By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
There was never a truer adage: Waterfowl hunting success is weather dependent.
That notion was driven home this season to hunters in California. Yes, we may have had one of the largest waterfowl populations in more than 60 years, but for many hunters this year’s harvest didn’t reflect the abundance of ducks. Unseasonably warm weather kept birds grounded and preening their feathers.
The duck season in most of California closes on Jan. 28. The Northeastern Zone closed on Jan. 19.
“Birds simply didn’t have to feed very much or fly around to find food,” said Yancey Forest-Knowles of Santa Rosa. “Their metabolic needs didn’t require much nourishment and the very warm winter allowed them to sleep all day, feed at night and stay out of harm’s way.”
In short, it was a good year to be a duck in California.
“We endured the poorest hunting in the San Jacinto Valley [just north of the Mexican border] in more than 20 years,” added Joe Fass at the Ramona Duck Club. “On my last shoot it was 78 degrees, and there just weren’t many birds.”
On the opposite end of the 800-mile-long state, hunting was equally slow at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges, as well as in the wild rice country of the Fall River Valley. “We never received storms or sustained cold weather to bring in the ducks,” said Steve Gaines of Redding. “When ponds and managed wetlands should have been frozen, they were ice free.”
The Sacramento Valley, where an estimated 400,000 acres of flooded rice awaited the fall migration, hunting was pretty mediocre until the second week of January, when many hunters picked up consistent limits of ducks, mainly green-winged teal, wigeon and northern pintails. Public-land hunters seemed to enjoy modest success the final weeks of the season too, particularly for gadwalls, greenwings and shovelers.
“Generally, hunting in rice fields gets going very well about Dec. 8,” said Steve Gidaro of Sacramento. “This season, the action finally turned on about a month later than normal. Now we’re seeing plenty of northern pintails, green-winged teal and mallards, particularly in the wild rice plots.”
Ducks, geese and tundra swans are spread out across seemingly endless fields of flooded rice, and while bird-watchers might enjoy the spectacle of observing so many waterfowl, hunters have found it hard to locate concentrations of birds. Take a ride along Highway 99 between Chico and Sacramento, and you’ll get an eyeful of northern pintails, wigeon, shovelers, and white-fronted geese that glean waste rice and avoid duck blinds.
In the Grasslands of Merced County, hunters are focusing on green-winged teal, with a smattering of wigeon, shovelers and ring-necked ducks. Most of the northern pintails have already moved back north.
“Hunters are working harder for ducks, and those who manage a seven-bird limit often stay out until mid-afternoon to fill their bags,” said Dennis Saccone of the Salinas Gun Club. “There appears to be no end to green-winged teal – most sanctuary areas are loaded with them – but hazy days with 65- to 70-degree temperatures don’t encourage them to fly. I suspect this trend will continue through season’s end.”
What’s next are the federally approved Youth Waterfowl Hunts, Feb. 3-4, when only children ages 17 years and under (who possess a valid junior hunting license), may participate. Regular limits and other regulations apply.
Tip: If you know hunters who belong to a private duck club, ask them for permission to take a youngster hunting. Another option is to go to a public hunting area where fees are waived and staff are available to offer advice. It’s our responsibility to keep our hunting traditions going, and the Youth Waterfowl Hunts are a great opportunity to do just that.
A final thought about this hunting season. Revel in the fact that ducks will head north in very good condition, fat and primed for the long flight. Yep, we’ll be sending a lot of birds back to the breeding grounds, and by spring hopefully the next waterfowl population estimate will be off the charts.
Find and submit migration reports from your area on the DU Migration Map.
Peter Ottesen is an award-winning, California-based writer who has a passion for hunting, conservation, and farming. Ottesen will provide Migration Alerts for the Pacific Flyway during the 2017-2018 waterfowl season.