Five Public Land Hotspots in the Pacific Flyway for 2021

© Austin Holmes

The Pacific Flyway is known for fantastic waterfowling, and this vast region is blessed with a wealth of public hunting opportunities. This guide could serve as a reference for your next waterfowling adventure out West.

California

Drought continues to impact much of California, but Sacramento, Colusa, and Delevan National Wildlife Refuges will have water this fall, according to Curt McCasland, project leader for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

McCasland reports that the three refuges, once seasonally planted with rice, have been largely converted to wetland habitat. The presence of these pockets of water in an otherwise dry landscape has McCasland cautiously optimistic.

"It's going to be an interesting season," he says.

McCasland advises hunters to also check out nearby Gray Lodge and Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Areas. Both are owned by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but they have the same Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday hunt programs as the federal refuges and are jointly managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Helpful links to get you started:
https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Sacramento_River/Hunting.html
https://wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Sacramento-River-WA
https://wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Gray-Lodge-WA
https://wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Upper-Butte-Basin-WA

Idaho

The two major state-owned wildlife areas in the Idaho panhandle, Pend Oreille and Coeur d'Alene River WMAs, offer more than 16,000 acres devoted to wildlife, with an emphasis on waterfowl. Seasonal pheasant, deer, elk, and black bear hunting opportunities are available, but duck and goose hunting usually takes center stage.

Pend Oreille WMA spans more than 7,400 acres along Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River, Pack and Priest Rivers, and Clark Fork Delta. The best hunting, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) website, occurs from early October through mid-November. Most of the WMA is easily accessible by vehicle, and the remainder is laced with trails for walk-in hunting. Much of the Pacific Flyway redhead population winters on Lake Pend Oreille, and diving ducks dominate the late-season harvest.

Coeur d'Alene River WMA is a sprawling 8,638-acre unit, which includes territory along the river that bears its name, as well as on Lake Coeur d'Alene itself and the St. Joe River. The area is heavily hunted in the fall, and for good reason, as thousands of birds use it as a migratory rest stop.

"Both lakes get dabbling ducks, but Coeur d'Alene probably has more," says Jeff Knetter, upland game and migratory bird coordinator for the IDFG. "That's likely due to its wild rice."

Unlike Pend Oreille's easy access, a boat is a big help on Coeur d'Alene River WMA, although some walk-in hunting is available.

Helpful links to get you started:
https://idfg.idaho.gov/wma/pend-oreille
https://idfg.idaho.gov/wma/coeur-dalene-river

Oregon

Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area

You might not expect to find ducks in the desert, particularly an area less than a dozen miles from raging wildfires, but Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) may be a stronghold for waterfowl this season. The WMA boasts a guaranteed supply of ample spring-fed water, which is an especially precious commodity this fall.

"As birds come down from northern areas, they're going to need places to rest," says Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Any place that has decent habitat conditions will see more bird use."

At Summer Lake, arriving waterfowl will find 12,000 acres of flooded marsh, sedges, and uplands in a remote setting 100 miles south of Bend and 75 miles north of Klamath Falls. Hunting is allowed on 65 percent of this popular WMA, which typically offers outstanding opportunities for ducks and geese during the first two to three weeks of the season.

Reservations are not required to the hunt Summer Lake WMA, there are no fees (other than the department's parking permit, which is issued free with a hunting license), and there are no established blinds. While that can lead to some crowding, there's plenty of room to spread out. Access is also provided for hunters with disabilities.

Helpful links to get you started:
https://myodfw.com/summer-lake-wildlife-area-visitors-guide

Utah

Like much of the West, Utah is suffering severe drought, and many traditional waterfowling hot spots in and around Great Salt Lake have been impacted. A possible alternative this season is the Green River drainage in the northeastern portion of the state, which should provide migration habitat and hunting opportunities for waterfowlers this season.

Public lands in this area include Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has a national fish hatchery onsite, and the hatchery's outflows serve as a water source for the refuge during drought.

"The plan is to drain off some of the water to other units," says refuge manager Dan Schaad.

There is no charge for hunting the refuge, but only Leota Bottoms is currently open, and no hunting is allowed within 100 yards of the river. 

A nearby alternative is Pelican Lake, which is managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is open for duck and goose hunting this season.

Schaad, himself an avid hunter, believes Pelican Lake "could be a good option if hunters have some form of mobile concealment—a layout blind, small johnboat, canoe, or kayak. There's not much bulrush there."

If you've driven that far, consider adding just one more hour to your trip and head north to Stewart Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which is owned and managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Schaad believes it could be a potential hot spot this season.

Finally, Browns Park WMA boasts more than 2,600 acres of mostly wetlands bordering the Green River. There, the Green pours out of Flaming Gorge into country once used by outlaws as a hideout. Most of the area is huntable, including the "Butch Cassidy" unit, and wintering geese are the main attraction.

Helpful links to get you started:
https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ouray/
https://www.blm.gov/visit/pariette-wetlands
https://www.blm.gov/visit/pelican-lake-recreation-area
https://mapcarta.com/23909938
https://www.daggettcounty.org/DocumentCenter/View/7518/BPWMA-Mgmt-Plan-Nov-2016-2?bidId=
https://dwrapps.utah.gov/huntboundary/hbstart

Washington

Johns River State Wildlife Area offers 10,700 acres of huntable wetlands on 11 separate locations in two counties as well as along all three of the state's largest estuaries—lower Columbia River, Willapa Bay, and Grays Harbor.

"Each one has a little bit different flavor," says Kyle Spragens, waterfowl section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The difference depends on the intertidal, estuarine mix."

Most of the duck hunting on the Johns River complex is for dabblers, Spragens says. "We get pulses of early wigeon, which come off the bays after feeding on eelgrass," he explains. Later, they're joined by pintails and then mallards and teal.

As on any hunting area, Spragens points out, "it takes some scouting to get used to the pattern."

One of the best parts of hunting the Johns River complex is its size, which gives hunters a chance to spread out. The diversity of habitats is also a huge plus, from the popular Chinook unit on the lower Columbia River estuary to the less traveled units on Grays Harbor to the north.

Spragens also recommends the Elk River Unit south of Westport, a relatively new acquisition that many hunters haven't discovered yet. Typically, seasonally wet ponds on the land side of roads offer firm footing, while tidal marshes are a bit tougher to wade. While not a necessity, a car-top boat that can carry a few decoys will help.

An added incentive is that all 11 units of the Johns River complex are within the southwest Washington Canada goose zone. A permit is required, but not difficult to obtain, but hunters should be on the lookout for dark-chested dusky Canada geese, which are currently protected.

That said, hunting for large western Canada geese can be very good at times.

Helpful links to get you started:
https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas
https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas/johns-river-wildlife-area