These four waters -- Clear, Thermolita Afterbay, Almanor and Eagle -- are famous for fishing but are the best-kept secrets for waterfowlers. (December 2009)
If we can offer just one tip to waterfowlers concerned about hunting pressure and the odds against getting a spot at popular refuge areas it'd be this: Skip it.
Photo By R.E. Ilg
Instead, head out to the open waters of northern and central California's inland lakes. Four of them in particular -- Clear Lake, the Thermalito Afterbay, Lake Almanor and Eagle Lake -- offer outstanding waterfowling with a bonus: They're also some of California's most desirable fishing waters.
In a single morning you can put a few ducks and an occasional goose in your bag and still have time to toss some lures after a trophy bass or trout.
These fours spots are all Type C areas, which means hunting is allowed seven days a week, no reservations are required and no check-ins and no extra fees. Just bring a valid hunting license and duck stamps and you're good to go.
To be sure, hunting will be better during the early days of the season in these areas. Still, water levels play a big role in determining if the game will show up during your outing.
Even so, they're a great option for hunters in search of a new and challenging option. So, grab your decoys, your calls and your steel shot, but don't forget your rod and tackle box. A great "blast and cast" adventure awaits.
It's one of the best bass lakes in the country, so few hard-core duck hunters give this Lake County gem a second look. At more than 68 square miles, Clear Lake is the largest natural lake within California.
In additional to the local mallards, there are widgeons, green-winged teal, gadwalls and wood ducks.
The large number of homes and roads around the lake limit the hunting areas to a few choice spots. Rodman Slough in the lake's northeast corner actually feels more like Arkansas than California. With more than three miles of flooded timber, pockets of tules and small flooded fields, it has plenty to offer waterfowlers.
Also on the north end, the west shoreline between Clear Lake State Park and Lakeport provides more than five miles of flooded tules and willow trees.
For years, the area around Long Tule Point has been a favorite among hunters. On the south end of the lake, the area in and around Cache Creek can also be productive. Hunters should be aware, however, that the areas within the Clear Lake State Park and the Anderson Marsh are closed to hunting year 'round. Also, shooting within 150 yards of any occupied residence or public road is prohibited.
You can only access hunting areas by boat. The Lakeside Park ramp in Kelseyville and the 5th Street ramp in Lakeport are both centrally located for hunters headed out to the northwest areas.
For Rodman Slough, there's a small gravel ramp located off the Nice-Lucerne Cutoff Road, right at the mouth of the slough. This ramp is only suitable for canoes, float tubes or small aluminum boats. Waterfowlers who want to hunt the south-end areas use the ramp at the Redbud Park in the town of Clear Lake.
Regarding when to go, local guide Terry Manthey said waterfowling on the lake isn't what it used to be a few years ago, so opening weekend will be the best bet. Another option is the first day or two after a good powerful storm hits the central valley and gets the birds moving around. Otherwise, hunting pressure and central valley rice fields are likely to send the birds elsewhere.
Whenever you go, however, definitely bring your fishing tackle. A solid morning of hunting will still leave plenty of time to take advantage of Clear Lake's reputation as the "Bass Capital of the West."
THE THERMALITO AFTERBAY
Well known as an excellent bass and landlocked steelhead fishery, the Thermalito Afterbay has been one of the best-kept waterfowling secrets in the entire Sacramento Valley.
Six miles west of Oroville in Butte County, the Afterbay is a manmade reservoir within the Oroville Wildlife Area. It was built in the '60s as part of the Thermalito Complex of Lake Oroville to serve as a warming basin for the water sent out to the rice fields to the west and to control the flow of the Feather River.
At only 6.7 square miles with 26 miles of shoreline, it's a relatively small body of water, but its location makes it a hotspot for waterfowl.
After eating their fill in nearby rice fields, the birds can retreat to the relative safety and security of the Afterbay's open waters.
The waterfowl to be found here will vary as the season goes along. Early in the season, hunters can try their skills on local populations of mallards, teal and gadwalls. As the season goes on, the Afterbay comes alive -- hunters can expect to see thousands of birds swarming over the open water and rafting up on the Afterbay as the migration hits its peak. Large flocks of widgeons and sprig especially like the area and, although it may not be a hotspot for geese, it's certainly overlooked.
"The Afterbay is very underutilized for waterfowl hunting, especially for geese," said Tim Williamson, manager for the Oroville Wildlife Area. "There are lots of them on the north side, mostly local, but some migratory. There are more than 200 acres of food crops around there, and those birds are in it."
Adding to the Afterbay's appeal for the birds is its diverse habitat. Scattered tree-covered islands and long, tapering points, break up the open water. The shoreline is pocked with numerous little bays and inlets with clumps of tules and flooded willows. There are also scattered groves of cottonwood and eucalyptus trees that provide good cover for hunters.
A few hunting areas are walk-in, but most are accessible only by boat. The Monument Hill and Wilbur Road recreational areas off Highway 162 serve hunters wanting to hunt the west end of the Afterbay, and the Larkin Road ramp is best for hunters headed to the east side.
Walk-in hunters can access a large hunting area off the east side of Wilbur Road. This area does not have designated hunting areas or blinds, but it's a large area, and hunters who spend some time scouting can usually find a good spot.
Located in the heart of Plumas County, Lake Almanor rests in the beautiful Lassen National Forest. This high mo
untain reservoir has 52 miles of shoreline, covers 27,000 acres and is known for a tremendous fishery. And every fall, Lake Almanor is host to thousands of migrating waterfowl. The shallow-water marsh on the northeast end of the lake will fill up with mallards, gadwalls, teal, widgeons and Canada geese.
Hunters can expect large amounts of birds as the season starts, and as the first wave of birds leave, more northern birds will show up throughout the season. According to DFG warden Bob Orange, hunters usually do very well during the opening week and then again with winter storms in December and January.
The most huntable habitat is on the lake's north end. The Last Chance Marsh, better known as the "Causeway," serves as the hotspot for most waterfowlers. The shallow grass marsh just north of Chester is also a favorite among hunters.
Most of these areas can be accessed from Highway 36 and the Last Chance Campground forest service road. Hunters are permitted to park and walk to their hunting area. Depending on water levels, boaters can use the ramp at the North Shore Campground or the Prattville ramp. With normal water levels, small boats, canoes or scull boats can be launched from the forest service road.
On the northwest side, near the Chester Airport, hunt around the brushpiles and abundant stumps that cover parts of the shoreline.
Hunters should plan on doing some scouting to determine the location of access points, water levels and the general whereabouts of birds. Remember to bring your layout blinds or blind material for cover. The grass marsh is very sparse.
If Clear Lake is the bass fisherman's Nirvana, Eagle Lake is hands down the trout lover's mecca. Thousands of anglers come to this high desert lake every year hoping to catch the trout of a lifetime but, like Clear Lake, it remains a relatively undiscovered country for waterfowling.
Located 15 miles north of Susanville in Lassen County, Eagle Lake is one of California's largest lakes. At 22,000 acres with 100 miles of shoreline, it offers an incredibly diverse habitat mix, ranging from small bays and rocky points lined with pine and cedar forest on the south end to large bays, long points and shallow marshes covered with bulrush and cattails to the north end.
The ample space and habitat make Eagle Lake an ideal stopover spot for migrating waterfowl as they work their way down California's northeastern flank. Hunters can expect to see good numbers of mallards, gadwalls, widgeons, cinnamon and green-winged teal. A variety of diver ducks frequent the lake throughout the season as well, along with healthy numbers of Canada geese.
The shoreline is 85 percent public land, so there is plenty of access. Most hunters set out on foot or by boat to the many tule beds on the lake's north end -- easily accessible by State Highway 139 to the east and County Road A-1 to the west.
One of the more popular spots is the shoreline in front of the Spaulding Airport between Pelican Point and Pine Creek. The shallow marshlands to the northeast of Troxel Point can also be productive. Hunters going by boat can use the ramps at the Spaulding Tract or Stones Landing, both on the northwest side of the lake.
As for when to go, local experts say the first few weeks of the season offer the best opportunities.
"Early in the season, the ducks are not as pressured and the weather is a little more predictable," said Rick Kennedy of Tight Lines Guide Service, adding that the hunting can remain steady up to Thanksgiving as new birds migrate into the area. By December, the weather pattern changes dramatically, with average lows near 21 degrees, so most of the migratory birds begin to move south.
Strong winds in the afternoons are one of the lake's signature features; they can turn the lake into an ocean and really turn on the hunting. For hunters, that means a single day can include hunting from first light until about 9 a.m., then a lunch break of fishing for one of the lake's famous 4- and 5-pound trout, followed by more hunting in the afternoon as the winds pick up. It's the ultimate blast and cast day.