With reports of a bountiful waterfowl population (both in state and international surveys), more plentiful water in the Central Valley and more rice acreage planted this year, this waterfowl season had all the makings of a good one. And it has been — at least for the birds. For the hunters? Not so much, particularly those hunting on public land.
Melanie Weaver, a waterfowl biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the hunt results from the Sacramento National Wildlife Complex have typically been a good indicator of overall harvest trends statewide throughout her 20 years in the program.
In the recent drought years, however, Weaver said that the public hunting results haven’t been as reliable a tool because of reduced habitat outside of public areas.
“I think in recent years, public wetlands have done well in hunting because it has been some of the only habitat in town. But if you talk to the guys in the rice fields, they had a hard time,” Weaver said.
With improved water allocations for area rice growers this year, and greater availability of water for rice straw decomposition, public lands are no longer the only game in town.
“More habitat means that they don’t have to stick to just the refuge,” said Weaver. “If there is habitat spread all over the area, the hunting might not turn out to be what you thought. It’s good for the ducks, but sets a really high bar for hunters.”
Add that to the fact that there haven’t been many storm events so far this winter, and the lack of hunting success on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex begins to make sense: Migration has yet to hit peak numbers, and the relatively few birds that have migrated have a lot of habitat to choose from.
Even with the record-high population surveys coming from the breeding grounds, “If you don’t have storms, you won’t have the birds coming down from up north, and you won’t have the hunting success that you would think,” Weaver said.
The slow start to the season was felt by Brent Nobles at Fur, Fin & Feather Taxidermy, but Nobles said last week that things had begun to pick up.
“Since (Nov. 29), things have started picking up in here,” Nobles said. “I think there are new birds coming in, and I think that the birds are really just starting to come down now.”
John Vaca, who also owns a taxidermy and duck picking business in Colusa, said it had been a slow start to the season for his business as well.
“It has been slow, but things picked up a little bit yesterday,” Vaca said on Monday. “Nobody is killing mallards like they were last year. Without having cold weather up north, you don’t have the big birds coming down here in the early part of the season. I have seen more teal and sprig than in years past, but not the mallards.”
Vaca also noted the abundance of water in the valley has spread the birds out.
“From last year to this year, it seems like there is 10 times more water. Everything is flooded. Everyone has a blind this year… But ducks aren’t on the refuge because the birds just haven’t moved down yet. It’s supposed to rain on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, which should bring some birds down,” Vaca said. “It’s going to be a late shoot this year, but it’s going to be a good one.”
The report from Kittle’s Outdoor & Sport is that the migration is ramping up.
“We’re starting to get a lot of new birds moving into the area. They’re still flying high, because they’re new to the area. With the incoming storm, they’re expected to be flying lower. Overall, the number of birds being harvested has been increasing, and they’ve been mostly mallards, wigeon, and geese. A lot of the birds being harvested are coming from the east side of the county, but the area around the Colusa Refuge is starting to see more birds,” said Kittle’s employee Morgan Bowerman. ■