Migration Alert: Heavy Rainfall Across California Improves Habitat, Limits Hunting Success

Jan. 10, 2023 – Pacific Flyway – California

© Michael Furtman

Californians are rejoicing about the copious amounts of rain that have fallen across the state, from the Oregon border to Mexico. While rain and runoff are filling depleted reservoirs after five years of drought, the additional water is also a lifesaver for national wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley.

“Before the unprecedented rainfall, we anticipated our peak flood up was going to be 80 percent on refuge lands,” says Michael D’Errico, supervisory biologist for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex near Willows. “Now, Sacramento NWR is 97 percent flooded, while Colusa and Delevan are at more than 90 percent capacity. Sutter is fully flooded, but with the bypass under water, the refuge is closed for safety concerns.”

D'Errico confirmed what both private and public lands hunters are saying about the current conditions: It is a good time to be a duck, but no so much for hunters.

“We’re seeing birds spread out, which isn’t a bad thing from a duck perspective,” D’Errico said. “Normally we should be holding between 750,000 to 800,000 birds in a December total count for the complex. This December we held only 450,000 to 480,000 birds because of a lack of water.”

It is interesting to note that federal lands east of the Sacramento River, such as Llano Seco and Butte Basin, held more than 100 percent of normal waterfowl numbers as birds concentrated on limited wetland habitat before the string of storms hit.

Hunters are averaging between 1.6 and 2.5 birds per day, which is pretty light for the area. A special veteran’s hunt on the complex last weekend produced 2.5 birds per hunter, compared to the usual five-plus birds per gun. The reason? This week’s precipitation has ducks spread out on newly flooded ground, especially rice fields.

On the west side, green-winged teal, shovelers and gadwalls are making up the bulk of the harvest, while on the east side, greenwings dominate. There is also a smattering of pintails across the region.

D’Errico concludes, “After a five-year drought that started in 2018, hopefully the cycle will flip. While a lot more of the landscape is getting wet, the value of the landscape is much different, particularly on the west side. That’s because so much rice ground was fallowed because of a lack of water, and the food sources aren’t there like they would be historically.”

 Private clubs have for the most part endured one of the toughest seasons on record. Now that Butte Creek, Sutter Bypass and Yolo Bypass are flooded out, and rivers such as the Cosumnes and Mokelumne have flooded lowlands, many ducks and geese have moved to temporary habitats.

Rob Brown, president of Butte Lodge Outing Cub on Butte Creek outside Colusa, said, “We’re flooded out and I believe the remainder of the season could be lost.”

Nearby Little Dry Creek Wildlife Area flooded out Saturday, as did Sanborn Slough, a California Waterfowl Association property. Gray Lodge Wildlife Area near Gridley remains open but hunting success has been slim.

West of Sacramento, the Yolo Wildlife Area is completely inundated with floodwater. Sim Risso, who hunts rice ground near the area’s closed zone, said, “Public hunting opportunity has been diminished because of the high water, and, as a result, rice blinds have suffered. We’re still getting loads of green-winged teal, but little else.”

The central Delta, west of Stockton, is having a bang-up year on geese, particularly on whitefronts, which become easy pickings during fog events or heavy south winds. There are plenty of snow and Ross’s geese as well. Top ducks in the islands include wigeon, ringnecks and green-winged teal.

In the Suisun Marsh, hunters are taking mainly wigeon and greenwings, as well as shovelers and a smattering of divers. With excess water, hunters must put in time and pray for wind to stir birds up and out of the pickleweed.

The best hunting in the state is currently found in the northern San Joaquin Valley in the Grasslands Ecological Area. Among the public areas, the Gadwall Unit, Salt Slough and San Luis are the top producers. Amazingly, even as the season progresses and hunting continually improves, most areas do not require a reservation to gain access. Just show up in the sweat line.

“We’re putting a lot of water on new ground, which tends to disperse birds,” said Sean Allen, manager of the Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex. “Mariposa Bypass and East Bear Creek are running high and might overtop levees, which could close some refuges. San Joaquin River is running bank-to-bank. Freitas north is closed; Freitas south is tentative.”

Harvests have come down since January 4 with the nonstop rain. Hunter averages have dropped from four birds to about 2.5 birds, but the overall gunning continues to be good.

Allen is pessimistic for the final weeks of the season, which closes January 31. “With all the floodwater, the birds naturally take advantage of the new habitat and get away from traditional refuges and private clubs,” he said.

Farther south, Mendota Wildlife Area – the state’s largest public area – is producing better than four birds per gun on most hunts. Kern NWR is also producing, but getting a reservation is difficult.

East and south of Los Angeles, prospects look good for a strong finish to the season. The San Jacinto Valley is yielding greenwings and shovelers. At Wister, shovelers, cinnamon teal and pintails top the charts.