Mo' Mallards

Out of the way and low key, greenheads hang out at Modoc NWR -- so why don't you? Here's how to find your way around these 2,130 acres of prime mallard marshes. (November 2007)

Timing is everything at Modoc National Wildlife Refuge near Alturas. Hit it right, and you've got your limit in no time.
Photo by Marv Bibby.

The sky was turning gray behind the Warner's when I stepped down from the truck. The smell of burning brake pads smacked me full in the face.

Three pickups and a single car were scattered around the parking lot at Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, but the smell wasn't coming from them.

Steam and smoke were pouring from my driver's side rear wheel. It was too hot to touch -- and the air temperature was only 16 degrees.

At least that's what the display on my mirror said when I had bounced over the railroad tracks and started down the gravel road leading to the south parking lot at the refuge.

I kicked the wheel and tried to decide what to do. Driving the 180 miles of desolate desert highway to Reno, then another 120 miles on the interstate over the Sierras to my home in Sacramento, did not bode well for either me or the brake. And it was Halloween; I'd promised my wife to be home that night for trick-or-treaters.

Maybe somebody in Alturas could fix it? But the garage wouldn't be open for several hours yet.

The brake would have to wait. I stayed to hunt mallards.

Half an hour later, I got to the hunter's ferry on the Pit River. The 1 1/2-inch rope was encased in ice. The steel pulleys that powered the contraption were reluctant to budge. But someone had made it work that morning; the ferry was on the opposite shore, and a trail of broken ice meandered away across the shallow flood plain towards the south 395 borrow pond a quarter mile away.

I breathed a sigh of relief. The patch of tules north of the pond was surrounded by unbroken ice.

I struggled through ice and mud towards the tules, punching a semicircle of holes in the ice with a wading staff. Then I slammed my decoy bag down on top of the ice and kicked it forward with my foot -- and remembered the previous Thursday.

* * *

Mallards had come in fast and hard -- singles, pairs, triples. And they couldn't even wait for me to retrieve a bird and get back under cover. They wanted to set down in the decoys, now. Right now!

One hen had even landed in the decoys, swum to within five yards of my hide before deciding something wasn't quite right and giving me a raucous scolding as she burst into the air. It was over before it started -- six mallards and a gadwall, with me back at the Sports Hut in Alturas well before noon.

"You hit it just right," said storeowner, Ron Pervette, picking my birds in the back room while I changed out of my waders.

Just days before, a big influx of mallards had arrived. And with a ton of birds kegged up on the new refuge acreage just north of the hunting area, Pervette figured that hunting would be good until the next freeze.

And it was.

* * *

So here I was, a week later, following Pervette's advice.

It was close to 9 a.m. before I'd managed to kick a hole in the ice big enough to set out some decoys and get into my hide. But even with my late start, I collected three mallards, a widgeon and a teal. Then I hotfooted it back to the hunter's ferry and to the parking lot -- to deal with the brake.

HUNTING MODOC

In the northeastern corner of the state, just south of Alturas on U.S. 395, the Modoc NWR's 2,130 acres straddles the South Fork of the Pit River. The area is set aside for hunting on every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

"Three-quarters of the hunters using the area are local," said Steve Clay, refuge manager. The rest come from all over the state. Heaviest hunter pressure occurs on Saturdays. But even then, peak days in 2006 found only 54 hunters chasing ducks on Nov. 4, and 41 hunters on Dec. 2. That's not a lot of hunting pressure.

You can access Modoc from two parking lots -- one north and one south. Much of the acreage in between can be reached just as easily from either one.

There's more hunting pressure in the south section during the first few months of the season because it has a larger concentrations of ducks. That's not to say that the north section never shoots well. On Halloween day last year, four hunters took 16 ducks for a 4.0 bird average, for example. But the south usually shoots even better. On that same day, 11 hunters bagged 52 ducks for an average of 4.73 birds

Over the course of the 2006 season, 1,083 ducks were taken out of the north parking lot and 1,625 ducks out of the south. Not huge numbers by valley standards -- but not a lot of hunters, either.

Mallards are No. 1 bird here, followed closely by gadwalls and cinnamon teal.

"Pulses of migrants move through all season," said Clay, NWR manager. However, "once we get the first hard freeze in November, the number of ducks on the refuge drops significantly."

Harvest statistics support this. During October, the south section produced nine days with more than a 4.0 birds-hunter average. Then November dropped to 11 days, with a more than 1.2 birds-hunter average. Three of those days shot 2.0, and two days shot over a 3.5 average.

On Dec. 2, the average dropped off significantly, shooting less than a 1.0 average for the rest of the season. The shallow water in the south had frozen over, and hunter attention shifted to geese.

"Mallards are here all year," said Clay. Their flight pattern shifts after the first big freeze, and it takes a lot more scouting, he said.

CHOOSING BLINDS

First-time hunters at Modoc may want to start out the morning at one of the three spaced blinds. You can walk to them from the north parking lot. Two of the blinds are ADA-accessible and have a capacity of four hunters. They are huge, built of plywood, enclosed on three sides and covered with fast-grass. Spaced 200 yards apart, they face Gadwall Pond.

The third blind is a simple h

ay-bale affair located next to the railroad tracks. This is designed strictly for pass-shooting.

Park in a vacant reserved parking stall with number corresponding to the blind, and it's all yours.

Directly south and west of the south parking lot, and east of the Pit River, you'll see a large area of open water covering grain fields. The annual vegetation at water's edge and on islands spaced throughout the fields provides cover for hunters using this consistent producer during the first half of the season.

Cross the Pit River at the south dam, or on the hunter's ferry due west of the parking lot, to reach the borrow ponds along U.S. 395. The south 395 pond is heavily used over the course of the day by gadwalls and sprigs.

Hunters will find shallower water on the south side of the pond, but more cover on the north. There, the water can often nudge the tops of your waders.

The afternoon before your hunt, drive along US 395 and scout the area for working ducks.

Chest waders and a wading staff are a must. The terrain is rough, uneven and unpredictable.

"Some of the water can be deep, especially the Pit River," said Clay. There are few places over your head, but it sure "can tickle the top of your waders."

With early-morning temperatures in the high teens or low 20s, an early-morning dunking can turn downright dangerous. Pay heed to the warning posted on the refuge's Web site: "Hunters should examine their own abilities and limitations before using the Refuge."

IF YOU GO

Modoc may be remote, and the city of Alturas small. But the latter has anything and everything that a traveling hunter might need. Numerous motels and restaurants are strung out along Main Street and U.S. 395.

For those inclined to camp, there are three RV Parks, one of which is in spitting distance of the Modoc NWR's northern border.

Stop into the Sports Hut at 231 N. Main Street before your hunt for last-minute supplies and a chat with owner Ron Pervette or call him at (530) 233-2423.

A dyed-in-the-wool goose hunter, he still knows ducks and the Modoc NWR. After the hunt, drop off your birds and go eat lunch. He'll have them cleaned, picked, bagged and tagged for transport by the time you're gassed up and ready to go.

Check the Modoc NWR Web site at modoc.fws.gov/hunt.htm before you go. You'll find information on current conditions, harvest information for previous shoot days and a link to access numbers for local accommodations.

Self-registration, maps and regulations are available at headquarters and in the parking lots. Although there's no fee to hunt the refuge, each hunter is required to check in and check out.

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