Migration Alert: California Waterfowlers Taking Advantage of Improved Habitat, Rising Duck Numbers

Dec. 15, 2022 – Pacific Flyway – California

© Michael Furtman

What a difference a day makes, as the 1950s tune once proclaimed.

Well, in this instance, the difference between literally no ducks to all sorts of ducks took about a week. And what a difference it was.

On December 7, hunting was terrible in the Butte Basin, Sacramento Valley, Delta and south to the Grasslands. “The worst in memory,” was a common theme. Many questioned surveys and actually believed the entire Central Valley was void of ducks and that white-fronted and snow geese were the dominant birds.

Then, on December 10 came torrential rain accompanied by high winds, with gusts to 50 miles per hour, and that was a game changer. Suddenly, public shooting areas and private clubs saw limits and near-limit action for at least one memorable day.

As a bonus to public hunters, Sutter National Wildlife Refuge opened for the first time this season on December 10, just in time for the weather event. Other units on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex – Colusa, Delevan and Sacramento – had opened earlier, with at least 50 percent of their ponds flooded. Hunting on federal units is allowed on a 60-40 split between closed zones and open areas.

Mike D’Errico, supervisory wildlife biologist for the complex, said hunting was pretty good on Saturday, while Sunday the action fell off just as dramatically. He said that on Sutter NWR, green-winged teal and wigeon were on top of the card. On the west side of the Sacramento River, green-winged teal, gadwalls, and shovelers were most numerous.

“My field staff have done a phenomenal job stretching water as far as they can,” D’Errico said. “We’ve now spread more than 6,000 acres of water on Sacramento NWR, with about 3,700 acres on Delevan NWR, 3,000 acres on Colusa NWR, and about 1,000 acres on Sutter NWR. The Butte Sink and Llano Seco units, which are total sanctuaries, are fully flooded.”

Among the Sacramento Valley state wildlife areas, Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek are shooting best, with green-winged teal, wigeon, and shovelers making up most of the harvest.

The shining star in the north state is Butte Valley Wildlife Area, which is yielding solid straps of green-winged teal and ring-necked ducks. The Yolo Bypass – from I-5 south to Dixon – has also seen better shooting. Yolo Wildlife Area surpassed three birds per gun on Saturday while rice country blinds found greatly improved shooting for green-winged teal, wigeon, and mallards.

In the Suisun Marsh, there appeared to be lots of new wigeon and green-winged teal, which quickly became the birds of choice. Only Joice Island Wildlife Area featured mallards. Generally, clubs on the west side of the marsh far outpaced those to the east.

Joe Frangieh hunted the Saint Germain Club this week and noticed an “abnormal amount” of green-winged teal and spoonies. “There was also an odd amount of cinnamon teal around, but very few mallards.” He said there seemed to be little pressure in the Suisun Marsh, so afternoon hunts have been very successful when birds moved around naturally without pressure.

White-fronted and Aleutian cackling geese topped the bill in the Delta islands, with some hunters taking full limits of dark geese and heavy straps of snow geese as well. Wigeon, wood ducks, and green-winged teal made up the bulk of the take on ducks, but mallards and shovelers were also prominent.

In the northern San Joaquin Valley, the action was “lights out” on Saturday. Typically, a rain accompanied by high wind will cause the birds to move during the storm and then spread out. The shooting was intense during the storm and has fallen flat ever since.

Paul McHaney hunted the north Grasslands Saturday and reported, “Without doubt, I saw many more ducks than I did on opening day, with huge numbers of birds moving south into the wind.” He said wigeon, green-winged teal and shovelers made up the bulk of the birds taken on private clubs, with a smattering of ringnecks and cinnamon teal. Even with favorable conditions for hunters, he saw few mallards and pintails on straps.

“On Saturday everyone I spoke with had limited out,” McHaney said. “On Sunday, there were very few birds shot.”

“We definitely had a good Saturday,” said Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex. “The green-winged teal came out in force and there were plenty of wigeon. In the last few days, both dark and light geese are flying over the headquarters at Los Banos. It’s encouraging for sure.”

Hunters can expect favorable conditions moving forward such as early mornings in the 30s and a fog pattern, which typically translates into more birds in the bag. In the South Grasslands, below Highway 152, gadwalls seem to be coming on strong, and pintails are on the wing at midday. Even so, most of the ducks are shovelers, green-winged teal, and ringnecks. It’s getting to be that time of year.