes and ponds.
There is a general rule of thumb that says pheasants avoid standing water. While that’s often true, a notable exception is when pheasants are pressured by hunters. At these times, you might find pheasants holding almost anywhere, including areas that feature 2 or 3 inches of water.
All a rooster needs to be comfortable in such a situation is a dense patch of grass that extends above the water line or a small dinner-plate-sized high spot on the ground that he can use as a tiny island.
“When it comes to public-land pheasant hunting, I try to avoid the crowds,” said veteran waterfowl and pheasant hunter Todd Strickland. “But that isn’t possible at the Sacramento NWR. Yet, I still hunt the refuge, simply because it holds so many birds.”
Strickland said the action is best during the first week of the season. But he’s also shot quality roosters in the refuge right into the last week of the season. Once the season is underway and the pheasants know they are targets, the hunting is challenging.
“You’ve got to work slowly and methodically, always keeping an eye out for areas that other hunters overlook, no matter how small or unproductive such areas might look,” he said.
Before embarking on a pheasant hunt at the Sacramento NWR, or any of the other areas, be certain to check the regulations to be sure you are following all the rules. Pheasant hunting is typically allowed daily during the first nine days of the season. After that, pheasant enthusiasts can only take to the field on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
To access the Sacramento NWR headquarters, take Interstate 5 to its junction with Road 68 about 20 miles north of Williams. Take Road 68 to its junction with Highway 99. Turn north and follow 99 about 1.6 miles until you reach the refuge entrance.
For more information, check out the online refuge locator at www. fws.gov/refuges.
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