2018 Duck Opener

Arrival at the Kerry Club was unimpressive. As I passed the Ingomar Packing Company ponds, I was surprised that there were zero ducks. When I reached the Kerry Club, I could see a limited number of ducks on the ponds, but not as many as I would normally expect.

Once in camp, I began to look around and I could see some birds working. It was mid-day, too early to arrive at any conclusions about duck numbers.

Other hunters began to arrive about the same time as me. Enthusiasm was high.

Everybody let their labs loose and it was mayhem. My Airstream was in sad shape after a long off-season, but a quick clean-up put it into acceptable shape.

The traditional dinner was excellent with surf and turf with all the trimmings. Parking was at a premium. Camp was about as crowded as I’ve seen it.

Here are some shots from Friday.

 

Being in the “senior” group, I laid myself to rest at 9:00 PM. The younger group was still going strong.

Not a sound could be heard at 5:00 AM when I turned on the Airstream lights, but it wasn’t long before the camp came to life and several more hunters drove up ready for the hunt.

The walk to blind 4 was pleasant. Most of the other hunters rode ATVs so Lola and I were about the last to settle in. My partner, Tom Billingsley, was working so I had the blind to myself. I took my time.

Just after shooting time I snapped this photo of the horizon. As you can see, Lola was ready. She’ll be 12 in January.

IMG_6298 Lola waits at sunrise reset

As is the norm, the ponds were void of ducks by the time everybody was in place, but it wasn’t long before birds poured in, mostly teal and shovelers, but there also quite a few pintail.

My first shot was at a drake pintail. I missed on the first shot, but hit him on the second. He started down, but I lost track of him in the mix. Lola hadn’t seen him.

Bad start. I unhooked Lola and climbed out of the blind, heading in the right direction. After the water cleared of birds, I had no idea where the drake had disappeared. Rather than search, I opted to head back to the blind. Didn’t want to ruin everybody’s hunt.

After my first screw-up, I proceeded to miss the next eight shots at teal. They were humming, but the problem was me, I knew I was aiming and that never works.

Finally I got my sighting figured out and knocked down a teal. Lola made the retrieve.

From that point on, my shooting was better. I passed on a boat-load of teal while trying to get a good shot at pintail. Finally I dropped a drake sprig dead and Lola made the retrieve.

Next I knocked down a green-wing that was a swimmer. I turned Lola loose. She was within inches of the bird, but could not catch up with it. After she turned the corner into some tules, I followed but lost sight of the action. Last year she would have retrieved this bird, but I wasn’t sure where it went and I didn’t want to stay out of the blind, so I called her off and she reluctantly returned to the blind with me, birdless. The fact that she was willing to give up was a sign of her age.

As the morning wore on it was mindful of other Kerry Club openers that went down in a similar way. There was the debate about whether to shoot pintail first or last. There was the amazing difficulty of hitting shot-at teal that never slowed down. There was the worry of shooting a spoony by mistake.

I got my second sprig, my sixth bird. It was getting late as we began the wait for a seventh bird. As sun rose higher, Lola was finished and so was I.

We closed out one shy of a limit. As we neared camp, Bob Smallman drove his ATV out to give us a lift. It was hot and the ride was appreciated.

IMG_6302 sunrise complete

The sunrise was complete as I chased after Lola and a swimmer teal that we never found.

IMG_6307 first pintail of '18 cropped

Lola with a drake pintail.

Opening day hunts are a small portion of a duck season. Unlike most other duck hunt  days, they are generally predictable. The emotions, the ducks and the shooting.

 

 

Wednesday at the Kerry Club

1/26/27 It was so calm at blind C that Tom Billingsley and I opted for jerk strings first thing in the morning and they seemed to make a difference. The ducks acted as though they’d been shot at for months, which they had. Enough came into range and we held off shooting until they were clearly in range.

Of the ones we shot at, we didn’t let too many get away. Whenever I missed Tom seemed to back me up. Lola had another good day, chasing down all our birds.

view-of-camp-from-blind-c

Snapped this photo from blind C as we waited for some action. It was a windless day, but we were fortunate enough to have the best teal blind on the club so we had thirteen by 10:30 when we turned the blind over to my brother Rob and Joe DiDonato.

They managed to bag another nine teal before departing and were disappointed that they couldn’t hit sprig on the two occasions they flew into range. Despite the nice weather, averages on the club were pretty good.

This was my last grassland hunt for the season as I plan to hunt the Delta on the weekend.

 

 

First Draw

Actually I was second draw on Saturday for the North pond at the Kerry Club, but hunter number one didn’t show. Therefore my partner, Joe DiDonato, and I had the first pick for a blind. Sometimes that’s good news. Other times it just points out that you can’t always figure out what the ducks are going to do.

We reached our choice,  blind 2, a bit before shooting time and settled in as the first shots were fired – a bit surprised that we couldn’t see any working birds, especially teal.

The guys in the blind to the south of us were covered up and Joe and I could see a line of teal that seemed to be bearing down upon them. I later heard that they limited in 20 minutes and we witnessed it.

Meanwhile Joe and I were off to a slow start, so I took a picture of the sunrise, which was spectacular.

sunrise-blind-2

Then we got our first duck, a fast flying teal that went over the top of us at full speed. Amazingly it came down with one shot. That was not a harbinger of things to come. After that, it seemed like the harder we tried, the worse our shooting became. We did pick off a bird periodically and eventually filled our bag. Lucky for us we each brought plenty of ammo.

missed-a-couple

Snapped this photo of Joe with one bird to go. Ended up with 13 teal and a drake wigeon, recovered across the pond after a long chase by Joe and Lola.

Before Flood-Up

Sunday was decoy day for my blind partner Tom Billingsley and I. Tom stores the decoys each season and for that I am grateful. We arrived at our blind about the same time, about 11:00 AM.

Here’s what we found.

img_2261-blind-4-before-decoys

This duck blind is ideal for grasslands open water shooting.

The duck food is swamp timothy, which grows close to the ground and produces lots of small seeds. It also provides habitat for the tiny invertebrates that waterfowl love to eat. As you can see, this club is very level, which means that every blind enjoys shallow wading, a big benefit. This is a three-man concrete blind which is limited to two people for hunting.

Most of the blinds at the Kerry Club have only one dog box, but this blind and several others have two dog boxes, which can come in handy.

This blind is very low profile. We will place some cover around the blind, but not raise it in elevation as that makes the blind appear larger to ducks. We also stock the blind with palm leaves and such so we can cover ourselves and the dogs up.

Because this is open water hunting, we use primarily teal and sprig decoys. We stocked it with about 100 decoys which will remain in place for the entire season. We painted them a bit to make them a little more appealing to both ducks and hunters – putting most of our effort into the more colorful drake decoys, especially the heads and white parts of the birds.

We left the cover out of the blind until after flood up as there will be a million crickets and other critters in the blind as they escape to dry ground during flood up. We placed the decoys in anticipation of a northwest wind as that is the prevailing direction at the club, but we also took into account that this particular blind is in the southeast corner of a very large pond.

One of the things I had to learn while providing decoys for this open water club is that the large ponds with little emergent vegitation generate large waves – especially at our blind location. The first year we had four ounce weights on our decoys and many floated away. Last year we switched to eight ounce weights and some of the larger decoys still drifted.

Here are a few photos taken during past seasons.

Our blind is not in the top echelon at the club, but does receive moderate use. It will shoot well on opening day – which is where Tom and I will be hunting.

California Fundraising Tag

There are many fundraising tags made available by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). These tags are a product of legislation passed by the California legislature and signed into law by the Governor.

Many conservation organizations supported the creation of these tags including, for one, The Mule Deer Foundation (MDF). So it’s appropriate that I made my fundraising tag purchase at MDF’s Santa Rosa banquet last weekend.

CDFW made the tag available and authorized that MDF Chapter to sell it at the banquet. My high bid was $10,500. Five percent will go to MDF to cover the cost of selling the tag and the remaining 95 percent goes to the Department to be used as funding for deer-related conservation and associated expenses.

Now for the good part. The tag, called an Open Zone Tag,  is basically a season pass to hunt for deer during California’s numerous seasons. With that tag in hand, I can hunt any of the hunts that I’ve drooled over for years.

For about two hours this morning I looked over old California Big Game Booklets and listed the places I’d like to go. And, I can go to many of them if I don’t pull the trigger too soon.

Yes, I could have kept on putting my name in the hat for these tags, but at my current rate of success I would probably have died without hunting any of them. Finally impatience won out.

Or, I could have made trips and photographed deer without a tag, but that wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

I plan to set my sights high and pass up a bunch of bucks before I pull the trigger. However, I’m not passing up Mr. Big even if he’s the first deer I see.

I’m making my list which will likely include hunts in X2, X5, D6, X9a, X6 and maybe even a B zone. In search of nostalgia, I’ll probably visit a few of my old haunts. I’ll probably hunt a couple zones during the August archery season while also scouting the country  in preparation for the late season opportunities.

This is a very full plate of activities, so we’ll see how much I can actually pull off, but I’m not making other plans. I’ll likely hunt with my bow, muzzle-loader and rifle before it’s done. The early archery seasons start in mid-August and rifle opportunities continue almost to the end of December.

I plan to keep notes and post them here. That will be part of the fun.

 

 

 

 

Shooting Late Season Ducks

Every duck season I go through a shooting slump late in the season. Ducks fly faster in January and you have to take that into account.

I’ve hunted almost every shoot day during the past three weeks and I’ve been hitting a much lower percentage of my shots. On my last trip I concentrated on taking a long lead on my shots.  It’s the “aim to miss” strategy.

It’s hard to pull the trigger on shots that your senses tell you are off target, but that’s what I have to do to get a correction going. I’ve found that once you hit those shots that seem to be off target, you can re-calibrate your aim point and get back on target again.

Not all misses are due to under-leading your target, but most of them are. After two months of shooting at ducks and watching them fall, it’s hard to convince yourself that suddenly you’ve got the wrong lead.

Why? Not only do the birds fly faster, but they tend to give you longer shots. The variation is not large – maybe an extra five yards, but it adds up.

I remember a trip to Delevan National Wildlife Refuge about fifteen years ago. My partner, Tom Billingsley, and I had the first draw for a space blind. We picked the blind that had been the most successful during the season. We believed that we would have no trouble bagging limits of mallard and sprig.

We were somewhat correct, but until we began to swing faster and lead further, those late-season ducks were making us feel silly. In the end, we increased our leads and came home happy, but those ducks were really humming.

Not only does it help to swing fast and increase your leads, you may want to consider upping you load a bit. Going from steel fours to threes or even twos may help out.

That’s what I believe. Yesterday, I added two or three feet to my leads and the ducks began to fall more regularly.