Waterfowl Hunters Anticipate, Even Cherish 'Fowl Weather'

by Thom Gabrukiewicz, Reporter, Redding Record Searchlight

December 9, 2001

Rick E. Martin of San Jose uses his louder, single-reed call while duck hunting on Wilderness Unlimited-leased land near Colusa. The single-reed call is louder and is good for days when the wind is very strong.

December 8, 2001 11:22 p.m.

Night owls do not duck hunt.

People who shun driving rain, ankle-sucking mud, tempestuous winds and those who can't stand to remain motionless in a tiny metal box sunk into the ground for hours are bad candidates as well.

Waterfowl hunters are robust folk with closets full of waterproof cammo clothing; they are a community who drive pickup trucks and own retrievers with names like "Buck," "Scout" and "Hondo."

And then there's me.

At dinner before a hunt on lands leased by Wilderness Unlimited of Hayward, I let it slip that I'd never, ever hunted waterfowl.

The sound of 20 grown men groaning — and wildly finger-pointing — was just the confidence-booster I needed. They pointed to see which one would be paired with the novice and his 12-gauge Browning pump shotgun at first light Wednesday.

"Not one single shot fired in anger at a duck?" Bob Simms of Sacramento asked.


"Best advice I can give you — hunt with someone else," he said, laughing.

"Don't worry about it," Rick Copeland, Chief Executive Officer of Wilderness Unlimited, said in a slightly worried tone. "We'll get you all fixed up."

Wilderness Unlimited (www.wildernessunlimited.com) was formed in 1987 by a group of hunters, ranchers and conservationists to preserve sport opportunities on shrinking public lands. Through memberships, the company contracts with private land owners to allow access to hunting and fishing opportunities.

"Every year, there are fewer places in California to find uncrowded hunting, fishing and camping," said Copeland. "Locals have lost access, and newcomers don't have a lot of choices."

That's why Wilderness Unlimited was created.

"We like to think of it as conservation through proper utilization," Copeland said.

For waterfowl hunters, Wilderness Unlimited contracts with 20 private ranchers to provide seven-day-a-week access to sunken blinds for ducks along flooded rice fields and goose pits in dry fields and along marshes. The locations are spread out across the north state and include properties in Colusa, Shasta, Sacramento, Placer, Los Banos, Imperial, Sutter and San Diego counties.

Near Williams, Wilderness Unlimited runs a recreational vehicle park for hunters that served as a base camp for the Wednesday hunt. The RV park has room for more than 100 trailers, a clubhouse with kitchen and a bunkhouse with kitchenette that sleeps seven.

"Welcome to Shangra-La," said Gene Bohner, aka 'The Mayor,' who is the caretaker of the park. "Coffee will be on at 3:30."

That's a.m., as in stupid early for even the earliest early riser.

It's also way too soon in the day for humor. It doesn't mean people don't try.

"Hey, I have a shooting tip for you," Jerry Springer of Stockton said as he pulled on chest waders. "Shoot only after my duck hits the water."

As it happened, Copeland paired me with Rick E. Martin of San Jose, an accomplished hunter and fly fisherman.

Martin takes three quick shots with his shotgun at a flock of teal that came in to land among the decoys in a flooded rice field near Colusa

Martin is silhouetted against gray skies as he awaits the legal shooting time of 6:38 a.m. Wednesday.

The blind lies 18 miles from the RV park and the ride is completed in silence. The wind has picked up — flags at the park are flapping straight — and it's sprinkling.

"Great weather for ducks," Martin said. "Lousy weather for us. Let's go get cold."

Plastic mallards, pintails and teal bob on the surface of two flooded rice fields as we slog through the mud toward the blind — two sunken metal structures with padded 5-gallon buckets to sit on.

"We've got eight dozen near that blind you're going to," The Mayor said at breakfast. "We've got 800 dozen decoys spread out on the 20 sites. Imagine putting all those out, cleaning them, checking them."

You know, an equipment check is a hunting must. Imagine my surprise (disgust?) when I opened a box of shells and realized they were 3 inches long — and the Browning takes 23/4 - to 3-inch shells. So much for running into Wal-Mart on the road to grab the first box of shells the checker points out.

"You gonna be a man and mention this?" Martin asked.

I'm humbled.

With his shells divvied up and stored within easy reach, Martin discusses the finer points of the hunt. We don't want to flair the birds, meaning don't look straight in the air, keep movement to a minimum and keep the shotgun barrel down in the blind.

Martin also will handle the calls, and has a one-reed and two-reed call and a whistle on a lanyard around his neck.

"Don't shoot until you see me stand up," he said minutes before the 6:38 a.m. starting time. "What we want is them coming in, with their little feet out."

The wind has the ducks flying, but they are scattered and tentative about landing near our decoys. We shoot at any duck that wanders within 35 yards. As a gray dawn spreads, three pintail come in for a landing, less than 20 yards from the blind.

Martin doesn't see the group. I do.

Three shots and none of the ducks go down.

"What a beautiful drake," he said. "I thought you had him for sure."

It goes like that for hours. The ducks would fly in close, shots are fired and they'd fly off. Martin tries to lead the ducks more, hoping the steel shot will drift with the wind into the bird's path. The tempest keeps all the geese too high for a shot.

At 10 a.m., we're licked.

"Tough day. That wind really made a difference," Martin said. "But at least you got a good taste of what it's all about."

And an appetite for more.

—Reporter Thom Gabrukiewicz can be reached at (530) 225-8230 or tgabrukiewicz@redding.com.