National wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas provide plenty of opportunity to take waterfowl in California's Central Valley.
California winter brings to mind images of lolling on sunny beaches, listening to surfer boys doing dude-talk, "oohing" and "aahing" at the New Year's Eve fireworks at Disneyland and watching the Rose Bowl. To be sure, California is all that. But there's so much more, especially for waterfowl hunters who target the Central Valley. And there is a lot to target.
The Central Valley, 500 miles long -- north to south -- running from Redding to Bakersfield, is divided into two river drainages. The Sacramento River in the north and the San Joaquin River in the south meet in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, a fertile stretch of marshes, sloughs, canals, streambeds and peat islands. Toss into the mix some 500,000 acres of rice fields within 100 miles of Sacramento, about 40 percent of which are flooded each winter to create wetland habitat. Add the wheat fields of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys that produce 75 percent of the wheat grown in the state. Moisten the mix with many smaller rivers running through the area and it becomes apparent why 10-12 million ducks come to the Central Valley every year.
The mix of ducks runs the gamut: Mallard, gadwall, pintail, teal (both cinnamon and green-wing), wood, widgeon, northern shoveler and more. Some areas are known to put out more of one variety than the others. If you want species-specific hunting, a great source of information is the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) Waterfowl Hunt Reports. The information is broken down for each state-operated hunting unit. It provides insight into hunter success as the season progresses, the numbers of hunters and the first and second most-harvested species.
Perhaps most telling about the statistics is the dramatic falloff of hunter success on Sunday after a Saturday shoot. Possible reasons are fewer birds in the area, the survivors quickly learning to avoid the blinds or the Saturday hunters being more accomplished shots. Whatever the reason, a Saturday reservation is preferred over Sunday. The bad news is that the current report information is not posted online. As with all things concerning Mother Nature, bird concentration and composition changes over time. For the best up-to-date information, there are a number of resources. Check in with your local outdoor store (Kittles Outdoor and Sport in Colusa [www.kittles.com] or Outdoor Sportsman in Stockton [www.outdoorsportsman.biz]), read the newspaper, contact the local game warden and search the Internet for postings regarding the area of interest.
Let's look at some more numbers to whet your hunting appetite. Sixty percent of all Pacific Flyway waterfowl migrate through or winter in the Central Valley, according to Ducks Unlimited. Mike Carion, CDFG northern district assistant chief of enforcement and a duck hunter himself said, "Ninety percent of pintails in the Pacific Flyway come into the Central Valley." In the past that was discouraging to some hunters who only saw pintails but who were constrained by a one "in the bag" limit. The numbers of pintails have increased so much that the bag limit for the 2009-2010 season was doubled. Merced County, the heart of the San Joaquin, is thought to be the second-leading county in the nation in numbers of waterfowl showing up in the Harvest Information Program.
A couple of general observations about Central Valley hunter success. Water is a key in most refuges, especially early in the year. As the season progresses, more areas within the refuges get flooded. Also, as the season progresses, the birds coming down from the north have already been hunted through Canada, Washington and Oregon. They are better able to detect fraud in calling, in blind construction and in hunter camouflage. Take care to properly set your decoys, take care to construct your blind and take care to manage the little things like picking up your expended shotshells. Avoid simple mistakes and the success ratio will increase. There is also thought that the concentrations of birds gradually move south from the upper Central Valley as the season progresses. A shift in hunter focus should follow.
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex lies at the head of the Central Valley. It consists of five National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) that allow hunting, and three Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) that are closed to the public. The Butte Sink WMA is said to support more waterfowl per acre than any other spot in the world. Before lamenting that no hunting is allowed, take heed -- the closed areas still provide significant hunter benefit as they draw more birds into the general area. More birds in the area means more shooting opportunities as those ducks arrive from the north and depart for their final nesting grounds.
The Sacramento NWR (widgeon, green-winged teal, pintails and gadwall) offers 56 concrete pit, pad or assigned ponds. Three are designated for disabled hunters. The others require walking up 1.3 miles from the parking area. As in many other things, walking has its benefits. Shooting usually improves the further the hunter walks from the parking areas.
Delevan NWR (mallard and teal) has 30 hunt sites, three of which are set aside for disabled hunters. Able-bodied waterfowlers can get more exercise at Delevan as the longest walk is 1.7 miles. This a traditional hotspot with both the blinds and free roam areas producing good numbers of birds.
Colusa and Sutter NWR's (both mallards) have a combination of assigned areas (ponds, pools and tracts) as well as free roam tracts and pools. For a complete description of the each assigned area, go to the Sacramento NWR Web site and click on "Wildlife-dependant recreation," then "Hunting" and follow the prompts through to each area.
The Sacramento River NWR offers a different -- some might say "primitive" -- hunting experience. Composed of 29 units along 77 miles of river, the refuge offers islands, gravel bars, sloughs and other waterfowl habitat. There are no hunting fees or hunter quotas. Access to all areas is by boat only, except for Drumheller Slough and Sul Norte units that also allow foot traffic. No bicycles or other conveyances are allowed. No fires are allowed though camping stoves can be used on gravel bars. The area has limited day-use hours, except camping for up to seven days is permissible on the gravel bars. The area Web site warns that mountain lions have been spotted and requests that any additional sightings be reported to CDFG.
Unit maps, regulations and other information hunters need to know is available online at the Refuge Complex Web site and the individual refuge Web sites. Hunters that plan to bring a travel trailer should confirm that the selected refuge allows trailers.
South of Sacramento, Stone Lakes NWR hunters can take a whack at resident wood ducks and mallards, with teal added later in the season. Stone Lakes offers walk-in and boat-in blinds. For the latter, boats are provided, though hunters must bring their own PFD's. In the past, Stone Lakes operated under a split reservation system. General hunters used the CDFG system. Youth and disabled hunters reserved directly with the Refuge. Amy Hopperstad, hunt manager, thinks that will change this season to a refuge-only system.
Stone Lakes is unique among the federal refuges. It was a former duck club "that retains the feel of a high quality hunt," according to Hopperstad. Located near a major metropolitan area, the refuge offers local hunters an opportunity to hunt on a federal refuge without having to drive for hours. It also reserves two blinds for youth hunters on Saturday, making it "a great place to bring kids," says Hopperstad.
Further south lies the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Headquartered in Merced and running south towards Los Banos, this is teal country at its finest. San Luis features seven hunting units, each with its own set of hunting regulations. Some are open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday only; some are open every day with different regulations for Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Some have an afternoon shooting session. Some are boat-access only. It's critical to read the regulations before leaving home. All the regulations for each hunting unit are posted on the San Luis NWR Complex Web site under the "Hunt Program" tab.
North and South Freitas units have in the past produced some the best success numbers in the state with hunters reporting more than six birds per hunter.
The northern shoveler is one of several species that can be found in the North Grasslands. Photo by Willy Onarheim.
STATE WILDLIFE AREAS
Perhaps the best-known wildlife areas in the Sacramento Valley are Grey Lodge and Upper Butte Basin. Each of these areas has abundant numbers of greenheads, gadwalls and pintails. Both are Type A areas requiring reservations and area passes. Each area operates a morning hunt with an afternoon refill, but leave your 10-gauge at home if hunting Upper Butte Basin. Check out the specific area regulations at www.dfg.wa.gov/land.wa/region2.
Down south the North Grasslands area features three units -- Salt Slough, China Island and Gadwall. Grasslands hunters will get plenty of bird identification practice as these units feature green-winged teal, shovelers, mallards and widgeon. Other popular Merced County wildlife areas are Volta and Los Banos. Further south is the Mendota area. For a complete list of state wildlife areas, go to www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa, then select the region of interest.
If you have a boat but are aced out of the reservation system, there can be wonderful jump shooting on a river. Try the Sacramento from Anderson all the way past Colusa. There are boat ramps in Anderson, Red Bluff, Los Molinos, Corning, Hamilton City, Butte City, Princeton and Colusa. The Feather River between Oroville and Nicolaus is another float and shoot opportunity. Small boats can be launched from either the Feather River or Oroville Wildlife areas that border the river.
For the bird hunter who also ties traditional trout flies, the San Joaquin River system boasts the highest concentration of wood ducks in the state. Focus on the river between Modesto and the Mendota Wildlife Area.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
Hunters need to know that numerous layers of regulations may apply to refuge hunting. According to Mike Carion, hunters must be aware of the basic California hunting regulations. Each federal and state refuge will have its own area-specific set of rules. To get a better understanding of the rules, Carion suggests reading the Waterfowl and Upland Game Hunting and Other Public Uses of State and Federal Areas booklet. Available in printed form or online at www.dgg.ca.gov/wildlife/hunting, it covers general state and area-specific regulations. It also lists, in an easy-to-read chart format, the official shooting hours for various locations. Carion notes that hunters can easily calculate shooting hours if their location is not listed in the booklet by checking the local newspaper or online for sunrise and sunset times, then adding the allowed half hour before sunrise.
The two most common violations Carion sees are overlimit of a particular species and the failure of the hunter to have all applicable licenses, stamps and access permits. The bag limit combination changes frequently so it pays to read the rules and be able to properly identify what birds are flying by. Late-season hunters need to be able to distinguish scaup on the fly as the season for them closes early in some zones.
GEAR DECOYS AND DOGS
The amount of gear carried into the blind depends on hunter preference and the distance from the parking area. When deciding whether a piece of gear is necessary, remember that some of these blinds are 1.7 miles distant. How that gear gets transported initially depends on refuge rules as some do not allow mountain bikes. Wheeled carts, hand trucks, or backpacks for the minimalists are common. To save time, on arrival at the parking area make sure all the gear is already strapped to the conveyance and is ready to go when feet hit the ground.
Decoys, in both composition and numbers, are another matter of personal preference. Generally, though, hunters select a predominance of mallards -- both drakes and hens -- with some green-winged teal mixed in. Two dozen is the minimum unless the hunter is targeting very tight spaces where fewer decoys work better. Marco Pedroza, of Kittles, thinks up to six dozen may be the right number.
Many of the blinds are without seats so, unless you want to stand all day, a drab-painted five-gallon bucket will carry some gear and serve as a seat.
Dogs and ducks go together like peanut butter and jelly. When hunting over flooded rice fields or other wetlands, a good retriever is "a pretty important part," says Pedroza. "A cripple will hit the water and dive when you approach it. A dog will get it." There is no consensus on the best bird dog. Pedroza says, "I know one local hunter that hunts with a poodle."
The Central Valley is a duck hunter's paradise. It's filled with birds all season long and the federal and state refuges offer a multitude of public hunting options. Your tax dollars at work are your invitation to play.