Mud 'n' Ducks

For properly equipped waterfowlers, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges can be heaven -- but hell for the unprepared. (December 2008)

On the California side of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, you must pull up your spread and quit hunting at 1 p.m. But you can still scout till dark for your next day's hunt.
Photo by Bill Mays.

It's quite a rush to roar through the marsh at o'dark-thirty in 12 inches of mud and water, with only a set of headlights on the bow of your mud boat -- plus a kill switch wrapped around your wrist, just in case you're ejected.

You wonder if you're really a race-boat driver or just another duck hunter trying to beat everyone else to the sweet spots at Tule Lake or Lower Klamath.

Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge are two of the six refuges in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Both are located along the California-Oregon state line. Covering 63,900 acres, they are two of the crown jewels of the Pacific Flyway.

Both of these refuges can deliver excellent waterfowl opportunities for the hunters, but the right equipment is imperative. You also have to do your homework. You might have to hire a guide -- and you definitely cannot be afraid of a little mud!

FIRST-TIME BASIN HUNTER?
I highly recommend that any first-timer book a hunt with one of the four registered refuge guides.

I've hunted with all of them. If the birds are in, any of these guides will give you the hunt of a lifetime.

But the main reason for hiring a guide is safety. Never hunt the Tule Lake Marsh without a guide or an experienced Klamath Basin hunter.

Over the years, the mud and silt have built up. There are sinkholes, quicksand and deep water throughout the marsh, so much so that it's now almost impossible to walk in to hunt the Tule Lake Marsh. In fact, while hunting the marsh in my younger years, I almost lost my life -- twice!

The first time, I left the boat to help a young dog find a crippled duck. My 10-year-old-son was able to use the boat to pull me out of a sinkhole.

Never leave the boat while hunting this marsh. If you must leave the boat for some reason, take a 12-foot push-pole with you for support. Feel the bottom for soft spots.

If you should end up in trouble, someone can use that pole to help pull you out at a distance.

My second time, an island bank caved in, and I ended up in the quicksand. I was lucky to grab some tules just in time and pull myself out of the sucking mud and back to the bank.

Hunting the Lower Klamath is not as dangerous as Tule Lake. Lower Klamath has many walk-in opportunities. There are still some deep-water areas, but after 30 years of hunting it, I have yet to experience quicksand or sinkholes. Still, I recommend hiring a guide for this unit. He'll cut down your learning curve.

Another good reason for first-timers to hire one of these guides is because it's difficult to tell where one zone ends and another starts.

There are not many signs that show the demarcation between closed zones, retrieving zones or the units that are open to hunting. You can pick up a map at many of the entrance gates -- but a lot of guys do have problems with reading maps.

A mud boat like this Pro-Drive will help you get back to where the ducks are.
Photo by Bill Mays.

If you're going to hunt a water unit, you should have a boat. There are only a few bridges for walking that cross the deep ditches bordering the shallow flooded hunting fields on the Lower Klamath. And remember, it's always a bad idea to hunt the Tule Lake Marsh without a boat.

In the past, waterfowl hunters have used everything from float tubes to canoes in their attempts to get across the ditches and into the shallow flooded fields.

THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
Now that I've scared you to death, you're probably wondering, "Why would I want to hunt this area and possibly lose my life?"

Well, let's talk about the right stuff for safety -- and success.

Mud Boats
Mud boats are tailor-made for these kinds of conditions.

California waterfowl hunters didn't start using the mud boats with their mud motors until about eight years ago. I'm proud to say that I was on the cutting edge of the mud boats and motors in this area. In this part of the country, the Klamath Basin is where it all began.

As any old waterfowl hunter will tell you, the good ducks are found in the shallow water and backwater areas of the marsh, on rivers or newly flooded grain fields. These birds aren't stupid! Why would they want to feed in deep water when they can feed in the shallows?

The water lines of conventional outboard motors tend to clog up with mud, making the motors overheat. So hunters grew more and more creative about raising their outboard motors to run in shallow water. They did everything from attaching a piece of plywood to the transom to building a manual lift called a jackass lift.

Pepper Robinette, an avid waterfowler from Merrill, Ore., started making jackass lifts in the 1980s. These manual long-handled succors-type lifts made it possible to raise and lower an outboard motor at any time, and they pretty much replaced fixed-transom mounts in the area.

Now the hunters could run the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuge and get back into the shallow areas of the marsh without overheating their outboard motors. These jackass lifts were the "hottest" thing going and have been used for over 20 years.

The mud motor itself was first used by some Cajun boys running crawdad traps in the south. They brought a crude mud motor back from Vietnam.

Warren Coco, an inventor from Louisiana, laughed when he first saw the motor.

"That thing will never work," he said. But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to experiment with the idea. In three weeks, he had his first prototype mud mo

tor that he called the Go-Devil -- an innovation that would change the shallow-water boating industry.

Robinette, always looking for the better way to get around in the Tule Lake Marsh's constantly rising silt, started running a mud motor. And now, all the guides and professional hunters are running mud motors.

Tearing across the muddy shallow-water areas, they don't collect weeds on their prop shaft. Hunters can cut through clumps of tule and go just about anywhere their boat will float.

Mud Motors
Pro-Drive, Mud Buddy, Go-Devil, and Gator-Tail are some of the more popular models. These mud motors range from 20 to 45 horsepower, with a high-end price tag of $8,000.

When these models first came out, they were all long-shaft motors, with more torque pressure on the arms of the operator. Occasionally the shaft would dig too deep in the mud, which could walk the operator right out the stern of the boat.

With the new short-shaft motors, there's hardly any torque on the operator's arms, and the turning radius is tighter for those backwater dead-end potholes.

Pro-Drive motors have a full-throttle reverse that's a big help -- great for older hunters who might have difficulty pulling their heavy boats out of the tule clumps. This reverse feature is also a big plus for long narrow dead-end sloughs. You won't have to push-pole all the way back out of those tight areas.

Mud Buddy mud motors are belt-driven and range from 14 to 45 horsepower. They come with an electric clutch and power trim.

The Go-Devil motor -- the one pioneered by Warren Coco -- is the oldest mud motor. The company still makes the long-shaft motors and the new short-shaft motors, too. On their short-shaft motors, the horsepower ranges from 18 to 35.

When choosing a mud boat, it's important to get one that's compatible with the motor. If you want maximum performance, it's always good to match a Pro-Drive motor with a Pro-Drive boat, or a Go-Devil with a Go-Devil boat. These motors and hulls are engineered and tested together for the best possible results.

Blinds
Hunters may hunt from boats on either the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuge. Both places have flooded marshes and plenty of areas to hide a boat. On Lower Klamath, units 6, 8 and 9 are the best spots for mud boats.

It's always more comfortable to hunt from a boat. With the right boat blind, you'll have great success.

Always keep your boat's profile at or below the height of the vegetation. If the boat blind sticks up above the vegetation, the ducks will not finish to the gun.

Another key tip is that ducks do not finish to a solid wall of cover. If you're using a material blind, change it up and make it 3-D. Add tules or whatever the surrounding vegetation might be. Fast Grass has always been a good boat-blind cover. But if the tules are still green at the beginning of the season, cut some green tules and bungee them to your blind.

If the vegetation is low, park your boat a good 100 yards away, in the highest cover you can find, and cover the boat as best you can.

Hunting off the tule seats is a good way to go. It's just not as warm and comfortable.

SCOUTING
A hunter can be the best duck caller in the world and have the greatest decoy spread and camo blind. But if he's not where the ducks want to be, he'll be out of the game.

When hunting the Klamath Basin, scouting is everything to your success. Shooting time is over at 1 p.m., and hunters have two hours to pick up their gear and vacate the hunting units. But you are still allowed to scout right up until dark.

They say that ducks can't tell time, but don't believe it! The birds know exactly when it's 1 p.m. and will start funneling back into the hunting units to feed.

When scouting, what should you look for? The first thing is the obvious -- birds working into a field or flooded field. And once you find them, then it's time to look a little closer at what they're doing in that field and where they came from.

If the ducks or geese are feeding in a grain field's southeast corner, then what direction did they fly in from? Figuring this out will help you when you're setting your decoy spread and picking the place for a blind.

Birds are most likely coming from a closed zone and will be taking the same route the following day.

The weather in the Klamath Basin changes very quickly, and the ducks and geese adapt to these weather swings. When scouting birds on the Tule Lake Marsh, let them tell you where to set up for your next day's hunt -- either inside or outside the marsh.

First of all, when the temperature is falling to about freezing, the birds will raft up very close together. They'll keep the water open by kicking their feet. When you see the birds rafted up like this, then the next day, you'll want to hunt the fringes of the marsh. The fringe is always deeper and will not freeze solid, as will the shallow water of the interior.

When it starts to thaw out, ducks always want to work back into the interior marsh. Later in the day, when the birds lift off the open water, the shooting will be fast and furious and sometimes good for only an hour. But it will be unbelievable!

Use scouting to tell you how and where to set your decoys.

WHAT'S NEW FOR 2009?
Ron Cole, Klamath Basin wildlife manager, said he's continuing to try and make hunting in the basin as good as it was 40 years ago.

In his few years as refuge manager, he's made fantastic improvements.

Water has not been a major problem. His successful work with the Cal-Ore volunteers and farmers has been good for the refuge, and for hunters and farmers alike.

In 2007, he appointed a new hunter coordinator for the Klamath Basin -- Stacy Freitas, a waterfowl hunter and biological science technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"All reports are she is doing a great job," said Cole. "She's very knowledgeable and a take-charge person."

Farmers in Lower Klamath are now leaving 33 percent of their grain. There will be more grain left on the Tule Lake side along A Dike, and new walking wetlands will be ready to hunt across from the space blind headquarters.

"Because of the late spring rains, Klamath Lake has plenty of water, so water shouldn't be an issue," said Cole. "There was so much water in the spring that Sump 1B was not able to be a seasonal marsh, and it had to hold some of the water overflow.

"Because the water has not drained off the unit, it will not have the normal food supply for the ducks."

The boat ramp in 8F has been improved, and Parking Lot 8 has been re-graveled. Intersection E on Lower Klamath has been re-done, so don't miss this intersection on your first trip to the refuge.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.