Gray Lodge, October 1986
One would suspect that arriving three days before the start of duck season would be early enough to assure entrance to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area for the start of the season. How many people would come and wait in line for three days in order to hunt on opening morning? The answer became clear as I entered the parking lot on Wednesday, about 7:00 PM. Forty or fifty cars were parked in a single line. Not knowing where to start, I stopped and spoke to a man who was parked by himself on my right.
“What’s the situation with the line?” I asked.
“I’m in the reservation line and that’s the non-reservation line over there,” he replied.
The other line of cars proved to have fifty-three hunters in it and I took my place as number fifty-four. Discussions with other hunters in line led me to believe that if similar numbers of hunters turned out this year as had turned out in the past, I’d get in on opening morning.
During the following two days, the topic of most discussions was duck hunting. I found that most of the hunters I spoke with considered Gray Lodge to be a very special refuge. Most had hunted this refuge for years and considered themselves to be part of an elite group, a kind of duck hunting fraternity. These were the hard core of Gray Lodge hunters and they treated the waiting period as a warm-up ceremony. Although I told almost all who I spoke to that I’d never hunted the refuge, none gave me even an inkling of specific information about where to hunt. I didn’t seek advice, but was surprised that at least some information about the refuge wasn’t volunteered. Apparently, a high value was placed on this information.
The first hunters in line had arrived on Saturday, a full week prior to opening day. Obviously there was more to this for some people than just another duck hunt. One gentleman in line was over seventy years old and had hunted Gray Lodge with his brother almost every opening day for about twenty-five years. The people I met were from many different lines of work – pilots, students, retired military, unemployed, fathers, sons, wives, girlfriends and brothers. On Thursday night the regulars threw a party and expected nothing in return except that you have a good time. A giant banner flew over the picnic area that read, “Grand Opening.” John Cowan, a wildlife biologist who is retied from the California Department of Fish and Game, was the guest of honor. For many years he had been the Gray Lodge manger, and it was obvious that held had won the respect of the hunters there.
As Saturday approached, the number of hunters in the lot grew until it was nearly full. Out of a possible 200 reservations that were issued, 188 showed by Saturday morning. They took 333 of the 400 openings for the refuge. I was in! The last “sweat line” hunter to get in (by shooting time) had probably arrived sometime Thursday morning. Hunters that were too late to get in before shoot time were able to take the place of hunters as they departed.
The hunting area at Gray Lodge was divided into two zones. The West zone was generally considered to be the best. The closed zone was on the west side of the area and the ducks naturally moved towards that zone. By the time I was allowed to enter the refuge, the west side was full and I went to parking lot number six on the east side.
I had spent a great deal of time wondering about this moment. Now was the time for action. What should a hunter do when faced with the problem of hunting an unknown area? Parking lot six was the first lot. I had already decided that this was a good possibility. I figured that many of the hunters would pass up the first lot in order to see what else was available. There were only a few cars in the lot, so I decided to park. Heading south from the lot, I walked along a levee between tule-filled ponds which appeared to be in excellent shape. Voices could be heard to the west and they were acting pretty excited about the hunt. I wanted to hunt on my own as much as possible and I feared that the adrenaline in these guys was running too high. I reversed my course and headed north. After passing the parking lot heading in the opposite direction, I came to an area that appeared to have enough open water and no other hunters nearby. It was just about shooting time, so the decision was made. The decoys would go out here.
I wanted to shoot mallards and sprig. Three dozen decoys were placed randomly to the east of me. There was a good place to hide on the edge of the pond. As the sky grew light, ducks began to pass. At shooting time shots rang out in all directions. As they few by, I realized that while looking into the sunrise, it would be difficult to pick out the mallards and sprig that I had hoped for, especially the drakes. I watched duck after duck go over. Spoonbill, teal, widgeon, teal, widgeon, spoonbill – teal, teal, teal – spoonbill, spoonbill. There were plenty of ducks, but very few of the ones that I was waiting for. At 8:00 AM, I fired my first shot of the day and killed a hen sprig. I felt a sense of frustration for shooting the hen, but was happy to break the ice. Looking into the sun, I hadn’t been able to tell the sex of the duck and had taken a chance. The sun rose higher and the shooting continued. The ducks flew a little faster. A few big ducks came over, but only the teal, widgeon and spoonbill wanted to work my decoys. The decision was made to move out into the pond and kneel down in a small clump of grass where the ducks would be closer to me. I knelt there until my knees ached badly. Ducks continued to work the decoys, many teal and some others that I couldn’t identity. I could hold out a while longer. When I finally did stand up, the pain in my knees was so bad that I had to stand there for a couple of minutes and limber up my legs.
When I got back to the levee, I sat down for a break and a cart wheel squeaked as a hunter came down the road toward me. Somebody had their ducks and was heading in. As the hunters passed, I checked their ducks. They had all greenheads and drake sprig, two beautiful limits of ducks. Obviously, there were better spots than mine.
The nest decision was easy. I picked up my decoys and headed north along the levee in the direction from which the cart had come. The ponds opened up and became large, open ponds, the type that mallards and sprig like. I could see how what my problem had been. The first pond selected had been far too small. I found a patch of tules to hide in and threw the decoys out in to all direction, anxious to recommence that hunt. As I got set up, a hunter to the north of me searched for a downed duck. I decided to help him as other ducks probably wouldn’t work until he got back into his blind anyway. I hoped that my dog “Tubbs” would find the bird in the thick grass, but it was eventually given up for lost. We headed back to hide and wait for ducks. It was now about 9:00AM. I called and ducks worked, but no big ducks came within range. The hunters to the north of me were doing a lot of shooting and within an hour or so they hollered over that they were heading in and that maybe I should try their spot as the ducks seemed to like it. I tool up their offer and moved my decoys for the second time.
This new location was duck utopia. This must have been the spot were the earlier limits of mallard and sprig had come from. The ducks loved it. It was the northeast corner of a large pond and the prevailing wind was out of the north, so it allowed the ducks to come down while over open water. There was a nice patch of dry brush to hide in and about the only thing wrong with the blind location was that the hunter had to look right into the bright sun, and I hadn’t brought my sunglasses with me.
It was 10:30 AM when I got set up for the third and final time. I knew that I was now in the best possible spot and not further moving would be necessary. The sky was clear and it became hot. There were still plenty of ducks working the area as I hid in the blind holding out for mallards and sprig. Although it wasn’t required at Gray Lodge, I was shooting steel shot. This was to be my first experience with the unpopular shells. I didn’t
know what to expect from the loads when a greenhead came in fast from the north with the wind. He was so close that I couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot the down-wind shot. Boom –miss, no, he was hit and going down. He hit the water about a quarter mile away and I took off after him. Approaching the spot where he had gone down, a green head took off out of range and after finding nothing else in the area, I decided that this must have been the bird I was after. I headed back to the blind, disappointed.
Spoonbill and widgeon worked the pond constantly and there was a temptation to give up on my goal of mallards and sprig, but I held steadfast. Another greenhead came in over the decoys, boom –miss, boom – miss. At least it was a clean miss. I held on and waited as the less desirable ducks continued to work the decoys. Other hunters could see the birds working and started to move in on the area, probably wondering why I wasn’t shooting. It would be tougher now as the group of four hunters set up downwind of me about 250 yards away. Any ducks heading for me had to pass over them first. A greenhead made it through the maze of hunters and I hit him with the first shot, but he recovered and didn’t go down. Now I was feeling bad. It was about noon and I was wasting too many opportunities. The number of mallards and sprig were constantly getting thinner, but the spoonies and widgeon seemed to be endless. A drake sprig passed over in range and I fired. Boom – no dice. A short while later another drake came over, gliding in to the wind. Boom – miss, boom – hit, but he managed to glide for about a mile before I lost sight of him going down to the east. I blamed the steel shot. It was now about 3:00 PM and I had blown chances on enough mallards and sprig to fill my limit. My eyes ached from staring into the sun. I was drenched in sweat from the sun beating on my waders. The decision was made to shoot at spoonies and end my miseries.
The first spoony came in with the wind and at twenty-five yards I fired. Boom – miss, boom – miss. Maybe this wouldn’t be as easy as I thought! Another spoony came in and he went down with two shots. Then another with the same result. Five more shots at three spoonies and I had my limit and headed in.
Note: This is an excert from a book I wrote in 1987, about hunting the California Public Hunting Areas. The book is no longer in available. I’ll place a few more chapters on my blog as this duck season passes.