The hunter crouches in his blind
'Neath camouflage of every kind,
And conjures up a quacking noise
To lend allure to his decoys.
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck,
Is hoping to outwit a duck.
Next week, as waterfowl seasons open across much of the U.S., more than a million and a half grown-up men, not to mention a burgeoning bevy of grown-up women like the one on the opposite page, will pit pluck, luck and a determined dedication unmatched in any other group of hunters into outwitting at least some of the ducks and geese now beginning their annual migrations south. And this year the odds in favor of the hunter are the best in a decade.
Wildfowl breeding seasons in Canada and Alaska, where more than 85% of the birds that travel the nation's four major flyways are produced, were the longest and most favorable in memory. Water and weather conditions since early spring have been the kind that biologists dream of, with hatches the biggest and survival rates the best in years. By summer's end, mallard broods were up 45%, canvasback and redhead broods 50%, and those of other species had doubled on most of their nesting grounds. What has been good for young birds has been equally good for their elders. Overall populations of all ducks and geese—young and old—are up almost 40% over a year ago. For the hunter this increase means longer seasons, larger bags and fewer shooting restrictions.
States in the Atlantic Flyway, for example, have a choice this year of either a 55-day duck season with a daily bag limit of three birds and six in possession or a 45-day season with a daily bag of four birds and eight in possession. In some portions of the flyway two additional special seasons on ringnecks and scaup have been added to the regular duck season, further stretching the number of shooting days to 70. Seasons on geese and brant run 70 days, with daily limits of two geese and six brant.
In all the flyways, states may also choose to split the maximum number of shooting days allowed into two separate seasons, provided they give up 10% of their shooting days as a penalty for the split. In states such as New York, for example, where climatic conditions differ drastically between northern and southern portions of the state, satisfying hunters in both sections often more than justifies the loss of four or five shooting days in the overall season.
The Mississippi Flyway, with a 45-day duck season, has five more days of shooting this year than last. Four ducks a day may be taken, with eight kept in possession. The goose season, like that in the Atlantic Flyway, is a hefty 70 days, with an equally hefty daily limit of five birds. Southern goose shooters get an additional break. There have always been plenty of geese in this Flyway, but in recent years the birds rarely got beyond the northern tier of states, where food was good and firepower furious. In order to equalize shooting pressure by moving the birds south into new wintering grounds, special goose-kill limits, based upon wildlife-management experiments conducted last season, have been set in parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri. As soon as the kill in these areas reaches a set figure, all shooting will be stopped regardless of when the season would otherwise end. By limiting the kill, game-management experts have discovered that those birds that stay after shooting stops quickly eat up the remaining grain, then move out to other feeding areas, thus spreading the sport over a much broader range.
Central Flyway shooters, too, have much to be happy about. The best news of all is 20 extra days of duck shooting in states choosing the optional 60-day season with limits of three birds daily, six in possession, or 10 extra days in states choosing a 50-day season with larger bag limits of four and eight. For goose shooters there will be 75 shooting days with limits of five and five.
But the most envied shooters in the U.S. are those in the Pacific Flyway, where there will be more birds for every hunter this year than anywhere else in the nation. The duck season here will be a whopping 90 consecutive days with a daily bag of five and possession limit of 10, or a shorter (purely by Pacific Flyway standards) 75-day season with a daily bag of six and possession limit of 12.
By any standards this is generous fare, but then the Pacific Flyway is generously endowed with exactly what waterfowl want in winter. And nowhere is it so richly endowed as in California's lush Central Valley. If there is such a thing as a waterfowl paradise, surely it is here. Formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, fed by countless tributaries that flow off the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, inundated by warm rains in fall and winter and by melting snows from the high country in spring, the Central Valley is the ancestral wintering grounds of much of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway.
There are fewer birds there now, it is true, than the awesome millions of ducks and geese that greeted early explorers of the region, and the vast tule marshes of centuries ago no longer span the breadth of the valley, but the area's traditional magnetism for wildfowl is as strong today as ever.
Where once such natural foods as cattails and bulrushes, sedges and spikeweeds grew in wild abundance, barley and millet, milo and Sudan now lure wintering birds down into what are still the largest watery flatlands in the Pacific Flyway. And now there is rice—a grain unknown there when the Spaniards came to California.
Rice was not planted in the valley until 1910. Today it produces 23% of all the rice in the U.S. Economically, rice is a major crop in the region. But more significant to sportsmen, it is the state's single most important attraction to waterfowl. "The growing of rice," says a distinguished wildlife authority, "is one of the few activities which can be added to the credit side of the ledger in man's relation to waterfowl." So irresistible is its appeal, in fact, that some 50% of all the ducks and more than 80% of all the geese in the Pacific Flyway stop to feed and rest each season in the rice fields of the Central Valley. At times it is possible to see as many as two million birds concentrated in a single area. This is a spectacle that still inspires awe.
But almost as astonishing as the concentrations of birds in the Central Valley is the fact that the area has survived as a major waterfowl wintering ground during an era in which the state's population, industry and shooters have multiplied almost too rapidly to record. That the wintering facilities which the area offers waterfowl have actually improved during this population explosion is something of a modern miracle. It was wrought by two rather improbable bedfellows.
Part of the credit belongs to the California Department of Fish and Game and its dynamic director, Walter T. Shannon. Under Shannon's lead, his department has earned a reputation as one of the most progressive, productive and practical in the nation. A waterfowler, outdoorsman and naturalist as well as an administrator, Shannon has proved himself a man who not only knows what waterfowl need in his state, but also knows how to get it for them with minimum delay and red tape. In a bureaucratic society this is a feat matched only by Shannon's even more impressive ability to win the respect, confidence and unprecedented cooperation of California's almost 1,000 private shooting clubs.
At first glance, this may not seem a major accomplishment. But while it is true in theory that state game departments and private gun clubs have the same goals, in practice they seldom seem to agree on how to achieve them. Club members often look upon game officials with the distrust small boys reserve for dogcatchers, and game officials are not entirely free of blame for this attitude. Not a few have been guilty of trying just a little bit harder to "get something on one of the rich guys." Whatever the subtle and not-so-subtle reasons for the antagonisms, the result is that many state game agencies and private clubs work at cross-purposes when, with a little understanding, each might help the other considerably.
It did not take Shannon long to realize that the most important people in the state of California as far as the future of its waterfowl is concerned are the members of private shooting clubs. Together they personally own or control some 90% of all the waterfowl habitat in the state. Considering that this is close to 30% of all the wetlands in the entire Pacific Flyway and that it accommodates more than 70% of all its wintering birds, it is clear that private shooting clubs in California—as in most parts of the U.S.—are very important indeed. In the Central Valley they deserve the major share of credit for making that area the most outstanding waterfowl wintering ground in the country.
The most obvious contribution of such clubs is in preserving and protecting the land they own for the use of waterfowl. Even with federal assistance, few states could raise the money required to purchase and maintain a small portion of such lands. Most private citizens could not raise the money either, let alone afford to invest it in wildfowl habitat instead of in housing developments.
Needless to say, philanthropy was hardly the reason behind turning most of the Central Valley over to waterfowl. But the public, whether it realizes it or not, has profited considerably because this has happened. Every shooter who brings down a duck or goose on public shooting land in California this season can be pretty sure that there is a 9-to-1 chance it dined last at one of the private clubs. He can also figure that if those clubs did not exist the likelihood of there being any birds at all would be extremely slim.
But besides providing waterfowl with wintering grounds, the private clubs also have proved their strongest guardians. Federal migratory regulations, for example, permit waterfowl shooting seven days a week. Few clubs do. Many limit shooting to three days a week, others only to weekends. Most stop all shooting at noon. By limiting guest privileges, regulating shooting, rotating blinds and resting sections of land, clubs put considerably less hunting pressure on birds than the public does.
They also cripple fewer birds. Not surprisingly, shooting-club members are usually good shots, but there is more to the story than this. Like the birds on their land, the shooters, too, are under less pressure. A public shooter often has to contend with game hogs behind every bulrush firing at their own and everybody else's birds. Most flights are bombarded by magnum loads before they get within 150 yards of the gun. Occasionally a bird is hit and falls where it can be recovered. More often than not it comes down a mile away, a double loss both to the gun and to conservation.
A club hunter has none of these problems. He can afford to wait for his birds to get into range. He can take time to identify and choose the one he wants. And, with any reasonable skill, he can be fairly certain of hitting it. Because he invariably hunts with a dog—at most clubs this is mandatory—he can also be sure of recovering his birds. He thus winds up with maximum sport at minimum cost to the game.
For the privilege of such sport, a club member in the Central Valley is likely to pay a considerable sum. Memberships, when there are openings, which is seldom, often sell for anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Dues, naturally, are extra. When a member of one of the oldest clubs in the area died recently, he left his share in the club to the four remaining members. Each paid a $60,000 inheritance tax. Another chap bought a $75,000 membership in a club in order to take his new wife shooting and then discovered that wives were permitted only once a year. He kept the membership and bought her one in a club less discriminatory to women. It only cost him an extra $50,000.
But the returns on such heady investments often have proved to be more than strictly sporting. All that rice not only brings in ducks but dollars—several million of them. Today California's Central Valley is the largest exporter of short-grain rice in the U.S. And rice is big business. Clubs in the region double as rice farms on a full scale, employing their own professional managers, belonging to cooperatives and owning shares in shipping and transport operations. In the light of some six-and seven-figure annual yields, the notion that these clubs grow rice only to feed ducks is obviously nonsense.
Such income—from rice, other crops and, at one club, from natural gas (members collect $340 a month each in gas royalties, which is almost too much of a good thing!)—and spiraling real estate values in the area are obvious reasons why memberships in Central Valley clubs now sell so high. Acreage that was bought for as little as $25 at the end of World War II is valued at $1,200 to $1,500 today. But not every club is member-owned, nor is every waterfowler in the valley a millionaire.
Several of the largest tracts of land are owned not by clubs but by private individuals who each year lease portions of their property to loosely knit groups of hunters. For less than $500 a season these hunters enjoy waterfowl shooting that is every bit as spectacular, though not quite as exclusive, as that at the private clubs.
At Terrill Sartain's 12,000-acre Terhel Farms near Colusa, a mere long shot from the Colusa Outing Club, one of the most distinguished shooting clubs in the country, a hunter can rent a duck blind for the entire season for $350. Or he can split the rental of a blind with another shooter, leasing it Wednesdays only for $150 or weekends only for $200. As at most of the private clubs, shooting is limited to three days a week.
For his rental fee the shooter gets a 4-foot-deep rectangular 3-by-6-foot cement blind that is sunk flush into one of the checks, as the levees in the rice fields are called. By shooting time the rice has already been harvested and the fields reflooded. Ample water plus 200 to 300 pounds per acre of waste grain that remain after harvesting prove irresistible to ducks.
All the duck blinds at Terhel Farms are at least a quarter of a mile apart, and locations, fixed at the beginning of each season, are determined by drawing. Because guest rules are more informal than at most private clubs, there is always a certain amount of trading and borrowing of blinds, and no one seems to mind if a hunter brings along a friend on every shooting day as long as no more than two shoot from a blind.
Terhel Farms also has five goose-shooting setups that are comparable to any private ones in the valley. Each consists of 15 pits made from cement sewage pipes sunk into the stubble fields (the goose shooting is over dry fields) and set, about four feet apart, in a row. Although the goose pits are leased on a daily basis rather than by the season, their use is generally limited to shooters and guests who already hold duck blinds on the Sartain property.
Usually eight or 10 such hunters get together for a goose shoot and lease a full string of pits. They then line up three or four of the best goose guides in the area to do the calling and to set out some 300 to 400 decoys the evening before. The morning I shot geese at Terhel Farms we were in the fields long before dawn in order to be organized and in the pits by the legal shooting hour. It was just as well we started early.
Between the mountains of gear we each were carrying, the uneven terrain of the stubble fields and the moonless, starless dark, we spent the better part of an hour stumbling over our own feet and each other. When we did locate the pits there was the usual confusion about who would shoot next to whom, which dogs should be kept apart and which could be expected to lie low together, and a great deal of scurrying and peering in an effort to round up grasses to pull over our heads as camouflage.
It was all somewhat slapstick, and we were already feeling creaky in the joints when the first faint streaks of light began striating the morning. Then, high in the sky, the geese began to fly. Wave after wave materialized on the horizon, moving toward us in rhythmic Rockette formations. Our big blond guide, Gerry Willoh, cupped his hands to his mouth and from deep in his throat sent long, plaintive appeals into the air.
None of us moved as the birds came closer, the sound of their wings suddenly so loud that we imagined we could feel the stirring of air currents above our heads. They circled over the decoys, dropping lower and lower, conferring with each other in soft, steady voices as they debated a landing. Then Gerry said, "Now," and in unison we sprang up from our cement pipes, still stiff but strangely elated and spry as we swung our guns on the great white-fronted targets hanging just above our heads.
We had our limits by 9 o'clock. It was that kind of glorious, goose-filled morning. By 10 we were back at Duck Alley, the mud-spattered, windswept cluster of shacks, trailers, Quonset huts and lean-tos that is another of the numerous bonuses that go with leasing blinds at Terhel Farms. Squatting rights on Duck Alley are part of shooting rights, and since many of the hunters live as far away as San Francisco and Reno they are eagerly utilized.
Most Duck Alley structures grow like startled mushrooms at the beginning of the season, but a few plant somewhat more permanent roots each year. There is the 40-foot van from a long-deceased refrigerator car, for example, that has been ingeniously converted by its owner, Slim Malvich of Chester, Calif., into what is probably the most luxurious quarters on the alley. And there is the less elegant but equally ingenious shack handcrafted by Patti and Allen Ross of Lake Tahoe, with the help of Eloise Heller, the Sonoma woman who has taken her Chesapeakes to nine national retriever championships (SI, April 26, 1965) and who is almost as skilled with hammer and nails as she is with a training whistle. The Ross-Heller digs are Tobacco Road rustic, a haphazard conglomeration of misfit lumber held together by oversized nails, glue, sealing wax and, when the wind blows, prayers.
But for all its unorthodox architecture, inside it is little different in mood, spirit and even, for that matter, basic appearance from Herbert Fleishhacker's custom-built bungalow at the exclusive Pacific Valley Club a few miles away. The same muddy footprints cover the front steps, the same assortments of olive parkas, battered hats and stained vests hang from the walls, the same aromas of simmering soup and singed feathers come from the kitchens, and the same conversations fill the end of every day. For regardless of the exclusivity of the club, the cost of its membership or the value of its land, once the season opens in the Central Valley all that really matters is the waterfowl. And this year there will be more than enough for everyone.