3 Great Waterfowl Refuges

3 Great Waterfowl Refuges

Northern California's refuges aren't in the Top 5 across the U.S. But that's just fine with locals who load up on ducks and geese and get their limits at Klamath, Colusa and Gray Lodge. (November 2009)

When it comes to hunting waterfowl refuges in the U.S., the state of California is usually not mentioned along with the famous places in Arkansas or Louisiana.

A windy snowstorm at Lower Klamath Refuge last year turned into a windfall for these hunters who limited out.

Photo by Bill Mays.

Why is that the case?

The main reason is because most of the mainstream waterfowl media has always had great hunting up and down the Southern and Central flyways. They don't have to travel clear across the country to explore the fantastic opportunities in California.

It's their loss.

In this article, California Game & Fish will cover three of the hotspots in Northern California -- Klamath Basin and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges, as well as Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. These public lands would stand up against any public waterfowl area in the U.S.


The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex is a sprawling collection of federal hunting fields, marshes and open waters that straddles the California-Oregon state lines and covers 192,000 acres.

Refuges on the California side -- Lower Klamath, Tule Lake and Clear Lake -- are open two weeks earlier than the rest of the state.

Hunters must put in for a lottery draw the first two days of the season. After opening weekend, the Klamath Basin is open to waterfowl hunting seven days a week. Hunters can purchase a season pass for $25. Shooting hours end at 1 p.m.

If you have a young hunter with a Junior Hunting license, the Klamath Basin will give him or her a hunt of a lifetime. Junior Hunters accompanied by an adult are usually able to hunt two weeks before the opener.

Throughout the season, there will be four youth hunts and, new this year, one ladies' hunt. For more information, check the hunting regulations or call the refuge at (550) 667-2231, or check out www.fws.gov/ klamathbasinrefuges.

Lower Klamath

Lower Klamath Refuge was our country's first waterfowl refuge. It was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The 46,900-acre refuge is also one of the most productive.

In the 2008-09 waterfowl season, hunters harvested 1,589 ducks and 138 geese in the marsh units and 473 geese and 439 ducks in the field units.

Water has been a big concern at the refuge for the past few years. But Dave Mauser, Klamath's lead biologist, said this year looks promising.

"The goose hatch in the Klamath Basin was very strong," said Mauser, adding that the mallard hatch looked good, too.

Hunters will see a few changes this year.

    • Unit 8 is now a seasonal marsh, which will allow the smart weed and goose foot to grow.

  • Unit 6A was changed to a permanent marsh to choke out some of the undesirable plant life. It also made for a great brood pond this year.

  • Unit 7B will be a grain field and open.

  • Unit 11B will be closed this season.

If you plan on hunting the marsh units, you should have a boat. Some of the hunt units have deep irrigation ditches that border the field. However, there are some marsh units where hunters can walk in.

I've been hunting the Klamath Basin for more than 40 years, and I like to hunt Lower Klamath on storm days and the Tule Lake marsh on bluebird days. Ducks and geese like to move into Lower Klamath on storm days to get out of the wind. Then they fly to the Tule Lake marsh for the shade.

There is always more food on the Lower Klamath Refuge than the Tule Lake Refuge, so there is always a larger concentration of birds on Lower Klamath.

Another reason many hunters prefer Lower Klamath over Tule Lake Refuge is because there is more and safer hunter access.

Tule Lake Refuge

Tule Lake Refuge was established in 1928 and encompasses 39,116 acres of mostly open water and croplands. There are 17,000 acres leased to farmers who raise potatoes and grain. Farmers are required to leave a percentage of crops in the field for waterfowl.

There are 10,557 acres of open water, 3,128 acres of marsh and 8,415 acres of uplands.

New this year on the Tule Lake side of the Klamath Basin, Sump 1B was changed to a seasonal marsh. This will help smartweed and goose foot growth. You will also be able to walk the wetland areas this season.

I love to shoot mallards, and the Tule Lake Marsh is the place to go. The marsh is only accessible by boat.

There are sinkholes, quicksand and silt, so it's best not to leave the boat. Be sure and have a good retrieving dog. If for some reason you must leave the boat, be sure and take a push pole to feel the bottom for these hazards. Stay near your hunting partner so he or she could reach you with a pole or rope in case you go down.

The Tule Lake Marsh is a lottery draw for opening weekend. After opening weekend, it's open seven days a week with a $25 season pass. The pass covers both Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges.

Sump 1B is another area on the Tule Lake Refuge and has been a very productive area to hunt. This unit, Frey's Island, and the spaced blinds are selected by a lottery for opening weekend. Then hunters must enter into the lottery every day at the check-in station on County Line Road two hours before shooting time. No permits are issued for these areas after 6 a.m.

The spaced-blind units are designated dry harvested grain or potato fields. They are drawn for opening weekend and go into a lottery each day of the waterfowl season. After the opening weekend draw, hunters must enter the lottery held at the check-in station on County Line Road. These units have a T-post driven in the field and hunters must stay within 200 feet of the T-post.

There is a new change this year. All hunters will be able to drive their vehicles into the dry fields of the spaced blinds. This will help not only disabled hunters, but also make it a lot easier for all the hunters when setting up their decoys.

The spaced blinds are great for goose hunting, and early in the season, these hunters will pick up a few ducks. Specks, honkers and snow geese are the bread and butter for the spaced blinds.

Both Lower Klamath and Tule Lake refuges have registered guides for hire. Only these guides are allowed to conduct commercial business on the refuges. The refuges also allow pheasant hunting in designated areas of the refuge during the regular pheasant-hunting season.

It may be a long drive to the northeastern tip of California, but it could be well worth the drive.

For more information, contact the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge office at (530) 667-2231 or www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges/hunt.html.


Colusa Refuge is a smaller refuge on the Interstate 5 corridor, but don't count that out for hunting productivity. Colusa is home to some 200,000 ducks and 50,000 geese during the winter migration south. Some 4,000 duck and pheasant hunters will hunt Colusa every year.

Colusa has plenty to offer water­fowlers. There are assigned ponds 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 for one hunting party per pond. Larger ponds include P1 for four hunting parties and P2 for three hunting parties (two disabled parties and one party that must include at least one junior).

I like the assigned ponds early in the season. Later on, I switch to the free-roam areas later in the season. Assigned ponds work early because the local birds are used to the blinds and will work into the ponds. As the season progresses, they get wise to the ponds and don't work in as easily.

Colusa is one of the better free-roam refuges because of the way the ponds are set up. This refuge is managed very well and gives the free-roam hunter plenty of ponds without hunters moving in too close.

This is also a great afternoon refuge. Many days the birds will hold up until the afternoon and then fly out of the closed zones and start working. I've had some great afternoon mallard shoots early and late in the season.

This refuge is small and easy for older waterfowl hunters to walk to the blinds and free-roam areas. The ponds have a good solid base for easy walking, and the cover around the ponds is perfect.

Many hunters use deer-carrying carts to carry out the decoys, stools, and dog tables. I put my dog table on the bottom of the cart, an Otter sled on top of the dog table, and put the decoy bag and spinning-wing decoys and batteries in the sled. When I get to my pond, everything is floated out to my blind.

Be sure and buy the deer-carrying cart with a wide axle base. It will prevent the cart from falling over when it gets in the ruts on the road to the blind.

For more information, call (530) 934-2801 or check out www.fws.gov/ sacramentovalleyrefuges/r_colusa.


It's been said, that Gray Lodge is one of the jewels of the Pacific Flyway. With its 9,100-acre natural marsh setting and the rich agricultural farmlands surrounding the refuge, it's a paradise for waterfowl.

Back in the late 1960s, one of the Gray Lodge wardens named Barney said his dad owned one of the ranches that sold to the state for the refuge. One of his dad's stipulations was that his two sons must be able to work as wardens there.

My hunting partner and I would sit in the sweat line every weekend of waterfowl season and talk with Barney, who would tell us stories of how great the waterfowl hunting was back in the 1950s on his dad's ranch. Back then, the place was a high-dollar gun club, and the skies were black with ducks and geese. He said the ranch was a natural marsh and they had to ride horse and buggy out to the main road in order to get to town when the rains started.

It may not be as good now as it was back then, but a person can still shoot a lot of ducks and geese on Gray Lodge.

There are no assigned ponds or blinds. All the hunting areas are free-roam. There is an east and west side to the refuge. The key is to walk as far back as you can stand on either side of the refuge and get a pond to yourself.

The more popular side to hunt is the west side. The closed zone is on that side, so people want to hunt close to the closed zone.

Hunting in the afternoon can really pay off when you just drive in and set up. Some of my best hunts have been in the afternoon by myself.

Decoy carts are great for walking way back in to get away from the crowds. Anytime I hunt pressured areas, I use super mag decoys. I want the working birds to pick me up first. A decoy is just an attractor and the bigger the better.

Another tip is to use 95 percent drake decoys. Color attracts just like size, and it will give you that little bit of edge. I use no more than 30 G&H Super Mag decoys when I'm shooting a pothole, no matter what refuge I'm shooting. Spread your decoys out to give it a resting look and give the birds plenty of gun lanes to land.

Gray Lodge is one of the state refuges. With deep state budget cuts this year, there haven't been any improvements, according to refuge manager Mike Womack.

"It's business as usual," he said. "We'll still be planting crops for birds."

Womack said spring rains helped the nesting habitat. He said there is good activity in the brood ponds. That bodes well for the 2009-10 season.

If you would like more information about Gray Lodge, you can call the Gray Lodge headquarters at (530) 846-7502 or visit www.dfg.ca.gov/ lands/wa/region2/graylodge.

There is nothing wrong with being a refuge hunter. Yes, it's true you have to carry and put out the decoys every day instead of riding out on your ATV to an already set up duck club. But ever since rice decomp, successful hunters have figured out they're better off chasing the birds from refuge to refuge than sitting in an expensive duck club watching the sun come up.

If your duck club is not near a grind, it's probably not shooting. Refuge hunters have a built-in grind, the closed zone, and those birds are imprinted to come back every year.

If you have not hunted any of these hotspot refuges, you are missing out on some fabulous waterfowling --some of the best in the country!


Early in the season, many tule clumps are still green, so green camo is the best bet. Later when the weather turns cold, the brown camo will blend better with the cover. Boaters must have running lights, life jackets, throw cushion, and all the U.S. Coast Guard-approved equipment. It's advisable to have a push pole with a duck foot and a spotlight for maneuverability and safety.

All the boat ramps are dirt and very slippery when the winte

r weather sets in. The weather is very cold in this northeastern part of the state, and snow and ice makes it difficult to get around without a four-wheel-drive.

The water is a lot colder than in the Sacramento Valley. Late in the season, 5mm waders are recommended. Get your dog a vest and table.

The best time to hunt this area is the first week of the season and November. Storms up north drive new birds into the basin, so watch the weather forecasts.

Scouting is key to success in the Klamath Basin. If possible, scout a couple of days before the opener and scout every evening before the next day's hunt. Hunters are not permitted into the marsh or fields after shooting hours. However, with a scope or binoculars, you can see a long way while traveling the refuge roads.

Pick up a refuge map at the refuge headquarters and various locations on the refuge. Many of the hunt units and closed zones are not signed. There are retrieving zones located around hunt fields. You cannot carry a loaded gun in the retrieving zones.

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