When you think of national wildlife refuges, you probably think ducks. But many hunters score limits of ring-necked pheasants by hunting the marsh fringes and upland fields. (October 2009)
Photo by juddcooney.com
Tom Davis and I crept into our blind long before dawn. There had been a big flock of Canada geese in the field the night before. We assumed they were still around.
As I sat waiting in the predawn chill, I was feeling pretty confident. Our setup appeared to be perfect, and I was certain that once legal shooting light arrived, knocking down a limit of Canadas would be as easy as pie.
Dawn finally broke. There was not a single goose. They slipped away during the night.
I felt as if I'd been sucker-punched in the stomach. Davis and I had spent a lot of time planning our hunt and to have the geese leave before we got a crack at them was very disappointing.
I'd never hunted the Ash Creek Wildlife Area in extreme northern California before, so I figured we were completely out of business.
Davis knew better.
"Let's pick up our gear and head back to the truck for some breakfast," said Davis. "After breakfast, we can try to jump up some pheasants."
When I think of pheasant hunting, I think of the rich agricultural lands that make up the Sacramento Valley. So I was a bit skeptical about our chances in far northern California near the town of Alturas.
We were double-teaming a plot of matted stubble for about 20 minutes when it happened. We'd pushed the length of the cover, which was thinning out quickly when a loud cackle, seemingly right under my feet, split the chilly air.
Startled, I fumbled with my long-barreled 12-gauge goose gun. Two long-tailed roosters exploded upward. By the time I got the gun to my shoulder, the birds had leveled off and were flying nearly straight away, one about 10 yards in front of the other.
Once I'd lined up on the rear pheasant and touched off the magnum load of No. 4 steel, the bird was probably about 40 yards away.
I don't profess to be a great wing-shot, so imagine my surprise when both pheasants crumbled and tumbled to the ground.
Later, Davis brought down a bird of his own, and we called it a day after about two hours of pheasant hunting.
It had certainly been a quite enlightening morning: There we were, walking back to the truck with three beautiful roosters we'd shot on public land in an area best known for its waterfowl hunting.
The Golden State offers an array of outstanding public hunting areas that boast huntable pheasant populations. The primary focus at most of these areas is duck and goose hunting. The pheasants are there, but they go overlooked by most hunters who focus on the monster Canadas or a brace of greenheads.
Let's take a look at some of the North State's public-land ringneck hotspots.
SACRAMENTO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Sacramento NWR is California's premier public waterfowl- and pheasant-hunting area. Between October and January, hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks pass through the refuge as they travel along the Pacific Flyway.
The refuge is nearly 11,000 acres of marsh, permanent ponds and tangled uplands. The bulk of the refuge's pheasant population will be found in the upland areas, but don't overlook the edges of the marshes and ponds.
There is a general rule of thumb that says pheasants avoid standing water. While that's often true, a notable exception is when pheasants are pressured by hunters. At these times, you might find pheasants holding almost anywhere, including areas that feature 2 or 3 inches of water.
All a rooster needs to be comfortable in such a situation is a dense patch of grass that extends above the water line or a small dinner-plate-sized high spot on the ground that he can use as a tiny island.
"When it comes to public-land pheasant hunting, I try to avoid the crowds," said veteran waterfowl and pheasant hunter Todd Strickland. "But that isn't possible at the Sacramento NWR. Yet, I still hunt the refuge, simply because it holds so many birds."
Strickland said the action is best during the first week of the season. But he's also shot quality roosters in the refuge right into the last week of the season. Once the season is underway and the pheasants know they are targets, the hunting is challenging.
"You've got to work slowly and methodically, always keeping an eye out for areas that other hunters overlook, no matter how small or unproductive such areas might look," he said.
Before embarking on a pheasant hunt at the Sacramento NWR, or any of the other areas, be certain to check the regulations to be sure you are following all the rules. Pheasant hunting is typically allowed daily during the first nine days of the season. After that, pheasant enthusiasts can only take to the field on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
To access the Sacramento NWR headquarters, take Interstate 5 to its junction with Road 68 about 20 miles north of Williams. Take Road 68 to its junction with Highway 99. Turn north and follow 99 about 1.6 miles until you reach the refuge entrance.
For more information, check out the online refuge locator at www. fws.gov/refuges.
GRAY LODGE STATE WILDLIFE AREA
I've had many memorable pheasant hunts at Gray Lodge. It's my hands-down favorite piece of public pheasant land.
Gray Lodge is about 60 miles north of Sacramento. With 9,100 acres of ponds, canals, marshes and broken upland, Gray Lodge SWA seems even more expansive than official measurement indicates.
Sitting near the base of the Sutter Buttes, the world's smallest mountain range, Gray Lodge supports a tremendous array of wildlife, deer, doves, pheasants, foxes and coyotes, not to mention more than a million water birds that use the wildlife area as a pit stop during their migration.
Like the Sacramento NWR, pheasant hunting at Gray Lodge is great on the opener and steadily gets tougher as the season goes on. Yet the determined hunter can enjoy good results right up to the final day of hunting.
Lodge is open for pheasant hunting every day during the first nine days and on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays thereafter.
During the initial days of the season, Gray Lodge often seems to be packed with pheasants, but then the birds melt away. Some of them get shot and others slip onto adjacent property. However, a good percentage of the birds remain on the wildlife area right through the end of the season.
Pheasants are skilled at recognizing the movement patterns of hunters and avoiding them. That's one way they are able to melt away. The birds are still there, but they are holding up in areas that hunters aren't working. This means that to be successful you've got to identify those under-hunted areas and exploit them.
The other way birds avoid the efforts of hunters is by holding tight and flushing only when they absolutely have to. The only way to nail these roosters' tail feathers to the smoke house door is to hunt slowly and thoroughly.
Think about what other hunters do and proceed differently and work slowly. These are the two keys for a successful day of pheasant hunting at Gray Lodge.
For more information and directions to Gray Lodge, visit www.dfg. ca.gov/lands/wa/region2.
DELEVAN NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Delevan NWR is well known among the waterfowling fraternity as one of California's premier duck- and goose-hunting areas. Bird watchers come from everywhere to view and photograph white-fronted geese that stop at the refuge annually.
At 5,797 acres of water and upland, Delevan is about half the size of Gray Lodge. The habitat at Delevan is every bit as productive as the habitat at Gray Lodge, but Delevan is smaller, so it only holds half as many birds. However, when you factor in hunting pressure and realize that fewer guys visit Delevan than visit the Sacramento NWR or Gray Lodge, it becomes clear why hunting a smaller population of less pressured birds is a good tradeoff.
Delevan will be crowded just like other public pheasant spots during the first weekend of the season, but after that pressure will quickly decline and the birds get back to their normal daily routines.
I know one hunter who enjoys superb pheasant success at Delevan while using a unique approach. He doesn't begin hunting until after the first week of the season. He employs archery gear and hunts behind the same portable blind that he uses while turkey hunting. He simply sets up in a good location before sunrise, sets out a cardboard sign that says "Hunter In Blind" and settles in for a long wait.
Very often, once the sun hits the ground, a sleek, old rooster will prance out within 30 yards of my buddy and he'll either miss or he won't.
"They almost always jump when you release the arrow," he relates. "At first, I missed almost all the birds I shot at. But then I started aiming for a point just above their backs. The number of birds I hit went up dramatically."
To get to Delevan NWR, take I-5 to its junction with Maxwell Road, about nine miles north of Williams. Get off on Maxwell Road and proceed east for about four miles to Four Mile Road. Four Mile Road runs along the western boundary of the refuge.
For more information, visit www. fws.gov/refuges.
COLUSA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Colusa NWR is located to the east of I-5 a few miles from the town of Williams.
Hunters know Colusa best as an out-of-the-way destination to hunt ducks and geese, but the same is true for pheasants. The ringneck population isn't huge, but if you pay the refuge a visit on a weekday, particularly during the first week of the season and hunt hard, you've got a good chance of success.
Colusa NWR is small at 4,567 acres. The area has mixed seasonal marsh, permanent ponds and uplands. Be sure to consult the regulations and do some research before hunting, since the entire refuge isn't open to hunters.
"I like to team duck and pheasant hunt at Colusa," said Todd Strickland. "It lends itself well to combination hunting because it typically plays host to fewer hunters than many other Sacramento Valley refuges and wildlife areas."
The first time Strickland ever limited out on mallards and pheasants in the same day, it was at Colusa.
Take Highway 5 to Williams and proceed east on Highway 20. Continue east on Highway 20 for six miles before turning south on Ohair Road and continue to the refuge's entrance.
For more information, visit www. fws.gov/refuges.
SUTTER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The productivity of the pheasant hunting at Sutter NWR varies from year to year depending on rainfall and predator activity. When pheasant numbers are up, action is good.
This refuge near Yuba City is only 2,591 acres. It's close to population centers, so it draws plenty of hunters. Fortunately, most of them are more interested in snow geese and Canadas than pheasant.
Still, plan on hunting the area during the first week of the season.
Sutter's pheasants don't seem to hold on the refuge the way the pheasants at other refuges and wildlife areas do. When Sutter's birds are flushed, they'll very often fly off the refuge, and they don't seem to return while hunters are still afoot.
To reach Sutter NWR, travel six miles south from Yuba City on Highway 99 to Oswald Road and turn west. Go about 5 1/2 miles to Schlag Road and travel north for 1/8 mile, turn west on Hughes Road. Hughes Road bisects the refuge.
For more information, visit www. fws.gov/refuges/.