Refuge Waterfowling

Refuge Waterfowling

Celebrate the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System by hunting one of California's federal refuges this winter!

By Dave Smith

A warm snap in January is typically a California duck hunter's worst nightmare. But this time, I was thinking outside of the box: I called a friend in Yreka about the prospects of hunting Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on the final weekend of the northeastern California duck season.

"You better get up here," said Bob. "I've got a couple of friends coming up that are devout goose hunters, so we're gonna lay in a muddy grain field and wait for honkers. Otherwise, I'd be in the marsh Saturday morning. The ice broke up, and there are gobs of mallards on Lower Klamath. It could be a duck hunt to remember."

That pushed me over the edge into one of those zany plans that only waterfowl hunters can concoct on a day's notice. My hunting partner, Gary Hill, and I immediately devised a scheme to halfway adhere to Friday evening social obligations and still be at Lower Klamath NWR by shoot time the next morning. The four-hour drive in the middle of the night required a few cups of coffee, but at least we had good weather and avoided snow delays!

The clear skies boded well for a morning of brilliant greenheads cupped up in the sunshine, but just as we started passing the little white refuge signs with the blue goose emblem demarcating the Lower Klamath boundary on State Line Road, we ran smack dab into a wall of dense tule fog. "No problem," I said. "This will give us time to get set up before the ducks start working."

An hour later we were stumbling around in the dense tules of Unit 9A - still mired in pea-soup fog - looking for a decent-sized pothole while hundreds of mallards chuckled off in the distance. Finally we set up, and were just nestling into the tules when a pair of Canada geese announced themselves, sounding low and lost in the fog. Gary quickly got on the call, and they were in our laps in no time, bursting through the fog at 30 yards. Not quite on our game yet, we got our signals crossed and simultaneously crunched the same goose as the other backpedaled away. Still, it was not a bad way to start the day.

There's nothing quite like the view of an early-winter sunrise from a spaced blind at the Sacramento NWR. Photo by Rich Gracie

The fog hung with us most of that day, but we each killed three mallards and in waiting for more greenheads passed up countless widgeon and teal. The best shooting actually occurred in late morning, when the fog lifted enough for our decoy set to be effective. On the long walk back to the truck, I mentioned to Gary that while we had just experienced one of those "almost" days, it was also one that would probably stick in our memories for quite awhile.

Sunday morning daylight brought a whole different picture. The south wind ripped and the skies blackened as waves of ducks and geese traded back and forth across the marsh. This time we had it together; selecting an ideal pothole, we made two separate blinds.

The first group of mallards decoyed perfectly, and Gary stoned the drake; I did likewise on the next pair. Several bunches of honkers just skirted the decoys but came close enough to roil our waterfowling spirit to uncommon extremes. After we'd weathered a midmorning lull, the floodgates opened; when my watch hit 11:30, mallards fell out of the sky, bunch after bunch, locked up and bent for nestling into our little pothole. The shooting was fast and furious right up until our 1 p.m. quitting time.

Gary and I made good on some of the opportunities and botched up a few other shots in the wind, but when all was said and done, we were trudging back through the muck toward the parking lot with heavy straps.

The quality of the hunt was spectacular. There was only one other group in the unit on both days, and they were several hundred yards away. We listened to the constant ringing of Canada geese, Mt. Shasta painting a powerful backdrop on the historic Klamath Basin marsh. It seemed as if Lower Klamath hadn't changed a lick since Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1905.

Throughout the 100th anniversary celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge System this year, two main facts have been made abundantly clear: (1.) Theodore Roosevelt was a true visionary in wildlife conservation, and (2.) the refuge system has become the crown jewel of federal lands for wildlife.

These points were echoed constantly during the centennial celebration in March, but a notable fact that generally slipped through the cracks of ecoreporting was the considerable contribution that the refuges have made to waterfowl hunting and perpetuation of the waterfowling legacy.

What all started in 1903 as a "sanctuary" concept when President Roosevelt dedicated 5-acre Pelican Island in Florida as the nation's first National Wildlife Refuge to protect colonial breeding waterbirds has evolved into something with enormous value to those of us that wear camouflage and spend lots of time in the marsh.

Hunting on national wildlife refuges has been a paradoxical and sometimes controversial topic over the last century. Despite the fact that Roosevelt was an avid hunter - or, more likely, because he was one - his concern that Pelican Island's waterbirds would be devastated by plume hunters led to the designation of the little marsh as a sanctuary. On the other hand, hunting currently occurs on parts of many refuges, and federal duck stamp revenue has since played a major role in establishing and maintaining the NWRs. While hunters and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not always agreed on the details of acceptable levels of hunting on the refuges, in the big scheme of things it has been an enormously successful partnership.

Today the NWRs provide not only critical sanctuary for waterfowl but also offer some of the finest and most reliable waterfowling in the nation.

California is rich with NWRs and, consequently, sportsmen and sportswomen have a vast array of unique hunting opportunities available on NWRs throughout the state. Here's a sampling of some of the best refuges to try this season, working from south to north.


The long-running debate over whether hunting should be allowed on the 92 million acres of the National Wildlife Refuge System gained important clarity when Congress passed the NWRS Improvement Act of 1997.


The law lists hunting as one of six designated types of wildlife-dependent recreation deemed generally compatible with the purposes of the refuge system, which puts to rest the notion that refuges should be exclusively managed as inviolate sanctuaries. The following passages from the act speaks volumes about where hunting stands on the nation's 509 refuges:


'...With respect to the System, it is the policy of the United States that --


(A) each refuge shall be managed to fulfill the mission of the System, as well as the specific purposes for which that refuge was established.


(B) compatible wildlife-dependent recreation is a legitimate and appropriate general public use of the System, directly related to the mission of the System and the purposes of many refuges, and which generally fosters refuge management and through which the American public can develop an appreciation for fish and wildlife...


...The terms 'wildlife-dependent recreation' and 'wildlife-dependent recreational use' mean a use of a refuge involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, or environmental education and interpretation...'


From a waterfowl hunter's perspective, the act also protects refuges from uses that detract from the system's purposes. It gives managers the authority to make compatibility determinations through a public planning process, which helps prevent excessive hunting or other public uses and allows the management of sanctuaries. More pragmatically, this law balances habitat protection and restoration with recreation to the benefit of present and future Americans. -- Dave Smith


The best public waterfowl hunting in southern California is actually just over the Grapevine in the southern tip of the Central Valley. The 10,618-acre Kern NWR has long been a favorite of south state duck hunters. Last season's average of 2.43 birds per hunter was second in the state for public hunting areas, up slightly from a solid 2.36 in 2001-02. And Kern's waterfowl hunting is likely to get better and better over the next few years.

Refuge staff and the California Waterfowl Association restored 1,130 acres of wetlands last summer in Unit 14, a previously unmanaged floodplain area west of the Goose Lake Canal. The project will result in 515 acres being opened up to new hunting in units 5A and 5B with seven new blinds.

However, the real boon to waterfowl hunters will occur if Alternative B is selected through the Kern Comprehensive Conservation Plan public process this fall. That alternative would increase the huntable area by 1,481 acres and allow the installation of 17 new blinds and 187 acres of free roam. Most importantly, it would cause the Kern hunt zone to be sandwiched between two closed zones - Unit 14 on the west side and units 3, 7 and 8 on the northeast side of the refuge.

Combined with a Ducks Unlimited project that helped the refuge improve a main water intake and distribute water throughout the refuge, the future looks great for Kern duck hunters.

"We're pretty excited about the habitat improvements and increased hunting opportunity," says David Hardt, refuge manager. "We're usually one of the top three public areas in the state, but these changes should make the hunting even better. The big thing for us, bird-wise, is the availability of water and how that affects habitat conditions throughout the basin."

Kern is open Wednesdays and Saturdays. A "sweat line" lottery is conducted the morning of the hunt. Green-winged teal, gadwalls and shovelers are staples at Kern, but the refuge offered tremendous sprig hunting in the 1970s and 1980s, when pintail populations were high. The best shooting occurs in December and January.

Salton Sea NWR can be a good bet at times for SoCal hunters, with lots of green-winged teal and shovelers. A nice bonus is that the refuge winters about 40,000 snow, Ross', and Canada geese, and offers sporadic goose hunting action.

The Sacramento NWR Complex, which contains the Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa and Sutter refuges, offers some of the best waterfowl hunting in the nation. The four refuges comprise about 23,000 acres. Waterfowl use of these refuges can be absolutely staggering, peaking at well over 500,000 ducks and several hundred thousand geese in early December in most years.

All four refuges are open Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Sacramento and Delevan have blinds and free-roam areas while Colusa and Sutter are strictly free-roam. Sacramento, Delevan and Colusa offer a lottery the night before the hunt, which allows a hunter without a reservation a chance at a good draw.

Sacramento offers extensive seasonal wetlands dominated by swamp timothy that are attractive to green-winged teal, widgeon, gadwalls and pintails. Delevan is the locals' choice refuge with its steady shooting and plethora of choices in terms of habitats and hunting sites. You can shoot anything from wide-open shallow teal flats to secluded mallard potholes and do it in a blind or on your own. Perhaps the one factor that makes Delevan so productive - it posted a 1.92 kill-per-hunter averagelast season - is that fact that the hunting area is between the Delevan and Sacramento sanctuaries. Both Sac and Delevan can be exceptional for whitefronts and snow geese, and especially specks, in November.

Colusa is more of a mallard spot, with a good amount of "hemi-marsh" habitat - half tules, half open water - but it has enough open-water habitat that widgeon, gadwalls and green-winged teal are also common. Last year's hunting picked up a 3.10 average on Dec. 11 and was pretty consistent the rest of the season.

Sutter, with its heavy tule marsh habitat, is the place for dyed-in-the-wool mallard hunters. The Sutter average was 2.0 last season, with mallards as the No. 1 bird in the bag nearly every shoot day. The only downside is that the refuge hunting program closes when the Sutter Bypass floods.

Farther south, the San Luis NWR Complex offers excellent waterfowl hunting for green-winged teal, pintails, gadwalls and other open-water ducks that define the waterfowling legacy of the 160,000-acre Grassland Ecological Area in Merced County.

The complex includes five units - San Luis, Kesterson, Freitas, West Bear Creek and Merced - that offer waterfowl hunting. The best hunting in recent years has been at Merced and West Bear Creek, thanks to substantial restoration and enhancement of wetlands. However, the bulk of

the hunting opportunity exists at San Luis and Kesterson, and those refuges can provide fabulous teal hunting for the last two months of the season.

Merced, Freitas and West Bear Creek offer a variety of different hunting experiences, ranging from Merced's blinds to West Bear Creek's free-roam to Freitas' boat-in access. Green-winged teal are the No. 1 bird harvested on the complex, but pintails, gadwalls and even mallards show up in good numbers on certain days. Look to hunt these refuges after Dec. 15 and you won't be disappointed!

Lower Klamath and Tule Lake NWRs have long provided northern California's best waterfowl hunting. While the Tule Lake Marsh isn't the vibrant wetland it was 30 years ago, it is still highly productive for mallards early in the season. The Tule Lake spaced blinds and fields offer good opportunities for white-fronts early in October, snows in November, and Canadas in December and January.

Lower Klamath shoots exceptionally well through early December in most years, although species composition has changed from 35 percent mallards in the 1994 harvest to widgeon being the No. 1 bird last year. However, species diversity is rich, and with a little effort you can even have great hunting for divers such as redheads and scaup early in the season.

The refuge is open every day until 1 p.m. There is now a nominal charge to hunt the refuge of $5 per day, but discounts exist for five-day, 10-day and season passes. Reservations are only required on opening weekend, and even then certain units such as Sheepy East and the League of Nations are unregulated.

Timing is critical at Lower Klamath with some of the best hunting occurring just before freeze-up. The best spots on Lower Klamath for walk-in hunting are units 6A and 4A, but boats are the best way to get around most units.

Modoc NWR, near Alturas, and Humboldt Bay NWR near Arcata offer additional NorCal waterfowling opportunities. Modoc is noted for its Canada goose hunting and is perhaps the best public honker hunting spot in California.


National wildlife refuge hunting programs in California are typically administered by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Because these programs are reasonably complex, you'll need the DFG booklet, Hunting and Other Public Uses on State and Federal Areas in California.

The USFWS also promotes waterfowl hunting on federal refuges via refuge Web sites. Here's how to access that information:

  • Kern National Wildlife Refuge:; (661) 725-2767.
  • San Luis NWR Complex: www.; (209) 826-3508.
  • Sacramento NWR Complex:; (530) 934-2801.
  • Klamath Basin NWR Complex:; (530) 667-2231.

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