High Desert Waterfowling

A Nevada duck and goose hunt

By Gary Koehler

The hot news at Elmer Bull’s house is that new birds moved into Mason Valley earlier in the week. This is indeed cause for excitement to members of the Yerington Ducks Unlimited committee, who have gathered for a social hour and are scattered throughout the dining and living rooms. By the look of the duck gumbo pot, no one will leave hungry.

Gunning in this region has been slow. And while it is only early December, with much of the season yet to come, the outlook is not bright. The second straight dry year in northern Nevada resulted in little mountain snowmelt runoff and a dearth of ducks and geese.

So when Charlie Booth reports that up to 5,000 fresh-faced western Canada geese had been spotted two days ago, spirits elevate a couple of notches.

“I can’t say exactly how many, or where they all are,” Booth says, “but we’ve got some new ones here now anyway. It ought to be a good weekend.”

The next morning dawns at a frosty 20 degrees, so setting out the 30 full-body Canada goose decoys in the picked cornfield is actually welcome labor. Wayne Bull, Elmer’s son, directs the placement, splitting the faux flock into two nearly equal groups about 20 yards apart. The space in between will serve as the designated landing zone. We hope.

“It’ll probably be a while before the geese fly off the roost,” Wayne says. “They sit on a pond at an old mine site at night. When they’re ready to come out to eat, we’ll be waiting for them.”

The Bulls gather massive armloads of grass and shrubs that are to be fashioned into makeshift individual blinds. I’m fiddling with my camera and keeping an eye on Lenny, a black Lab who isn’t quite sure of the stranger in his midst. Must be the Tennessee dialect.

We position ourselves in a dry creek bed adjacent to the cornfield, which seems totally out of place in the most arid state in the nation. Onions and garlic are among the high desert’s dominant crops. Even at 4,400 feet, neither will ever be listed on the standard waterfowl menu.

“You’re not going to see much corn during your stay, but the ranchers do raise some for their dairy cattle,” Elmer says. “When you can get permission to hunt a cornfield, you’ve always got a chance at the geese.”

Our first opportunity comes a few minutes before eight o’clock after Wayne’s subtle calling convinces seven western Canadas that the two family groups on the ground are gorging themselves on waste corn. The birds circle wide and then close in, locking their wings at the far end of the proverbial runway, just as the plan was designed.

We wait as the geese glide into range. And up we go, 12 gauges roaring, breaking the quiet morning chill with a barrage sure to wake the neighbors. Someone didn’t shoot straight, and that would be me, although Elmer is also muttering. Wayne, however, was on target. What we don’t know is that the best is yet to come. Later that morning, a silent flock of 20 or so honkers drops by for a visit. Lenny is pleased with the additional workout.

The afternoon is spent scouting the Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which encompasses 13,375 acres and is open to public hunting three days a week. Elmer managed this site for 15 years before accepting an administrative post with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW). Both he and Wayne are more than a little familiar with the territory.

Mason Valley WMA is fortunate to have three water sources, so even though the region has been under drought conditions, at least some of the area’s wetlands remain vibrant. Ducks Unlimited has had a hand in maintaining waterfowl habitat here through a number of cooperative projects involving the NDOW. These include pipeline construction, well rehabilitation, and seasonal wetland restoration and enhancement.

“Leveling some of these wetlands has really helped,” Elmer says, pointing out 25-acre Butterball Pond, one of three sites on the property that DU helped in engineering. “These projects involved moving significant amounts of earth, but the wetlands produce a mix of natural foods like sago pondweed, wild millet, and smartweed. When the ducks are down, they like it here.”

DU has also been involved with multiple habitat enhancement projects at the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. These efforts include restoring native wetland and riparian habitats and improving water-management capabilities. During wet years, Stillwater hosts as many as 350,000 ducks, including half the Pacific Flyway canvasback population, and 13,000 tundra swans.

“Stillwater is the most significant wetland complex in the state,” Elmer says. “We’ll see what’s going on over there tomorrow.”

The next day we meet up with Chris Nicolai, a doctoral candidate and waterfowl researcher who regularly stalks Stillwater and any other haunt where he can pack in his layout boat and pair of yellow Labs, Berni and Albi—named after, of all things, brant. Nicolai shares a secret hole that requires breaking a sweat to reach.

“It’s been hit or miss—mostly miss—this season,” Nicolai says at midafternoon with two mallards and a wigeon thus far in the bag. “We haven’t had the water or the birds we had two years ago. But near the end of shooting time, I can guarantee that you’ll see swans pouring in here.”

Nicolai’s clock was wrong. The swans show up just after dark. Ducks too. We watch from the access road as birds drop into the shallow marsh we just left. Not a bad way to end the day.

Lovelock Cave’s Hidden Treasure

So this is where it all began—in a desert valley cave measuring roughly 150 feet long and 35 feet wide, overlooking a barren landscape dominated by alkaline soil and scraggly vegetation. It’s hard to imagine this desolate locale covered in water and harder still to imagine hunting ducks here. But even now, I’m told, in wet years, when the snowmelt is significant, the scenery changes dramatically.

“I know it must be difficult to picture, but I’ve hunted here off and on for years,” says Nevada native Elmer Bull. “Right out in front of us, and about as far as you can see in either direction, it’s all been underwater. And the ducks love it. Hunting can be spectacular.”

Bull, along with his son Wayne, accompanied me to Lovelock Cave, a decoy collector’s and waterfowl historian’s nirvana. This is, after all, where the oldest handmade decoys known to man were dug from a pit in 1924 by California anthropologist Llewellyn L. Loud and Mark R. Harrington, who was sponsored by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, of New York.

Loud worked at this site 12 years earlier and had unearthed thousands of archeological specimens. Harrington elected to take a more detailed approach during his time at the historic dig. Using small picks and trowels, they unearthed artifacts that were later found to cover a span of nearly 9,000 years.

Among their findings in a relatively untouched corner of the cave were 11 decoys made of tules, or bulrush stems. Resembling canvasbacks, the decoys measured approximately 11 inches long and had heads with bills, and white feathers were attached lengthwise to the body. Eight were complete, and three were unfinished. Radiocarbon dating has put the decoys’ age around 2,000 years old.

Their maker apparently valued his work. The decoys were not found easily. The bottom of what appeared to be a seed storage pit was really a fake. Four feet down, underneath a layer of mats and basketry, was a package carefully wrapped in rushes. The decoys were among the treasured objects. “Some waterfowl hunter had hid his decoys here against another season,” Harrington wrote.

And why not? Lovelock Cave is located in a limestone outcropping on the eastern shore of Humboldt Sink, overlooking ancient Lake Lahontan, which dates to the Pleistocene period. Thousands of years ago, this substantial marshland supported vast numbers of waterfowl and other wildlife. The nearby cave served as a natural closet of sorts, a place where tools and food were stored, and a relatively dry and safe haven from the elements, or marauding enemies.

A trip to northern Nevada would not have been complete without visiting Lovelock Cave. Having attended the Easton Waterfowl Festival and the National Antique and Sporting Collectibles Show, and having visited decoy auctions and displays, the Ward and Havre de Grace museums, and similar venues, I’ve been fortunate to have seen some extraordinary vintage decoys from throughout North America.

Lovelock Cave—where it all began—is at yet another level.