Opening Day of the California Duck Season at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, October 1986

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.

Camp Stories – The Pocket Gopher and the Broad-footed Mole

While sitting around camp, I had a couple new sets of ears to listen to one of my favorite stories about a pocket gopher that climbed out of his hole while I sat glassing for blacktail in Klamath National Forest.

As I sat on a ridge overlooking some pretty nice habitat where I spotted a group of large-antlered blacktails a day earlier, I noticed the gopher rise onto the mound of soft dirt only inches from my leg. As I watched, the gopher shivered a couple times and rolled over dead.

I figured nobody could top this observation which was one of my most unique, but then my brother Rob reminded me of the spring turkey hunt he’d been on with my cousin Wes. With Wes there to confirm the story, there was nothing I could do but admit that I’d been one-uped.

While sitting against a large bolder listening for gobblers, Rob and Wes noticed the ground shaking a few feet away. They watched as a mole worked it’s way beneath the ground’s surface through the soft wet dirt of springtime. As the shaking approached a rock, blocking the path, a worm shot out of the ground and by leaving the dirt behind, escaped the mole. Reaching the rock, the mole turned and proceeded in the opposite direction, apparently in search of a new victim.

The gopher story had been trumped by the mole.

Back Country Mule Deer Hunt Slide Show

 On Wednesday morning we headed up canyon.

 

On Thursday, after glassing for bucks in the morning, Rob and Wes headed to their spike camp in preparation for hunting on Saturday. The packs look heavy and they were. The climb to spike camp was up a steep trail and about a 1,000 foot climb.

Although we saw no bears, we saw scat many times. I photographed this scat while scouting on Thursday morning.

Each day we glassed for deer from first light.

 

Although my buck was only a young three point, the fact that I shot him at 50 yards and  over 11,000 foot elevation made him a trophy to me.

Joe snapped this hero shot of me hauling meat off the mountain. We spike camped at 10,200 feet and left at 4AM to make it to the top of the ridge by first light. At times my heart pounded so hard that I thought I’d blow a gasket.

Here’s Wes with his antlers. Rob and Wes spotted this buck on the first day in base camp and Wes shot it about 10 AM on Saturday morning. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the largest buck we saw on the trip.

Back at base camp, Joe posed with our antlers.

 

After bagging our bucks, Joe and I fished some downstream beaver ponds for brook trout. We managed to catch enough for dinner.

After a full week in the mountains our packer, Craig, arrived to pick us up on the last morning.

 

We elected to walk out and Craig packed our gear.

Ready for X12 Pack Trip

The blacktail is in the freezer. Made some nice venison breakfast sausage – a little spicy, but very good. Jerky in the dehydrator, almost ready to take along on the trip. Used the vacuum sealer to package the meat. Since there’s almost nobody around here who processes wild game, it’s easier to just do it yourself.

Bought brother Rob a meat grinder last Christmas, but I was first to use it. That’s the kind of present I like to give. At least I washed it up before returning it.

Now it’s meal planning time. We’re going to take horses in the first five miles and set up a base camp on Wednesday. Then we’ll hike to the top of the ridge on Friday and camp there until we either get tired of lousy food or bag a buck.

Pack rod coming along as the creek as plenty of trout. Yes we’ll be bringing oil and a fry pan – along with a couple onions to go with the deer liver.

The four of us will split into two groups and hang out on opposite ridges a couple miles apart. I’m planning to purchase a Jetboil and a few freeze dried meals to combine with a couple MREs while we’re on the ridge. Rob says his pack will weight 70 pounds – mine won’t.

It will take me a little while to reach the ridge, which will be at 11,000 feet (yikes). Don’t know how well I’ll sleep on that little pad. My sleeping bag is rated for 30 degrees, but I sleep warm and I’ve got a bivoac sack as well.

We are confident that there will be buck action, but we’re not sure how big. Most likely somebody will get a chance at a good one. Back on the 25th.

Tule Elk in the East Bay Area – SFPUC Lands

Last night I photographed this tule elk bull on my way home. I was querried as to whether I considered this bull to be good sized. It’s always hard for me to tell somebody else that a bull elk or buck deer is a large one. Just when I say, “Yea, that’s bigger than anything I’ve seen before.” I hear back.

“I’ve taken several larger.”

The point is that big is not a a very discriptive word. Six by six with 40 inch mainbeams and 11 inch circumference bases would be more descriptive, but I can’t relate to that very well either. If pressed, I’d guess that that’s about what the bull in the photo is (I have a set of drop horns about this same size).

The subject bull lives on San Francisco PUC lands and that area is not open to hunting. I’ve been told that this herd (that lives near San Antonio Reservoir) numbers over 100 animals. We occationally see large groups of bulls traveling together. This bull was at a roadside pond drinking as I drove up.

Elk in the Suisun Marsh that live on Grizzly Island (about 30 miles to the north) are hunted and that’s where the largest tule elk are taken. You’ll have to be very lucky to get a tag for that area, or spend about $50,000 for an auction tag. Each year The Mule Deer Foundation sells a Grizzly Island elk fundraising tag at its San Jose Banquet.

Venison At Last

It looked like my last chance to harvest a blacktail this year. The weather had cooled the last couple days and it was looking like a window of opportunity. With a positive feeling about my chances, I took off this afternoon and headed to the hills ready to shoot the first decent buck I could find. With a couple other deer tags in my posession, I decided that my coastal A Zone tag would be dedicated to bringing home venison – not necessarily a trophy.

Stopping at an unlikely spot to check for deer, I stepped from my truck and glassed the opposite side of a draw that seldom holds deer.

Under a buckeye tree on the opposite side of the draw lay a doe. I glassed to see what else was there and I was surprized to find nothing – no other does or fawns. This seemed a little strange so I went back to the truck and loaded my rifle. Something told me that a buck must be near. With the rut due to kick in, a solo doe was a sign.

After moving to the shade of a nearby oak, I sat and watched for other deer. Eventually a deer shape did appear, at the base of a large oak about 30 yards from the doe. It looked like a buck. After watching him for a while, I concluded that he was a decent sized buck, but his exact size was clouded by branches hanging between him and I.

I was in venison mode. I’d already decided to shoot the first decent buck and not hunt for a trophy. After concluding that he met minimum standards for the hunt, I began to prepare for a shot. I ranged the tree and he was at 140 yards – a fairly easy range for my 7 x 57. I elected to take the shot sitting. At this range I should be accurate. I got a little excited, but not enough to ruin my aim.

A spot of sunlight hit the buck’s vital area and I took advantage of the opportunity. The shot appeared to be true and the buck jumped, but never left the shade of the tree. Unable to confirm he was down, I waited for about 15 minutes before driving to the next ridge. As I approached, I could see him laying there only ten feet from the bed he had been using. The shot had penetrated his vitals.

I made fairly short work of field dressing him and was back in town before dark. On the way home I crossed paths with a tule elk bull – a bonus. He stood long enough for me to take several photos.

Sarah Palin and Teddy Roosevelt

On a recent evening in the hills near Livermore, I climbed a rock overlooking a couple square miles of deer habitat. It wasn’t the best spot for spotting deer, but it did overlook a lot of country so I decided to give it a try.

 

As the evening wore on, I spotted a coyote in the distance. Then it disappeared. A little later I decided to move to a different spot as things were not looking productive. As I rose to leave I realized the coyote was approaching.

 

It was an awesome creature – sleek and silent. It was mousing and moved very slowly along while sneaking for mice. Although I’ve seen many coyotes up close, it always impresses me to see them undisturbed.

 

Although coyotes eat lots of rodents, they also prey on blacktail fawns during springtime. They do have an effect upon the deer population. However, it is debatable whether shooting a single coyote has any impact at all upon the deer population. If one could effectively manage the coyote population, then shooting coyotes might be meaningful.

 

I had all but made up my mind to let the coyote live, when coyote number two appeared over the rise. Now, instead of one coyote, I suddenly envisioned six or seven.

 

Yes, this was a pair of coyotes and it was clear that we had the makings of a family group. My attitude changed. Not only would I shoot the male, but I’d also attempt to shoot the female as well.

 

At 75 yards, phase one of the attack plan was over quickly. As the male tumbled down the hill, I turned on the female. Shot number one was behind her. With the sound of the next shot she disappeared, but apparently I’d missed again. Searching the vicinity I found no indication that I’d hit her.

 

Although I’d given this episode some thought, it wasn’t long before I put the distaste of killing in my rear view mirror and moved on to other more important events – until tonight when I spent a few minutes watching Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN.

 

The subject was Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. The CNN reporters were examining her environmental record. Her supporters said she was pro-environment and listed her hunting experience as one piece of evidence.

 

An issue supported by Palin is aerial gunning of wolves and the subject was presented in a very negative way. They showed film of people shooting wolves from airplanes (called it hunting) included a photo of a dead wolf hanging from the strut of an airplane – very distasteful.  This is kin to showing the remains of a fetus while discussing the issue of abortion rights. (This type of broadcasting treatment is sensationalizing in a way that disables the viewer’s ability to use reason over emotion and evaluate fairly.)

 

Wolves eat moose and caribou, along with mice. If you favor having more moose and caribou, then fewer wolves is a key – it’s a no brainer. And, managing wolves doesn’t mean you’re anti-wolf. It just means you’re pro-human hunter.

 

In any event, I’m pleased that we have a candidate at the national level who understands wildlife management. I feel energized by this. I’ve been wondering when this person would show up and I never expected him to be a her.

 

I’ve been to the North Slope and seen the miles of tundra that make up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Properly managed drilling there will have very little negative impact upon wildlife – I’m sure of that. To say the porcupine caribou herd will be threatened by drilling sounds credible, but is inaccurate. We know these animals can coexist with and even expand their numbers in the presence of drilling operations.

 

Once again I’m glad we have somebody in the national spotlight with the credibility to discuss this important issue and hopefully the most important hunter in Washington since Teddy Roosevelt.