Gunning the Great Basin

A duck hunting expedition through southern Oregon’s closed-basin lakes

By Bill Nichol

Big snowflakes pelted the windshield as I drove through the Cascade Range in the dark. Winding up the pass, I noticed tall evergreens looming just beyond the highway’s edge and curtains of snow swirling in my headlights. In general, driving in snowy weather makes southerners pretty nervous. And on this November night, I was no exception.

A long flight to Portland, Oregon, and several hours of driving had already worn me down. Running into a blizzard was something I could have done without. But like most waterfowlers, I have a soft spot for inclement weather and thought these flakes might be a promising sign for the next day’s hunt. So when I finally descended into the Klamath Basin, it was with a mixed sense of relief and optimism.

Overnight, the snow had turned to cold rain. Heavy drops were pounding the concrete boat ramp when DU biologist Mike Shannon and I met up with DU regional director Jason Rounsaville on the shore of Agency Lake. Climbing aboard Rounsaville’s boat, we motored across open water for 10 minutes before slowing to look for a place to set our rig. My partners decided on a point on the channel connecting Agency Lake with Upper Klamath Lake to the south. “I saw hundreds of scaup huddled against this point when I was scouting two days ago,” Shannon said. “But with this rain, who knows where they’ll be today.”

Starting 15 yards from the bank, the three of us deployed a long-line spread. I handed Shannon bluebill and canvasback decoys while he clipped them onto each line and dropped them over the bow. Meanwhile, Rounsaville deftly maneuvered his boat among the growing flotilla of bluebills. For a finishing touch, we strung six bufflehead drakes and placed them in the midst of our 10-line rig. “The white on these decoys is easy to see from far away,” Rounsaville explained. “Hopefully, they’ll pull in some passing birds for us.”

After hiding our boat under grass mats and heaps of local vegetation, we watched handfuls of dabblers trade across a steel gray sky. It soon became evident that the wad of scaup Shannon had spotted days before had moved on. However, our bufflehead decoys proved very effective at attracting other buffleheads. In singles, pairs, and trios, these little divers skimmed across our spread all morning. Trying our best to miss decoys, we bagged several handsome drakes and a few hens as they darted past, only inches above the water.

Following this outing, Shannon and I headed east to hunt on a DU project in neighboring Goose Lake Basin. The next morning, landowners Mike and Peggy McFarlane greeted us at their farmhouse outside Lakeview and left us in the care of their friend Larry Franson. Before long, Franson was rowing Shannon and me to a blind in the middle of a 60-acre wetland. As we made our way, our guide told us, “In the early part of the season, we counted 20 male canvasbacks on this lake. Maybe some of them are still around.” While I dwelled on this possibility, the three of us arrived at a blind encircled by several dozen mallard, pintail, teal, and Canada goose decoys.

Shadowy forms and the rustle of wings passed overhead while we unsheathed guns and rummaged for duck calls. Before long, our attention was drawn to a squad of green-winged teal scuttling over the tules to our right. Shannon and I offered them a mix of raspy quacks and whistles. Making a wide bend, the greenwings reversed course and headed toward the blind. At 40 yards out, the group appeared as if it would speed right over us. But the nimble ducks suddenly shied and veered off to our right. As they retreated, I caught up with a drake and managed to drop him at the edge of the blocks. Shannon replied a few minutes later when he rolled one of three ringnecks whirring past the blind.

While on the lookout for birds, Shannon explained that Goose Lake is part of a closed-basin system that collects runoff from surrounding mountain streams. “The resulting wetlands provide critical habitat for ducks and geese during their fall and spring migrations,” he said. “In addition to the lake, waterfowl congregate on adjacent wetlands like this one. Last year we enhanced this property by installing water-control structures and strengthening its levees.”

By noon, we had gathered a mixed bag including two stout greenheads and four other species. A canvasback, however, was not among them. There had been no sightings all morning, until Shannon suddenly whispered, “Watch that duck on the left. I think it’s a canvasback.” My eyes locked onto a single bird in the distance as it turned back toward the spread. At 50 yards out, its size, speed, and coloration left no doubt. With the wind at its back, the bird rocketed over the water at full tilt. It drew several shots from both of us before finally falling lifeless beyond the decoys.

Recounting this memorable finish, Shannon and I returned to Klamath Falls in high spirits. Our expectations for the next day’s hunt were equally high. Some scouting conducted after our diver hunt had revealed many ducks and geese using a wetland next to Agency Lake. And, in the morning, Shannon and I planned to meet Rounsaville and the area’s DU volunteer chairman, Travis Grieser, at Agency Lake’s boat ramp.

Under a star-filled sky, our party rode across dark, calm water to a canal bordering the wetland’s perimeter levee. We tied off the boat and began portaging our gear over the steep embankment. Hauling sneakboats, decoys, guns, and other gear, each of us was soon out of breath. Yet, the daylight drawing in the east urged us to hurry. We paddled gear-filled boats down a small canal, while Grieser and his black Lab, Tuko, walked the bank.

After half an hour of paddling, Shannon chose to situate our blinds on a small peninsula of forbs and spike rush surrounded by shallow water. Breaking skim ice, Grieser and I deployed two dozen mallard, pintail, wigeon, and Canada goose decoys in front of our blinds on the west side of the peninsula. Thirty yards away, Shannon and Rounsaville set a similar spread. As we brushed our boats, dawn broke over the eastern mountains, casting a brilliant spectrum of red, orange, and violet over the open landscape.

I had little time to admire this stunning view. Large flocks of ducks and geese had already left the roost and were trading across the horizon. As we burrowed down in our hiding spots, wigeon whistled overhead and Canadas honked in the distance.

Tuko had barely gotten settled before her services were needed. Flying low to the water, a squadron of 25 greenwings advanced toward the blocks in front of Rounsaville and Shannon. Rising in unison, the shooters dropped several birds as the squad flushed skyward. Tuko crunched through the thin ice after the teal and retrieved each in turn. Moments later, a flock of wigeon winged past our half of the decoys. Using a combination of whistling and ripples from a jerk string, Grieser and I coaxed them back for another look. On their return, the ducks approached slowly to examine our setup. When I called the shot, we sprang up and dispatched two from the startled bunch.

Over the course of the morning, teal and wigeon continued to present ideal passing shots. As Rounsaville, Shannon, and I worked toward our limits, Tuko and her handler worked tirelessly to run down fallen birds. Between bursts from his dog whistle, Grieser confessed, “I’ve only been hunting waterfowl for three years. But during that time, I have really grown to love it. And when you have days like this, it’s easy to become addicted.”

On my return trip to Portland, I stopped for a hunt with Pat Davis, a DU area chairman in the upper Willamette Valley. The rain fell steadily as I pulled up to Davis’s clubhouse outside Monmouth. When I walked in the door, Davis introduced me to former DU Oregon State Chairman Rich Owen, Tony Friendy, and his brother Mario, a local guide and owner of Columbia River Decoys.

In the downpour, the five of us headed to a nearby four-acre wetland ringed by scrub ash thickets and flanked by a narrow creek. The Friendy brothers mimicked the appearance of causally feeding ducks by spreading two dozen mallard, pintail, and wigeon decoys between open water and the hole’s emergent vegetation. When I asked Davis about constructing his picturesque duck hole, he explained, “I wanted to create a place where ducks come to feed and loaf. I think a mixture of natural grasses like wild millet and smartweed is a great source of both food and cover.”

The rain had quit by the time we piled in the blind, and small bands of ducks began trading beyond the tree line. Early on, a mixed flock of mallards and teal took our group by surprise as it pitched down from behind us to join our decoys. The ensuing volley dropped a mallard and two teal from the squad, and Davis’s black Lab, Racket, was soon on the job.

While we added a couple more ducks to the bag, the action had waned by midmorning. At one point we were munching on cinnamon rolls when two lines of mallard-sized Canada geese glided 40 yards above the spread. “Too bad the season is closed on cackling geese until tomorrow,” Mario Friendy lamented. “They’re fun to hunt, and one of seven subspecies of Canadas and cackling geese that you can shoot here in the valley. Why don’t you stick around a few more days?” As tempting as the offer was, tomorrow happened to be the day before Thanksgiving.

And there are some things that my mom and girlfriend just wouldn’t understand.