Southern California's finest days for duck hunting lie just ahead of you. (December 2006)
Between trips to the mall looking for Christmas gifts, California waterfowl hunters should take advantage of the holiday break in business and pencil in a couple of December duck or goose hunts.
Dan Yearraguire with the California Department of Fish & Game says that for hunter success among waterfowlers nationwide, California's total state duck and goose harvest usually ranks No. 2, right behind Louisiana's, with an occasional "slip" into the top five.
"More ducks die in California than in 45 to 48 of the other states," Yearraguire says. "It's the primary wintering area for the Pacific Flyway."
California hosts about 40 different species and subspecies of waterfowl and provides vital winter habitat for about 60 percent (annually estimated between 4 million and 6 million birds) of the waterfowl population in the Pacific Flyway.
"It's very hard to characterize the different populations by type of ducks," Yearraguire explains, "especially in any sort of 'black and white' sort of way. Pintails start arriving in late August, and some stay here until February. Others pass right by us and go right to Mexico. We have a fairly healthy, robust breeding population of ducks within our state. It's a big state, and it's not all quite built out."
Although Central California receives most of the publicity for good waterfowl hunting, Southern California rates a close second.
Southern California duck hunting is usually defined as the region south of Tehachapi. But many hunters from Southern California travel north of that line to the Kern National Wildlife Refuge near Delano in the San Joaquin Valley. Still others head for the Salton Sea, where the Wister Unit of Imperial Wildlife Area is located.
For waterfowl hunting purposes, Yearraguire defines Southern California, as that area south of a line from the ocean near the bottoms of Monterey, across Kern and Indio counties to the Nevada state line. And in this area fact, some of the top state and national lands open for waterfowl hunting include Kern National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and Imperial Wildlife Area (more commonly referred to as the Wister Unit) found well south of that line.
SAN JACINTO WILDLIFE AREA
The entrance to San Jacinto Wildlife Area, located in Riverside County, lays one-half mile north of Lakeview on Davis Road, on the east side of Perris Lake.
San Jacinto is the first state wildlife area to utilize reclaimed water to enhance its wetlands. The wildlife area consists of 9,000 acres of restored wetlands including ponds and freshwater marsh. Pumps lift water levels in the fall, before the ponds and marsh are eventually drawn down following the waterfowl-hunting season.
"The best hunting is in December," says San Jacinto WA manager Tom Paulek. "We have a full complement of pintails, gadwalls, green-winged teal and shovelers. We have geese, too -- primarily Canada geese."
Hunting at San Jacinto WA is done from site blinds. Among the most popular are those found in the "B" pond area.
"It's just one of the better hunting locations. We don't have an official closed zone," Paulek says, referring to locations where no hunting is allowed. "Probably, the size of the ("B") pond and the available vegetation hold key roles in why the area is so good. I would definitely put out decoys, but you don't need a whole lot. A couple dozen is plenty. Calling in the birds is a good thing, too, if you know what you are doing."
The Davis Road unit within the wildlife area stretches across some 10,000 acres. About 600 acres are flooded. Hunters with reservations (see more on CA DFG's reservation hunting system below) are assured a place to hunt. But December waterfowl hunters who show up on the day of the hunt and wait in the "sweat line" usually have no problem being drawn for a hunt.
"We have about 40 sites that can be had by reservation," Paulek explains, "or by waiting in a morning sweat line. We have only site blinds, no free-roam areas."
IMPERIAL WILDLIFE AREA
In 1905, the Colorado River broke through an irrigation project and created the Salton Sea. Levees and canals around the edges of the sea form terraces between seasonally flooded ponds and fields.
Eventually, the state designated a portion of Salton Sea as the Imperial Wildlife Area -- 7,292 acres of salt marshes, freshwater ponds and desert scrub stretching across three units: the Wister Unit, Hazard Unit and Finney-Ramer Unit. The area is located on the east side of Salton Sea on Highway 111, 5 miles northwest of Niland.
Ducks Unlimited is still working on wetland restoration projects in the Wister Unit.
"We have a bunch of projects we have been doing for a while -- nine projects," explains Ducks Unlimited spokes person Jeff McCreary. "A lot of it is revamping and improving habitat management infrastructure -- dikes, pumps -- basically, things helping the wildlife area become more efficient."
Funding for these projects comes from Ducks Unlimited's grassroots-level fundraising projects, with additional funds coming from matching state and federal money.
Most popular among the Imperial WA's hunting units is the Wister Unit, where 152 blinds are placed in numbered field locations, with five blinds per field.
Adolfo Hernandez, manager of the Wister Unit, says the best fields in the unit are Nos. 10, 12, 12C, 115A, 115B, and 115C.
"I would hunt from 115B and 115A," Hernandez says, adding that geese have a part in his choice selection. "On Field 114, which is next to 115A and 115B, there is 160 acres of open field (green-feed area) of barley and rye -- a closed zone -- so they (waterfowl) can rest and eat. During the waterfowl season, when the birds are shot at, that's where they go. Hunters have a chance to shoot when they are coming in and coming out from that particular area."
And Hernandez says he wants to increase the green-feed areas for this year's upcoming season, because goose numbers can grow to as much as 26,000 birds, mostly snow geese.
Waterfowl hunting on Imperial WA and San Jacinto WA is permitted on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays only. Only ducks, geese, coots and moorhens (gallinules) may be hunted. The daily quota of hunters is filled by those holding advance reservations, which are issued by the CA DFG.
Hunters with reservations for Imperial WA must present them at the Wister Check Station no later than an hour and a half before shooting time. Vacancies occurring from no-show reservation holders and from hunters leaving the area are filled according to the order established in the previous night's drawing at the station.
Furthermore, a permit must be obtained at the Wister Check Station and must be in the hunter's possession while hunting on the refuge.
KERN NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Waterfowl hunters in December on the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, located at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, can expect to find rain, fog and chilly conditions.
The Kern NWR complex, just 50 miles northwest of Bakersfield, consists of two national wildlife refuges. Combined, Kern and Pixley refuges comprise 18,082 acres of waterfowl and upland-bird habitat. Kern Refuge carries 11,249-acre of natural valley grasslands and developed marsh, but only about 3,000 acres are open to waterfowl hunting.
Until the passage of the Central Valley Improvement Act in 1992, there was very little water on the refuge.
"Since Congress passed the act, the Bureau of Reclamation has provided water to the refuge, and we are now able to flood up about 6,400 acres on an annual basis," says refuge manager David Hardt. "Because there are very, very few wetlands in this portion of the state, we have an agreement with the CA DFG that says 55 percent of the area of the refuge that is flooded will be closed (to hunting) and 45 percent of our habitat will be open (to hunting). We basically have 2,900 acres that are open and the rest is closed. It gives us a nice closed area that holds birds during the wintertime."
Peak flooding occurs at Christmastime, Hardt reveals, which tends to bring birds into the area.
"(The flooding) also holds the birds, which I think would not be here if we didn't do that," he explains. "We flood in the fall and draw down in the spring and summer, providing fresh habitat for the birds and ducks. I personally feel that contributes heavily to our overall hunting success. If we did not have the closed area, we would basically blow the birds out of the valley. Hunting on the refuge would be a lot poorer."
Hunting areas on Kern Refuge include free-roam areas and space blinds.
"We have four areas that are 'free roam,' which means once you get into the unit, you can hunt anywhere within the boundaries of that unit that you want to," Hardt continues. "We also have a number of 'space blinds,' which are nothing more than an island in the unit. A few of the blinds are actually on levees. In the space-blind areas, each blind will accommodate up to four people. A hunter must stay within 100 feet of his or her blind location. You cannot wander willy-nilly through the area, unless you are retrieving a cripple (bird) or something like that.
"This gives the guys their choice. Some people like the freedom to hunt wherever you want within a unit. Other guys, particularly novices, like the idea of having a space blind (because) no one can encroach on your space. You have control of the pond, and no one can move in on you."
Hardt, who hunts on Kern Refuge too, says Unit 2 is his first choice to hunt. Unit 2 is a relatively large free-roam area of about 500 acres. It holds a very good mix of emergent vegetation and open water.
"When you come to the check station early in the morning, each free-roam area has a quota (of hunters to meet). And then, of course, the space blinds are there. Anything that is open is free to be taken," he explains. "If Unit 2 is full, I can go somewhere else, or I can wait. We refill (the hunting areas) until 1 p.m. If you don't get drawn right away, you can wait, and if someone comes off (a unit), you can go in and refill that space."
Hardt also points out that those who like to hunt diver ducks do well shooting in Unit 2.
"It's by far the best unit on the refuge for divers, having a good mix of deep and shallow water depth. And it also happens to be adjacent to the closed area," he says. "It has a lot of things going for it. It can be hunted either with a boat, or (you) can walk in from the south. The farther north (you go), the deeper the water gets."
Hunters with reservations for Kern Refuge must present them at the check station no later than an hour and a half before shooting time. Vacancies occurring from no-show reservation holders and from hunters leaving the area are filled according to the order established in the previous night's drawing at the check station
RISE AND SHINE -- AND CLAIM YOUR RESERVATION
Hunters on Imperial WA, San Jacinto WA or Kern NWR can use the state hunting-reservation system if they choose. But all a reservation does is get you through the front gate, Hardt points out.
"It does not guarantee you a particular spot on the refuge. When you redeem your reservation at the counter, you have a choice at whatever is open," he explains. "If you do not get a reservation, we have slots on the (areas) that are open each day on a lottery basis."
At Kern Refuge, Hardt generally makes the call as to how many reservations the station is going to issue. His colleagues at San Jacinto and Wister WAs make similar decisions.
"I allow about half the capacity of refuge to be filled off the lottery draw. To me, there should always be a place for a person who wakes up in the morning and says that he or she wants to go duck hunting that day. They should have the opportunity to get in and go duck hunting."
One of the most prudent actions to take before planning to hunt is to call the refuge or wildlife area and ask the specifics of their hunting check-in system, says senior wildlife biologist Tom Blankinship, with the CA DFG's Upland Game Program.
"Use the Hunting and Other Public Uses on State and Federal Areas as a guide. In this booklet, DFG describes how the reservation system works, which areas offer reservations, and other ways of gaining entry to the hunt areas," he says in an article originally published in Outdoor California magazine. "Options to become eligible to hunt are: submit a reservation application at least 17 days before the desired hunt day; go to the refuge the night before, depending on the individual refuge, and sign up for the lottery for the next day; or show up the morning of your hunt day and receive a 'sweat line' (or 'first-come, first-serve') number."
The entry methods work this way:
Reservation system -- CA DFG must receive an application for reservations at least 17 days in advance of the day desired to hunt. If drawn, the hunter and a partner are guaranteed entry. Junior hunters with valid licenses also can apply for reservations.
Lottery system -- A few areas operate a lottery system. Hunters can sign up for a lottery drawing, typically on th
e evening before the hunt day. Spots not filled by reservation hunters get filled through a list resulting from the lottery drawing.
Sweat Line (first-come, first-served) system -- After the reservation list is exhausted, hunters sign up for a number to enter the area. Since many areas do not fill, particularly during the middle portion of the waterfowl season, many hunters use this method successfully. A sweat-line number will allow only that one individual to get on the area when called.
"Each area has its own system of calling numbers in the morning," Blankinship says in his article. "For example, an area may first call for reservations numbers (1-25) and then the next (26-50), and so on until all the hunters with reservations have been let on the refuge. Then they will wait 20 minutes or so before calling in the lottery-number holders. Finally they let in the hunters from the sweat line, in numerical order."
To someone unfamiliar with these procedures, this process can seem rather complicated.
"Reading CA DFG's Hunting and Other Public Uses on State and Federal Areas will help. And if questions come up, call one of the numbers listed in the booklet," Blankinship advises. "Though many areas do not fill their hunter quotas during most of the waterfowl season, a reservation or a lucky lottery number is necessary to get into the area for the early-morning hunt for the most popular areas.
"However, since the quota for these areas are refilled with waiting hunters as others check out, hunting in the afternoons is frequently an alternative."
PUBLIC-HUNT TIPS AND TACTICS
"Late in the season -- and this is up for debate -- I think a reasonable amount of decoys, a couple dozen decoys, would be ample," Hardt says for those hunters who prefer to shoot over a decoy spread. "There are hunters who subscribe to the idea of the more the merrier. I really do feel that later in the season, some of the ducks get decoy-shy.
"Huge spreads of decoys may actually hinder you a little bit. Exact placement of the decoys is up to the individual, a personal preference. I've flown enough waterfowl surveys in my life and have seen ducks in every configuration you can think of."
And Hardt suggests that robotic decoys could pull in more ducks, but he warns that during the last couple of years, there have been restrictions on the use of robotic ducks early in the season.
"They seem to work, but I'm not sure they work as well as the first day they were introduced," he points out. "I have personally hunted with and without robotic ducks. I have hunted adjacent to people who had robotic ducks, and I didn't have any. There was something there that drew those birds in."
Check local regulations before using any form of action/motion decoy. And Hardt advises hunters that everything needs to be camouflaged, including face, hands and guns.
Hardt has worked for "law enforcement on duck hunters for probably 25 years. One of the easiest ways to see people in the marsh is your white face and the reflection off your gun barrel," he points out.
"Barrels waving around in the air, even though they are blued, have a reflective capability -- that flash. You also see faces and, to some extent, hands. But more so, the face. If you look up and look at those birds, they are going to flare. Keep your face down until they are right on you."
CHECK IT OUT THIS SEASON
No matter whether you choose to duck hunt in Southern California, December's hunting opportunities are, at the very least, good. Some areas -- sometimes it comes down to mere days -- will offer even great duck hunting.
California's duck and goose seasons usually last into January, but make sure you check the season regs before planning your trip afield.
"In the Pacific Flyway, we have very liberal (hunting) regulations, as compared to those set for the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways," Yearraguire says. "We usually have a 100-day season that will start in the middle of October and go to the end of January."
For more information about duck hunting in Southern California, you can contact the following:
California Department of Fish & Game, at (916) 445-0411, or at their Web site, http://www.dfg.ca.gov.
California Department of Fish & Game, License and Revenue Branch, at (916) 227-2245, or at their Web site, http://www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing.
Imperial Wildlife Area, at (760) 359-0577.
Kern National Wildlife Refuge, at (661) 725-2767.
San Jacinto Wildlife Area, at (951) 928-0580.
Find more about California fishing and hunting at: CaliforniaGameandFish.com