The forecast was for sustained fog in the San Joaquin Valley.
Duck hunting fog.
Jon and I hadn't hunted the Mendota Wildlife Area for a couple of years, but I was back home visiting family and felt compelled to revisit the place where I cut my teeth learning to hunt ducks as a kid in the 1970s. It was January and the teal were predictably abundant by this point in the season, so we made a late decision on Friday to go duck hunting the next morning. With two dozen decoys and minimal preparation, we made the slow jaunt through the fog from Jon's place near Madera to the entrance to the wildlife area at the Mendota Slough, arriving less than an hour before daylight.
Relying on instincts, I suggested Parking Lot 20 and soon we were lugging decoys down the muddy levee road that ran north from the parking lot. The rancor of teal, gadwalls, mallards, and pintails in the dark hastened my choice, so I selected a familiar tule patch in an open-water swamp timothy unit. Decoys were quickly pitched and we settled in about twenty minutes after shoot time, long after the first few barrages of kamikaze teal had made their descent and departure while we were setting up.
Daylight revealed that it was absolutely the right kind of Mendota fog. It was high enough for good visibility and dense enough to keep the temperature down, forcing the birds to feed throughout the day. Best yet, we were six days into it with minimal afternoon sunshine. It was going to be a good morning.
The first-half hour was interesting with teal zipping in and out of the fog, widgeon and shovelers floating overhead, and the occasional grunt of a pair of mallards. Shots rang out in the distance as other hunters undoubtedly whacked away at the frenetic flights of greenwings, but we had the wetland unit to ourselves so we let the morning unfold at a gentle pace.
Soon a group of teal were headed our way, their beep-beep shrill growing increasingly loud. Blowing hard on the teal whistle, I shuffled my feet and got ready. At last, they materialized out of the fog and flared straight up in classic fashion. We each dropped a drake and missed our second shots as they curled away. Moments later, it was the same drill, then again shortly thereafter. We missed a couple easy chances, but connected more regularly than usual and by 10:00 the mat in tules behind our duck stools was adorned with a harvest of nine greenwings, mostly drakes.
After a lull in the action, Jon broke the green-wing flush with a nice drake cinnamon teal. Finally, as if on cue from the memory of the days of my youth, we got some interest from a small group of pintails. The sprig circled overhead, whistling, and floated by the first time, just out of range. We whistled and waited patiently as the episode played out three times, slightly long on each pass. Finally, they locked up on the decoys in that beautiful cup. We rose up and each crunched a drake, and Jon's young Lab made successive nice retrieves.
Back in the blind, we warmed the soul with a hot cup of coffee and talked quietly. It didn't really matter if we filled out the limit or not. The day was rich beyond words already, and there was no place else we'd rather be on a Saturday morning in January.
Twenty minutes later, another flock of teal decoyed perfectly and we stoned our final two birds. It was a classic late-season Mendota duck hunt, the kind that makes for a long wait between February and Thanksgiving each year.
SKIPPING THE RESERVATION GAME
There is a time for trying to win the lottery and then there's a time to wake up on a Saturday morning in the pre-dawn, throw your waders in the back of the truck, and go duck hunting
In the world of California waterfowling, the premium public hunting area for the latter is the 12,245-acre Mendota Wildlife Area. It is the antithesis of highly sought out locations, such as the Little Dry Creek Unit of the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area (UBBWA) where a reservation is required to hunt essentially every day of the season. Mendota is a drive-up-and-go-hunting area, and for many hunters that is immensely appealing. Hunting is allowed on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Mendota has a quota of 600, but that was only reached once last season, on Opening Day.
Situated between the nationally recognized Grasslands of Merced County and the state's largest original freshwater marsh, the Tulare Basin, it is a natural magnet for waterfowl in the winter. Year in year out, Mendota provides California waterfowl hunters with tremendous opportunity and excellent duck hunting throughout the season.
Yet, what happened last winter defies conventional wisdom, even that of the most die-hard public land waterfowlers in California.
Mendota ranked #1 in total waterfowl harvest among California public hunting areas again last season, as it has for the last three years. However, the astounding fact was that Mendota hunters tallied 28,896 ducks and 836 geese last season for a daily average of 2.70 birds per hunter!
That's on par with Delevan National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the UBBWA Little Dry Creek Unit, Kern NWR and San Luis NWR — refuges and wildlife areas that provide about a third to half of the hunter days that Mendota provides, and essentially always require a reservation to hunt.
Mendota annually accounts for approximately 10 percent of the ducks harvested on California's 40 public waterfowl hunting areas. Over 9,000 acres are open to hunting, the largest allotment of public hunting land on any single wildlife area or refuge in the Central Valley of California. Thanks to the vast size of the hunting area, Mendota accommodates over 10,000 hunter days per year and, amazingly, never seems crowded.
MENDOTA'S RETURN TO THE GLORY DAYS
The 2010-2011 season average was the best since 1976-77, when hunters logged a 2.82 average for the season. Granted, the pintail population was much higher during that era; over 18,000 hunter-days were recorded, and the total harvest exceeded 53,000 ducks for the season. Nevertheless, the hunting that occurred at Mendota last fall conjured up memories of the glory days.
"We had a very good year last year," said Steve Brueggemann, Mendota Wildlife Area manager. "Pintail numbers were up, we had green-winged teal from early December through the end of the season, and we also hit an all-time high for harvest on white-fronted geese."
For those of us that hunted Mendota religiously during the early 1970s, the image of mid-day flights of pintails hovering over the shallow open-water wetlands is forever etched in memory. The continental breeding population hovered around 6 million pintails from 1974-1976, but declined precipitously soon thereafter. The 35 years that have elapsed since that magical era have dimmed the hopes of most hunters in experiencing that kind of pintail hunting again in California.
Yet, the hunting at Mendota continues its steady ascent back to that hallowed era. While pintails are still well below objective levels established in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, their numbers have rebounded from the low point of only 1.78 million breeders in 2002 to 4.43 million pintails surveyed this spring. Further, green-winged teal populations are nearly double what they were in the 1970s. As such, the outlook for Mendota is increasingly bright.
"I had the best pintail hunt of my life last season," said Brueggemann, a native of the San Joaquin Valley who has worked at Mendota Wildlife Area since 1987. "It was a Wednesday afternoon in January and most of the hunters had cleared out. I shot my two sprig and then spent the next two hours to get four widgeon. There were times when there were 20 flocks of pintails stacked up."
Here are some tips for hunting this stellar public hunting area.
WATERFOWL USE PATTERNS AND WEATHER
Mendota's wetlands occur in three main segments: 1) the East Side, which lies to the north and east of the Mendota Slough, 2) the West Side, which is southwest of the Slough, and 3) the Traction Ranch, the lands along the Kings River floodplain on the far eastern edge of the wildlife area that were acquired and restored from cropland back into wetlands over the last two decades.
The most important aspect of hunting Mendota is learning how the birds use this wildlife area during the fall and winter.
Unlike the wildlife areas and refuges in the Sacramento Valley and those in the Grasslands of Merced County, Mendota is an island of wetland habitat in a vast sea of intensively irrigated cropland. The surrounding farmland is comprised mainly of cotton, cantaloupes, sugar beets and a variety of other truck crops that provide little to no waterfowl habitat. Further, unlike other refuges that have over half of their wetlands designated as inviolate sanctuary, Mendota has a small 700-acre closed zone.
The implication of the "island" scenario and small closed zone is that Mendota does not hold vast numbers of ducks and geese all season. It is a transition area for birds moving between the Grasslands to the north and the Tulare Lake Basin to the south. Nevertheless, duck numbers can be very impressive. Waterfowl numbers build up to about 35,000 birds pre-season, decline in November, then grow again to around 50,000 ducks at certain times in December and January. Post-season counts have tallied over 90,000 ducks.
The trick is reading the weather to anticipate when "new birds" will arrive and targeting your hunting on the appropriate side of the wildlife area.
"Mendota typically shoots best in a south wind because that is when we get new birds from the Grasslands," says Brueggemann.
Brueggemann points out that the East Side is a good bet in a south wind as the birds look to drop into the first bit of wetland habitat they encounter in a 50-mile flight from the Grasslands near Los Banos. Fields 35, 39, 41, and 43 on the East Side, as well as Field 45 in the northwest corner of the wildlife area, are particularly good bets during stormy south wind days. Likewise, the southern portion of Mendota — Parking Lots 16, 19, and 20 — can be very good in a north wind when birds are bucking the wind coming north from Kern NWR and the duck clubs in the Tulare Lake Basin.
SPECIES BREAKDOWN: EARLY TO LATE SEASON
Mendota offers some of the best waterfowl species diversity imaginable for a public-lands hunter in California. Where else can you start the season focusing on mallards and cinnamon teal, hunt an open-water unit and be smothered in pintails on an early fall afternoon, shoot multiple limits of green-winged teal in December, and even specifically dedicate a day to setting up a diver spread for canvasbacks and redheads? The harvest data tells the story.
Six species — green-winged teal, mallard, pintail, shoveler, widgeon, and cinnamon teal — were either the #1 or #2 species in the bag on an individual shoot day last season. Overall, green-winged teal are the staple, with 12,510 harvested last year. Mallards came in at #2 with 3,640 taken, followed by shovelers, pintails (despite only a two pintail bag limit), and widgeon. In addition, Mendota hunters tallied 450 canvasbacks, an impressive number for a public hunting area that also offers reliable hunting for other species.
A key element of hunting Mendota is finding where the birds are feeding. The bulk of the feed comes from two marsh plants — swamp timothy, a low-growing annual that produces lots of seeds and provides sheet-water conditions when flooded; and watergrass, a robust-seed producing plant that can be chest-high during the fall.
Species use varies amongst these habitats during the season. Mallards focus on the robust emergent marsh West Side units such as Field 25 and 29 early, then Field 45 and the watergrass units of the Traction Ranch late season. Pintails and teal prefer the shallow, open-water swamp timothy units including Fields 26, 19, and any of the open-water units out of Parking Lot 10, 5, 19 and 20.
According to Brueggemann, wetland projects funded through North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants and Duck Stamp funds have dramatically improved habitat conditions and hunting opportunities on the East Side and Traction Ranch in recent years.
Mendota's early-season hunting can be spotty, and, like most wildlife areas and refuges, it experiences the November doldrums, but it is very predictable from mid-December to January. Last season, over 100 green-winged teal were harvested every shoot day from December 22 until the end of the season, capped by an amazing 1,153 greenwings taken on January 29, a day in which Mendota shot a 4.75 average with 543 hunters.
THE WHITE-FRONT BONUS
If the superb duck hunting isn't enough to whet your appetite, consider this: Mendota also accounted for nearly 10 percent of the white-fronted geese harvested on the 40 public hunting areas last year, with a tally of 805 white-fronts. The best white front hunting occurs in dry-field wheat and barley habitats. Last year's white-front hunting was the best on record since the wildlife area was acquired in 1955.