This summer, though, is different. Worse. Filled with waiting to see just how bad it’s going to be this fall.
Dove season might just be amazing, because all of my hunting pals and I are noticing super-abundant dove populations this year. We’re seeing more of them than usual in more places than usual, which makes me salivate more than a little bit. Man, I love doves.
But that is a dim 15-day-season note of optimism in the face of dire threats to what matters to me most: duck hunting.
Nationwide and in the Pacific Flyway, duck and goose populations are doing pretty well, but it’s the situation here on their wintering grounds that is cause for concern: drought. Really bad drought.
All the water users in California’s Central Valley have been put on notice that they’ll get significantly less water than usual this year (if any), and that’s going to hit us two ways:
First, rice farmers have cut back their planting this year, facing uncertainty about whether they’d get the water to bring the crops to maturity. It is the rice that harvesters miss that makes our ducks a bunch of tasty little fatties, and there’s going to be about 100,000 acres less of it for ducks to eat when all 5 million or so of them get here. On top of that, none of the rice farmers expect to get water in the fall to decompose the rice stubble, and that water is what legions of duck hunters here hunt in.
Second, public hunting areas – the national wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas – are facing severe cutbacks as well, and no one knows yet whether they’ll get enough water to allow hunting after sanctuary requirements have been met. If hunting is allowed, the quotas of hunters allowed in may drop severely.
So, the ricers, as we call them, and the refuge rats (that would be me), look to be pretty S.O.L.
All of this worries me.
Public land duck hunting in California is competitive and crowded, but we have a lot of great places to hunt, and if you’ve got the perseverance to do what it takes to get in (this generally involves driving all over this huge valley, maintaining a dedicated network of duck-hunting friends and foregoing obscene amounts of sleep), you can do really well here. And I have.
But last year we got a little sample of what this year might be like when a lot of rice farms didn’t get their decomposition water: All the S.O.L. ricers flooded into the refuges and marginal hunting areas on lakes and on the coast, and two bad things happened: It got harder to get into a good spot, and hunter behavior was absolutely wretched.
Late in the season this year, I had a friend who got a good reservation for one of the best public-land hunt areas in the state – he had a draw number that would get us out in the field before most other hunters.
We knew where we wanted to go, but by the time we got there, someone else had beat us to the spot. So we wandered 200 yards east and set up in what we hoped would be a good spot, only to be surrounded just before shoot time. This included one party of two that set up on the back side of our tule patch, so close that we could smell the gunpowder when they fired shots, and there was absolutely no wind that day. Maybe 20 yards away.
Beyond that, everyone was skybusting. There was an absolutely pervasive feel of desperation in the marsh. I never fired a shot that day.
With the near certainty of fewer places to hunt this year, that behavior is likely to be two or three times as bad.
Beyond that, I have this gnawing fear about a hunting season in which the divide between the Haves and Have-nots becomes deeper and wider than ever.
The haves in California have it really, really good. They create and maintain pristine habitat and enjoy hunting in the lap of luxury. And this year, the ones that have water – or specifically, the ability and especially the means to pump ground water – stand to have absolutely epic duck seasons, because the ducks will congregate where the water is.
To their credit, I think many of the Haves share their wealth with the larger community, bringing in youth hunters, veterans, women and even regular Joes to enjoy high-quality hunting throughout the season. Philanthropy is alive and well here.
But there’s no way they can help the legions of displaced duck hunters we are likely to see this year, and while I can’t even imagine how it will play out, I’m worried about the impact of widespread discontent and jealousy.
And then there’s me. I’m a writer, and a duck hunting magazine editor, and by definition that means I will get some invitations that others don’t get. Hell yes, I will take them. And trust me, I will be grateful.
But I’m a duck hunting maniac. When the season is on, I want to hunt at least three days a week, and under all the imaginable scenarios, I can’t see how that’s gonna happen.
So I find myself racking my brain for marginal hunt areas that won’t be crowded. Revising my expectations, because you just don’t get limits in marginal spots. Thinking about what other hunting I can do that would be even half as satisfying as duck hunting. Hoping that hunting hasn’t also been decimated by drought.
The ducks will in all likelihood be resilient. Disease and starvation will thin their ranks, but they have wings, so they can find new places to go this winter.
I just wonder whether duck hunters will be half as resilient.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.