Holy Waters

California's Central Valley

One look at a map of the Pacific Flyway will show you why California's Central Valley is the place to be when western ducks are on the move. Each autumn, roughly 4 million ducks and geese stop at this region of dry grainfields, flooded ricefields, and tule-reed and cattail marshes, making the valley home to the densest concentration of waterfowl in North America.

More than 35,000 acres of prime habitat are open for hunting. There are many good choices, but Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area is hard to beat. Billed as the "gem of the Pacific Flyway," this 9,167-acre wetland near Sutter Buttes may be the most intensively used duck marsh in the entire flyway. On a good day, more than a million ducks and geese might be in Gray Lodge. Mallards, pintails, cinnamon and greenwing teal, wigeon, gadwall, and buffleheads dart about in crossing flocks over flooded cropfields and wetland ponds. Up to 100,000 snow and Ross geese gather in huge feeding and resting flocks.

The Gray Lodge area is open to limited hunting throughout California's 100-day waterfowl season on both a reservation and a first-come first-served basis. Shooting is restricted to Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, giving waterfowl four days each week when they can rest and feed undisturbed. As a result, the ducks and geese at Gray Lodge respond well to good calling and attractive decoy spreads. The hunting can be phenomenal. Waterfowlers bagged nearly 21,000 ducks and geese at Gray Lodge in 2001.

Guided hunts are not permitted on California waterfowl refuges. This is a do-it-yourself affair. To secure a reservation at Gray Lodge, you can apply several weeks ahead of your chosen dates. Or you can arrive at the checking station on the day that you want to hunt and stand in a "sweat line" until the 400 daily shooting permits run out. Most days, they can accommodate all hunters who show up.

Gray Lodge has 80 miles of roads and levees with parking areas that offer scattered access to hunters who spread out into tule-reed and cattail cover so thick that no additional blind material is required. You put your decoys and gun on your back and roam until you find a spot away from other hunters. Then you throw out a couple of dozen decoys, crouch down in the shadowy cover, and start calling.

For more information on hunting at Gray Lodge WMA and at California's 31 other wildlife management areas, obtain a copy of Hunting and Other Public Uses on State and Federal Areas from the California Department of Fish and Game, 916-445-0411; www.dfg.ca.gov.