California has some of the best waterfowling in the West, and these three spots provide a great opportunity to take your fill of mallards.
Photo by R.E. Ilg
By Mark E. Biddlecomb
In winter ducks are as ubiquitous as shopping malls in the Golden State. More than 60 percent of Pacific Flyway waterfowl, some 4 million to 6 million ducks, call California home from September through March, and mallards are one of the most common ducks found throughout the year. You can see them in rice fields, wetlands, on rivers and even in city parks. You'd think, then, that shooting a limit of mallards would be no trouble at all for a good hunter.
Those of us that have hunted here awhile know that seeing a bunch of mallards is a whole lot different than taking a limit of mallards, especially on public lands. It can be done, however, and the following three areas will provide hunters with great early- and late-season opportunities for limits of greenheads.
SAN LUIS NATIONAL
The San Joaquin Valley has a wide variety of state-managed wildlife areas and federally managed wildlife refuges, which offer some outstanding waterfowl hunting opportunities. The region's wetlands are intensely managed to provide excellent habitat for ducks.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, about 25 miles west of Merced, has numerous units in which hunting is allowed. The Freitas Unit is one of these, and according to Dennis Woolington, San Luis Refuge supervisory wildlife biologist, it's also a good bet for a limit of greenheads early in the season.
The Freitas Unit is unique in that it's only accessible by boat and hunting is allowed seven days a week. It's managed like a Type A area and a permit is needed on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the week it's managed on a first-come/first-served basis with no fee, quota or check-in required. This is a real plus. It allows hunters to play the weather and get out there when the hunting is good, not just when they have a reservation. Hunting is generally best during windy, stormy days and early in the morning.
Woolington suggests hunters concentrate on Salt Slough. "Salt Slough doesn't really provide any food resources for ducks, but they use it as a corridor to move back and forth between feeding areas," he said. "It's also used a lot for loafing." This means hunters should be looking for areas that provide ducks with some cover from the elements.
"I look for areas with a lot of shade from overhanging vegetation, cut banks or trees. I usually set up in pretty straight stretches of the slough," said Woolington. He believes this will allow hunters to match up better with the overall flight pattern of the birds. "I avoid outlying bends or oxbows. Most of the ducks seem to fly straight down the main stem of the slough. But there are always exceptions and it helps to get out there often and watch the flight pattern."
Woolington cautions boaters that the slough is pretty shallow. "The slough is fed by agricultural tail water, so during the hunting season it's pretty low," Woolington said. "I use a canoe. One morning, I could hear another boat with a prop motor trying to get downstream. I made better time paddling." Flat-bottom boats with a Mud Buddy or Go-Devil are ideal. Airboats, personal watercraft and inboard jet boats are prohibited, and you can't launch until after 2 a.m.
There are two boat launches, one on Highway 140 (north Freitas) about 24 miles west of Merced and one on Highway 165 (south Freitas), five miles south of the intersection with 140. A parking pass must be displayed in vehicles parked at south Freitas on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Woolington suggests that hunters don't need a huge decoy spread; a dozen or two mallard and green-winged teal dekes will do the trick. Later in the season, he throws in some pintail and widgeon dekes because you're more likely to see those birds. "It's definitely an early-season spot for mallards - October and early November. After that, pintails, widgeon and other species become more common," said Woolington. "You can also come up with a goose now and then if it's foggy, but that's pretty rare."
|LEASING A BLIND|
Many hunters don't like to deal with the reservation system California uses to allocate hunting opportunity and regulate hunting pressure. Still others believe the three hunt days per week allowed on public land is four short of a good week. If you agree, then leasing a rice blind may be for you.
The Sacramento Valley has more than 500,000 acres of rice, most of which can be leased for hunting.
Not all rice fields are created equally in the mind of a duck. There are several things to consider when choosing a blind location.
The most important factor is location. Look for a blind near natural or managed wetlands, preferably a closed zone or other type of sanctuary. Ideally, the field will be located between wetland areas and the blind will be in the flight line of birds passing back and forth.
Availability of water is another key. It's not so important that the landowner floods his fields by opening day; rice fields don't shoot that well early in the season. What is important is whether the landowner can keep it flooded throughout the season.
Consider whether there's adequate room between blinds and how many acres are allocated per blind. Other factors include the condition of the blind (some are real rust buckets), how many days per week hunting is allowed and whether the field is laser-leveled. Leveled fields will have straight checks. Some hunters prefer contour checks, which follow the topography of the land and therefore aren't straight.
Typical costs run from $1,200 to $1,500 per seat for a four-man blind. Check local newspapers for advertisements, but word of mouth is the most common means used for finding that perfect blind. — Mark E. Biddlecomb
TULE LAKE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge is 25 miles south of Klamath Falls, Ore., in California's Siskiyou and Modoc counties. It's big, covering just over 39,000 acres. However, it's the 3,500 acres contained in Sump 1B that you want to find
if you're looking for mallards.
This unit had been a permanently flooded marsh for decades and has not been holding birds in any numbers for about as long. However, several years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited installed a pump system that allowed the Sump to be drawn down. Drawing down the water, exposing the soils to air and subsequent water management has resulted in phenomenal growth of annual plants such as smartweed (a.k.a. duck groceries), and the mallards have taken notice. According to Dave Mauser, refuge biologist, "Quite a few hunters had great mallard hunts later in the season (last year). It wasn't too crowded, and plenty of mallards were using the Sump 1B unit.
"However," notes Mauser, "we've changed our management strategy on the Sump this year, from seasonal draw-down to holding water all summer. We're also holding it a little deeper. The Bureau of Reclamation has designated this a dry year, which means less water coming to the refuge complex, so we're planning ahead. We may need to use some of this water for our fall flood-up on the Lower Klamath refuge."
As you might imagine, a change in management will change the habitat. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "We expect this will result in more sago pondweed and other submergent-type plants, as well as increased tule growth. As a consequence, this unit will provide some classic tule marsh hunting," said Mauser.
While some hunters will walk into the unit from its east side, boats can be a big help. "The Sump is a big unit, and having a boat just makes it easier to get where you want to go," said Mauser. He also recommends bringing three- or four-dozen mallard and pintail decoys, which will be easier to carry in a boat than on your back.
A flat-bottom boat with a Mud Buddy will get you anywhere you want to go. "Guys with a prop motor will be able to access more than half the unit," said Mauser. "At least it'll be deep enough. But if the sago responds like we think it will, it may give prop motors some trouble."
Although mallards feed on sago pondweed, the deeper water could mean a mixed bag for Sump 1B hunters. But don't let that stop you from coming.
"It's hard to predict how ducks will respond," said Mauser, "but the Sump should still shoot well. And we still have 200 acres in seasonal marsh north of Sump 1B. This should provide some good mallard opportunities, too."
As an added bonus, this area has three pit blinds, but hunters must draw for them at the Tule check station.
Hunters should plan to be out on the marsh early. The refuge is open to hunting seven days a week, but hunting closes at 1 p.m. and you need to have your gear out of the marsh by 2:30 p.m. Draws are conducted for both the blind units and Sump 1B, until hunter demand drops below supply. According to Mauser, this generally occurs in mid-November. The bird-per-hunter averages for the Tule marsh areas were pretty good from mid-November to early December 2003. For example, on Nov. 16 hunters shot an average of 5.25 birds, with 60 percent mallards, and on Dec. 7, hunters shot 4.10 ducks per gun, with 90 percent mallards in the bag. It doesn't get much better than that.
GRAY LODGE WILDLIFE AREAGray Lodge is a state-owned wildlife area, roughly 9,100 acres in size and located about eight miles west of Live Oak in Butte and Sutter counties. It's a Type A hunt area.
As with most public land hunting, shoot days are Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, and reservations are available to allow access before shoot time. Plenty of guys hunt Gray Lodge like this: get there before daylight and, after their number is called, make a beeline in the dark for their favorite spot. There are no spaced blinds, so it's first-come/first-served for those who draw a number.
But why bother getting up so early when you can walk on midmorning, avoid most of the crowd, and have a terrific mallard hunt? That's the philosophy of Ryan Broddrick, Director of the California Department of Fish and Game. Born and raised in California, Broddrick has hunted Gray Lodge for years and has some fantastic midmorning mallard tales.
"I remember one Saturday in early December," said Broddrick. "I'd been hunting my rice blind that morning and the birds just weren't moving. It was a bluebird day with maybe a 10-mph north wind, but no weather. I packed up about 9 a.m., but it was too early to go home. After stopping for some breakfast, I headed over to Gray Lodge." Broddrick stopped at the hunter check station and found out there were only three hunters on the east side. "I prefer the east side, anyway, so I headed out there," said Broddrick. The person working the check station also told Broddrick that hunters were only averaging one bird that morning, almost as bad as his leased blind. "But I figured it couldn't get any worse, and it would give my dog some exercise, so what the heck."
Broddrick didn't just stumble around looking for a likely looking spot. "I spent some time glassing the area with my binoculars. I watched a pair of mallards come in, do a quick circle, then land about 25 yards from a patch of trees." Seeing these mallards drop in, and better yet, hearing no shots when they did, Broddrick decided to park his truck and see what was out there. "I parked in parking lot 10," said Broddrick. "It wasn't more than 50 or so yards out from the parking lot."
What he found was small pocket water. "This area had a lot of tules with small open ponds; the water was about 12 to 18 inches deep." This type of habitat doesn't always provide a lot of food, but it does provide some pretty good cover for ducks. "There were a lot of feathers on the water, (indicating that) most of these birds were coming in to loaf and preen," said Broddrick.
"I didn't use many decoys," Broddrick went on, "just eight or so magnum mallards, four woody and four standard mallards. I set them up so I could hide with my dog in the tules, leaving a spot open where the ducks could land in front of me."
According to Broddrick, he had a steady stream of ducks coming in. "The mallards were coming in pairs and threes. They would circle a time or two and I'd give them a light chuckle call. They dropped in just perfectly."
Broddrick ended up shooting six greenheads and a drake woody by 3 o'clock. "The guys at the check station couldn't believe it," chuckled Broddrick. "They accused me of hunting the closed zone!"
I, too, have hunted Gray Lodge by walking on midday, but hunters usually do best in late afternoon and evening. I've always hunted the west side and have had some pretty good success. Just like Broddrick, I hunt tule marsh, but prefer to find water depths of 6 to 8 inches. I use few decoys, usually 18 or so mallard and pintail. Although last time there I ran out of time before I'd shot my limit, it seemed like I had the place to myself and I didn't have to roll out of bed in the dark, so I'm not complaining!
Conditions change and so can the hunting. Before loading up and heading for any public land hunt, I suggest you contact the area office and get the latest information. The pho
ne number for San Luis NWR is (209) 826-3508, Tule NWR is (530) 667-2231 and Gray Lodge WA is (530) 846-7500.
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