Look ahead for a "golden" season of waterfowling in the Golden State. (November 2006)
Many of California's lowland wildlife areas were developed to protect the rice crop, with hunting thrown in as an afterthought. Over the years, hunters began to rely on the attached shooting areas for early-season ducks, and management of those areas shifted in the hunter's favor.
Sure, the duck-season opener can still get delayed until the rice crop is harvested. But once it opens, the hunting opportunities rarely -- if ever -- get any better.
From state-of-the-art blinds on private leases to thousands of free-roam acres, from the Oregon border to the Southland, duck hunters throughout California find bountiful waterfowling opportunities. That doesn't mean ducks will line up waiting for you to take your best shots. Yep, you may have to work at it some to score your daily limit -- but that's the fun part, right?
If you're the occasional duck hunter, with limited time for striking afield, the waterfowl hunter's reservation system for state and federal lands guarantees a top blind when you draw a good number. For those with the time to hunt often and the energy to figure it out for themselves, thousands of acres of free-roam public land offer you areas where you can walk, wade or boat and get right to hunting.
Indeed, both these ways that California waterfowlers tackle their sport have advantages and drawbacks. Spaced blinds can shoot great at first light. You need a lucky draw to occupy one, and the shooting may not hold up all day.
Free-roam areas offer access without a reservation, and you can make adjustments when localized flight patterns change or for changes in the weather. But it takes a lot more time and effort to scout out a place to hunt.
That's why the editors at California Game & Fish hired me to talk to state and federal wildlife area managers across the Golden State to sort it all out for the first half of the season.
Any conversation about November ducks must start with the Klamath Basin. That's where the largest single concentration of ducks hang out during the first half of the California hunting season.
My personal favorite area is the marsh section of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge running along the Oregon border south of Klamath Falls.
"Last season was pretty good," says Dave Menke, the area's recreation specialist. "The ducks were there, but hunter numbers were down by over 15 percent. This year, the water looks good with lots of space and lots of opportunity."
Phil Brown of Wild Times Guide Service claims that last season was the "best in 10 years" and that the "Klamath hunted like it used to."
Statistics bear him out. Last season, harvest checks conducted every third day averaged well over three birds per hunter -- with several days exceeding four birds per hunter, before posting a whopping average of 5.35 birds per hunter on December 1.
Open to hunting seven days a week until 1 p.m. during the early waterfowl season, Lower Klamath NWR features big water that's best hunted from a boat. It can be intimidating the first time out. A guide can help, and if you're short of time and unfamiliar with the area, it is the only way to go.
Obtain a list of guides, harvest numbers and the current refuge bird count on the Klamath website at http://klamathbasinrefuges.fws.gov/hunt.html. Then contact refuge headquarters on Hill Road in person or by phone at (530) 667-2231 to obtain a permit to hunt on refuge land.
Forty miles west as the crow flies, just 8 miles east of Yreka off Interstate 5, the Shasta Valley State Wildlife Area traditionally posts some big numbers during the first part of the waterfowl season.
"Last year was typical -- good early, but pretty well done by Thanksgiving," says area manager Bob Smith. "With 20,000 to 25,000 birds foraging on only 350 acres of moist soil habitat, the ducks get their groceries and leave."
Last year, local mallard production was low, but green-winged teal made up for it. The best ponds delivered seven to nine limits of greenwings on several shooting days. This season offers more "early hunt" days than last year because the area is now included in the Northeastern Zone.
With 500 acres of 5- to 10-acre ponds to choose from -- and an average of only 40 hunters per day -- getting on after opening day has never been a problem. However, getting one of the hot ponds can require a wait. Hunters must pick their ponds when they register and stay on that pond until first light. After that, you can move to any vacant pond.
The area produced some good numbers in 2005, with November daily bag averages running at better than 3.1 birds per hunter, and a high count of 4.64 birds per hunter on December 1. Show up on a Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday with a type B season pass and ask staff where to go.
On the western edge of the Butte Sink, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and Delevan NWR hold some of the best blinds in the state.
On Norman-Princeton Road just off of I-5, Sacramento NWR features 46 four-hunter spaced blinds. Surveys conduced during the first half of the 2005 season found hunters in 31 of those blinds shooting an average of over 2.0 birds per hunter. Blind No. 12 was the top producer, posting an average of 4.0 birds per hunter not only last season, but in 2004 as well!
A few miles south, Delevan NWR off Able Road features 29 spaced hunting sites. Each site holds up to four hunters. Twenty-three of those sites posted averaged shooting stats of over 2.0 birds per hunter for the first half of the 2005 season.
Seven sites averaged over 3.0 birds per hunter. And six of those blinds -- 15, 19, 22, 23, 24, and 27 -- posted the same daily bag averages the year before. During the first half of both years, Blind No. 23 shot best, averaging 3.8 birds per hunter in 2004 and 3.7 birds per hunter in 2005.
Log on to the area's Web site at http://www.r1.fws.gov/sacnwrc to get a ton of information to guide you in your planning. The recorded phone message at (530) 934-7774 provides current refuge waterfowl counts and waterfowl harvest averages by area.
Maps, handouts, current waterfowl harvest numbers and spaced-blind results -- as well as pond, blind and field conditions -- are available or posted at individual refuge check station kiosks.
Shoot days are Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Lottery draws at Sacramento and Delevan check stations take place between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. the day before the hunt to assign spaced blinds. For those unlucky in the draw, but willing to wait, the blinds backfill until 3 p.m.
If you like doing it on your own, you can't beat the Gray Lodge SWA, located in the shadow of the Sutter Buttes on the northeastern corner of the Butte Sink. With its daily capacity for 400 hunters on 5,000 acres of wetlands, there are lots of places to hunt each Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. The entire area is "free roam," and on most shoot days, with the exception of the pheasant opener, you can walk on at daylight without a reservation.
The area doesn't post big bird-per-hunter numbers on average -- but that's not the whole story. Before December 11, other than on opening weekend, only five days gave better than a 2.0 bird-per-hunter average. But more than 200 ducks were taken on 11 different days during the season's first half. And on five of those days, the area produced more than 300 birds. Two of those days posted almost 400 birds!
This year, expect the hunting to improve. Last season, Gray Lodge was still in the throes of a major construction effort to rebuild the area's water-supply system. In the process, a large amount of cover was removed while ponds were changed and ditches went in. Coupled with last year's extensive burning on the east side, the number of prime mallard ponds was dramatically reduced.
Although the area's still in the process of recovery, the late rains went a long way toward replacing west-side cover, and there was no spring burn this year.
"By duck season, not too many hunters are going to be able to tell the difference," says Joe Powell, assistant area manager. He says that conditions to attract and hold ducks are the best in years. "We couldn't get water out of the pond bottoms this year, so there will be a lot more feed."
And did I mention cover? Over the years, I've always managed to eke out a few mallards at Gray Lodge early in the season, while set up midday in heavy tules. The shooting is slow, but when a drake comes in looking for shade, he comes in hard and solid, and you could take him with a fly swatter.
The secret is finding that small pool of water in heavy cover. Cluster your dekes in the shade, get down completely out of sight and forget about your call. If you're not good with a fly swatter, use a shotgun. But the swatter works better than the shotgun on those clouds of mosquitoes swarming about.
SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY
On any given shoot day, the grasslands region can accommodate up to 600 hunters somewhere within the cluster of state wildlife areas and federal refuges scattered around Merced County.
"But November can be gruesome," cautions Bill Cook, manager of the Los Banos SWA, which is open on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
With shooting stats right at a 2.0 birds per hunter average for the season, the hunting at Los Banos SWA falls off quickly in November because "Ducks get the drill down, feed at night and hide out during the day," Cook points out.
Hunting in the free-roam area here is highly competitive. Seasoned hunters claim key ponds that provide shade and loafing areas. One of the 22 spaced blinds at Los Banos may be the best bet for hunters unfamiliar with the area. Current harvest numbers by blind are posted at the check station to help make your pick, but Cook counsels hunters to use the season-long average for any given blind, not the most recent shoot day. Don't forget to "bring plenty of mosquito repellent and water" for your walk out.
Further south in the San Joaquin Valley, up to 550 hunters per day can access the 12,425-acre Mendota SWA. Split between the 800-acre Fresno Slough section -- best accessed by boat -- and 6,500 flooded acres of natural cover and farmed marsh that can be waded, the entire complex is free-roam.
"It would take a season to learn it well," says assistant area manager Rick Knoernschild. "We can tell you about ponds with lots of hunters or a place to be by yourself. Just ask at the check station, and we'll try to help."
Last year, 3,454 hunters took 5,802 birds, posting a 1.68 bird per hunter average from opening day until December 3. Wednesdays shot slightly better than Saturdays and Sundays, reports Jackie Smith, who crunches numbers for the complex. Species harvested break down roughly into thirds -- 1514 mallards, 1324 green-winged teal and 1120 shovelers taken during that time period.
If you decide to try it, watch for snakes, she warns. "We do have rattlesnakes, and this year there's been quite a few around."
Located at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, the 10,618-acre Kern National Wildlife Refuge holds 1,900 acres of free-roam hunting land and 11 spaced blinds. The area is open to hunting on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Total hunter capacity depends upon the amount of acreage flooded. Refuge manager David Hardt hopes to open the season with a 60-hunter capacity, and then raise access to 100 hunters by the first of November.
Because water conditions for 2006 are excellent, he expects the season to be good -- if the ducks show up. Last year, the area posted a season-long average of 3.1 birds per hunter, with a November low of 1.5 birds per hunter and a first-half high of 3.3 birds per hunter posted on Nov. 23. A third of the birds taken were shovelers; a fifth of them were teal.
Hardt says that three or four of the spaced blinds can average two to three birds per hunter early in the season. Check for blind and free-roam zone results at the check station or on the Hunter Hotline at (661) 725-6504.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
In addition to a Federal Migratory Bird Stamp (Duck Stamp), resident waterfowlers also need to carry a state hunting license (at $34.90), an Upland Bird Stamp ($7.10, needed for snipe), and a State Duck Stamp ($14.95). A one-day refuge entrance permit costs $14.75; a two-day pass is $25.45; and a type A seasonal pass is $117.85.
Daily permits and seasonal passes are available at most check stations, but licenses and stamps must be purchased elsewhere. Try your favorite outdoors retailer and the post offices.
Last year's lottery reservation system for California duck hunters remains the same. A $130 application card buys a chance on one shoot date, and a $655 application card gets you chances on five dates. The season-long application card puts you in the computer draw for every shoot date during the season and costs $125 for each requested reservation. All cards must be received by the CA DFG 17 days before the requested shoot date.
CA DFG Waterfowl Hunt Reports are available on the Web at www.dfg.ca.gov. Click on "Hunting Results.
Find more about California fishing and hunting at: CaliforniaGameandFish.com