By Peter Ottesen, WF360 California Migration Editor
If you ever doubted that duck hunters were an optimistic bunch, a stop at the Mendota Wildlife Area (WA) east of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley would leave little doubt. By Wednesday at noon, under 85-degree skies, not less than 20 cars were parked near the entrance to the area, three days before the Oct. 20 opener.
And there they waited with grins on their faces, some loading shells, and others preparing to fish in Fresno Slough. They seemed to enjoy camping out, sipping a beverage, and talking to other duck hunters about their passion. Even their retrievers seemed to exude optimism and demonstrated amazing patience in the arid environment.
Central Valley duck hunters will be greeted by plenty of birds in most areas, including thousands of white-fronted geese and northern pintails that appear to have passed over the nearly bone-dry Klamath Basin in southern Oregon/northeastern California and migrated directly to state and federal areas in the Central Valley with ample water.
Michael D’Errico, supervisor of biologists at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex near Willows confirms that there are approximately 350,000 whitefronts in the north Sacramento Valley right now, and those numbers are building.
“Whitefronts started moving in the last week of September, and they just keep coming,” D’Errico says. “Sacramento and Delevan NWRs have loads of geese. Colusa NWR is holding quite a number of them and Sutter NWR is hosting about 45,000 whitefronts, both in the sanctuary and hunting areas. The geese are definitely here.”
There isn’t much in the way of flooded rice fields just yet, so ducks and geese are concentrated on natural wetland areas on both state and federal areas as well as on private duck clubs. Duck migrations appear to be somewhat delayed in the north valley, but large concentrations of pintails are present.
“We’re not seeing many green-winged teal,” D’Errico says. “Teal have made up a very small percentage of our aerial and ground surveys. However, wigeon began to arrive en masse over the past 10 days, and there are many more gadwalls showing up daily. Local mallards appear to be found in average numbers for this time of year.”
In terms of water, Sutter NWR is about 50 percent flooded, while Colusa, Delevan, and Sacramento NWRs will be 75- to 80-percent flooded by the opener. D’Errico credits the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) of 1992 for ensuring a good supply of well-timed water that is essential for migratory waterfowl.
In the 300,000-acre Grasslands of Merced County, water for summer irrigation allowed wetland managers to propagate solid stands of smartweed, swamp timothy, and water grass, setting the table for migratory birds.
At the Los Banos Wildlife Area, acting manager Sean Allen is pleased with habitat conditions, thanks to a good growing season and well-timed CVPIA water. “We were able to flood about 400 acres at Los Banos and Volta WAs in late July and saw a tremendous response from pintails, green-winged teal, and mallards,” Allen says. “At one point we held approximately 30,000 ducks at Volta WA alone, and another 15,000 at Los Banos.”
With refuges and state wildlife areas flooding up and private clubs filled to the brim, ducks have arrived in force. The north Grasslands is wall-to-wall green-winged teal, shovelers, ringnecks, and pintails, while on the south Grasslands below Highway 152, wetlands are accommodating fair numbers of ducks. The local mallard hatch is considered fair, at best, but improved over the drought years.
“Geese in our area are minimal, but what is unusual is the enormous number of sandhill cranes we are seeing on state areas,” Allen reports. “It’s an anomaly and we don’t know why.”
Although Volta and Los Banos WAs are 100- and 80-percent flooded, respectively, other public areas such as China Island, Salt Slough, Gadwall Unit, Merced, and San Luis will open at less than full capacity. Mud Slough will remain closed until Nov. 24 and the Mariposa Unit of Merced NWR is flooding slowly and might be short on water for the opener.
At Mendota WA, manager Steve Brueggemann says that the entire north side of the area will not be flooded until mid-December, when the hunter quota will increase to 600.
“We had two pumps go down so our flood-up is limited to the south side of Mendota,” Brueggemann says. “We’ll allow 450 hunters in for the opener.”
He anticipates fair to good hunting bolstered by decent numbers of green-winged teal and shovelers. “We’re seeing some mallards, but not as many pintails as in previous seasons,” Brueggemann explains. “What is unusual is the large group of Canada geese on the area. I’m not sure what golf course they are from. There are also a few bunches of white-fronted geese moving around.”
In southern California, the normally parched desert country of eastern Riverside County looks pretty lush due to recycled water and vastly improved habitat conditions. In the San Jacinto Valley, most private clubs and the state wildlife area are seeing full ponds being used by green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, and local mallards.
Joe Fass of the Ramona Duck Club says, “The place is loaded with ducks that have been drawn to fully-flooded ponds and improved habitat that includes Japanese millet. Our optimism is high in stark contrast to last season, which was pretty tough.”
Fass reports that private clubs and the state wildlife area really do a “bang up job” for an arid region that is totally dependent on recycled water. “Without the recycling efforts, we wouldn’t have the habitat on which the birds depend,” he concludes.
In the Suisun Marsh-Delta complex, green-winged teal are conspicuously absent, but managers there said there are good numbers of gadwalls, shovelers, pintails, and local mallards. “People are expecting a real good opener,” says Bob Ford at the Outdoor Sportsman in Stockton. “If you’ve got water, you’ve got ducks.”
The Suisun Marsh is completely full and predictions call for an improved local mallard flight thanks to better-than-average production. In contrast, many of the Delta islands are just beginning to flood, but those with early water should find concentrated birds, especially mallards and wood ducks. White-fronted geese have already arrived at Empire Tract and the Cosumnes River Preserve near Walnut Grove.
Statewide, the only somber note resonates from the Klamath Basin, where there is very little water on the landscape. Hunters who got an early start to the waterfowl season in this region found Lower Klamath NWR to be practically dry while Tule Lake NWR was full of water discharged by local farmers.
Field scout Yancey-Forrest Knowles reports, “Lower Klamath is extremely dry. The water situation is grim. Most early-migrating ducks and geese overflew the basin.”
Stacy Freitas, wildlife refuge specialist at the Klamath NWR Complex, said in a written report that daily drawings for spaced blinds onSump 1B and Frey’s Island will be held every afternoon at the refuge office. Pheasant hunting begins Nov. 10 on the California side of the refuge.
Freitas said water is just beginning to flow into Lower Klamath NWR at ponds 6A, 9A, 7B and 8B. Next door at Tule Lake, laser work north and west of Sump 1A will negatively impact the already slow hunting. Gadwall make up the bulk of hunter’s straps in this area.
Subscribe to Migration Alerts and receive hunting, habitat, and weather updates in your inbox. Subscribe today!
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.