Grasslands Waterfowl

Duck hunters of every stripe benefit from the public/private partnerships at the Grasslands Ecological Area, California's largest contiguous wetland. (December 2005)

Here's a view of sunrise at the Grasslands Ecological Area.
Photo by Mark E. Biddlecomb

Pete Vella, his Lab Lira and I are sitting in our blind, listening to the whistle of wings overhead and ducks calling across the marsh. Looking up at the pre-dawn sky, I see flocks of green-winged teal, mallards, pintail and even redheads and ring-necks crisscrossing over us in numbers that almost overwhelm; far too many to count. There's neither a breath of wind nor cloud in the sky, but the ducks are moving in every direction.

Just before shoot time, Pete gives his whistle a try. He's good and results are immediate, we have a pair of green-wings almost land in our decoys. It looks like it'll be a great hunt.

Finally, the time is at hand. As Pete hits the whistle, I look to my right and see a flock of teal headed our way. They zigzag as only teal do, and at the last moment cut straight across our decoys. I miss with the first shot, but connect on the second. There is no time to even think about a third. Pete sends Lira out and she makes a beautiful retrieve. I think to myself, "It doesn't get much better than this." But it does.

We're literally covered up with teal. In the next 20 minutes or so, Pete and I have eight or nine green-wings in the bag, and if truth be told, I should have a couple more than that. There seems to be no end to the small flocks of green-wings tearing by, with a couple of cinnamons thrown in to keep it really interesting. It looks like we'll be limited out in less than an hour.

Then the fog rolls in. It's so thick we can't see the far side of our decoy spread. What was once bright sunshine is now damp grey and the few ducks that fly by are there and gone so fast we can't shoulder our shotguns before they disappear back into the gloom. We need only a couple of ducks each for our limits, but the fog must lift, or at least lighten up, to get there. Pete stays with the whistle, but it seems hopeless. We can hear ducks flying overhead, but that's little consolation, the change of pace is stark and abrupt.

But wait, what's that I feel on my face? A slight breeze! There is hope! With the sun burning bright and a breeze blowing, the fog begins shifting and breaking up. Soon the decoys are back in sight and much to my surprise, the teal start coming in again. A pair flies directly over Pete and, not one to miss often, Lira is out on another retrieve. A double strafes my side of the blind and only one continues on. A drake cinnamon gives us a superb opportunity and humbles us both, but minutes later we've each taken our last teal and are loading the boat; it's only 8:30 a.m.

As we motor down the boat channel back to the dock, I look around and marvel at the expanse of wetlands surrounding us. We're in the Grasslands Ecological Area and marshlands stretch to the horizon no matter which direction I look. Ducks that have rafted up to loaf scatter before us, but we also pass by marsh wrens, great blue herons, a black-crowned night heron and, of course, coots by the dozens walk on the water to get away from our boat.

With a little imagination, I can almost convince myself I've gone back to a time before California was "discovered" and 95 percent of her wetlands drained.

GRASSLANDS ECOLOGICAL AREA

The Grasslands Ecological Area provides a glimpse of California's wildlife paradise past. At over 160,000 acres, it's the state's largest remaining contiguous wetlands.

The Grasslands contains many habitats types; riparian (streamside), vernal pools, wet meadows, semi-permanent wetlands which are good for waterfowl pair and brood ponds and grasslands. But the majority of habitat found in this area is seasonal wetlands, which are flooded in the fall and drained in the spring. These wetlands provide abundant food resources for millions of shorebirds and waterfowl every fall and winter.

Typically, most extensive wetland areas are owned and managed by state or federal governments. Such is the case here, but that's only part of the story. More than 100,000 acres of this land is managed by a variety of private landowners. Most of these areas are duck clubs, such as the Coast Cattle that Pete belongs to, and most are managed to maximize waterfowl food resources and thus waterfowl hunting opportunities.

The majority of these duck clubs are located in the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, which was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1979. This area is comprised of privately owned lands on which conservation easements have been purchased. These easements preserve wetland and grassland habitats and prevent landowners from converting the land to agricultural production or other uses that would degrade the quality of waterfowl habitat.

The Grasslands WMA is in Merced County and these private wetlands account for nearly 30 percent of the remaining wetlands in the Central Valley. Over 65,000 acres of wetlands are protected by federal easements and along with state wildlife areas and federal national wildlife refuges, the WMA supports more than 60 million duck use days each year.

PUBLIC & PRIVATE LANDS BENEFIT

But before those hunters that don't have the opportunity to belong to a duck club (author included!) throw up their hands and say, "Who cares!" or "That just ruins the public hunting opportunities," listen up: Without these duck clubs and the vast acreages and resources they provide, nobody would be having much of a duck-hunting season here. The region just wouldn't support enough ducks for any kind of worthwhile waterfowl hunting.

Kim Forrest, project leader for the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge complex, concurs. "Although the Grasslands are the largest contiguous wetlands remaining in California, it's a postage stamp in a sea of agriculture," she said. "Seventy percent of the wetlands here are private, so they're extremely important. The place would literally collapse without them. Migratory bird populations would be pushed over the brink without private wetlands, and there would be far fewer ducks than we have now."

This adds up to more opportunities for a good hunt on public lands. There are several state and federal areas that provide waterfowl hunting opportunities, but ducks don't distinguish between public and private wetlands. "Absolutely," Forrest agrees. "Private wetlands are critical to the success of public lands hunters. We don't nail their (waterfowl) feet down to public lands. They move around a lot."

"The large size and the fact that the Grasslands are one contiguous piece is really important to main

taining waterfowl numbers," said Dean Kwasny, senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "Compare it to wetlands in the Tulare Basin, which are fragmented and isolated from one another, and you'll see they don't support nearly the numbers found in the Grasslands."

Kwasny also notes that cooperative efforts among state, federal and private groups are a real plus. "Landowners, whether private or public, depend on each other for noxious weed control, water management and other management practices. When everyone works together, as they do here, everyone benefits."

BROOD HABITAT FOR LOCAL DUCKS

Another key benefit provided by private landowners is brood habitat, which produces local ducks. Some 13,000 acres of land, primarily duck clubs, are enrolled in a state-funded program that helps landowners offset the cost of managing their property. "The majority of landowners enrolled in the California Waterfowl Habitat Program are required to maintain summer brood water, so they're producing ducks. Of course, these ducks don't stick to private land, so public hunters benefit from this program," Kwasny added.

Historically, this area naturally flooded. But these days, nearly all of these wetlands are managed, which means water levels are controlled, timing of flood up and draw down is controlled and even the type of wetland a particular area supports is largely controlled by the desire of the landowner and how water is managed.

Most of the habitat in the Grasslands is supported by an extensive canal system, and both public and private wetlands require management to function properly. "All wetlands left here are highly manipulated," Forrest explained. "The hydrology has been altered and most of these wetlands have been restored from their degraded state. Restoration and management are essential to re-creating a healthy ecosystem."

It doesn't come cheaply. Water costs, pumping costs, control structures and maintenance of these facilities can run up the bills. Even when landowners have federal easements on their property, they pay the bill to maintain the wetlands.

MORE INFO
For quick information, the Web is a great place to start. For information on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex, go to

www.fws.gov/sanluis/, where you'll find maps, hunt program information and more. For state wildlife areas, you can go to

www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/lands.html, which has information on every state wildlife area and ecological reserve (some of which you can hunt).

Also on the DFG Web site is

www.dfg.ca.gov/wmd/waterfowlprogram.html. Here you an access harvest statistics for all state or federal hunt areas. It's kept up to date and will show which areas are hot and which are not.

No Internet access? Write: san Luis NWR Complex, P.O. Box 2176, Los Banos, CA 93635 or call 209-822-3508. Call or write the DFG's Lands and Facilities Branch at the 1812 9th St., Sacramento, CA 95814; 916-445-3400. -- Mark E. Biddlecomb

As treasurer for Coast Cattle, Pete knows. "It costs a lot to run a duck club, but you reap what you sow. We put a lot of hard work into the club the other nine months of the year. We have workdays -- well, they're really fun so it's hard to call them workdays. The members do a lot during the summer to make sure the club is in good shape."

FLEXIBILITY PAYS

Although managed and therefore not strictly "natural," the Grasslands' flexibility is important to waterfowl, says Kwasny. "Flexibility in habitat management is important. For example, a club may flood up early to attract pintail in one area and maintain semi-permanent wetlands for brood water in another. It makes the whole area more attractive to more and different birds."

The Grasslands are so essential to waterfowl and other migratory birds that the Ramsar Convention recognized the area as a Wetlands of International Importance earlier this year. It is also a site of International Importance in the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, a top priority focus area for Ducks Unlimited and an Important Bird Area for the National Audubon Society; the list goes on but you get the idea.

DUCK HUNTING THE GRASSLANDS

Early on, the state of California recognized the importance of this area and thus established the Los Banos State Wildlife Area, the first state-owned and state-managed wildlife area.

The Los Banos Wildlife Area was purchased in 1929 and was originally 3,000 acres in size. Now over 6,200 acres, it provides outstanding waterfowl hunting opportunities. Last season more than 7,600 waterfowl were harvested here, up from 7,000 the previous year. Green-winged teal, shovelers and mallards were the top three species shot by hunters.

Similarly, kill numbers at the Volta Wildlife Area harvest was up from 2,891 to 3,637, the North Grasslands Wildlife Area Gadwall Unit was 2,909, up from 1,906, the China Island Unit increased from 1,233 to 1,790, and the Salt Slough Unit from 2,639 to 3,022. All told, these wildlife areas cover more than 16,000 acres and provide a wide variety of hunting opportunities, including hunting sloughs, riparian areas, and the more traditional seasonal wetlands.

As the numbers indicate, last year provided outstanding waterfowl hunting. "Lights out! It was phenomenal!" exclaimed Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited. "The hunting was fantastic, much better than the year before. Merced County hunters consistently harvest an incredible number of ducks, it's usually among the top counties in the country. This past year, it was again one of the highest in terms of waterfowl harvested."

Indeed, California Department of Fish and Game estimates that 9,134 hunters shot 281,794 ducks in 108,776 days afield. That's an overall average of 2.59 birds per hunter per day. Not bad. The "duck counties" in the North Sacramento Valley, Colusa and Butte, only provided about a two-bird average, while some Grasslands duck clubs averaged over five birds per hunter! Green-winged teal were consistently the top bird, but gadwall, mallards, pintails and even divers such as ring-necked ducks and redheads can show up in the bag.

Kwasny hunted the Grasslands more than the North Sacramento Valley last year, a little unusual for him. "It was such a good year I found myself going to the Grasslands instead of the North Valley. You shoot mostly green-winged teal instead of mallards, but you don't have to sit in a parking lot in the sweat line waiting to get in either. I started getting there later and walking on at 6 or 7a.m., no problem."

HOTSPOTS

Kwasny favored the China Island Unit where teal were plentiful. "I usually had no trouble limiting on teal, with an occasional pintail thrown in."

Hunters looking for mallards should try Merced National Wildlife Refuge

or the Salt Slough Unit, which has really picked up for mallards lately.

Pete Vella has hunted the Grasslands for 54 years. His club has kept records for about nine years and this past season was better than average. "It was an excellent season, but we never really have a bad season," he said. When asked whether the "good old days" were better than now or are the good old days now, Pete replied, "It's all relative. I can remember a seven-bird limit with four bonus pintails, so you could shoot 11 pintails. Were those the good old days? I don't know. I really enjoy the camaraderie, and the limit could be four and I would still be happy."

Overall, the Grasslands have something to offer every waterfowler. While Pete and I had a great teal shoot that early January day, other members and guests shot ring-necked ducks, redheads, gadwall and pintail. And that about sums up the hunting here: a variety of ducks and a variety of habitats to chose from. If you want a limit of mallards, you're probably better off heading north to Butte/Colusa country. But as Kwasny puts it: "If you're not that selective and you want to shoot birds, the Grasslands is where to go." I couldn't have said it better myself.

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