A day in the blind | TheUnion.com

A day in the blind

Colder temperatures are a sure sign that duck season has begun. Many of the water fowl can be found out in the rice fields near the Sutter Buttes.
Submitted by Wilfried Wietstock |

Where to look

If you would like to see some of these sites, drive down Hwy 20 and take a right on Woodruff Lane. This will put you into rice and waterfowl country.

To see the truly huge numbers of birds, drive west on Hwy 162 from Oroville.

The Richvale area is north of the Sutter Buttes and south of Chico and the heart of the north Sacramento Valley rice fields. Be sure to take some of the side roads.

The Gray Lodge Waterfowl Management Area, near the north side of the Sutter Buttes, has viewing and hunting opportunities. Search for it on the Web.

Duck hunters are known for the passion they have for their sport. From the outside looking in, we wonder what is the allure of a muddy rice paddy at dawn in freezing temperatures. You can top this off with a good stiff wind and a little rain.

I had been invited to accompany Dan Yost duck hunting for a couple of seasons. The timing had never worked out until this past Saturday. Dan was hunting, a cold storm was passing through Friday night, and my schedule was open. We were going.

The duck season starts in mid-October, but the migration of the birds from Canada does not reach us until cold weather freezes the waters to our north. This fall has been mild, and the waterfowl were far to our north.

Arctic air began moving down through Washington and Oregon at the end of the Thanksgiving holiday.

This frigid air mass pushed the birds south and they showed up en masse last week in the Sacramento Valley. The season had truly begun.

We do have migratory water fowl in the Sierra foothills but their numbers pale in comparison to the multitudes in the rice country of the Sacramento Valley.

The recent wave of birds is measured in the hundreds of thousands. These numbers do not resonate without witnessing it for yourself.

The populations are limited by the summer breeding conditions, and in recent decades, sportsmen’s groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, have raised considerable funds to enhance these conditions.

Another factor in the dramatically increased duck numbers is the regulations limiting the burning of rice fields. The fields were burned to eradicate a pathogen harmful to rice plants that can develop over the course of a winter.

The nonburning option for the farmers is to flood their fields to decompose the rice stubble. The increase in flooded acreage has exponentially increased the winter habitat.

Instead of the birds focused on a small amount of wetlands in the valley, they now have thousands more acres to use. The wider distribution is not to the hunter’s advantage.

Dan and I met up at 4 a.m. with snow on the ground in Penn Valley. This was looking like it was going to be a cold day. I had dug through my ski clothing to come up with the layers to go under my camouflage jacket and bib overalls. With a thermos of soup and another for coffee, I was set.

We drive west out of Oroville to the rice country north of the Sutter Buttes. There are two 3-man blinds on this farm. Six of us and two Labrador retrievers met up in the dark. We split into two groups and begin a half mile walk to the blind.

The last hundred yards is on a “check,” which is a narrow dike, maybe a foot higher than the water level of the field. The check is mud with tall grasses on top. It was not long before my shoes had enhanced soles consisting of 2 inches of gumbo. In the dark, I just silently stumbled along; you don’t want to be the whiner sharing a duck blind.

Dan is in the lead. He is first to the blind and has taken the three covers off the blind and submerged them in the water, so they will not give us away. The decoy spread is there for the season, so all we have to do is climb in.

This blind is a steel tank with three compartments. When you sit inside on swiveling seats, your waist is at the water level of the surrounding fields. There are tilt-up thatch covers to conceal us, but there is a space below them to look out. We can hear birds in the distance, but we must wait for legal shooting time, another 10 minutes on.

Dan and I face opposite directions to watch as much of the sky as possible.

Dan’s dog, Rocky, is outside on the check. I glance over at him and it is as if his head is on a swivel.

He is panning the sky and locks his gaze onto some birds in the distance. I soon figure out that I need one eye on the horizon and the other on Rocky.

He has been at this game for most of his 11 years, and his senses are sharper than mine.

The thought occurs to me that Rocky is taking us hunting, not the other way around.

We are the staff that provides the transport, fire power and calling, but he is spotting the birds first, and we are following his lead.

As dawn breaks above a gray sky, the valley is alive with the cackling of geese and the quacking of ducks. I can even faintly hear the wing-beats of the larger birds in the distance.

There is not much wind, and Dan speculates that the birds have been feeding during the night. A mile to our east is a “grind” on a rice farm that allows no hunting.

The waterfowl figure these places out very quickly, and this becomes home base for thousands of birds.

I think the term “grind” refers to the circular flight path of the birds as they come and go from the safe location.

Our success is dependent on ducks breaking off from the grind to feed or for safety and then flying over toward us.

Shooting time arrives, and there are shots coming from the distance. Our immediate sky is empty but we keep looking up and then over at Rocky.

Ten minutes into the day, Rocky locks onto a pintail coming over the far side of our field.

Dan grabs his call and blows out a greeting — brief and not overdone.

Dan has many decades of calling to his credit, and he speaks their language quite well.

The pintail circles and decides to come in for a closer look at the decoy spread.

With one shot, Dan drops him into the water and Rocky launches off the check to retrieve him. Without Rocky, it would be a long day indeed.

As the day continues, I call out whenever I spy a flying form in the distance.

I am impressed at Dan’s ability to identify the animal in question.

The silhouette, the beat of the wings, the speed of the flight are all clues on a dark, gray morning when colors are hard to discern,

Dan identifies seagulls, swans, cranes, coots and spoonies in the “don’t shoot” category.

He also calls out to snow geese, specks, mallards, pintails, wigeon and teal among those in the “take them if you can” category.

The shooting opportunities came in streaks with long breaks in between. During the breaks, male banter is the order of the day.

Depending upon the familiarity of the participants, it can range from polite conversation to one-upsmanship over shooting ability or lack thereof, or to good-natured practical jokes. But Rocky was ever on the job, panning the sky and locking on to any critters that were airborne.

As the day wore on, the clouds moved east over the Sierra and bright sunshine took over.

These are conditions where the birds will get into their grind and settle on to the water.

For us, the salvation in this circumstance was the arrival of two bald eagles.

These predators are the nemesis of loafing ducks and geese. The approach of a bald eagle to a grind will put thousands of birds into the air.

As the multitudes scatter, groups looking for a safe place to land will be enticed by a good decoy spread and an authentic call.

That is what puts ducks in the bag.

By 11:30 a.m., the action was over and we called it a day. The cold north wind was coming on as the storm front passed. We gathered our gear and made the trek back to the truck.

On the way back, I was watching Rocky. I have heard it said that one dog year is equal to seven for a human.

At 77, Rocky was on his game when the guns were firing and the birds were falling.

But on the hike back to the truck, he was showing his age.

Dan had to lift him up to get him onto the tailgate. But by the look in his eyes at the blind, regardless of the end-of day-fatigue, Rocky would not have missed it for the world.

So what is the allure of duck hunting?

It is the magic of sunrise that most of us sleep through.

It is the symphony of sounds made by thousands of waterfowl that you can’t yet see in the dark.

It is the duck flying away that turns around when spoken to with a well-blown call.

It is a retriever that does what 100 generations before have instinctively known how to do.

But most importantly, it is the camaraderie of sharing your passion with friends who share your blind during that fantastic shot, as well as that miserable cold and wet day. Dan, thanks for the invite!

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at http://www.trollingflies.com.

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