Your Guide to Northwest Pintails

Your Guide to Northwest Pintails
Once highly abundant, pintails continue toward recovery throughout the West, and some of the best numbers anywhere can be found at these Oregon and Washington locales.

By Doug Rose

I live on the wet side of Washington, a few hundred yards from tidewater on Hood Canal. The duck species that my yellow Labrador, Lily, retrieves are the species that are happy living around salt marsh and brackish estuaries. Widgeon are by far the most abundant duck species, while mallards come in a distant second. Pintails typically hold down third place in number, but for a great many Northwest waterfowlers, sprig are No. 1 in their hearts.

Fortunate for them, while pintail numbers have declined in many areas, they have increased or remained stable on Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Washington coast.

Historically, northern pintails were quite abundant on the Olympic Peninsula and other western Washington marine shorelines. "Many spend the winter on the Strait and Puget Sound," E. A. Kitchin wrote in his 1949 volume Birds of the Olympic Peninsula. "They breed on both sides of the Cascades in Washington but in very restricted numbers. The majority go north in the spring."

Last year, Lily and I saw more pintails than usual on Hood Canal. That was both exciting and somewhat unexpected. It was exciting because these high-flying, attractive dabblers are challenging targets on the wing and yet are among the most desirable on the table. The unexpected part of their abundance was because it occurred as overall pintail numbers in the Pacific Northwest were low enough to require shorter seasons and tighter bags than other puddle ducks.

From a purely culinary standpoint, I am always most excited when Lily retrieves a pintail. Widgeon, and even mallards and teal that winter near saltwater, often take on a rather fishy taste after the first month or so of the season. With them, the goal in the kitchen, frankly, is to conjure up a dish that fundamentally changes the natural taste of the bird. (One recipe I often use is a French cassoulet, in which the duck is cooked with sausage, lamb and white beans. I also tend to use a lot of Cajun recipes that feature hot spices and Andouille sausage. I, fortunately, live a short distance from a market in Port Townsend, the Key City Fish Company, where I can buy all of these ingredients.)

Photo by Kenny Bahr

As I cleaned my first pintail last year, I noticed none of the strong odor that even puddle ducks take on in saltwater. There was also an abundance of pin feathers on its breast and sides, which indicated it was a young bird. As a result, I cooked it the way I would a succulent, non-gamy bird such as a blue grouse or quail. I basted it lightly in butter, seasoned it with salt and pepper and put it into a large cast iron Dutch oven with a little water and white wine. I cooked it on the top of the stove over a slow simmer. It wasn't long before a savory aroma filled the kitchen.

When I put the bird on a platter an 1 1/2 hours later, it was so tender it nearly fell apart. I knew right away that it would taste great, and it did. It was the best duck I've eaten in several years.

Yet again, I was reminded why the Northern pintail is widely regarded by many Pacific Northwest waterfowlers as perhaps the most-prized duck of all. In addition to its superb qualities as table fare, it is a wild flier that swirls and tumbles in the air, presenting tough, challenging targets. It is also a quick study, becoming wary of decoys and hunters' tricks rapidly. Not least of all, the pintail is among the most handsome of all waterfowl.

After mallards, the northern pintail is the most widespread around the world's northern latitudes. In the United States, however, it is predominately a Western species. California's Central Valley alone supports half of the flyway's wintering pintails. Most of the pintails that winter in California nest in Alberta and Saskatchewan and migrate east of the Cascade Mountains. Largely as a result of the production in this area, pintails were historically more abundant in the Pacific Flyway than even mallards. But Canadian pintail numbers have declined steeply in recent years, and they were the reason for the truncated season in 2002-'03.

Interestingly, pintails as a species are much more difficult to categorize than other dabbling ducks. "They are definitely interchangeable," said Don Kraege, the WDFW waterfowl section chief. "You can't separate them into different sub-populations like you can mallards."

Kraege says the birds are extremely mobile on nesting grounds. "If there is a drought in Alberta, for example, they will go to Alaska. They are so migratory that we treat all of them as one population." Kraege says this can be frustrating for hunters, who often see good numbers of adult drakes in one area and wonder why the bag is low or why there are short seasons such as we had last year. Take, for instance, my surprise at seeing so many sprig on Hood Canal last fall.

"Pintail numbers have really declined up in southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan due to agriculture," Kraege said. The conversion of critical shallow-water wetland nesting habitat to cropland has been the main cause of the decline. Many of these birds migrated through eastern Washington, down into the Klamath Basin and ultimately to the Central Valley. "They did improve over last year," Kraege said. "We hope to have a full season this year. The split season adds a lot of confusion."

The good news for Beaver and Evergreen state waterfowlers who hunt west of the Cascade Mountains is that the pintails they pursue are primarily Alaskan birds whose population tends to be more consistent than their eastern cousins. "The habitat is more stable (in Alaska)," Kraege said. "There is a coastal migration from Alaska along the bays into British Columbia and Washington, then into the Willamette Valley and down to the Central Valley." Kraege says the primary pintail migration along the coast occurs in October.

Although the Columbia River and irrigated farms east of the Cascade Mountains are the mallard draws of the region, the best pintail hunting in Washington occurs on the wet side of the mountains. "The bulk of our pintail are in the Skagit Bay area," Kraege said, "and in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor." Between 40,000 and 60,000 pintails are typically available each fall in the greater Skagit Bay area (including Port Susan and Samish Bay). Smaller numbers frequent Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.

Located on various parcels on the east and south ends of the bay, the WDFW's Skagit Wildlife Area contains more than 16,000 acres of managed wetlands. Hunting is allowed on most of the wildlife area, and it is planted with grains that attract waterfowl such a

s pintail and mallard. However, shooting is only allowed from anchored boats in Skagit Bay and adjacent marine waters. Duck hunters are also limited to 15 shells daily in the farmed island section (Fir Island) and Welts (West 90). In addition to the Skagit WA, pintail action can also often be obtained on Samish Bay, Port Susan and at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River.

"We have limited information on their movements," Kraege said. "There appears to be considerable interchange between Skagit ducks and those from the Fraser River in British Columbia." He said the ducks seem to move around and have changing populations, perhaps based on weather or food abundance.

Unfortunately, all is not well at the Skagit WA, at least according to many of its most passionate waterfowlers. That is the result of the recent decision by the Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board that might result in the breaching of dikes at several locations to restore salmon habitat. The problem for duck hunters is that the project will transform some of the uplands that the WDFW plants with grain into intertidal areas. This will entirely change the nature of the hunting experience in the areas where dikes are removed and will most likely also alter the composition of the birds that use the inundated areas.

Along the coast, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay are two of the most important stops for ducks that nested and fledged along the Alaska coast. Public land is sketchy at Grays Harbor, but there is an abundance of boat hunting opportunity. Pintails are most common early in the season, but many do linger, especially during dry weather. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is located north of Ilwaco; duck hunting is available on its Lewis Unit, which is on Willapa Bay, and at Leadbetter Point, an exposed sand spit between the ocean and bay. "We don't have surveys for the coast," Kraege said, "but I expect around 20,000 pintails are at Willapa and Grays Harbors during the early part of the season."

It may be hard to believe today, but a few decades ago pintail were so abundant on the Oregon coast that hunters were allowed a bonus bag of five sprig in addition to their standard daily limit. Last year, the first pintail you shot each day was also the last, and the season on the coast ended on Dec. 12, a full six weeks before the end of the rest of the waterfowl season.

As in Washington, managers hope pintails will again be open for a full, conventional season this fall. And although there is no expectation that sprig numbers will ever again support bonus limits or that hunting access on the coast will become any less limited, western Oregon's lower Columbia River remains a dependable pintail destination.

Sauvie Island provides the best pintail opportunity for Portland-area waterfowlers. Surrounded on the east by the Columbia and Willamette rivers and the west by Multnomah Channel, the Sauvie Island WA contains five units, each with slightly different hunting options managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The North Unit and Columbia River beaches are open throughout the duck season, although hunters are asked to voluntarily report at the check station when leaving. Oak Island, which is located in Sturgeon Lake, and the Eastside Unit are permit-hunt areas; hunters must submit an application (available in the regulations pamphlet) to hunt there. The Westside Unit is also a permit hunt, but it is drawn daily at the check station. In addition to the island's natural attractions, the ODFW also grows between 800 and 1,200 acres of grain crops on the area annually.

"We have a lot of pintails," said Mark Nebeker, the Sauvie Island WA manager. "It varies from year to year, but they are usually our second or third most abundant duck. Sometimes we see them as early as September." He says that some of these birds linger along the lower Columbia, but the majority continues south to California. "We get another influx in November and early December and number of them stick around."

Nebeker says that although there is opportunity to hunt from boats at Sauvie Island, most hunting is from assigned blinds by permit. "We're packing a lot of people in here."

Farther downstream, the 35,000-acre Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge also receives strong numbers of pintail. But hunting at Lewis and Clark is a world apart from that at Sauvie Island. It is a maze of mud flats, marshy islands and sandbars, and all hunting is done by boat.

Because of strong winter tides and storms, heavy boat traffic and the confusing nature of the islands, only experienced hunters should venture onto the refuge.

Pintails are most abundant on the shores and near the mainland, rather than in the channels, where divers are most common. Hunting is allowed on all of the refuge except for Miller Island and the diked portion of Karlson Island.

Historically, the complex of lakes and marshes around southern Oregon's Klamath Lake hosted one of the Pacific Northwest's largest concentrations of pintails. In Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, Frank Bellrose reported, "There appears to be an important corridor across the corner of the Pacific Ocean from near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the Klamath Basin in northern California."

Originally sprawling over more than 185,000 acres, this enormous wetland hosted upwards of 6 million waterfowl each winter. Today, less than 25 percent of the marsh remains, and the well-publicized diversion of water for agriculture in the Klamath Basin has had just as negative an effect on waterfowl as it has for salmon. Not surprisingly, pintails have declined in the basin.

By comparison with most areas, however, there are still plenty of pintails in the Klamath Basin.

Indeed, last winter aerial surveys revealed more than 70,000 pintails on the refuge at one time (this count includes California), after the season ended on December. Hunting pressure is also relatively light, compared to western Oregon. As is the case throughout pintail country, they are among the earliest arrivals, typically appearing in September and October. "Our peak is early November, but it has gotten a little later as the years go by," said Dave Menke, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Klamath Refuge Complex outdoor recreation specialist. Many of these birds leave when the water freezes, but a fair number remain available in December.

The primary factor that will determine hunting opportunity in the Klamath Basin this year will be the presence of water. "We're looking at a pretty good water supply through mid summer," Menke told me last spring. "But fall is the question mark. It started out looking pretty grim but we had pretty good rainfall in April and May." Springtime precipitation is important to nesting success, but the discharge of snowmelt through summer is the thing that sustains fall and winter waterfowl habitat. Basically, Klamath Lake needs a surface elevation of 4,140 feet to be able to reach the marshes. Menke advises all hunters to call the refuge (541-783-3380) or visit its Web site www.kla to find out about conditions before loading your dog in the truck.

According to Menke, the Klamath refuges offer a wide range of hunting options. Within Oregon, portions of the Klamath Marsh and Upper Klamath refuges are open to waterfowl hunting. Klamath Marsh is most productive during good water years, and it is best hunted from a canoe (no motors are allowed).

Upper Klamath NWR is only accessible by boat (motors permitted), with hunting largely centered around Rocky Point on the west side of the lake, and Hanks Marsh on the southeast. Hunters with large, dependable motor boats who set decoys in small coves and marsh on the west side of the lake usually enjoy virtual solitude, while the best hunting at Hank's Marsh occurs if the water level drops late in the season.

In addition to the federal refuges, the ODFW's Klamath WA offers 2,400 acres in its Miller Island Unit, along the east bank of the Klamath River, as well as the Gorr Island, Shoalwater Bay and Squaw Point units, which provide an additional 990 acres. Regulations are available in the ODFW's regulation pamphlet.

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