BWDM_079484csbc.copy.jpg - Mallard's flying

Michael Furtman


In California's Central Valley, this season has been characterized by plenty of water and unseasonably warm weather, which has made it a great time to be on the wintering grounds for ducks and geese. For hunters, not so much.

"Unless late December and January are on fire, 2023-24 may be a season for the birds," says Michael D'Errico, supervisory biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows. "In our area, the combination of lots of late-season rice decomposition water and warm temperatures has made hunting spotty at best."

An aerial waterfowl survey conducted this week on the Sacramento Valley refuges found quite a few ducks, with a big jump in numbers of green-winged teal. "Birds are concentrated on specific sites," D'Errico reports. "They seem to be very choosy on where they concentrate and haven't been forced to move around because of the mild weather."

"Shoveler, gadwalls and pintails are in good numbers, at least from my perspective," he adds. "North of Highway 20, our aerial surveys found solid concentrations of wigeon that were spotted in dense pockets."

The biggest numbers of light geese were surveyed west of the Sacramento River, while white-fronted geese were more numerous on the east side.

Overall, hunting has been slow on public hunting areas in the region, with the exception of Delevan NWR, which has shown flashes of brilliance on certain mornings.

Hunting has also been spotty in the Butte Sink and rice blinds from Marysville to Sacramento.

"We manage a pintail per shooter, but just a handful of shovelers and very few wigeon," says local hunter Butch Martin. "Worse yet, the green-winged teal seem to be really late to migrate."

Reports are similar in the Sutter Basin, where hunting success has been good one day and slow the next. 

The Yolo Bypass near Davis has also endured a tough season. That includes the state wildlife area and private clubs. The same has been true on the Suisun Marsh.

The Delta islands west of Stockton seem to be holding very few ducks due to shrinking habitat. Aleutian cackling geese are still providing good shooting at specific locations, but white-fronted geese are scattered. Areas that raised local birds, primarily wood ducks and mallards, have provided fair to good hunting, but limits have been rare.

In the northern San Joaquin Valley, the 300,000-acre Grasslands Ecological Area is holding good numbers of green-winged teal in some locations. But many private clubs and public areas are crying the blues. San Luis NWR is posting the best averages, but other locations are generally reporting less than one bird per hunter.

Farther south, Mendota Wildlife Area is averaging less than two birds per gun. Kern NWR is the state's top area this season, producing hefty bags of cinnamon and green-winged teal, with an average of more than two-and-a-half birds per gun.

The silver lining for California hunters this season is uncharacteristically the southern part of the state, where public areas such as Wister, Sonny Bono and San Jacinto are yielding cinnamon teal, shovelers and gadwalls, as well as a smattering of pintails.

Field scout Joe Fass says there are "a ton of ducks" on Mystic Lake. "We went from really slow to a whole lot of birds all of a sudden," Fass says. "Seems like almost everyone is taking seven-bird limits – a northern pintail and plenty of wigeon and cinnamon teal, which normally pass through to Mexico by now. Only green-winged teal have been a no show."

Fass says Mystic Lake – now a massive expanse of water– is totally full and holding tens of thousands of ducks. "When you drive by the lake, it is quite a sight, with so many ducks just rafting up. Often, the lake is dry most of the year, but not now after the heavy precipitation last winter."

Wigeon appeared en masse following the full moon in late November. "We've got a ton of wigeon," Fass says. "They decoy easily and come to the whistle. It's just great."

Sign up for Migration Alerts

Stay up to date with the latest migration information.

We never share your email or mobile number, and you can unsubscribe anytime.