Migration Alert: California Waterfowlers Reporting Decent Numbers, Spotty Success

Dec. 19, 2018 – Pacific Flyway – California

Photo © Laurie Dirx

By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor

As with much of the country, duck and goose hunting success hinges upon changes in weather and habitat. California is no different, and Golden State hunters are dealing with hit-or-miss hunting success and looking forward to the next weather system to shake things up a bit. The vast geographical differences in California currently reflect a wide variety of habitat conditions and bird concentrations. 

Northeastern California

Reports indicate that wetlands are freezing every night and the hunting is slow in northeastern California. The entire Klamath Basin, including the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), have been plagued by an inadequate water supply this fall, and ducks and geese never arrived in large numbers due to the extremely limited habitat. The best hope is that winter rainfall and snow will fill the basin in time for the spring migration, when the birds stop in this vital staging area to feed and loaf in preparation for the long flight north.

Sacramento Valley

A late rice harvest coupled with some farmers opting to bail straw rather than decompose it by flooding has reduced the amount of waterfowl habitat available in this region. However, storms this week have dropped more than two inches of rain in many parts of the valley, which is offering temporary relief and additional water where ducks can feed and avoid hunters.

Reports indicate that the hunting has been spotty in the valley. While the Sutter Basin has been generally good—bolstered by big numbers of northern pintails, wigeon, and mallards—Colusa Basin hunters are crying the blues. One club member near Colusa, who will go unnamed, hasn’t shot a single duck this year. Unbelievable.

On December 15, Sacramento and Delevan NWRs averaged less than two birds per hunter, with both ducks and geese included. Colsua NWR hunters shot the most ducks, bagging mostly greenwings and shovelers for a 3.5-bird average.

Light geese—snows and Ross’s—and seemingly endless numbers of white-fronted geese have put on spectacular displays off Highway 99, north of the Sacramento Airport. At Dingville, just south of Yuba City, on rice land owned by Ducks Unlimited Senior Vice President Al Montna, the hunting has been sensational, with no end in sight.

Clubs in the Sutter and Yolo Bypass have had inconsistent shooting, with seven-bird limits anything but a sure thing. Green-winged teal seem to have arrived en masse, but there is little else. Northern pintails and wigeon typically round out hunters’ straps.

The Delta

Heavy flocks of light geese, Aleutians, and whitefronts have been working flooded corn stubble on Tyler, Twitchell, Bouldin, and Mandeville islands, as well as on the Empire and Rindge tracts. The goose concentrations are a sight to behold and lend credence to scientific studies that indicate populations are “exploding” in the Pacific Flyway. Joice Island Wildlife Area in the Suisun Marsh tops the public areas in the Bay-Delta, but strictly for ducks. The special after-season light goose hunt will be on Feb. 9-13.

Northern San Joaquin Valley

Green-winged teal numbers are either down or the birds are so concentrated that they haven’t dispersed well across the 300,000-acre Grasslands Ecological Area. Some clubs near Gustine report excellent teal shooting while others have shot very few of these diminutive puddle ducks. For clubs and public areas where deeper water is available, ring-necked ducks are numerous, and they have made up a greater percentage of the bag than in most years.

Overall, the North Grasslands above Highway 152 is yielding better gunning than clubs located in the southern areas near Dos Palos. Mendota Wildlife Area is the best of the public areas, offering mostly green-winged teal and shovelers for better than two birds per gun.

Sean Allen, acting manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex, explains that things were looking up for a couple days, but the hunting has slowed down as the weather warmed on December 15. “During the fog, the birds seemed to move a bit more, but then it settled back to a one-bird pattern,” Allen says. “We need the consistently colder temperatures.”

Green-winged teal are more prominent in the bag, as are ring-necked ducks and assorted divers. “It’s that time of the year, so we expect more birds and additional pre-breeding behavior,” Allen says.

The most improved public areas include West Bear Creek and San Luis NWRs, which gave up 2.5- to 3-bird averages on cold, foggy days. The Gadwall Unit and Volta Wildlife Area have also been good producers throughout the season. Greenwings and mallards top the charts at West Bear Creek and San Luis, while greenwings and shovelers are the primary birds at Volta and at the Gadwall Unit.

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Peter Ottesen is an award-winning, California-based writer who has a passion for hunting, conservation, and farming. Ottesen will provide Migration Alerts for the Pacific Flyway during the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.