WHERE ARE THE DUCKS? Jim Matthews Column 12/12/01


Mar 11, 2001
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WHERE ARE THE DUCKS? -- Jim Matthews column 12/12/01

What ducks?

    A friend in Montana bemoaned the lack of ducks to me this week. And I thought all of the ducks were still up there. He said another buddy in Idaho also was complaining about the lack of birds. Everyone here knows how dismal this duck season has been in the southern part of California. What's up with this.

    This was supposed to be a pretty good duck hunting year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but throughout the West hunters are complaining about not seeing birds. This isn't a case of birds not migrating south yet, even though conditions are still pretty mild in the north, it seems to be a case of simply far fewer birds in the flyway than we were led to expect.

    There are quiet rumblings within state wildlife agencies that the USFWS methodology for determining flyway populations and setting hunting seasons is flawed and the results of these flaws are finally coming home to roost -- or not coming home to roost, as the case may be.

     The San Jacinto Wildlife Area in western Riverside County near Lake Perris offers a snapshot of declining hunting results and arguably fewer birds, in spite of improved conditions for hunters. With the projected duck population, San Jacinto should have shot much better this year than last season, which was its worst season ever. Mystic Lake, which normally acts as a refuge area for ducks, dried up this summer, and migrants in the valley should be using San Jacinto more than the previous recent seasons. But it's not happening.

    "It's a lousy season here," said Tom Paulek, area manager for the Department of Fish and Game facility. "If it continues like this, it will be our worst year ever."

    San Jacinto has been expanded to nearly 10,000 acres this year, and the acquisition of the Walker Duck Club has been a major addition that will allow for additional duck habitat and hunting opportunity. Paulek said this Wednesday was the first day that a blind site was opened on the former Walker Club, but that he expected to have an additional 10 sites (over the normal 25 blinds sites) available as the club property is completely flooded over the next few weeks. Great opportunity for public land hunters only goes so far, however, when there are fewer ducks in the flyway.

     While biologists and hunters are grumbling about overestimated duck counts and seasons that might be too liberal, many of the same guys are suggesting that the dove data spewed by the feds is wrong the other way: dove numbers are higher than the complex formulas used by the USFWS say. No one is suggesting a liberal change is necessary in the dove season framework, but if the USFWS starts proposing additional dove restrictions, they think a better and different look at the data is valid.

    I recently had an interesting conversation with a biologist intimately familiar with the counting methods and the complex analysis used to estimate trends and set seasons. His bottom line was that trying to understand and manage huge populations of birds that span a hemisphere was all a pretty inexact science. "I'm still not so sure that gut impressions of long-time hunters and wildlife buffs aren't as accurate as our science when it comes to population size and trends for species like doves and ducks. A guy who's watched the same marsh his whole hunting career has a pretty good idea of what's happened over the years. Those are indices that we don't take into consideration."

    Politics can also drive the train more than the science or good gut feelings about a resource. The federal and state biologists want to do the right thing by wildlife and learn from their mistakes. The science is getting better each year, and I suspect we'll have a good scientific explanation for what hunters are seeing as a huge decline in ducks and a big increase in doves.

    Every year special interests try to change seasons to benefit their own wants, whether or not its good for the resources, first, or has the broadest benefit to the public, second -- which is how these decisions should be made.

    While this is a fishery example, it illustrates the point. Recently, the California Fish and Game Commission yielded to the howling of fly anglers who wanted to "protect" the rainbow trout spawners out of Crowley Lake in the upper Owens River. The Department of Fish and Game has pretty extensive and thorough data on this fishery, perhaps better than any fishery in the state. The reality is that the Crowley spawners in the Owens don't contribute much to the fishery with their offspring. This fishery is maintained by the planting of several hundred thousand trout each year. So the DFG has always recommended to the Commission that these spawning trout be caught and kept in limited numbers. That's how it's been, and the Crowley fishery is better than its ever been in my 25 years of fishing there.

    But anglers who didn't like to see these fish killed at all tried to say it was a resource issue and convinced the Commission to close the season on the Owens River during the spawning run from Benton Crossing to Crowley. Close. As in no fishing.

    And will it help the resource? The DFG's data says not much, if at all. All we're doing is punishing users.

    Whether it's ducks, doves or trout, management should be based on the best data and interpretation of that information available, coming from good science or a good gut, and not an agenda.


Well-known member
Nov 11, 2001
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I've found that one obvious reason that the refuge counts are so low is the FACT that a number of hunters are not turning in accurate bird counts at the refuges!

If you think that preserving your spot from other hunters' pressure based on a good shoot is worth the reduction in hunting days and or limits, you may want to reconsider checking your birds in at the check station.

My Two Cents.

(Edited by Triggerfinger at 9:01 am on Dec. 13, 2001)

(Edited by Triggerfinger at 9:20 am on Dec. 13, 2001)


Well-known member
Mar 19, 2001
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I am sure there are a few who think they may be preserving their precious blind by reporting one spoony, when in fact they have 7 greenies, but that cant be the norm. When I see averages under a bird per person, I know it sucks, whether or not a few choose to underreport their take....

Mike Riley

Mar 15, 2001
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The bird counts and how seasons are set has nothing to do with the yellow slips one turns in at the refuge check station.  It has to do with Canadian pond counts and Mid-Continential mallard counts.  The problem lies in the fact that CA's mallards aren't from that area.  80%+ are Pacific Flyway birds not included in that count.  Part of the problem here is bad nesting and brood conditions in NE CA and whether folks chose to believe it or not moto duck's additional harvest of mallards over the past few years.   As far as other species of ducks, spoonies are in banner numbers because people haven't had to shoot them with moto.  NoCal is starting to see average numbers of almost all species except mallard with the last set of storms.  I would think SoCal will soon be seeing more birds also.  Infact I would go so far as to say USFWS grossly under counted both pintail and whitefront geese.  The numbers of both these species floating around the Sac Valley are awesome.  Hope you SoCal boys start seeing some birds soon.

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