While the dreaded "November slump" may have been the greatest duck hunting downturn in at least the past decade, the approach of winter brings hope as the migration hits full stride. 

Evidence of the fall migration of northern birds began to appear about 10 days ago, as green-winged teal – California's most-harvested species – suddenly turned up on marshes where, just 24 hours before, there had been none. 

How teal can show up overnight, up and down the 500-mile-long Central Valley is anyone's guess. "Greenwings suddenly appeared in the Sacramento Valley," says field scout Bob Scruggs, who hunts rice ground near Dingville, south of Yuba City. Hunters in rice blinds below Delevan National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) echoed the same positive thoughts.

With about 450,000 acres of flooded, decomposing rice north of Sacramento, the table is set. Northern pintails tease hunters since there are so many aloft and the daily limit is just one bird. Thus, wigeon and teal are primary targets.

Michael D'Errico, supervisory biologist at Sacramento NWR, reports that there are plenty of birds, but they are often unavailable to hunters.

"With the late rice harvest and new water coming on almost daily to decompose the straw, the birds find it," he says. "The anticipated migration is here. Last week the teal showed up in droves."

Though the gunning hasn't been too productive, the Sacramento Valley is loaded with white-fronted, snow and Ross's geese. A generous limit of 30 per day – 20 light geese and 10 dark – awaits when the weather turns cold and foggy.

Sacramento NWR is literally covered with light geese. "They are piling in," as D'Errico puts it. Meanwhile, dark goose species are steadily moving east of the river. 

On the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where California's two great rivers meet to twist around 57 islands and then flow to San Francisco Bay, massive flocks of Aleutian cackling geese bounce back and forth from the San Joaquin River Refuge west of Modesto and the islands west of Stockton, to feed in dry, harvested cornfields. White-fronted, snow, and Ross's geese are just now filtering into the same fields.

Duck hunting in the Delta has been limited to wood ducks and mallards, both locally reared birds. Cinnamon teal, though not in the same numbers, also thrived with the wet, cool spring conditions. The past week northern pintail, wigeon and greenwings began to arrive, but not in great numbers.  

At the Grasslands Ecological Area – the largest contiguous wetland and upland complex in the West, teal shooting improved on Dec. 2, but couldn't be called "first rate" just yet. "There were many seven-bird limits of greenwings taken between Gustine and Los Banos," says field scout Joe Frangieh. "The overall improvement was quite remarkable and very good to see after a long dry spell."

Indeed, the initial seven weeks of the waterfowl season (the balance of State Zone runs through Jan. 31, 2024) ran the gamut from good to poor. 
At the start teal, pintails and shovelers topped the bag. For those with dense tule cover, local mallard hunting was the best in many years, thanks to an inordinately wet winter and spring, which broke a string of drought years and improved nesting habitat. 

"Mallards responded following years of poor production," reports Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area, the oldest state operated refuge.  Some private clubs in the Grasslands literally doubled their entire 2022−23 mallard take in the first week.

Then came the slump. "Yes, hunter averages fell to about one bird for 10 hunters," Allen says. "Other than Kern NWR, public lands in the San Joaquin Valley struggled, with none charting even a one-bird average."

But now it's December and things are looking much more upbeat. In addition to teal, there appears to be more wigeon, ringnecks, and shovelers. Where deep water exists, ringnecks are joined by canvasback and redheads.


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