California's Best Waterfowl Hunting
October 18, 2017
These California waterfowl hunting destinations are among the state's top picks for ducks and geese this season.
I've been hunting and fishing in California for the better part of 40 years. If I had to describe the state's hunting and fishing opportunities in a single word, "diversity" would be my first pick.
California is a big place that features varied environments.
We can fish for high-country rainbows along the backbone of the Sierra Nevadas, in foothill reservoirs or in urban lakes and ponds.
Salmon, anyone? If you aren't bothered by motion sickness you can jump on a charter or private boat and troll or mooch for ocean run kings off the California coast.
If saltwater fishing isn't your cup of tea, you can hit the Sacramento or Feather Rivers to hook a hard charging river run Chinook or two.
In terms of deer hunting we can chase blacktail bucks in coastal rainforests or in riparian hardwood groves along major valley rivers.
In the Sierras, you can climb into alpine country in hopes of tagging a big blacktail/mule deer hybrid. Finally, if you are lucky enough to draw a premium X Zone tag you can pursue massive mule deer bucks that call the high desert terrain east of the Sierra crest home.
The same depth of diversity that we enjoy in terms of our fishing and deer hunting opportunities is also enjoyed by Golden State waterfowl hunters.
You can play it safe and visit one of California's waterfowl refuges where the state's heaviest density of ducks and geese occur.
Indeed, it is estimated that upwards of 60 percent of the ducks and geese following the Pacific Flyway in any given year pass through the Central Valley.
If you want to avoid the crowds and competition associated with refuge hunting, but still want to stay within the boundaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and the agricultural activity that attracts and holds vast numbers of waterfowl, you can jump into a boat and ghost the public rivers and sloughs that crisscross the valley.
If you really want to get off the grid and leave almost all of the competition behind, you can get innovative and scout out lakes and ponds outside the boundaries of the valley.
While it's true these areas don't attract or hold the numbers of birds that valley waterways do, they do offer reliable shooting, particularly during periods of stormy weather.
Have I gotten you excited? Are you ready for a bowl of duck gumbo or perhaps some roast goose?
If so read on, because we are about to explore some of the best and some of the most offbeat waterfowl hunting opportunities the Golden State has to offer.
THE REFUGE OPTION
In the minds of many, the Sacramento NWR is California's premier public waterfowl hunting area.
The Sac National was established in 1937 on the "Colusa Plains." Over time, considerable improvements to the nearly 11,000-acre area transformed it into a patch work of canals, ponds and grass lands.
From November to January the Sac National plays host to as many as 750,000 ducks and 200,000 geese. That's nearly 1 million birds up for grabs!
The waterfowl commonly taken at the Sacramento NWR are a study in variety, with mallards, pintails, widgeon, teal and geese showing up in hunters' bags regularly.
The refuge offers nearly 60 hunting locations, including pits, cement pads and pond set ups along with a large free range area.
In an average year, more than 7,000 hunters visit the Sac NWR. And they leave with nearly 20,000 ducks and 5,000 geese.
Weather is an important factor in Central Valley waterfowl movements and hunter success.
While early season success rates at the Sac NWR are generally fair to good, hunting success spikes as you get into the final third of the season.
Overall the best period to plan your visit by the numbers is from Nov. 20 through the end of December. In January things can be variable, and sometimes the success numbers drop off pretty drastically.
These numbers from last season illustrate the point well. On Oct. 22, 300 hunters worked the Sac NWR and they took 655 ducks, or 2.2 ducks per hunter, and 89 geese, or .3 of a goose per gun.
Fast forward two months to Dec. 24, and things look different. On that Christmas Eve 165 hunters went into the field.
They returned with 519 ducks, an average of 3.1 per hunter. Goose numbers were stable in terms of the percentage harvest, and 52 geese were downed for an average of .3 geese per hunter.
"I moved around a lot last year and seemed to be in the birds just about everywhere," related north state waterfowler Todd Strickland. "Dad and I hunted the Sac twice, and we did well on both occasions. One trip we got a total of six mallards, a pintail, a wood duck and a couple geese. On our second hunt, we limited out on specks and picked up four assorted ducks. Those are good number for us. Sometimes we get limits, but overall if you are averaging more than three birds per gun you are doing pretty well at most locations most days."
For more information about this location visit the Fish and Wildlife Service's website.
While it's true California is dotted with refuges and designated waterfowl hunting areas from north to south, I'm going to keep my focus on the Sacramento Valley for the next two hunting areas I'm recommending.
Ducks Unlimited recently rated California's Central Valley as the third best waterfowl hunting region in the entire nation, so the best spots in this region demand close inspection.
If the Sac NWR is the crown jewel of California waterfowl hunting areas, Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is a hidden gem.
Delevan is just a little over half the size of the Sac NWR at 5,877 acres with a mix of water and upland cover.
In an average year about 5,500 hunters operate at Delevan. Goose harvest numbers are generally slim, but the duck hunting is often outstanding with hunters averaging better than 4.5 ducks per gun on many days.
The only downside of the duck action at Delevan is that you'll only see the occasional mallard and scrapping together a limit of greenheads is a tall order indeed.
With at least five top-notch destinations clustered together within a relatively small piece of the Sacramento Valley, picking a third and final refuge do discuss is challenging.
For no other reason than it's the place my father preferred back in the days when I first started hunting waterfowl, I'm going with the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.
Colusa NWR's 5,000-plus acres of fields, ponds and waterways play host to nearly a quarter million ducks and 75,000 geese annually.
Goose harvest isn't robust at Colusa, but the duck harvest is, with gunners averaging as many as five ducks per hunter per day. Better still, a big percentage of these birds are mallards and wood ducks. For information visit the Fish and Wildlife Service's website.
In reality, there is "moving" water duck hunting available all the way from San Francisco Bay up through the upper bays, up farther past the Delta and up the Sacramento River all the way past Red Bluff in the extreme northern end of the Sacramento Valley.
The Delta itself offers up well over 1,000 miles of waterways, much of which can be explored by waterfowlers.
Yet, for our discussion I'm going to narrow the focus and skip right over the opportunities available in the Delta in favor of looking at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
The Sacramento River NWR is situated along an 80-mile stretch of the Sacramento River between Red Bluff and Princeton across Tehama, Butte, Glenn and Colusa counties.
The Sacramento River NWR encompass more than 10,000 acres of land and water spread across 30 distinct units. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in 21 of these units.
Seven total units feature parking areas and hiking trials. Fourteen units are accessible only by boats, and the balance of the units are closed to public access at this time.
The areas that are open to hunting offer zero fees and don't have hunter quotas. During the waterfowl season, hunting pressure is at its height early in the season and then tapers off greatly as the season goes on and hunting in the more popular valley refuges improves.
Many days from the end of November through the conclusion of the season in January, these units are largely devoid of hunters.
Units within the Sac River NWR are subject to a fairly extensive list of rules and regulations.
The regulations are pretty straightforward, and they do make sense. However, the rules vary from unit to unit, so know where you are and what the rules are in that specific unit.
RESERVOIRS, LAKES AND PONDS
There are some well-known duck hunting lakes in California, such as Black Butte Reservoir in the north valley, but for every well-known lake or reservoir there are dozens of waters that while legal to hunt are seldom if ever visited by hunters.
I know of several isolated ponds scattered in the foothills from Placer County all the way up to Tehama County that offer good shooting for ducks and at times geese.
Very often, but not always, stormy windy weather is a critical component in success at these small out of the way waters.
Birds caught in storms and blown off course often look for a body of water, any body of water, to wait out the weather.
The last honker I downed I shot off a small lake in the Lassen National Forest. I was actually on a predator hunt, but heard the birds land in the middle of the night from inside my tent.
Then next morning I snuck out of the tent and into a stiff breeze in the dark. I took up a position concealed in some thick shoreline cover. Silently I loaded the 870 with 3-inch magnum Hevi Shot shells packed with coarse heavier-than-lead pellets.
After daybreak four big beautiful honkers swam out from behind a low island about 50 yards away. In short order, I had a fat goose for the roaster.
Scouting and homework are key to optimizing the waterfowl hunting opportunities on lakes and ponds around your region. Figure out what areas allow waterfowl hunting and which don't.
From there it's all about trial and error. Invest some time and you'll unravel which bodies of water hold ducks and geese and when the best hunting times are.
This type of hunting requires little in the way of gear, boats or decoys. All you really need is a set of waders, a shotgun and a dozen shells!
As we've covered here, our state has no shortage of great opportunities to suit just about any waterfowl hunter. Now it's time for you to get out and explore one of the hotspots noted above or another near you.