By Rich Gracie
My interest in a place called Delevan began as young boy when I questioned my Dad about the mounted cinnamon teal drake he had on our living room wall. He told me about the memorable hunt that took place on a remote pond at Delevan where he killed that teal. There had been seven hunters that day and each of them shot their limit for a total of 49 ducks.
I finally got my chance to hunt Delevan when I drew a reservation for the first Saturday in January back in the early 1980s. Many of you may remember a massive rainstorm that pummeled the state, causing flooding over much of northern California. When we made the turn onto Four Mile Road, the road was blocked with a sign saying that Delevan was closed.
As excited as I was to hunt Delevan, my first hunt there would not be until a few years later when I was old enough to make the trip on my own. This solo trip to a new hunting area would end with a familiar outcome to many first-time refuge hunters. With a full decoy bag on my back and my black Lab Brandy setting the pace, I hiked out of Parking Lot C toward an area that looked remote on the refuge map.
That was the first of many mistakes that morning. Not knowing anything about the area, I had hiked until shooting time and still not found any suitable water to hunt. It turned out to be a valuable lesson for an overeager teenager. A little pre-trip research or a few quick questions at the check station could have helped me to avoid that long fruitless hike.
Greg Mensik, the deputy refuge manager of the Sacramento NWR Complex, had some great advice for first-time Delevan hunters: “Put in for reservations, get in the lottery, hunt and learn the area. Hunt afternoons and Saturdays if you have to and don’t be discouraged by competition. Do your homework, study the statistics and it will really pay off.”
Finding suitable water to hunt is not much of a problem any more at Delevan. It now has 30 assigned hunting sites that can accommodate up to 120 total hunters. Hunters willing to compete for space in the free-roam area will find some excellent habitat to set up their spreads.
Unlike many refuges with assigned blinds, Delevan has marked sites where hunters must stay within 100 feet while hunting. The sites usually consist of an island with varying amounts of cover or simply thick stands of cattails, tules or bulrush in shallow water. Veteran refuge hunter Jeff Wolford says that is one of his favorite things about Delevan. “I prefer hunting from the natural cover than from a pit,” he said. “You can adjust to the birds a lot easier.”
Hunters should bring some sort of seat or stool that will allow them to sit in shallow water. Chest waders are a must when waterfowl hunting at Delevan. It might be a good idea to leave items that can’t get wet in a safe place on the levee.
Some sites will afford the opportunity to use the full 100 feet, but most sites are limited to a single patch of cover. If hunters choose a site where they can spread out a little, it can really add to the success of the hunt. The water depth in the assigned ponds varies from about a foot to as much as 3 feet deep.
The hunting sites can be reached out of one of the three parking areas, and some require considerable walking distances. The shortest walking distance of the 30 assigned hunting sites is two-tenths of a mile to blinds 1 and 12. That is a short stroll compared to the longest walk of 1.7 miles out to blind 27. Decoy carts or other similar inventions make the long hikes much easier on the back, especially when you are returning with a full strap of ducks.
The blinds where that happened most often during the 2003-04 season were blind 5 and blind 27; each sported an impressive 3.9 birds-per-gun average. Other top blinds included blind 24 with a 3.8 average, blind 8 came in at 3.7, blind 15 was 3.6, blinds 6 and 26 were both 3.5 and finally, blinds 22, 23, 25, were all over 3 birds per gun. The blinds with the lowest bird-per-gun averages for the season were blinds 14, 17 and 18, which all came in with a one-
The total bird-per-gun average for the blind sites in 2003-04 was 2.6 birds per gun. That was a marked increase over the season average of 1.9 during the 2002-03 season. The top blind sites in 2002-03 were blind 15 (2.8 birds per gun) and blind 20, which averaged 2.6 birds per gun.
There are also three assigned hunting sites for disabled hunters (filled first at the check station). The blinds are accessible with ATVs and are set up with gravel or rubber floors. The three disabled blinds averaged between 1 and 2 birds per gun during the 2003-04 season.
According to Greg Mensik, there will be a few changes in the assigned hunt area for the 2004-05 season. A big change will occur in the ponds where sites 11 and 12A are located. These two sites will become assigned ponds where hunters can choose to hunt any location within the boundaries of the pond. This will be a huge advantage when it comes to setting up to take advantage of wind direction or bright sunlight.
Over the spring and summer of this year, a project to improve the cover at hunt sites 19 and 20 took place. Refuge personnel conducted some major bulrush transplants in May and the ponds were kept in water all summer. This should lead to much thicker cover this season and improved hunting success.
Keep in mind that the Saturday before Christmas is usually a junior hunt day at Delevan. The blind sites are reserved for junior hunters that are accompanied by an adult who does not hunt that day. Adult hunters are still allowed to hunt in the free-roam area.
The free-roam area is situated in the center of the hunting area with assigned sites to the north and south. It is split into areas called tracts. You’ll find them labeled on the map as T26.1, T26.2, T27.4, T27.5, T32, T33, T34.2, T34.3, T35, and T41.
The free-roam area can be accessed from any of the three parking areas. A quota of 58 hunters fills the free-roam area.
Competition is quite a bit stiffer in this area. Hunters race for the best hunting spots, and veteran refuge hunters know the quickest ways to reach the best spots. Don’t be surprised to have hunters set up closer than you are normally comfortable with. Sportsmanship is the key in the free-roam area, where hunters need to let birds work and take shots when they present themselves.
One selfish hunter can have a huge effect on the success of every hunter in the area if they don’t follow refuge rules. Afternoon hunts can be a lot less hectic and provide a higher quality hunt in the free-roam area. It is also easier to locate an area that you can have more to yourself.
Some of the popular locations in the free-roam area are T26, T33, and T34. They offer excellent habitat and are not terribly long walks from the parking areas. They will also be the first ponds to fill up with hunters. Remote sections of T27 and T32 will take a little more effort to reach and can produce excellent shooting.
Hunters in the free-roam area usually travel a little lighter than hunters with the luxury of having an assigned hunting site. They are permitted into the refuge closer to shooting time and therefore are in a bigger hurry. They also have other hunters that are trying to reach the hunting spots first.
Light decoy bags and some sort of tule seat or stool will give you an advantage in the free-roam area. The t-seat is something lightweight that will allow you to sit in water up to two feet deep. It can be made of wood, although PVC pipe is lighter, and gives you the ability to set up in small patches of cover located away from levees and closer to open water.
There is an interesting note on a habitat change in T32 that should get the attention of hunters. Mensik noted that they undertook one of the biggest projects in years in 2003 when they took on the joint grass problem in T32. He said, “We sprayed, burned and disked Tract 32 last year and it was pretty sparse of cover. This year we expect a great watergrass crop, which will be good for the waterfowl and for hunting.”
Everybody knows that hunting really starts to get good in the Sacramento Valley after Thanksgiving. It is partly due to a change in the weather. We get a few more good storms and sometimes the fog will develop between storms. Another reason is the big influx of new birds that usually arrives in early December.
Last season was no exception when a noticeable improvement in the hunting occurred at the same time refuge bird counts increased. During the Nov. 17, 2003 waterfowl survey, 310,227 ducks were counted at Delevan. By Dec. 4, 2003, that number had increased to 481,024 ducks, the peak number of ducks on the refuge during the season.
Don’t forget that Delevan also offers a great chance to bag a snow goose or two. The white goose count on Nov. 17, 2003 was 45,680 and had increased to 68,205 by the Dec. 16, 2003 survey. The snow goose harvest goes up when new birds arrive in the valley, usually during the first heavy fog or strong north wind in December.
One of my only reservations last season happened to be a low number for Delevan in early January. We had a ducky day with a high fog and a stiff breeze out of the north. Our hunting party of four enjoyed great shooting out of blind 8 and were lucky enough to have our limits of 28 birds by 10:30 a.m. We had a mixed bag with a lot of teal, gadwall and widgeon. It was yet another Delevan hunt we won’t forget soon.
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