Waterfowl season is now in full swing across California, where hunters have been struggling with dry weather and unusually warm temperatures as well as poor air quality in many areas.
Nevertheless, ducks and geese are arriving daily on key migration and wintering areas in the Golden State. “We’re at the height of the migration in the Klamath Basin,” reports US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Stacy Freitas.
She explains that duck hunting has been most productive on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where 24 units have been flooded, far more than in recent years. “It’s more water than we expected,” she says.
She notes that most of the mallards have moved out of the basin, but wigeon, gadwalls and pintails remain in solid numbers. Snow and Ross’s goose numbers are also building, while Canada geese are in short supply and white-fronted geese appear to have largely passed over the region.
“At Tule Lake NWR, hunting is very slow, although we aren’t really sure why,” Freitas says.
One reason could be the weather. Daytime temperatures have been rising into the 60s—unusually warm for this high plateau region of northeastern California.
To the south, extremely dry conditions prevail in the Central Valley, which has received no measurable rainfall in October or November along with high temperatures of 72 to 84 degrees.
Hunting in the Sacramento Valley is slow, with waterfowlers taking an average of only .4 to 1.2 birds per hunter at Sacramento, Colusa, Sutter and Delevan NWRs. Ring-necked ducks, gadwalls and wigeon have been the most prevalent species on hunters’ straps. Sacramento NWR has been the top producer for geese, with an average daily harvest of 24 birds, most of which are white-fronted geese. Tundra swans have migrated into District 10 near Marysville in spectacular numbers.
Ducks Unlimited will celebrate the start of a major water-delivery project at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area near Gridley on Nov. 20. The project will benefit local residents as well as farmers and wildlife.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Los Banos Wildlife Area Complex manager Sean Allens reports, “Duck numbers are not good in the Grasslands and hunting is very slow.” Public areas including the West and East Bear Creek Units of San Luis NWR, as well as the Lone Tree Unit and the goose pits of Merced NWR, will open on Nov. 16 for the duration of the season. This will give hunters additional opportunities in these areas.
Meanwhile, average duck harvests on public hunting areas in the Grasslands range from a low of 0.2 at Salt Slough Wildlife Area to a high of 2.5 at the Gadwall Unit. Green-winged teal, shovelers and ring-necked ducks are the most commonly harvested species. However, it isn’t unusual for hunting success to decline in the region during the “November slump,” which coincides with pheasant hunting season.
Allen says the migration seems to be progressing despite the dry, balmy weather. “I saw flock after flock of snow geese on Nov. 11 heading south, right over Kesterson NWR,” he says. “The light geese have arrived right on schedule, joining Sandhill cranes and white-fronted geese that showed up in early October.
At Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, where 7,900 acres of wetlands are open to public hunting within the 88,000-acre Suisun Marsh, hunters shot a meager 30 ducks on Nov. 13. While the take was extremely low, good numbers of waterfowl are present on closed zones, such as on Joice Island.
“We are seeing goldeneyes and scaup (which opened Nov. 9) at the check station,” reports Orlando Rocha at Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. “This shows the migration is changing daily. I even saw some white-fronted geese for the first time this week.”
East of the marsh, in the Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta, hunting success on on the islands has slowed down considerably. Aleutian Canada geese are feeding heavily on cut corn on the Mandeville, Venice, Empire and Brack tracts. White-fronted geese have arrived en masse on the islands bordering the Mokelumne River.
Lesser sandhill cranes are also present on many islands, with the best public viewing at Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, where flocks share harvested rice fields with Aleutian Canada geese.