Mallards, geese and even pheasants keep hunters busy at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath wildlife refuges. (December 2007)
Between the two refuges -- Lower Klamath and Tule Lake there are nearly 90,000 acres of public land to hunt. Mallard and widgeon are the most common species here.
Photo courtesy of Andy Martin.
On the entire West Coast, some of the best waterfowl hunting opportunities are found each fall and winter on California's national wildlife refuges, where more than a million birds spend time during their migration south. With abundant water, vast areas to hunt and plentiful ducks and geese, the refuges spread throughout the state are a waterfowler's dream.
These refuges also attract crowds of hunters. But the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges, located in the remote Klamath Basin in the northern reaches of the Golden State, yield excellent harvest averages and uncrowded conditions for hunters willing to drive north.
These two, known simply as the Klamath refuges, are also located in the high desert country at the base of the Cascade Mountains, with towering Mount Shasta nearby.
"We tend not to get as crowded as some of the refuges in the Central Valley," says Dave Mauser, a wildlife biologist for the Klamath refuges.
"Other than the opening weekend, we don't have a reservation system or a quota system."
The federally owned refuges in Siskiyou County also feature hunting seven days a week, something hunters in other parts of the state don't enjoy. Most of California's state and federal refuges allow hunting only on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
"Most of our hunters come from quite a ways away," says Mauser. And this allows them to hunt at least half a day, every day."
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent of migrating waterfowl will stop here in the fall, Mauser says. "Between the two refuges, we usually peak at a million and a half birds."
Aside from birds stopping to feed, the two refuges also have year-round populations of resident birds and -- when nearby ponds and lakes ice up --freezing weather pushes ducks in from throughout Northern California and southern Oregon.
Along with water from Tule Lake, the Klamath Marsh and refuge wetlands, the birds also seek the grain and other crops grown by farmers who lease part of the refuge lands.
"We have marshes that are flooded year 'round," according to Mauser, "and we have seasonal marshes that we start flooding in September." They start flooding grain fields around the middle of November.
The Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 39,000 acres of mostly open water and croplands. Farmers lease 17,000 acres to grow row crops. Leftover potatoes are a big food source for migrating waterfowl. Another 1,900 acres are used to grow grain and alfalfa, which draw geese later in the season.
The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 as the nation's first refuge, covers nearly 47,000 acres of open water, grassy uplands, shallow marshes and cropland.
Ducks are the main draw at the Lower Klamath refuge. Mallards are the most common species, followed by widgeons, gadwall, pintail and shovelers. Ducks are also the most commonly hunted birds at Tule Lake, although the refuge is also popular with goose hunters.
"In general, Lower Klamath tends to be a little more consistent, especially for ducks," Mauser says.
"You have more goose opportunity on Tule Lake."
TULE LAKE HOTSPOTS
The Tule Lake NWR features a large marsh unit accessible by boats, open free-roam hunting over harvested grain fields, and spaced-blind hunting in dry fields.
Boat hunting is most popular for ducks. At Tule Lake, Sump 1B is a favorite for many local hunters. "It's a new marsh and there is a lot of bulrush and open water," Mauser says.
"There is a lot of food for the birds in there."
Goose hunters have two choices at Tule Lake: the spaced-blind fields and the unrestricted free-roam area known as the "League of Nations." The 65 spaced blinds available to hunters are issued by a random drawing each morning, two hours before legal shooting time. Hunters are called and allowed to select their "blind," which is actually just a numbered post in the field.
LOWER KLAMATH HOTSPOTS
Traditionally the most popular units in terms of the marshes in the Lower Klamath refuge are 6A and 8, Mauser says. And 11B is the most popular field.
Most hunters will set up decoys. "We are open for boats, so quite a few of the guys have johnboats or canoes."
Walk-in hunters at Lower Klamath will use units 6A and 8A as well.
BEST TIME TO HUNT
Mid-fall generally produces the best success for duck hunters, before cold weather often pushes the birds down to Sacramento refuges. Goose hunting is good late in the season. But weather is the big factor for success.
"Usually, we peak in total bird numbers the last week of October and the first week of November," Mauser says. "Some of your best Canada goose hunting tends to happen after you get some cold weather."
Many of the geese harvested at the Klamath refuges are resident birds. Migrating geese have discovered the rice crops in the Sacramento Valley and often fly past Lower Klamath and Tule Lake without stopping.
"If you shoot a duck when it's icy, and you don't get over to retrieve it, the bald eagles will come down and get it," warns hunter Darin Claiborne. "You have to get your ducks right away. There are a lot of bald eagles in late December and January."
"A lot of the geese have been bypassing us in the last 10 years," Mauser says. "We don't see the goose numbers in the fall that we used to, but there are still plenty to hunt."
For duck hunters, opening weekend is always best at the Klamath refuges, but good numbers of birds can be found the entire season.
"Opening weekend is usually pretty good," Mauser says.
Bags are usually 3.5 to 5.5 birds per hunter. Seasonwide average is
usually 2 to 2.5 birds.
"When you get good storms, it's better. During long periods of bluebird weather, it gets slow," says Mauser.
Darin Claiborne is a veteran Tule Lake and Lower Klamath hunter who spends dozens of days each season at the refuges. He says there are two prime times to hunt each day.
"Early in the morning when it's first light is always good," Claiborne says. "I've also had days when it's good all morning. Then it gets really hot between noon and 1:00. For some reason, those birds know they can come in during the afternoon and feed. The wind also seems to come up around 12 or 12:30 most days."
Many hunters stop looking for ducks once most of the water ices up. But Claiborne says hunting can be good through the end of the season.
"Once it starts to freeze up, you need to hunt a ditch with moving water or find an area in the ice with a hole," he says.
"The hunting is really good when it gets cold if you can find some moving water. The birds have to drink water when the conditions are icy, and they have to feed. They come in in big numbers where there's a little open water," says the hunter.
Claiborne also focuses on the open, unfrozen potholes during cold weather.
"You can do good jumping the potholes if it's not totally frozen over," he says. "But in the cold conditions, be sure to wear gloves."
When freezing weather arrives in Siskiyou County, so do bald eagles, which feed heavily on waterfowl.
"If you shoot a duck when it's icy, and you don't get over to retrieve it, the bald eagles will come down and get them," Claiborne warns. "You have to get your ducks right away. There are a lot of bald eagles in late December and January."
During warm, dry conditions at the Tule Lake or Lower Klamath refuges, Claiborne will focus on the open water that can be reached only by boat.
"You can also try to find an opening in the tules," he says. "If you can find a little open spot, you should do just fine."
"The key to hunting here is scouting," Mauser says. "Look to where the birds are going in the afternoon, and set up there in the morning. That's something you can't do in the valley refuges since they are closed during the no-hunting days."
Hunters coming up to the Klamath refuges for several days should plan to spend their first afternoon looking around to get familiar with the area.
"The hardest thing is coming up the night before when it's dark and trying to figure out there to go," Mauser says. Hunters who arrive the night before and hunt the refuges for the first time the next morning generally don't do as well as hunters who scout ahead.
Maps of the refuges are available in the visitor center, where you can also get harvest reports, the latest bird survey counts and suggestions on where to hunt.
Last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved lengthy seasons for the Pacific Flyway after surveys showed a 14 percent increase in the breeding populations in Alaska and Canada. The increase is on top of good production last season.
A $25 season pass is required to hunt the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges. Hunters must also have a valid California hunting license and all required state and federal stamps and permits.
California hunting regulations and seasons apply on the refuges. Non-toxic steel shot must be used, and hunters may not consume or possess alcohol while on the refuges.
Boats may be used in all areas open to waterfowl hunting, but jet or pump motors are prohibited. Refuge game wardens enforce boat lighting and registration requirements.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
€¢ The Klamath refuges office is located at 4009 Hill Road in Tulelake. The phone number is (530) 667-2231.
Updated harvest and waterfowl survey information is available at www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges.
€¢ The Winema Lodge offers lodging close to the refuges. It's located at 5212 Hill Road. The phone number is (530) 667-5158, and the Web site is www.winemalodge.com.
€¢ There are numerous guides available at the refuges, including James Szemenyei at (530) 667-3825, Darren Roe at (541) 884-3825, Michael McVey at (530) 459-1009, Richard Marcillac at (530) 667-5694 and Phil Brown at (530) 667-3825.
€¢ Restaurants and more motels can be found in Tulelake or across the border in Klamath Falls, Ore.