Sunday, November 9, 2008

How-to: Waterfowl hunting on CA refuges

"Meet me at 4 a.m. at the unmarked dirt road leading up the levee at the end of Chiles Road," I told my friend Sarah.

You'd think we were hunting at some super-secret spot, but it was actually the state-run Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The problem was the place was full of unlit, unmarked, intersecting dirt roads, and if you didn't know your way in, you'd never find your way to the hunter check station in time. And if we didn't get to the check station by 4:13 Sunday morning, we'd risk losing our place in line, and possibly not getting a blind.

This was Sarah's first duck hunt on public lands, and only her third duck hunt ever, so I wanted to take good care of her.

Well, I intended to, anyway.

We got to the check station just fine, and when our reservation number was called, Boyfriend, our friend Evan and I pulled out our hunting licenses. I turned around to get Sarah's and she was gone. She'd left it in her car.

When she got back - out of breath from running in waders - the check station employee said, "OK, $16.50."

"Uh oh," I said. Something else I'd forgotten to warn her about.

It reminded me of how incredibly lucky I was to have Boyfriend as a guide when I started hunting public lands, and how confusing it would be if you were a new hunter or merely new to the state and trying to figure out the system all on your own.

I'm far from an expert yet, but I've done most of my hunting on public refuges, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some tips about how it works in California. Particularly since we didn't get a damn thing on our hunt Sunday. November doldrums, nothing but sweaty waders to see here!

And for all my fellow refuge rats who already know this drill, please do me a favor and read this anyway. If you see that I've left anything out, shoot me an email here and I'll update this post.

Step one: Decide where to hunt

There is waterfowl hunting on public lands up and down the length of this state, so chances are you can find something within a few hours of where you live. I think I’m particularly lucky, though, because half the birds in the Pacific Flyway winter on waters in the Sacramento Valley, within 90 minutes of my house.

Your best clearinghouse of information is the California Department of Fish and Game website. DFG administers hunting programs on both state hunt areas like Yolo Bypass and national wildlife refuges like Delevan. A good place to start is this page listing DFG regions by county.

There you can find an address and phone number for your regional office, which means if you can't find the information you seek online, you know what number to call. There are also maps of state wildlife areas, like Yolo Bypass.

What you won't find on this page, though, is a list of the national wildlife refuges that DFG administers. For those, you need to go to this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service page, which does not have a map. See why those phone numbers matter?

Another resource? Hunting forums, such as Jesse’s Hunting & Outdoors, the Duck Hunting Chat and the Refuge Forums. People are usually pretty nice about helping folks who are new to the area. Your best bet is to post either on state forums within those sites, or on waterfowl forums. Just don’t ask about exact spots to hunt – people get VERY touchy about giving up that information.

And if you want to make an even more informed choice about where to hunt, check out DFG's page on waterfowl hunt results, where you will see both state and federal areas listed. You can see how many ducks hunters bring in, and what species are most prevalent.

One thing you'll notice is that California has three types of hunt areas: Type A, Type B and Type C. An article on page 21 of the Summer 2008 California Hunting Digest explains the distinctions, but the short explanationis that A areas are most popular, cost the most and are most heavily staffed and regulated. I hunt primarily on Type A areas (soooo appropriate for my personality), so I can't speak to the experience you'll have in the other areas. But someday I'll break out of my comfort zone and try something new.

Other resources:

* DFG's hunting web page - includes links to resources

* DFG's 72-page PDF about waterfowl and upland hunting - includes detailed lottery procedures for each public hunt area.

* U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's new 268-page guide to hunting federal refuges

* Speaking of the California Hunting Digest, this magazine is always full of useful information. If you haven't gotten on DFG's mailing list for this, email here to subscribe.

Step two: Getting in the door

Once you’ve decided where you want to hunt, you need to find out how to get onto the refuge or wildlife area. Once you’ve decided where you want to hunt, you need to find out how to get onto the refuge or wildlife area. The primary vehicle for this - though not always - is to apply for a reservation, and DFG draws a limited number of hunters and assigns them a position in line for choice of hunting spots.

Each hunter can apply to hunt on any or every hunt day (usually Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays) at any or every refuge in the state once – in other words, you can apply only once per hunt day per refuge. You can make a season-long application for as many refuges as you want, or you can apply for just one hunt day ($1.30) or five ($6.35). You must get applications and fees to DFG at least 17 days before your chosen hunt day to get into the drawing.

Applications are available at DFG offices, and often at hunting gear retailers.

Once DFG draws hunters, it posts results – by license number, not by name - on this page here. In case you’re not a slave to the Internet, you’ll also get a postcard in the mail informing you if you’ve been selected.

If you want to choose carefully, DFG puts out a four-page publication that includes information about your odds of getting onto various hunt areas, as well as phone numbers for each hunt area. Click here for the 2008 publication.

Question: What if you aren’t selected or didn’t enter the drawing?

You can still enter a lottery at the hunt area, sometimes the night before the hunt, sometimes the morning of, to fill any spaces not claimed by lottery winners. At some refuges, you can also wait in line to take blinds vacated by morning hunters and hunt until sunset. Details are available in DFG's waterfowl and upland hunting regulations booklet - click here for the 2008-09 booklet and go to page 19 - or call the hunt area to ask a real person about the rules.

One thing I can tell you for sure: You have to go to the hunt area to get in the drawing or on the waiting list – you can’t phone it in.

Me, I never get up at 2 a.m. if it’s not a sure thing that I'll get to hunt the morning, so I don’t do that last-minute lottery for morning hunts. But I have been known to hunt afternoons at places that allow blind refills.

Step three: So I got drawn. What next?

I love the story my boyfriend tells of the first time he got drawn in a lottery. He was one of those newcomers who didn’t have a guide or mentor– he just went out and tried to figure out waterfowl hunting here on his own.

The postcard with his drawing number said, “Check station opens two hours before shoot time.” When he went there, shortly before shoot time, he found his position had been given away. What the postcard didn’t – and still doesn’t say – is that they start handing out blinds and free roam positions two hours before shoot time, so you’d better be there two hours before shoot time.

The way it works is you get there ridiculously early, and the check station staff starts calling numbers. The lower your number, the better choice of hunting locations you're going to have.

In most cases, these hunt areas offer assigned blinds – your own little pond area and either pit blinds or islands with enough cover to hide yourself – and free roam, where a limited number of hunters gets to prowl one big area, and ideally not to step on each others’ toes in the process.

To find out which blinds or ponds do best, look around the check station for posted results of previous hunts. You can see which blinds have been producing, and you can usually see what kind of ducks come out of them too. Just remember, the hunt results are a function of not only the birds, but the hunter. Newbies like me drag down the numbers. But if you're really nice to the staff at the check station, they might just give you valuable information about what blinds usually hunt well under various conditions.

When your number is drawn, you'll need to show your reservation card and your hunting license, and you'll need to ether pay the entry fee ($16.50 this year for "Type A" hunt areas), or your season pass ($130.75 this year for "Type A" areas). They'll then give you a card that shows your assigned area.

Hold onto that card - you'll use it to report what you've bagged at the end of your hunt. That's how they collect all those statistics.

Step four: The hunt

Once you’ve chosen your spot, there are a few more things you need to know, and you can ask check station staff or look for the answers on posted signs. For example:

Shell limits: Most refuges allow you to take no more than 25 shells at a time. You can go back to your car for more … but the hitch is you have to go back to your car, which can be an unpleasant hike, as much as three miles round-trip, in your waders. One exception to going back for shells is Merced. This refuge allows 25 shells per day….and closes at noon.

The point of this rule is to force a little restraint on hunters, because wanton shooting is not only a waste of your ammo, but a real imposition on neighboring hunters, whose birds will flare every time you shoot.

And here’s a helpful hint: When everyone’s out of ammo, don’t send one friend back to the car to pick up four new boxes of shells – that’d be a major violation for him if he gets caught. It’s 25 shells per person, the minute you start walking toward your blind.

Start and stop time: You may think you know legal shoot times for the area you’re in, but it never hurts to verify your assumptions at the check station – because it’s people at the check station who will be hunting you down if they hear you shooting before or after legal shoot time.

Game limits: Some areas of the state have special restrictions at various times of year. For example, there’s a "Special Management Area" in the Sacramento Valley where you can hunt specklebelly geese only during a short window (Oct. 25 to Dec. 14 in 2008). The reason? That area is home to the much more rare tule goose, which is almost indistinguishable from the speck until you have it in your hands.

Any other rules: It never hurts to ask questions – at the very least, it shows you’re concerned with following the rules and local conventions.

It’s also a good way to get to know the staff at your hunt area. I’ve hung around Diane at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge enough to know that you do NOT want to approach the check station in excess of the 20 mph speed limit, because she will rip you a new one.

Three pieces of advice that aren't rules, but are common courtesies:

* Don't "skybust," which is shooting at birds that are way out of range. In addition to educating the birds about blind locations, it also means you might flare birds approaching other blinds with a shot that isn't going to bring down your bird. That creates ill will.

* Don't call like a moron. Practice your calling at home, not out in the field. Don't be "that guy" in the refuge whose call sounds like a sick duck being tortured. Call judiciously.

* Don't tromp down all the grass and cover in your hunt area. The more grass you leave standing, the more cover you'll have next time you hunt there. There's nothing worse than a bare, muddy pit blind island at the end of the season. Ya might as well put a neon sign on it that says, "Hunters here!"

One final thought: Refuges are often crowded places, and it's much harder to get ducks coming in cupped and committed. Why? When they swing wide before taking another look at your spread, they might swing over a neighboring blind and get shot at.

That means you need to practice your pass shooting out at the skeet or sporting clays range, because a pass shot is what you're most likely to get. Just a thought.

Step five: After the hunt

Try to remember that the blind or island you use will see a new hunting party at least three to six times each week. Nobody wants to see your water bottles, candy bar wrappers or empty shells. I always take a plastic grocery bag for cleanup, and while I can't retrieve every shell because some of them just sink in the water, I can get quite a few. And I usually end up picking up quite a bit of trash left by thoughtless morons who occupied my blind before me. Don't be that guy!

When you return to the check station, they'll ask for your card, and they'll often ask to see your birds. At Delevan, there are often biologists on hand who will ask for wing clippings to measure and track the size of this year's birds, and they'll sometimes swab duck butts to check for the presence of avian influenza.

Anything else?

This is all I can think of for now, but if you're a refuge hunter and you have tips or advice to add, email me here and I'll update this post.

For now, though, I wish you good hunting!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


sportingdays said...

Excellent overview, Cazadora. I would add a couple of points:

(1) Each public refuge is managed differently and provides a different experience. With a little time and effort, you'll find your favorite refuge or refuges that best fit your hunting style and preferences.

For example, some refuges have no blinds or designated hunting sites in the field and are all "free roam."

Some refuges allow a large number of hunters on each shoot day to provide maximum opportunities for the public. Others are more restrictive, limiting the number of hunters each shoot day to provide the highest quality hunting experience for the lucky ones who do get on. Some refuges let you camp and park and store a trailer or RV for the duration of the hunting season.

(2) The hunting on the public refuges in California is really quite good for those who have the time, energy and inclination to learn them, figure out how they shoot in different conditions, where the best ponds are, how to hunt them, etc.

We all don't have this luxury -- or the substantial effort and energy required -- but the state wildlife areas offer some of the best wildlife habitat around, so you know the ducks are never too far away.

sportingdays said...

Does anyone else get super excited when they find a DFG waterfowl draw postcard in the mailbox?

It's one of the many small joys of the CA waterfowl season for me.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Good additions, Sporting Days ... and I wouldn't know, because I've gotten only two postcards in my short time as a huntress.

I actually live for seeing the resis go up on the DFG website. Boyfriend treats it like Christmas - he narrows down the search slowly, instead of just searching for his license number. And he gets really mad if I tell him he hasn't been drawn. Me, I just wanna know. Christmas will come soon enough...

Anonymous said...

Great to hear others jonesin over a CA ressie card. A wonderful overview of public waterfowl hunting CA style. Its too bad you missed out on sweat lining before our current lotto system. Long ago sweat lining was the practice of waiting the night before in the parking lot first come first served with a number that would be called after all the ressie went inside. It was so important to arrive friday right after work to get "in Line". Many great friendships developed tailgating for the 4 am wake up call. Progress!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ah, the sweatline. I confess: I'm a wuss. I have no desire to spend the night in a parking lot, running to the outhouse in the middle of the night and hoping that none of the delightful gentlemen slumbering around me hasn't aimed poorly and left me a present on the seat. And I don't mean pee.

I can camp out if I need to - I did for a hog hunt this summer! And I agree that the friendships that form under those circumstances can be fantastic. But I am a sorry bag of arthritic (already!) bones who finds much greater comfort in a soft mattress and a flush toilet I can stumble to in the middle of the night without actually waking up. I admit it!

Anonymous said...

good points, but out at the refuge a Portable was a nice respite from the wind, and cold. especially the handicap ones for changing out of waders, wet or other wise. personally, refuge hunting is what lead me to purchase a trailer. Oh the very first trip back to the parking lot, and seating on the floor in front of the heater after stripping to my long johns...priceless. Question, Woman to Woman duck hunter, when are they going to make a pair of waders that allows easy disrope, and not require total bum & body exposure?

NorCal Cazadora said...

Interesting question! Last year I saw a guy who had waders with a zipper front so he could take a leak without pulling down the waders. All it would take is moving the zipper down a bit to create a girl fly, like Cabela's Polartec QRS union suit or Trailfeathers pants have.

The guy said it worked great and didn't leak. But I have no idea how much he paid for this. I know some people in the waders business - I'll ask them about this.

Anonymous said...

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