Historically, the Grasslands were part of an extensive wetland system that flooded naturally when seasonal rains and mountain runoff caused rivers and streams to overflow their banks. Today, most of the region’s water is supplied by the Central Valley Project (CVP), a sprawling network of reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, and pumping stations that transports water from north to south throughout the valley. For the Grasslands and many other wetlands, the CVP is a life-support system. The same is true for California agriculture. Visit a grocery store anywhere in the United States, and there is a good chance much of the produce was grown in the Central Valley. Many of these crops and wetland habitats are entirely dependent on irrigation water transported by the CVP network.
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As Kerry and I listen quietly to the ducks and other water birds calling to each other in the fog, the tranquility of the marsh is suddenly broken by the piercing scream of a World War II era air raid siren. In an old Grasslands tradition, members of a nearby club sound the alarm to mark the beginning of legal shooting time. Pandemonium ensues as shots ring out from every point of the compass, and untold numbers of ducks roar into flight and mill about in the fog.
Clenching a whistle in his teeth, Kerry calls continuously to unseen flocks, skillfully imitating the trilling whistles of rafted teal and sprig. Every few minutes, flights of ducks—mostly green-winged teal—materialize over our decoys, offering us fleeting shots before vanishing again into the fog. Looking across the marsh, I catch a glimpse of two hunters wading through the mist to a neighboring blind. In this surreal setting, they look like ghosts of waterfowlers past—perhaps Bing Crosby and Clark Gable—who once gunned these fabled waters. But the two hunters are actually Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning, and Dave Widell, director of conservation policy, at Ducks Unlimited’s Western Office in Sacramento. Both are avid waterfowlers and seldom miss an opportunity to hunt at Kerry’s duck club.
The visibility gradually improves as the rising sun burns through the fog and a light breeze stirs the flotilla of decoys around us. During the next few hours, several flocks of ducks pitch into our rig, allowing us to collect a colorful mixed bag of greenwings, wigeon, and a gorgeous bull sprig that sails too close to my side of the blind. The presence of so many waterfowl in the Grasslands is nothing short of a miracle brought about by scores of waterfowl hunters and other conservationists who have worked together for decades to manage and protect the area’s unique wetland ecology.