Of all the hunters across the nation who last week polished up their shotguns for the new season, perhaps the happiest were a small group of sportsmen in one tiny section of the Pacific flyway known as District 10, two miles north of the small community of Marysville. While almost every where else hunters could only hope the season might not be as bad as generally expected, the lucky few in District 10 knew their usual bonanza of up to 2,500,000 ducks and geese would be on hand.
Of all the flyways, the Pacific survived the best in a year which, as the national waterfowl survey on page 66 shows, features the most stringent limitations in the past decade. Conservation officials have unhappily assumed the role of the heavy in the piece as seasons and bags were sharply reduced on the remaining three major flyways of this nation. Dry breeding areas, leaving the productive pothole country in Canada barren, a late rain and an even later hatch of young birds could have spelled disaster—hence the cuts.
But Pacific coast hunters are fortunate in that their birds hailed from regions untouched by a drought that has blighted duck production in the Canadian breeding grounds for two years, and so they have the best outlook of any in the nation.
If such a bounty of wildfowl as Marysville shows seemed nothing short of a miracle to sportsmen in the central and eastern states it was only a routine matter in District 10. For no matter how bad the shooting may be anywhere else, these California gunners frequently find that their little piece of flyway is one of the fattest in the entire country. Even more remarkable is the fact that on this particular flyway the magnificent shooting conditions are almost entirely man-made.
District 10 is the official name for a 40-square-mile land reclamation project established in the flood basin of the Feather and Yuba rivers in 1914. In those days a respectable number of waterfowl usually stopped at Marysville in the fall. In a good rain year the rivers gave them a place to feed and rest; and the ducks, who need to take in a certain amount of grit with their feed to help their digestion, also seemed to like the kind of sand and pebbles they found there.
The only trouble was that the quality of the hunting was too dependent on the weather. No rain, no ducks, so the farmers of Marysville just tended their crops and took their duck shooting or left it alone, quite often the latter.
Then, about 40 years ago, several of these farmers decided to experiment with rice as a crop. The area was a natural—warm climate, good land and water from the Feather and the Yuba cheap and convenient. The farmers put up a network of low finger dikes, practically all of them in a small sector adjoining District 10, and then they flooded the land.
As expected, the rice crop was fine. What no one expected was the fantastic bonus of waterfowl which plopped down on the flooded paddy-fields. Actually, the mass arrival of the birds should not have been too much of a surprise. For then as now, one of the last decent meals a duck migrating south from Canada on the Pacific flyway could get before he headed down to Marysville was at the Tule Lake Refuge on the Oregon-California border. Therefore the birds habitually congregated on Tule Lake, the flocks growing into millions as they waited until cold weather forced them farther south. Their flight then carried them over hundreds of miles of dry, monotonous wheat country not at all fit for waterfowl habitation. But as they neared Marysville the countryside changed, the bright reflection of the sun on 6,000 acres of water shining out of the drab brown of the surroundings below.
The sight was, apparently, one which few waterfowl could resist, a good percentage dropping happily into the rice fields.
Despite the bonanza, as late as 1940 the ducks that came in were still greeted by the guns of only a few visiting sportsmen, plus the hard core of regulars among the local ranchers. Of course, the men who were clinging to those guns, blasting away at a fearful rate, were some of the most fortunate duck hunters in the world. Not only did they have the place practically to themselves, but the limit in that free-shooting era was 25 ducks per day.
Those first nonresident hunters were mostly San Francisco businessmen who realized that they had found something special and, being a shrewd lot, kept their mouths shut. A few of them, being even shrewder, began buying up parcels of land for as little as $10 to $15 an acre, as an investment in the future of both sport and rice. Some of the farmers, no less far-sighted, held onto their land and leased shooting rights. One Marysville rancher, Charles Mathews, went a step further and, flooding part of his pasture land for no other reason than to bring in waterfowl, started a duck hunting club.
That was the beginning of the modern era at Marysville. More clubs were formed, catering at first only to men, but swiftly yielding to women like Elena Sharp and Mrs. Stanwood Murphy who, as the pictures on these pages show, lost no time in establishing themselves as first-rate water-fowlers. Today 30 groups control this waterfowl bonanza. With this enforced privacy land values skyrocketed; today an acre is worth $800. And despite the increased hunting pressure, not to mention the dearth of waterfowl elsewhere in the nation, there seem to be as many ducks as ever at Marysville.
Furthermore, the hunters there are unbothered by the new federal law cutting daily possession and bag. For the sportsmen at Marysville shoot under regulations of their own far more stringent than those put forth by the greatest zealot from Fish and Wildlife Service. By gentleman's agreement, shooting is allowed only on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. When the firing begins, it is generally understood that the targets will be nothing but sprig and mallard, the two best table birds the area produces. Lesser birds, or rare species, are generally spared. The cease-fire goes up at noon sharp. In doing this, clubs are insuring themselves of a steady supply of undisturbed birds. Anyone who breaks the rules is expected to drop a few dollars into a fund to be sent later to Ducks Unlimited for the improvement of nesting conditions in Canada.
Perhaps the most tempting thing of all about Marysville is the ease and utter comfort in which the gunners await their birds. For example, at the Lakeview Motel, one of the favorite stopping places for San Francisco gunners, the patrons sleep soundly until 5 a.m., in itself an unheard-of luxury in waterfowling circles. Then a soothing voice comes over the telephone: "Good morning. It is 5 o'clock. The coffee is ready, the paper is at your door, the temperature is 60° and we wish you good hunting."
After breakfast the gunners start for the paddyfields, only 15 minutes away by car. As they move off into the predawn darkness a silence envelops them, broken only by the splash of wading feet and the tiny sounds of the morning—solitary wingbeats high over head, the rustle of blackbirds in the reeds and an occasional startled "quack" as a hen mallard vaults away from the approaching men.
Then they are in their blinds, and they sit there waiting. Mists rise from the water. Daylight peers over the buttes that rim the flat valley floor. Suddenly the air is filled with sound as thousands of birds take wing.
Flights of teal waver on the far horizon like lines of drifting smoke, and great ribbons of geese boom through the dawn. The birds are moving in from the ponds, and the world is alive with whistling wings. But no one shoots. The spectacle is so awesome that even the most experienced hunters will often remain quietly in their blinds, preferring just to watch.
Then, as daylight floods the valley with an amber glow (see cover), the birds are all around the blinds. White-fronted sprig fly close by overhead, and teal drop out of the sky to splash among the decoys. Suddenly some distant hunter can stand it no longer. There is the "thump" of a shotgun, and this noise stirs even more birds into the air until the sound of their wings is a roar of thunder, a dramatic notice to the men in the blinds that another matchless waterfowl season is under way in the marshes of Marysville.