By James Elledge
January 20, 2018 - If you have ever hunted the refuges in Northern California, you may know where this story is headed simply by reading the title. If you haven’t, well…I doubt you’ve ever witnessed anything like this.
I never knew it was legal to hunt on a federal wildlife refuge because in so many other states, it’s not. That said, the concept of hunting ducks and geese in California seemed foreign to me to begin with. But for those waterfowl hunters in California who aren’t afraid to work for it, the public refuges provide immense opportunity.
At the refuge, there are reservations you can put in for in advance, a lottery that hunters can enter the night before to get a number, and then a sweat line. If you draw a “resy,” you’re golden. If you draw a number below 50 the night before the hunt, you’re generally in good shape to get on. At this refuge, the sweat line guys won’t get on unless they whore themselves out to a generous partner-less hunter (each admitted hunter gets a +1). It’s quite the scene at the warden trailer at 5am.
A couple of our friends drew a high number in the lottery, so they had gone ahead to hold down our two spots. My buddy and I entered the refuge about 15 minutes later and made our way back to the spot we had planned on. We entered the water and trudged on for about 200 yards until I saw a headlight turn on and point in my direction – a friendly light, beckoning me to walk that way. We had found our first buddy. As we got close to him, he whispered anxiously, “dude, check this out,” and pointed about 100 yards diagonally to his left.
The cover was scarce, so hunters buried down in 3-4 foot tule patches that were scattered across the pond. When we looked over to our left, guns and supplemental decoys in hand, we saw two sets of decoys about 40 yards apart. On public land, it’s general courtesy, and more importantly safe, to give at least 100-120 yards of space between setups. We heard the angry yells coming from one set of decoys: “We were here first, go find your own f*ing spot.” “It’s public land, we can go wherever we want!” the other guy snarled back.
Then, things started to escalate quickly. One guy started walking assertively out in the middle of the two sets of decoys. We assumed he was in position first. “If you don’t pick up and move right away, we’re going to have problems. This is our spot!” The other group was not budging. After some more cursing, the guy in the middle yelled, “Look man, I don’t f*ing care. I’ll f*ing shoot your ass.” At this point, we started thinking about our own safety. “That’s a threat! I’m calling the warden,” we heard from the other side.
The friend I was going to bunker down and hunt with was getting antsy in his tule patch, so he urged me to hurry up and get over to his spot so we could finish setting up the decoy spread and get in place for shoot time. I tried to watch the spectacle and listen as much as I could as I trudged on over. We got set up, first light came and we shot a couple early teal. We looked over to check in on the situation, but not much was stirring. We figured one group had either picked up and left or they had set aside their differences.
20 minutes later, we realized there still hadn’t been a shot from that corner of the pond even though hunters were shooting all around us. I looked over and saw something I’ve never seen while duck hunting: a guy standing in the middle of the decoy spread on the left. “What is he doing?” I asked my buddy. “I don’t know, but he doesn’t look like he’s moving decoys.” We kept watching.
We saw a small flock of pintails start to work in that corner. They dropped in elevation, clearly liking the decoys and starting to lock up. I glanced at the guy in the decoys, and he raised both his arms and started flailing them in the air and kicking the water. The ducks saw it and flared immediately, B-lining the hell out of there. It all became clear to us: the guy who had the spot first decided that it was more important to him to ruin the other group’s hunt than to shoot birds himself. We saw this happen with multiple groups of ducks over the next 30 minutes. It was both hilarious and kind of sad at the same time.
Another 30 minutes went by and we looked over to see one group packing up. They took a circuitous route out of the water, and shortly after the other group packed up and left, bird-less, as well. They had ruined it for each other.
I thought to myself, wow, all that hard work getting in the refuge and getting to the spot should’ve resulted in harvested ducks. But not that day…no, that day it was all about what a guy would do to flare a duck.
What’s your strangest public land story? Drop us a note! We’d love to feature you.
– James & the Duck Camp Team