High Desert Waterfowl Hunts

The northeastern waterfowl zone opens first for a reason: Ice and snow come early to the high desert. If you hit it right, so do the birds. Here are the best spots to try for ducks and geese.

The Wild Time Guide Service returns with hunters Tyler O'Brien and Chris O'Brien of Livermore following a late-morning hunt on Lower Klamath NWR.
Photo by Marvin Bibby

One of my earliest memories is of sucking on my thumb to ease pain. As a kid, I hated living in the Klamath Basin. Winter came early and lasted forever -- and the ends of both thumbs split open every fall and would not heal until late spring.

Now, I cannot wait to drive north out of the valley heat for my annual hunt in this high desert region. Sure, my thumbs still split open, but who notices such things when the birds are flying? The bigger problem is what to do about the lava dust imbedded under my fingernails and grimed in black whorls on my fingertips and the palms of my hands when I get home. My wife insists that the look does not improve my aging appearance.

Lower Klamath Lake and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges have long been among the top destinations of California waterfowl hunters. Separated by Sheepy Ridge, these two areas can host up to a million waterfowl during the peak of the season and have plenty of acreage upon which to hunt. That is, if they get the water.

Dave Menke, the hunting coordinator for the refuges, says it's going to be a tough water year. With historic claims on the water far exceeding even a good water year's supply, partial closure or restricted access is a very real possibility. Besides, hunting has been off for several years. In fact, white-fronted geese (specks) have all but disappeared and duck harvest numbers are down. Way down.

Menke notes that although 2004 was a good water year, the duck season was disappointing, and although duck counts remained above 40,000 for most of November, the basin just did not get the weather it needed for quality hunting conditions.

When I arrived the second week in November, Shell Bloch, long-time area guide, was calling clients and telling them to stay home. He suggested I try the ponds in the newly added Ormes Unit; still not developed, the road a mess, launch sites meager, it had been recently flooded and seemed to have some working birds. It was a great adventure. But I never fired a shot in two days. The square-mile pond I hunted did not contain a single hunter other than me. Much of it was so shallow that I had to pull my Poke Boat like a sled through mud. I saw lots of shovelers, a few mallards, and an occasional flight of widgeon. None would work my decoys. Why settle for plastic when there were live ducks down a few hundred yards away? I finally collected a couple of birds by sculling on the third day, tore my cowl loose from the hull while wrestling it across a mud bar and decided to head home and regroup.

The year before last was not much better. I hit a series of storms that blew in each afternoon and were gone by morning. For two days I drove the roads and walked the checks looking out over frozen ponds that would not thaw. Too thin to walk on, too thick to paddle, it was the third day before I got in the water and the fourth before I collected any birds. But then -- it was awesome. Flock after flock of widgeon that were looking for open water fell in love with my set.

That's the story on Klamath hunting: It takes time. Lots of regulars believe a week is not enough. Two weeks are needed at the least. Those I talked with last year were not concerned that the hunting was slow. Maybe it would get better, maybe not. Caught up in the cycle: mornings to hunt, afternoons to nap and clean and patch and dry things, evenings to compare notes -- with the marsh waiting, always different, always an adventure.

"The refuge was in better shape last season than it has been in years," said Phil Brown of Wild Times Guide Service, admitting at the same time that he had to work hard to get clients into birds. Some days it just did not happen. But some days it did. In mid December he guided a party of three who hunted hard for two days with little success. On their final day, after a frustrating morning in which they managed only one widgeon between them, the sky opened up and they were deluged with ducks. Everyone shot limits, including the guides.

If this is your kind of hunting, stop by the refuge headquarters on Hill Road to get maps, permits and sage advise as to where to start. If you don't want to go it alone, headquarters will provide a list of guides who are permitted to hunt the refuges. Expect them to be booked at peak times during the season, but if you are short on time, it is by far the fastest way to get next to some birds.

Hunting areas are open seven days a week until 1 p.m. during the waterfowl season, and this year, after Dec. 15, will be open all day on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Permits cost $5/day, $10/three days, $20/ten days or $50/season. You can check current conditions online at http://klamathbasinrefuges.fws.gov/hunt.html or call the refuge hunter-hotline at (530) 667-HUNT.


The Klamath Basin is not the only high desert destination. Public hunting areas are scattered throughout the Northeast. California Game & Fish talked to refuge manners to get their take on what you can expect to find this season to help you get started.

Five miles north of Macdoel, off State Highway 97 northeast of Weed, is the Butte Valley SWA. Wildlife biologist David Van Baren tells us that last year's hunting was poor; in fact, it was the ninth worst season on record. Butte Valley relies on localized rain and snow to fill Meiss Lake, and the valley has been in a drought cycle. The lake dried up last year. When the season opened, only 500 of the area's 13,000 acres had water on it. Van Baren says they are still in the drought and although late spring rains have helped, there is every chance the lake will go dry again this year. When it doesn't, the hunting is phenomenal, Van Baren says. "You pretty much can't miss on early season ducks," he added.

The drought has also affected goose hunting because geese on the area are shot over water. But mid December last year still posted a few good days that averaged almost one goose per hunter -- then the area froze solid and did not thaw until January. "If you can find a hole in the water and rim it with decoys, you can take some geese," Van Baren laughs. "Just make sure you wear warm waders."

A Type B permit is required for access to hunt on weekends and Wednesdays. Seldom crowded -- most days find less than 30 hunters -- Van Baren opens the gate every shoot day and is happy to answer questions and suggest a place to hunt. "Guys who hunt here are pretty polite", he says. "They let the birds work and take their shots i

n close." Call headquarters at (530) 398-4627 to check on water conditions before making the trip.

Just southeast of Alturas on U.S. 395, the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge straddles the South Fork of the Pit River and has 2,130 acres set aside for hunting. With no entry fee and open to hunting on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, hunting pressure is light by valley standards.

"Hunting was absolutely fantastic early on," said area biologist Shannon Ludwig of 2004. Good hunting remained strong through mid November. Mallards, widgeon and gadwalls were in good supply, and the percentage of mallards on the area has increased because of a new field rotation pattern.

Be careful wading here. The ponds along U.S. 395, which were excavated as borrow pits to build the highway, can be deep. Use the bridges and ferries across the Pit River, which for the most part is too deep to wade.

"It's probably a good idea to use decoys if you are after geese," Ludwig notes. Try setting up in the dry grain fields or use one of the four state-of-the-art spaced blinds. Two of them are handicap accessible (available to anyone if not used by a handicapped hunter), and two are sunken tanks. If you are hunting the area for the first time this is a great place to start. These blinds offer a decent chance at both geese and ducks and an opportunity to scope out the pattern of working birds for your next hunt. Self-registration, maps and regulations are available at headquarters and in the parking lots, or on their Web site at


West of Alturas, four miles northeast of Bieber, the Ash Creek SWA has 13,897 acres available for hunting on weekends and Wednesdays. Hunters self-register at any of the entrance gates and carry with them the requisite type B pass for access. Area manager Jim Chakarun notes that hunting was somewhat slow last year, with only a few days that shot well. Hunter success peaked on Nov. 3, when 18 hunters took 56 ducks and three geese for a 3.28 average. Then, hunter usage and success went downhill until mid December when it picked up on Dec. 11 and 25 hunters took 64 ducks and nine geese for a 2.92 per-hunter average. Be cautious wading: Although the ponds are fine, the Ash Creek channel is deep.

Farther down U.S. 395, southeast of Susanville, the Honey Lake SWA has 7,366 acres divided into two separate units, Dakin and Fleming, that are open on weekends and Wednesdays to hunters holding a type B season pass. Area manager Pat Cherny says that the hunting "wasn't great but it wasn't terrible" last year. "On windy, stormy days the hunting is usually excellent on fields and ponds," he says. The top day for ducks was Nov. 3, when Dakin shot a 3.53 average, and Fleming a 3.56 average.

Duck hunters seem to prefer the Dakin Unit, which includes the 750-acre Hartson Reservoir; most shooting occurs on the ponds adjacent to the reservoir. Duck hunting dries up when they start getting ice, but that helps with the geese. The best day on geese occurred on Dec. 11, when Dakin found 29 hunters bagging 11 geese, while Fleming hunters scored 17 geese between 34 hunters. Although Honey Lake has a 125-hunter quota, with the exception of the opener for ducks and the opener for pheasants, there has never been a problem gaining access there.

A current water map and harvest information is posted on the door of both check stations and the information kiosk at the entrances. Cherny notes that Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl and Pheasants Forever have put a lot of money into the area recently, restoring over 35 miles of ditches and repairing the pumping system. Hopefully that will result it more birds and better hunting this season.

An anomaly in the hunting regulations finds the Shasta Valley SWA in the Balance of State Zone, which has a late opener. Just 8 miles east of Yreka off I-5, it is definitely a high desert hunting opportunity. "There's nothing like it in the state. It is unique," says area manager Bob Smith, adding that the area will be switched to the early Northeast Zone in 2006.

Although a reservation is required for opening weekend, the rest of the season is on a first-come, first-served assignment to the pond of your choice. Hunters have to stay on their pond until first light, then may move to vacant areas. Access to some ponds may take a while, with hunters waiting until early afternoon to get on their favorite water. But that is not a big issue. "We can have spectacular afternoon shoots," says Smith.

Historically, white-fronted geese arrived in the Klamath Basin in September eah year but recent changes in their migration pattern have impacted hunting in the Klamath Basin. About the size of a snow goose, white-fronts -- also called "specks" because of the black spots that speckle their beliefs -- typically stayed in the basin until late November and were the bread and butter of early-season goose hunters.

But beginning in 1999, huge numbers of specks have failed to show. Guides have speculated that the birds had stopped short of the basin, possibly in Oregon. But that's not so, says Melanie Weaver, a biologist for California Department of Fish and Games waterfowl program. "They are tending to bypass the Klamath Basin and come straight to the Sacramento Valley." The 2005 midwinter survey showed that of the 391,468 white fronts counted in the Pacific Flyway, 391,395 were counted in California.

With early-season counts of less than 6,00 specks on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake, hunting coordinator Dave Menke believes geese are migrating earlier and flying past the area because of the flooding of valley ice fields. Guides worry that ducks will follow. Some believe that this is already the case, citing the bad hunting last year.

Phil Brown of Wild Times Guide Service believes the goose decline and last year's poor duck hunting are related, and it all has to do with food. Where there's an excess of food, such as the rice in the Sacramento Valley, the geese go there to eat huge amounts of it, and the ducks don't fly, preferring to stay in those areas where hunting is restricted.

"No doubt rice straw decomposition has changed duck behavior and distribution," Weaver said. However, she added, October/November Sacramento Valley duck numbers have not increased. -- Marvin D. Bibby.

With 500 acres of five- to 10-acre ponds scattered over 2,000 acres next to a 500-acre reservoir, and an average of only 40 hunters per day, hunters enjoy the luxury of space here. The area does best on ducks between opening day and Thanksgiving. "When it gets really cold, the birds just leave," Smith says. Statistics, of course, bear him out. Hunters posted some phenomenal numbers in 2004, with November averages running at 3.1-plus and a high of 4.64 birds/hunter on Dec. 1. Hunting is allowed on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays with a type B season pass, and staff will be happy to point you in the right direction. Sounds good to me. I'm going to try it this season.

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