November 13, 2011
LIVE OAK GUN CLUB, Calif. -- We had come to a pivotal moment in the duck hunt, a moment duck hunters all over the world have hit at one time or another.
The last couple hours had been spent scratching out a couple of limits from Live Oak Gun Club in the shadow of “The Butte,” the nation’s smallest mountain range.
Lying on the floor of the blind were 13 ducks: six mallards, three widgeons, two spoon bills and two ring necks. We were one shy of the two limits needed for the blind, and we had one glaring omission for a day’s hunt in Northern California -- a pintail.
The last duck of a hunt can come easy or prolong a day, sometimes making it the most difficult bird of the morning for any hunt. On a hunt that had turned selective mid-way through the morning, it provided a moment of pause for the Duck Trek crew. This area of the duck-hunting world is known for its pintails and because of circumstances beyond our control, they had been sparse all season.
We wanted to fill our limit, which wouldn’t be a problem considering the air was filled with fowl of every make and model. But we really wanted that last duck to be a pintail, and even more a bull sprig.
Butte Sink is one of those special places in the duck-hunting world; it has an identity and look unmatched by any others.
Some folks refer to it as the Stuttgart of the West, in reference to Stuttgart, Arkansas’ claim as the Duck Hunting Capital of the World. There are certainly similarities to the two, but it’s the striking differences that make this place so special.
The title comes from the definition of two geographical differences. The “Butte” is an outcropping of mountains and rocks from a long extinct volcano. The “Sink” is the depression situated to its west that runs roughly 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. If duck hunting had its Seven Wonders of the World, Butte Sink would top the list.
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To waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway, Butte Sink is a pivotal piece of the puzzle that makes everything click. The 150 square miles of depression provides valuable nesting cover for a variety of ducks. It’s location between the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and the Coastal Range makes it a natural funnel for ducks migrating from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Alaska.
This is in the heart of Gold Rush country and before the first nugget was found, Indians utilized the lush depression to spend their summers, moving to the Butte when snow melt sent floods of water on the same trek ducks have been making for centuries.
Unlike so many places on our flyways in the country, where man has impacted for the worse the natural workings of a place, Butte Sink is one of those places where every duck hunter can claim, while changes have been made, most of the area is better than it was.
The credit for those changes lies within the clubs (approximately 70) that make up the majority ownership of the land. Many of the clubs have histories that are well over 100 years old. While some of the earliest clubs were formed to the east, California could make the case they have the largest roll call of enduring clubs.
This is where Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby, and Robert Stack have built clubs and the tradition of duck hunting like few places in the country.
Our hosts on this hunt were Hank and John Wetzel of the Live Oak Gun Club (established in 1904), one of the largest (acreage-wise) hunting clubs in the area. They share some 1,700 acres with 15 members, where almost every action they take is to not only benefit the ducks, but also create an enjoyable environment that builds respect for the habitat and the waterfowl they chase.
Hunters go out in groups of one to four, in blinds they choose at a drawing each morning. The members have a choice of about 50 locations, but as is the case almost everywhere there are better places than others during specific parts of the season.
Despite having a 107-day season in the Pacific Flyway, Live Oak Gun Club, along with almost all the clubs in the “Sink,” shoot only on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
No matter the size of the group, the first three groups drawn each morning have the opportunity to shoot three limits of ducks. Those drawn after that can only shoot two limits. Added to that, no matter how many hunters in a blind, only two guns can be used at any one time, to hold down on the noise “of obscene volleys.”
A big part of the hunting in this area revolves around rice fields. But this season has been different. This year a wet winter and mild summer delayed rice planting and caused the crop to mature slowly.
Typically, rice has been harvested by the start of the season. But as hunters in the Butte Sink area took to their blinds, farmers all around them were taking to their combines to get as much of the rice harvested as possible.
The enormous amount of un-harvested rice in the area has kept pintails and mallards in food-rich fields. As we went to bed the night before our hunt, the cool night was punctuated with a constant barrage of propane blasts to try to keep the ducks out of the fields.
And as an added measure, the refuges around the area have been closed to hunting until the rice is harvested, hoping that ducks will stay there instead of setting up shop in the fields.
Together those things have cut into the numbers of mallards and pintails seen on an average morning in the Butte Sink area. Lone Oak Gun Club manages its land to provide a smorgasbord of smartweed and cover, ideal for loafing ducks in the day, and beneficial for migrating fowl through the season.
Our group of four: The Wetzel Brothers, James Overstreet and I, picked fifth and could only take 14 ducks, all of which could be mallards. For the two hunters accustomed to shooting in the Mississippi Flyway where the same group could only shoot 12 mallards, this was a bonus.
But at the Butte Sink, it’s hard to not get trigger happy. As the sun peaked over the Butte, the sky was filled with pods of birds that had spent their night in the rice fields, wanting to get back to the Sink for the day.
Blue bills sped across the marsh, air cutting through their wing tips creating whistling wings that duck hunters all over the world love to hear. Spoonbills rocketed past blinds forcing the occasional ducking motion from standing hunters. Widgeons poked around “peeping,” white-front geese whistled from every corner, teal laughed and the occasional flock of mallards chuckled their way from place to place.
In any other hunting area in the country, they would have been met with “obscene” volleys of guns. At the Long Oak Gun Club, they were met with the one or two gun blasts, as members peeled out a duck or two from blinds scattered around the property.
With so much activity, our blind got into the action dropping a couple of blue bills, before Hank Wetzel suggested we hold off on those. A couple of spoonbills masqueraded as mallards and fell into the bag, followed again with the suggestion that we hold off on those.
Widgeons and mallards, preferably drakes, were the order of the day. It required a little more focus in the midst of the aerial assault, but soon the limit was almost filled. All of them picked up by Maddie, Wentzel’s yellow Labrador. The highlight of the retrieves came on a greenhead that hit the water and never came back up.
After several minutes of Maddie repeatedly diving under the water and searching the matted wads of smartweed, she caught the drake, in one of those retrieves that can become legendary over the years.
We were down to the last duck of the day. Mallards and pintails can often be late-risers, so our hopes were with a pintail that decided to sleep in late before heading to the marsh.
Those hopes were answered with a flock of seven pintails that pitched out of the sky and circled their way down, fighting the 20-mile per hour wind, and getting into calling range.
Peeps from Hank Wetzel’s whistle and soft coaxing of a mallard hen call brought them over the blind where Wetzel peeled a bull sprig out of the mix and our day was done.
By any account, it was a great hunt, the type you hope to have in a new place. But we were reminded, by Butte Sink standards, “it was completely mediocre.”