California winter brings to mind images of lolling on sunny beaches, listening to surfer boys doing dude-talk, “oohing” and “aahing” at the New Year’s Eve fireworks at Disneyland and watching the Rose Bowl. To be sure, California is all that. But there’s so much more, especially for waterfowl hunters who target the Central Valley. And there is a lot to target.
The Central Valley, 500 miles long — north to south — running from Redding to Bakersfield, is divided into two river drainages. The Sacramento River in the north and the San Joaquin River in the south meet in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, a fertile stretch of marshes, sloughs, canals, streambeds and peat islands. Toss into the mix some 500,000 acres of rice fields within 100 miles of Sacramento, about 40 percent of which are flooded each winter to create wetland habitat. Add the wheat fields of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys that produce 75 percent of the wheat grown in the state. Moisten the mix with many smaller rivers running through the area and it becomes apparent why 10-12 million ducks come to the Central Valley every year.
The mix of ducks runs the gamut: Mallard, gadwall, pintail, teal (both cinnamon and green-wing), wood, widgeon, northern shoveler and more. Some areas are known to put out more of one variety than the others. If you want species-specific hunting, a great source of information is the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) Waterfowl Hunt Reports. The information is broken down for each state-operated hunting unit. It provides insight into hunter success as the season progresses, the numbers of hunters and the first and second most-harvested species.
Perhaps most telling about the statistics is the dramatic falloff of hunter success on Sunday after a Saturday shoot. Possible reasons are fewer birds in the area, the survivors quickly learning to avoid the blinds or the Saturday hunters being more accomplished shots. Whatever the reason, a Saturday reservation is preferred over Sunday. The bad news is that the current report information is not posted online. As with all things concerning Mother Nature, bird concentration and composition changes over time. For the best up-to-date information, there are a number of resources. Check in with your local outdoor store (Kittles Outdoor and Sport in Colusa [www.kittles.com] or Outdoor Sportsman in Stockton [www.outdoorsportsman.biz]), read the newspaper, contact the local game warden and search the Internet for postings regarding the area of interest.
Let’s look at some more numbers to whet your hunting appetite. Sixty percent of all Pacific Flyway waterfowl migrate through or winter in the Central Valley, according to Ducks Unlimited. Mike Carion, CDFG northern district assistant chief of enforcement and a duck hunter himself said, “Ninety percent of pintails in the Pacific Flyway come into the Central Valley.” In the past that was discouraging to some hunters who only saw pintails but who were constrained by a one “in the bag” limit. The numbers of pintails have increased so much that the bag limit for the 2009-2010 season was doubled. Merced County, the heart of the San Joaquin, is thought to be the second-leading county in the nation in numbers of waterfowl showing up in the Harvest Information Program.
A couple of general observations about Central Valley hunter success. Water is a key in most refuges, especially early in the year. As the season progresses, more areas within the refuges get flooded. Also, as the season progresses, the birds coming down from the north have already been hunted through Canada, Washington and Oregon. They are better able to detect fraud in calling, in blind construction and in hunter camouflage. Take care to properly set your decoys, take care to construct your blind and take care to manage the little things like picking up your expended shotshells. Avoid simple mistakes and the success ratio will increase. There is also thought that the concentrations of birds gradually move south from the upper Central Valley as the season progresses. A shift in hunter focus should follow.
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex lies at the head of the Central Valley. It consists of five National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) that allow hunting, and three Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) that are closed to the public. The Butte Sink WMA is said to support more waterfowl per acre than any other spot in the world. Before lamenting that no hunting is allowed, take heed — the closed areas still provide significant hunter benefit as they draw more birds into the general area. More birds in the area means more shooting opportunities as those ducks arrive from the north and depart for their final nesting grounds.
The Sacramento NWR (widgeon, green-winged teal, pintails and gadwall) offers 56 concrete pit, pad or assigned ponds. Three are designated for disabled hunters. The others require walking up 1.3 miles from the parking area. As in many other things, walking has its benefits. Shooting usually improves the further the hunter walks from the parking areas.
Delevan NWR (mallard and teal) has 30 hunt sites, three of which are set aside for disabled hunters. Able-bodied waterfowlers can get more exercise at Delevan as the longest walk is 1.7 miles. This a traditional hotspot with both the blinds and free roam areas producing good numbers of birds.
Colusa and Sutter NWR’s (both mallards) have a combination of assigned areas (ponds, pools and tracts) as well as free roam tracts and pools. For a complete description of the each assigned area, go to the Sacramento NWR Web site and click on “Wildlife-dependant recreation,” then “Hunting” and follow the prompts through to each area.
The Sacramento River NWR offers a different — some might say “primitive” — hunting experience. Composed of 29 units along 77 miles of river, the refuge offers islands, gravel bars, sloughs and other waterfowl habitat. There are no hunting fees or hunter quotas. Access to all areas is by boat only, except for Drumheller Slough and Sul Norte units that also allow foot traffic. No bicycles or other conveyances are allowed. No fires are allowed though camping stoves can be used on gravel bars. The area has limited day-use hours, except camping for up to seven days is permissible on the gravel bars. The area Web site warns that mountain lions have been spotted and requests that any additional sightings be reported to CDFG.
Unit maps, regulations and other information hunters need to know is available online at the Refuge Complex Web site and the individual refuge Web sites. Hunters that plan to bring a travel trailer should confirm that the selected refuge allows trailers.
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