My father loved duck hunting and I guess I inherited his love of the game. My dad always knew where to go and what pond they would be on, but times have changed. Farmers are more than willing to let you hunt their duck blinds if you are willing to pay, and one seat in a duck blind can run anywhere from about $1000.00 each, per season, on up. Matter of fact if you find a seat in a blind for that price be skeptical. It may be a dry field (no water unless it rains) or off the flight path or to near the road. There is nothing like having your own blind to hunt but the truth is it’s hard to afford one and you better have three good friends that all get along together because you usually have to buy all four seats in the blind and then have your three friends pay you for their seats and this can really lead to some issues. Before you buy into a blind, check out my section on waterfowl hunting in California as I will cover many public areas and turn you on to some unbelievable opportunities throughout California that you may have over looked.
Waterfowl Hunting in California
If you’re not duck hunting in California you are just plain missing out. The Pacific Fly Way is a truly unique waterfowling experience. I say this for several reasons. If you have only hunted waterfowl in California may not understand what I am saying. First off, I will be the first to admit that the last about 4 or 5 years have been pretty bad for waterfowl hunting. We have been in a drought for about 5 years or so depending on who you ask. And to make things worse our governor has absolutely no idea what he is doing when it comes to managing water or anything else (don’t get me started). So the rains have been coming late and the storms have been mostly pushing up from the south so what few ducks that have been migrating are just not acting like the usual migratory ducks and seem to basically hold off on their full migration. The flocks are stalling out in extreme northern California and Oregon and only small numbers are coming down. That being said you can still find ducks and hunt ducks on public areas in good numbers. Don’t let the naysayers put you off your game. The duck hunting in California can be some of the best in the United States if done right. By done right I mean do your research, trust your research and then follow all the details in waterfowl hunting that lead to success like decoy placement, camouflage and noise discipline.
I'm going to cover a short section on waterfowling locations on private land. It can be summed up fairly easily. Get a blind! It’s that simple pay the money and get a blind. But blinds can be hard to find and expensive to get. They can also lead to confusion and loss of friends over money issues and whose day it is to hunt.
How do you find a blind? The easiest way is to go online. Some good last minute deals can be found on craigslist but to get a good blind you need to start looking in the fall of the year prior to the year you want to hunt.
Start by entering “duck blind Willows” for example or where ever you are looking for a blind. You will find guides and outfitter, even some private property owners, who own rice fields who have blinds for lease. Most blinds are four man blinds. Occasionally, you can find a three man or even a two man blind but these are rare, especially a two man blind. You contact the person who has the blind and ask a few questions. How many blinds do you have up for lease? It’s usually a seasonal lease. How many seats in the blind? How many acres is the blind sitting on? How far from the road? Can you walk to it? Or do I need an ATV? How far do you have to walk? Is it dry or flooded? This is important, before the drought you just expected the blind to be flooded unless it was primarily a goose hunting blind or goose pit as it’s usually called, where shallow water 2 or 3 inches is best or just muddy rice stubble. Now that we have water again some blinds are flooded some aren’t. Some get flooded from rain water, some from ground pumps and some from what they call duck water which is when the irrigation district allows the farmer to refill the fields after harvest with irrigation water that would otherwise just flow into the river and then to the ocean. If you get a dry blind in a rice field with no water its going to be tough to get any birds in unless you have lots and lots of decoys. If the blind is in a flooded field find out how deep the water usually is. Remember dabbling ducks like their water about 6 inches to 18 inches deep, maybe 24 inches. A good rule of thumb is this, you stick your hand in the water and if the water is more than elbow deep it’s too deep. Why? Because dappling ducks or puddle ducks like to turn butt up to feed. If they turn up (butt up) and they can’t reach their food they can’t eat without diving. They can feed deeper but when they can just fly off to another field they won’t hang around or even land. Don’t ask me how but they can look down from the sky and tell if the water it too deep. Actually, this is a very common mistake duck hunters make when leasing a blind. They all want water so they run the water deep at the first of the season and then by mid December or January the field is three feet deep. The puddle ducks like Mallards, Gadwall and Widgeon circle above the field and they can tell the water is too deep to feed so they just pass on the field and go to a shallow field and leave the hunter wondering why they won’t land. It's a simple fix, the water is too deep so let some out and they will start landing. Sure you will get some birds coming in and landing or circling low and looking for a place to loaf around for the day but the majority of the birds will pass on the field if the water is too deep.
Let’s say you decided to buy a blind with four friends. Most blinds run about $1000.00 a seat or more. So that’s $4000.00. This means your three friends have to now pay you $1000.00 each. Get it before the season opens. Make a deadline or at least one of your friends will flake out and you will be stuck eating the money he owes or trying to find a person to fill the blind seat and pay his $1000.00 to you, good luck on that.
This brings me to the other way to find a seat in a blind. Every year on craigslist there are people looking for someone to fill a seat in a blind because they made all these arrangements and their friend flaked out. Search “duck blind seats” in all the areas near where you are willing to travel to hunt ducks. You will probably find one. Don’t over pay, find out what the price of the blind was and pay only your share.
Now that you have a blind who gets to hunt on what day is figured out. There are several formulas that people use. Usually if you have four seats you get the entire blind to yourself on your day which is every 5th day. I personally do not like this method, because somebody always loses. Your day is either on a day you can’t make it or on the good days someone else has it and on the bad days It’s always your turn.
I prefer the old school way of doing it. Four people who get along well and hunt well together go in on a blind and every day those people can hunt the blind. So you can hunt it any day you want. Everyone communicates and if someone is not hunting on a certain day someone else can take a friend if they want to as long as everyone is in agreement. It costs the same and you get to hunt every day of the season if you want. Some people don’t want this because they like to do “splits” that’s when one person splits the cost of their seat with another person and before you know it one seat is split four times and on that persons day to hunt he takes his three seat splitters with him. That could easily turn into 16 people hunting one blind (four at a time) every day of the season and that is way too much banging coming out of one blind and soon the ducks figure it out.
All this being said leasing a blind or finding a seat in a blind with good people is the way to go for private property hunting. It’s not that expensive in the long haul. I have found that if you look around you can usually find a place nearby to park a travel trailer but the best option is a blind within a reasonable distance of the house.
Hunting Waterfowl on Public land In California
There is basically two ways to hunt waterfowl on public lands in California, the Refuge System and everything else.
The “Everything Else” is hunting little known water ways, ponds and lakes for waterfowl. You may find this hard to believe but there is some incredible duck hunting on some of Northern California’s lakes. The only problem that you may have and it’s really not a problem is the type of ducks you are willing to hunt. Dabbling ducks like Mallards, Gadwall and Widgeon prefer about 18 inches of water or less. Diver ducks prefer the water to be up to about 6 to 20 feet deep because they actually dive down under the water to feed on snails and small fish and other nasty little tidbits and for this reason most diver ducks taste horribly nasty. Again, this all depends on what they are eating. Canvasback ducks are good to eat if they are eating underwater celery but not if they are feeding on snails, forget it. This is the same with Scaup or what we call Bluebills. Scaup can vary in flavor from mildly fishing to horribly fishy with a lingering taste of metal. But don’t let that make you not want to hunt them. They are very fun to hunt and when they come in they come in like little jets on a strafing run. I have had flocks of 300 birds at a time come into my decoy spread of only 12 birds. Unfortunately, the limit on Scaup is only three so your Scaup limit can easily get filled with one flock of birds.
The birds you can expect to find on the lakes are Diver Ducks with the occasional Dabbler like a Mallard or Teal thrown in. The Divers you will get in the Northern California lakes consist of Scaup, Ringnecks, Ruddy, Common Goldeneye, Redheads, occasional Canvasbacks and lots and lots of Buffleheads along with Coots galore.
It is impossible for me to list all the public areas outside the refuge system where you will find excellent waterfowling because there are just too many of them. But I will do my best and maybe after you read this and go to a couple of my spots you will realize just how easy it is to find good hunting without having to invest in a blind or fight the crowds at the refuges.
I will start with a few of the best kept secret places of some of the locals in Northern California.
Big Lake is located just outside the tiny town of McArthur, California. Big Lake is a PG&E owned lake. Take Hwy 299 to McArthur and turn north on Main Street and follow it to Rat Farm Road, follow Rat Farm for a couple miles and you will arrive at the boat launch. Please read the board at the launch ramp. The northern boundary of Big Lake is the Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park, for heaven’s sake stay out of the state park. I can’t stress this enough you will get cited if your caught hunting in the park. The boundary line actually runs through the water in some areas not just on the coast line so read the map. This lake boasts some awesome duck hunting. You will also get shots at passing geese landing on the pasture land around the lake. Some of this land is also PG&E owned and so you can also hunt it. But look at the map at the kiosk near the boat ramp.
This lake holds a variety of ducks. You will find dabbling ducks like, Mallards, Teal, Widgeon, Shovelers and Pintail because there is a lot of rice grown in the area and there is also abundant water in the canals, ponds and agricultural land. Primarily you will find mostly divers ducks like Scaup, Redheads, Bufflehead and Canvasbacks. Yes Cans! They can really come into this place around December and January and they are good to eat here because of the underwater grass they eat. Do not try and wade in this lake. This lake has shallow areas with sudden drop offs that will take you under. There have been a few duck hunters drown in this lake because they tried to wade from the shore or decided to step out of their boat and wade in what they thought was shallow water only to learn that it was just a buildup of moss and they broke through. This lake also gets iced over and the ice is too thin to support a man and his gear and they break through the ice. But the hunting here is very good and you can hunt it from the shore or a boat, preferably a boat.
Lake Almanor off Hwy 36 and Hwy 89 can be an insane hunt. To tell the truth you need either a good retriever or a boat because the mud around the edge of the lake gets a little tough. The north horn of the lake which is the cove north of Hwy 36 between Hwy 36 and Last Chance camp ground is a good place to start if you’re on foot. If the lake is up it is still huntable and if the lake is down its even better. Along the north end of Hwy 36 south of the Cal-Fire airport is also good duck hunting area if you are on foot. When the lake is low there are more areas to hunt on foot. But the mud around the edge of the lake can be a bummer so you have to pick and choose your battles.
You will find all varieties of ducks and geese on this lake especially early in the year. Dabbling ducks, Divers ducks, Specks and Honkers. They tend to stage here until it gets extremely cold. Then they drop down into the Sacramento Valley. I have seen flocks of teal on this lake in the early morning hours doing their morning warm-up laps that would boggle your mind.
There are also several small lakes in the areas of Hwy 36 and Hwy 44 and the Susanville area. These are all good lakes to hunt early in the year. By early I mean before you get the big snow storms. After that it can be miserable to hunt. There is plenty of camping areas around the lake during the early part of the season, traditional tent sites and RV Parks, but after a couple weeks into the season you may opt for a motel room.
Black Butte Lake Recreation Area
Black Butte Lake Recreation Area
Down in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley there are a few good areas to hunt but one area that I really enjoy hunting is Black Butte Lake Recreation Area. This lake is located about 10 miles east of Orland, California. Take the Newville Road or Hwy 32 exit (same exit) off Interstate 5 and travel west. You will know that you’re at the right exit if you pass a large Pilot gas station as you’re traveling west. Continue on this road for several miles and you will pass an old Cemetery on your right and you will pass Road 206 on your left. Continue on Newville Road to the Ranger Station. Please stop at the Ranger station and get maps and information for hunting. This property appears to be owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and somehow the county is involved. They allow shotgun and archery hunting here for all or most game species (including deer and pigs) while in season and following all regulations. You do need to get a map and talk to a Ranger before hunting. NOT ALL AREAS ARE OPEN FOR HUNTING. After you get the info you need travel about another half mile or so on Newville road and you will pass over a bridge. This is the Ponds at Black Butte. There is a parking area there and you will find the duck ponds on the west side of the road. The ducks you will find on the ponds are generally Ringneck Ducks, Shovelers some divers such as Buffleheads and lots of Ruddys. But if you’re looking for that extremely hard to find Hooded Merganser you will often find them on the creek area of these ponds where the water is running in between the inlet and the bridge you crossed over. Most of these ponds and the creek can be wadded unless the water is really high but I have never had a problem here but a good dog will help.
The lake itself is difficult to hunt without a boat but it can be done from shore using makeshift blinds but usually the ducks on the lake move out away from the shore after morning light and it gets very slow. The ducks on the lake are mostly divers, Scaup, Ruddys and loads of Bufflehead but I have seen this lake when it had a lot of Gadwall and Teal on it especially when the storms have been pounding the area.
You can hunt the northwest corner of the lake in the area they call the flats when the water is high. But when the water is low you can successfully hunt the southwestern portion of the lake and creek area where the creek actually enters the lake. This area is wooded with oaks and cottonwoods and various shrubs and it is actually easy to set up here and spend the morning looking for Wood Ducks.
This area can be great to hunt as the year starts to wind down. Early in the waterfowl season you will find a few resident ducks in the lake and pond areas but later in the year you can really knock them down. In most cases you will need either a good dog or a small boat of some kind. For me the best puddle duck shooting is at the ponds but I also enjoy the set up along the edge of the lake. It is difficult to pull off the perfect set up, selecting a location, setting up a blind and camouflaging it and then setting up your decoys to do the work and you can do all of it at this location and it is free to hunt here and it is public land.
Lewiston Lake (Trinity County)
This lake is very difficult to hunt from the bank. There are plenty of places to set up they are just too close to the main road which is on the west side of the lake so the ducks tend to fly and sit just out of shotgun range. There are a few places to set up from the bank which I will list.
As you drive along the lake you will pass by Mary Smith Campground, there is no place to hunt near this camp ground during duck season. This campground is closed at this time of year and the water near the camp ground is very deep and the ducks just don’t like it there.
The area around Cooper Gulch Campground is fairly easy to access from the road. Facing the lake there is a small creek and beach area to your right. Just hike in from the campground make sure your legal distance from the campground and the road. About 100 yards past the campground is a pullout and below the pullout along the lake is a small area of bulrush and cattails with a couple of small trees. This is a very good place to set up, there is plenty of cover. Unfortunately there are a lot of blackberries here so you have to figure out a path in that wont tear up your dogs paws but it can be done.
Along the road before Lakeview Terrace there is some room to slip down along the edge of the lake but there is a lot of road traffic here. Just past Lakeview Terrace is a real good area to hunt just off the road where you can walk out about 100 yards into the tules and set up. This is a very good spot.
Past the area where the marina and trailer park are you will find a couple areas to set up along the bank but the shooting here is not that good. You can rent boats at the marina for about $75.00 a day. But I wouldn’t shoot anywhere near the trailer park. There are a lot of older folks here who love having the ducks and deer around and throw a fit anytime people even stop to look at the deer.
If you have a boat which I don’t, the east side of the lake has the best hunting. Anywhere along the east side will work. Just set up your bluebill decoys in a long line and angle the line to your boat. The blue bills will come sliding in at full throttle and drop right in on you. If you can set up somewhere across from Lakeview Terrace on the east side you won’t go wrong. The water level in this lake can fool you. Don’t get out of the boat unless you know for sure how deep it is.
I don’t have a boat but if I did I would hunt this lake every week from December 1st till the end of the year, it’s that good.
State and Federal Wildlife Areas
State and Federal Wildlife Areas are often misunderstood and underrated. I say this for several reasons. One of the reasons I decided to write this outdoor blog was all of the misinformation surrounding waterfowl hunting and hunting in general. An example of this is the words “Wildlife Refuge” A wildlife refuge implies that the animals there are protected and that there is no hunting allowed at all. This is true in some wildlife areas in California but not all so you need to pick up your California Waterfowl and Upland Regulations and read through it and read about each and every wildlife area you wish to hunt. They have specific regulations for each area along with state and federal regulations you must follow, but don’t let that intimidate you these are some spectacular places to hunt and you really should get yourself into hunting them because to tell the truth you have been paying for them ever since you bought your first state and federal waterfowl stamps. A portion of that money goes to support these refuges so if you are already spending the money why not hunt the refuges?
A prime example of the misinformation I am talking about is this. Just recently I saw an ad on craigslist a man was asking for people to help him locate a place he could hunt waterfowl and upland game with his son. He lived in Redding and was willing to pay for a place to hunt but couldn’t afford a blind. I emailed him and explained to him about the refuge system, how it works and that some refuges are free and some cost you a couple bucks but you could hunt them. The man was upset because he thought I was trying to trick him into breaking the law and hunting some place illegally. This was not the case but still he insisted that I was wrong because they are wildlife refuges. He just couldn’t understand the concept that they are both refuges and hunting areas.
There are three types of Wildlife Areas in California, Type A, Type B and Type C. This is the simplest way to remember as a hunter you have to pay to hunt Type A and Type B but not Type C unless it has some special charge that I am not aware of. As a hunter you already pay for these areas when you buy a hunting license but they still charge you to hunt A and B because they cost more to operate. How much do they charge? It goes up a little bit every year, but an annual Type A Pass is $159.33, a Daily Type A Pass is $21.09, a Two Day Type A Pass is $34.05, Type B Annual Pass is $53.18 there is no daily pass for B. That sounds expensive but compare that cost to leasing a seat in a duck blind and it is way cheaper. Yes it is more difficult to hunt and it takes some getting use to when you have to get there real early, if you have a reservation, but after two or three trips you will come to either love it or hate it. But if you buy the annual pass like me and my friends do. We apply for reservations at several of the wildlife areas and then when one gets drawn we can usually all go so we have several places to hunt and have a place to hunt almost every day the wildlife areas are open. Most A and B wildlife areas are open Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday of the waterfowl season and Type C are usually open every day of the season but check your Regs first.
The way Type A and some B areas work is simple, you go online and put in for the drawing to get a reservation at the wildlife area of your choice. It’s about $1.34 per entry, you can put in for as many as you want and even put in for the same days at different areas. If you are drawn you show up at the refuge at least 2.5 hours before your shoot time. Yes, 2.5 hours before shoot time. Some refuges only require you to show up 2 hours before shoot time but until you figure out which ones require you to show up and at what times just arrive early and you will be fine. The check-in times are all in the regulations in the specific wildlife area and remember you don’t want to be late. Reservations expire 1.5 hours before shoot time at most areas. The other way to get a reservation is to wait until the night before and arrive at the check station and have your name put in a drawing and they lottery off the names and you are put in a refill line for the next day. In my opinion this is somewhat of a waste of time unless the duck hunting is just insane. The third way to get in is to wait until about 9:00 am or so, arrive at the refuge you wish to hunt and simply ask if there are any open blinds or if they have any free roam available, as hunters leave the refuges they backfill open blinds and free roam slots. Out of all the years I have hunted these refuges I have almost always been able to get in on free roam if the assigned blinds or assigned ponds were not available. The last few years have been slow so you are taking a chance on driving a long ways and finding out you can’t get in. Like I said it will take you a few trips to get the system figured out and you will soon notice that most everyone at these refuges are just like you and I and they enjoy hunting and before you know it you will feel like one of the gang. The people who work at these refuges are also a special breed of government employees. They are all friendly and helpful. They sometimes get busy and in the middle of morning check in is not when you should be asking questions so if you have any questions feel free to approach them and get your answers before they start calling numbers or in the middle of the day when it slows down.
I have hunted most of these refuges as a free roam hunter and out of both the general blinds and disabled blinds. My wife is a disabled hunter and so are several of my friends. Because I have been lucky enough to have an excellent bird dog for both waterfowl and upland I have been invited by friends and family to hunt the disabled blinds in exchange for the use of my dog that day, so I will try to express to you the pros and cons of the disabled blinds and the general blinds because I really want you to have a good time hunting and I know how hard it can be and how disappointing it can be when you finally draw a good reservation only to pick a terrible or uncomfortable blind so please forgive the “Blind Ramblings”.
At Type A and B areas there are two way to hunt them. Assigned Blind (or pond) and Free Roam. Assigned blind means you pick a blind and that’s where you hunt. Most of the blinds at the refuges are nice to hunt out of but lack concealment so bring your own, something like a camouflage net or other material you don’t mind hiking in. Free roam is just what it says, you are free to roam in a designated area called “Free Roam Area”. You walk around find a spot you like and set up. It’s actually kind of nice on days when you don’t feel like doing the blind thing. Again I ask that you read all the regulations thoroughly for each wildlife area so you are familiar with all their rules. One rule to remember is that you can only have 25 shot gun shells in your possession when you are hunting type A and B areas. This is strictly enforced along with sky blasting and other unethical activities.
Type C Areas differ from A and B areas in many ways. Please read the specific regulations for each wildlife area but in general Type C area can be hunted any day of the week and you must obey all state and federal laws and most of the Type C areas do not have a restriction on the amount of shotgun shells you can have in your procession but remember you must use steel shot or approved non-toxic shot on all state and federal wildlife areas.
Gray Lodge Wildlife Area
The lodge is a big wildlife area that is all Free Roam with the exception of 5 disabled blinds. Disabled blinds #1 and #2 are terrible and I have never heard any good reports on these blinds. They are east of the closed zone and the birds just don’t fly low enough over them to do any good. They would be a blind of last resort. Disabled Blinds #3, #4 and #5 are better. Blind #3 and #4 are backed up against the closed zone and for my money, as far as disabled blinds go, these are two of the best disabled blinds I have shot out of. Blind #5 is also about 100 yards off the closed zone and shoots good but not as good as Blinds #3 and #4. I think this is because the birds coming off the closed zone usually have to pass over the Blinds #3 and #4 before passing over #5 so the ducks either get shot or they gain altitude before passing over this blind. There are no general blinds that I am aware of at Gray Lodge. There was a goose blind in the field north of the check station some years back but I don’t think it is still in use. The rest of Gray Lodge is all free roam and yes I will admit it can get kind of crazy, especially early in the morning, at first call (when they start calling reservation numbers). The young guys who frequent the place have their favorite spots to hunt and because it's all free roam as soon as they get checked in they take off in their rigs and drive as fast as they can to the parking lot of their choice and then, dressed usually in shorts and running shoes one guy will take off with a few flash lights and run to their hot spot and put out the lights while the guys with the gear and the decoy cart take their time and meet him at the spot. It's totally unnecessary because there is plenty of room at Gray Lodge and plenty of waterfowl.
Most of these guys and actually the abundance of hunters usually set up on the northwest corner of the shooting area which is the North east corner of the closed zone. They like to set up here because when the north winds blow the ducks and geese leave the refuge over this corner during the early morning at first shooting light. This area can be accessed out of parking lots #1, #2, and #3 and the fields on the map would be 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 32 and 34. On days when the winds are coming hard out of the south fields 69, 71 and 72 can be good and can be accessed out of parking lots #12 and #13. On foggy days with no wind any field around the closed zone will work but I actually prefer field 28 out of Parking lot #12. I say field 28 but that is only if the closed zone is fully flooded up. If it's not fully flooded you will be wasting your time because the geese will be too high when they are coming in and out of the closed zone. Field 28 borders the lower east side of the closed zone. When it's fully flooded you can stand on the road 10 feet from the closed zone and shoot the geese as they are coming in or going out you just have to time your shots so you don’t lose kills and cripples to the closed zone. If you enjoy pheasant hunting fields 73, 74, 76, 78 and 79 are pretty good. A pheasant club borders these fields so not only can you get wild birds the planted birds work their way over to these fields as season progresses and I have had good luck here. These same fields hold a lot of turkey as well.
This refuge can be difficult to hunt because it's all free roam but it's one of the refuges that you can usually get into even on days when all the other refuges are closed.
Delevan National Wildlife Refuge
Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is located north of Williams east of Interstate 5. From Interstate 5, turn east onto Maxwell Road and follow Maxwell to 4 Mile Road, take 4 Mile Road to the check station. Do not take Delevan Road off Interstate 5. It will get you lost especially in the dark. It does eventually go to the refuge but its way easier to take Maxwell Road.
Delevan refuge is a tough refuge to get into on a morning hunt. It's best to have a reservation through the ALS system but occasionally you can arrive in the afternoon and get into a blind or pond to hunt. If you’re not too picky there is usually free roam here on slow days but it can be difficult. This refuge has closed zone on the north end and closed zone on the south end with the hunting area smack dab in the middle. On windy days this refuge is hot! When the north wind blows they come off the north end and catch the wind and zip back over the hunting area and when the south wind blows they pick up off the south end and zip north into the north closed zone and for this reason this refuge can be a blast on windy days. The harder the wind blows the better it is.
There are three disabled blinds at this refuge. Disabled blinds #29D and #30D can be good on north wind days because they are near the north closed zone, other than that they are too close to the road and too close to the check station so most waterfowl stay pretty high in this area but I have had some success in #29D. Disabled blind #13D is another story. This blind is also located on the border of the north closed zone but it's east of the check station and away from the road. This blind is usually full and although I have never hunted it I have heard good reports on it. There are only three pit blinds at this refuge all the rest are either assigned islands or assigned ponds.
An assigned island is just that an assigned mound in the middle of the water. You wade out to the island and you are required to stay with 100 feet of the island while you hunt. Early in the year the islands are still covered with bulrush and cattails but after about 3 weeks of season they get sparse and you stick out sitting on the island and so most hunters usually sit on marsh seats on the edge of the island in the tules out of sight. An assigned pond means you get assigned a large pond and it's yours to hunt. There is a wooden stake in the pond and you are supposed to stand within 100 feet of that stake to shoot. There is usually plenty of cover but it can make for a long morning if you don’t bring something to sit on. Your dog will appreciate you knowing this tidbit of information ahead of time. If you hunt the ponds bring a stand for your dog. Nothing fancy, just something to keep him/her out of the water. I know guys who take their dogs and let them swim around in the cold water all morning. If your dog gets too cold he/she won’t work right for you. She won’t follow directions and it leads to frustration for everyone besides the fact that it's just not good for the dog. Something as simple as a plastic lawn chair painted green will work fine. Just put it on top of the tules and push it down and it will sit there just fine.
On a side note, wading out at Delevan and Sacramento Refuges can be brutal. The water is anywhere from ankle deep to about your hips on an average man. Although the water is say waist deep the mud can be knee deep. So you’re wading in waist deep water and from your calf or knee down its thick wet mud that tries to suck the boots off your feet. For this reason you should always hunt with a friend to help pull each other out, if needed. I kind of exaggerate this but what happens sometimes the refuge staff discs the fields prior to flood up and frankly they usually over flood them so they can get sloppy. I use a decoy cart to get my stuff out to the area of the blind and then I shuttle the gear from the trail to the blind, I also use an old hoe handle as a walking stick (it floats) so I can stay upright in the deep mud.
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge are two completely different refuges. I have not hunted the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge enough to comment on it but will follow up with an article when I do.
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a really nice refuge that sees a lot of waterfowl hunters every year and for good reason. This refuge is only about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Sacramento and located about 6 miles south of Willows right in the middle of snow goose country. This refuge sees some of the largest flocks of snow geese and speckle belly geese you will ever see in California. This refuge, Delevan refuge and Colusa Refuge are also located in the Sacramento Valley Goose Special Management Area. Read your regulations so you know what geese you can hunt and when.
Take Interstate 5 to Road 68 about 6 miles south of Willows. Go east on Road 68 to the check stations and then turn right. The check station is where you check-in to go hunting it is located off road 68. The Headquarters where you would go to watch wildlife and go on a tour of the closed zone is located just north of Road 68 on Hwy 99W. They won’t let you hunt here but it would be nice.
This refuge seems to call reservations earlier than most other refuges about 2.5 hours before shoot time. And if you’re late and not there when they call your number you are eliminated and they go to the next number. I was there one time when a guy who had reservation #1 was standing around before first call bragging about having the first reservation to be called. He ended up walking away to use the restroom and they began calling numbers. He wasn’t there when his number was called and he came back to learn they were already calling numbers in the twenties. He was mad but it was his fault. The moral of the story, be on time and don’t wander off when they are getting ready to call reservations.
Sac refuge has a closed zone on its north side and its east side. This refuge has disabled blinds, pit blinds, assigned ponds and free roam. There are three disabled blinds, 5D, 23D and 27D. All of these blinds have drive up access so you can drop off your gear and or the disabled party and then you can park in a designated spot not too far away. 5D is a blind that faces north and the water here is fairly shallow. Of the three disabled blinds this is the best one for geese. They tend to stay off the ponds south of the closed zone but often fly low enough that you can bring them down. The duck hunting on 5D is kind of slow but can be good from time to time. 23D is a disabled blind and mobility impaired blind and there is also a boat launch here for small boats. This is a large pond and there are always small diver ducks like buffleheads zipping around on it and the usual coots. The duck hunting can be good here especially in the morning because this blind faces north and protrudes out on to a small peninsula so you have water on three sides so no matter the wind direction you have landing zones for ducks. The geese are usually too high as they pass over this blind. Blind 27D does not have a good reputation for killing ducks or geese and is the least popular blind of the three disabled blinds. This blind faces south and sticks out on a peninsula but there are trees behind you on your north side and the afternoon sun is right in your face. The blind also has a lot of bulrush and weeds around it and although it’s surrounded on three sides by water there is just a small area to successfully put out decoys. Also a word of warning, the water in front of this blind is very deep, as in arm pit deep in some areas. This strikes me as odd because it is a disabled blind and you would think that they would want to keep the water and mud to a lower level to help out some of the older hunters and disabled folks who still need to set out decoys and retrieve the occasional bird that the dog can’t seem to find. Now after I have said all this bad stuff about this blind I would like to say that this blind is usually open on most afternoons and several times I have shot limits of mallards and widgeon out of this blind.
There are so many pit blinds at this refuge it’s somewhat impossible for me to comment on all of them. What I will do is comment on only the blinds that I have personal knowledge of and have personally hunted. As this blog proceeds over the season I will update you with personal insights to help you with these blinds.
The hardest part of hunting the refuge system is figuring out which blind you are going to hunt and what your back up blinds are in case that blind is picked by someone else before it’s your turn. At Sac refuge the closed zones are on the north end of the refuge and the east side of the refuge. So in truth when the north wind is blowing any blind on the north end will work but some are better than others on the east side it’s the same. When the east wind is blowing the east side can be very good and most of the good blinds are on the east side.
The problem with this refuge is its huge and that is a wonderful problem to have. It also makes choosing a spot to hunt more difficult. The reason I say this is because at Sac refuge some of the blinds can be a long walk and when you are carrying a lot of decoys, your gun and walking in waders it can be a real drag. An example is blind #2 is only .5 mile walk. That’s a short walk at Sac refuge, blind #35 is 1.5 miles. That’s a heck of a long walk in waders with gear and decoys, that’s only one way.
With all this being said blinds 12, 16, 36, 45, 44, 43, 50, 54, 56 and 55 are some of the best shooting blinds on the refuge. They are also the blinds with some of the farthest walks. There are also several blinds with shorter walks like blinds 2, 4, 5, 14, 38 and 42 that are all decent shooters. These are all blinds that I have personally hunted and recommend as good blinds to start with if you have never hunted here before. After a few trips to this refuge you will easily figure out the blinds you like and the ones you don’t.
This is the Check Station at Sac Refuge about 20 minutes before first call
Check Station at First Call
In the photo above, the board to the left is the lottery from the night prior to the actual hunt day where people who arrive the night before put their name on a list and they are then draw and receive a lottery number for the next day. This is commonly referred to as the “Sweat Line”. The Board to the right shows the blinds that are available. For example, as people walk up to check in they hand the check station worker their reservation or lottery number, their hunting license with both state and federal stamps and their wildlife area pass, and then they look at the board and if a blind is open that they like for example blind #54, they simply say “blind 54”. The worker checks the paperwork hands them a yellow pass to keep with them while in the field and then you’re all checked in. You just go to your blind and wait until shoot time, Easy peasy. And yes maps are provided.
Blinds and distance in miles to the blinds
LDC, Howard and Llano Seco
LDC, Howard and Llano Seco are part of the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. They are separate refuges so to speak and all Type A wildlife areas. Little Dry Creek or as the regulars call it “LDC” has some very good hunting and some of the most expensive private blinds are located around this unit and Howard Slough. LDC and Howard are very tough refuges to draw in the lottery system and for that reason I have only limited experience with hunting them.
There are four disabled blinds at LDC, 120, 121, 122 and 128. I personally have only been able to hunt disabled blind 122 and free roam at this refuge. The disabled blind I hunted was spectacular the first time I hunted it with my wife and she had a great time. The blind was very well camouflaged and somewhat raised off the water. Unfortunately, I haven’t hunted any of the other blinds at this refuge I have only hunted Free Roam.
The Free roam that I did hunt was slow but it was all Wood Ducks and Widgeon so it was a good day. Howard Slough is tough to draw and I have actually never drawn a reservation here or at Llano Seco. I have hunted them both and Howard was a good hunt. It was free roam and it was mostly Shovelers. Llano Seco I have hunted and to tell the truth it’s the only refuge I have ever hunted where I had any trouble at all with the staff. The lady who runs the place in the morning can be less than friendly. It’s understandable considering its 4 am and she has to deal with a bunch of often overbearing hunters. This refuge shoots well but often it doesn’t get enough water and is only partially open. I also believe they have either eliminated the disabled blind or they no longer flood it up because reports I have heard from other hunters indicate that it has not been open. I have also noticed that you cannot put in for the disabled blind at Llano Seco through the ALS draw system. My only real issue with this refuge is that it often gets a lot of the young college age hunters out of Chico State and Butte College and I have no problem with that but is often crowded and its can be difficult to get in without a reservation.
Oroville Wildlife Area and Thermalito Afterbay
This is a Type C Wildlife Area so you can hunt it any day of the week and this is a large area to hunt so there is a multitude of ways to hunt it and it varies from area to area. If you’re hunting from the shore or a make shift blind you can easily access areas to hunt from Hwy 162 or Hwy 70. From the town of Oroville traveling south on Hwy 70 any entrance into the wildlife area will work they are off Pacific Heights Road, and there are multiple small ponds to fish and hunt. There are also plenty of birds in this area including waterfowl, doves, quail and turkey, unfortunately this side of the of the wildlife area, the Oroville side also has it's fair share of criminal behavior, drug traffic, vehicle burglaries and such. So I have stopped hunting in that area due to this issue. The west side of the wildlife area is much different and it is primarily accessed from Hwy 162. This is a large lake area and you can hunt from the shore or from a boat. The guys that like to hunt the puddle ducks usually take Wilbur Road off Hwy 162 and travel south to the walk in entrance. There is plenty of room to hunt in this area and it's marshy and you can easily find areas to set up your decoys. The guys hunting by boat have an abundance of water to hunt and usually access the lake from the launch ramp off Hwy 162 just east of Hwy 99. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that because this is a lake it only holds divers. This is far from the truth. Yes, there are a lot of divers on this lake but the lake is surrounded on three sides by rice fields and agricultural areas so there are plenty of puddle ducks like Mallards, Widgeon and Teal. With the right decoys and the right set up you can hammer some ducks on this lake. Early in the season the lake is not so good. Too much water for the ducks so they just kind of hang out away from shore, but later in the season in January or after the storms hit the lake will see a big increase in duck numbers and there is always room on this lake to hunt. And it's free, no pass required.
There are too many Wildlife refuges in California to list all of them so I must refer you to the Waterfowl and Upland Game Bird Regulations for more information on them. I am going to attempt over the next few years to hunt as many as I can and update you with information on them as my blog continues over the season. I have never hunted Colusa National Wildlife Refuge or Sutter National Wildlife Refuge, I have put in for reservations this year and hope to draw. Colusa has a good reputation with hunters and for this reason it’s difficult to draw a reservation. Sutter has somewhat mixed reviews and although I personally have never hunted there it had a reputation for overcrowding, and some fist fights and dog fights. It also has a reputation of having deep water to have to wade through. It is my understanding that there have been some changes over the years and the fist fights and dog fights were primarily in the free roam areas and there were some overcrowding issues in the free roam and general abuses by some unsavory regulars that are no longer allowed to hunt there. I do plan on hunting it this year and will update you when I do.
These are just a few of the areas, both public and private, that I have for you and I will update you as I go along and as I hunt new places or obtain solid NO BS information to pass along.
Another good tool for hunting both the refuges and the areas around the refuges are the Waterfowl Hunting Results from California Department of Fish and Wildlife (or Fish and Game). They will tell you what the average waterfowl hunter on any particular refuge was shooting and how many. So lets say you are going to be hunting Sac Refuge on Saturday. So you look at the Waterfowl Hunting Results, you scroll down to Sac Refuge and you see that there were 350 hunters and they killed 450 ducks and 90 geese last Wednesday.
There are a few things I can recommend to help you with refuge hunting because I have hunted these refuges a lot. The first thing is concealment. After the first few weeks the hunters stomp down the area around the blinds and leave empty hulls and other trash around the blind holes. If there are a lot of empty hulls on the ground pick them up and toss them down in the blind. The sun reflects off the hulls and the shinny brass and it’s a dead giveaway to the ducks that there is a duck blind there. Also, the trash, like empty boxes and stuff, really alert the ducks to an abnormality and they will flare away from the blind. Even the trash down inside the hole needs to be covered up if it’s visible from directly above the hole where the ducks will be circling prior to landing.
Take some concealment material with you, something like an old camouflage net or material to cover up the blind holes including the big metal lids that cover the holes that you aren’t using. This is a must, throw some grass or twigs or even some mud on the lids to cover them up. They really stick out and if they aren’t covered up it’s a losing battle. After you set your decoys up and hop in your holes, close the lid as much as you can while still being able to hunt. If you have ever looked at drone photos or any overhead footage of duck blinds the first things you notice is shiny trash around the hole and then these big black unnatural square or rectangle holes that stand out. If you can make these as small as possible and then cover the area with camo net or grass or something natural it will greatly increase your ducks in hand.
I won’t cover too much on decoy tactics for the refuge because your standard decoy set ups don’t really seem to work in a place that has so many hunters crowded so close together and all using the same decoy set ups like “J” hooks and “X” spreads. Unless you are hunting the refuges with several friends it can be a real hassle to carry out two or three dozen decoys. Instead, take maybe five or six of your best or lucky decoys (everyone has a few lucky ones) instead of the entire flock.
When you get to your blind check the wind, if for example your blind faces north and the wind is coming from the north set your decoys north of your blind as far out as you can shoot. If you can shoot ducks at 40 yards put them 40 or even 60 yards away from your blind. This will keep the ducks from looking at the decoys and you at the same time. As the ducks spot your decoys they will drop down wind circle back and as they come in to land with your decoys they will pass right over the top of you. In general ducks will almost always circle downwind of the decoys and approach into the wind. I say in general, because Teal, especially single birds flying by themselves, seem to have no rhyme or reason to their flight and will suddenly just bomb right into your decoys and land right in the middle of them. That being said, if you find that the ducks are landing out of range or too high as they pass re-set your decoys closer to your blind until you get them figured out. The same if the wind changes direction just move your decoys to manipulate their flight path. You can set your decoys up in a “J” pattern or an “X” pattern whatever you desire but I can tell you that if you just throw decoys out in a big circle around your blind the ducks will have you pegged. They will just fly by and check you out and keep going. Sure the occasional duck will come in but try my trick and see if it helps
If you’re in a refuge and setting up for geese remember that these geese exit the closed zone at different hours to go feed they also return at different hours. They exit gaining altitude and usually by the time they get over the shooting areas they are just out of range. As they return they are high and start dropping down and occasionally get low enough to shoot as they return. It would be difficult to set out enough decoys to get these birds to come down. The reason I say this is because they fly over this shooting area twice a day. They have it figured out and frankly, so do the ducks. By the second or third week of the season they can spot a blind and know how to fly between blinds just out of range. So one trick that I employ is to take my decoys and put them way to the left or right of my blind. The geese spot the decoys and will begin to drift their flight path left or right of the decoys and often come right over you. I have also found that if you are set up close to the edge of the closed zone you can trick the geese into coming down early by simply not using any decoys at all. I feel that because the geese are used to seeing decoys around the blinds that alerts them to a danger area and they continue to stay high. By removing the decoys from the picture they are not alerted to the danger and start dropping sooner. This goes the same for when they are exiting the closed zone. Now that I have said all this it all changes when new fresh birds start to come down with the storms. The closed zone will become overcrowded and the birds will be shoulder to shoulder and they will start boiling over into the shooting areas. When this happens the fresh birds, both ducks and geese, will land with just about any decoy set up and they are less wary of blinds and decoys. We actually have not seen this kind of activity in the last four years due to the drought and when we do get those northern cold fronts coming in you will want to be in a blind somewhere because it will be a real kick in the pants.
Today I had reservation #3D for Sac Refuge. There are only three disabled blinds here so I had last choice and took blind #27D. It worked out very well for me. I was by myself and the wind was blowing and I mean blowing so at first light there were birds everywhere. Buy the time the day was done I had 3 Specks, 4 Mallards, 2 Shovelers and a Widgeon.
Today I duck hunted Delevan National Wildlife Refuge Assigned Pond 12A, to tell the truth it was very slow. I only hunted the afternoon from 2:00 PM to end of shoot time. Shot one Shoveler and one Snow goose. Not a lot of ducks around but lots of geese. They were all high but we have a small weather pattern moving in so maybe it will pick up.
Today I hunted Sutter National Wildlife Refuge. I have been looking forward to someday drawing a good Reservation through the ALDS (DFG Drawing system) and I finally drew a good one. I drew MI #1, that’s Mobility Impaired #1 or Disabled #1. This is a good draw number because it’s the first and only Disabled Reservation for Sutter for this particular day and they only have one Disabled Blind 6D. Well I invited a a couple friends but only one could make it. So we left the house at 2:30 am or so for a 2 hours drive in the fog to Sutter. We arrived early at about 4:20 am. They don’t start calling reservations here until 2 hours before shoot time, on this day it was 4:58 am. There were only about 20 other hunters there and everyone was quiet and reserved. I don’t think anyone really expected a big morning.
The Disabled Blind #6D is actually a really nice blind. Its located on a slight peninsula with water on three sides and the closed zone is behind you on your north side. You can drive all the way to the blind to drop off your gear and decoys and then park the vehicle about 200 yards away. The road to and from the blind is graveled and you can easily hunt this blind from a wheel chair. There is plenty of cover on the blind and plenty of cover around the blind and decoys can easily be placed from close to the blind out as far as you wish. If you were to draw this blind on a good day with some type of active weather or a larger population of birds than what we have now I wouldn’t want to miss this reservation. I think this is just a good blind for a disabled blind.
Unfortunately for us on this day the fog lifted before daylight and there was just no wind at all. The geese and ducks were all high and going in and out of the closed zone not even giving us a chance. I only shot one Ringneck Duck and that was the only shot we had that day. However my highly trained and well disciplined Labrador Retriever (LOL) scored big time while I was in the check-in line when she jumped into the front seat and ate my entire blueberry scone! She has an incredible sweet tooth, one time while we were gone she was able to get up on the table and eat half a tray of homemade peanut butter fudge! But I’m not too upset about the hunt or the scone for that matter, I have wanted to hunt Sutter and although we didn’t do any good I think this blind and this refuge on a day with good weather and when the birds are down from the north would be a great waterfowl hunt.
We ended up leaving at about 1:30pm but I was able to get a few photos for you. If you have never hunted this blind and have to set up in the dark I would put decoys as far out in front of the blind as I could (south), and then another set in back of the blind (north) along side of the road in the opening you pass on your way in. This should keep the ducks over your head should they come in and try to land. Good luck.
Today I hunted one of my favorite spots for diver ducks’ Lewiston Lake. I hunted the afternoon and from the shore so it wasn’t as productive as I had hoped but there was a lot of birds I only shot 3 Buffleheads and 3 Ringers but it beats sitting at home. This lake is extremely productive for waterfowl in the late season. There were probably several hundred Goldeneye, a couple hundred Ringneck Ducks, Buffleheads everywhere and thousands of Ruddy Ducks and too many Scaup (Bluebills) to count but probably several hundred.
I tried to get in to Sac Refuge but it was packed. It was real foggy so everyone was staying in the field. Went to Delevan and got right in to free roam. We hunted the West Side Free Roam. We ended up getting in late due to driving around on the way there. There were plenty of ducks and geese flying and working decoys. We only ended up getting two Gadwalls and one Snow. If I had it to do again I would have hunted the East Side Free Roam because more ducks were flying over the open water just west of Parking Lot C.
Today tried to get into Sac Refuge for a late morning early afternoon hunt. When I arrived at 11:00 am or so all the blinds were full and there were at least 15 groups on blind waiting and all the MI blinds (mobility impaired or disabled blinds) were also full with groups on blind waiting. A friend of mine who works there told me it was a very busy morning and I most likely would not get a blind before the afternoon deadline (3:00pm). So I decided to try Delevan and found the same situation going on there. I had a choice I could drive home and call it a day or I could find another spot. I decided I would try Gray Lodge. I can usually get in there on Free Roam. I eventually made my way to Gray Lodge after running by Kittles then Burger King and dragging in around to the Lodge about 1:00pm. To my surprise it was not busy here at all. There was plenty of Free Roam open and there were three MI Blinds available so I took MI #5. The wind was blowing some when I went through Sac Refuge but before the evening ended it was downright windy and coming from the southwest. Not a single goose flew over but by the end of the evening I had shot several Ringneck ducks and a very nice Wood duck. Below are some photos of Gray lodge and MI Blind #5.
I had a reservation for Sac Refuge for this morning and decided to take a friend. I was Reservation MI#1 so I had first choice and chose MI Blind #29D. It was the last weekend of waterfowl season and the last day I would be able to hunt so we decided to make a long day of it. It was very foggy and we sat the decoys primarily off the west side of the blind with a few decoys on the east side. All the decoys were placed at the maximum range for a shotgun hoping the birds would swing wide before landing at come over the top of the blind. Long story short, the set up worked and the fog helped to bring the birds down to shotgun range. By the end of the day we had a mixed bag of ducks and snows and ended up ending the season on a high note.
There’s no nice way to say it. The waterfowl hunting in Northern California in the Fall and early winter of 2018 has been abysmal. Unless you have the ability to travel very far north into southern Oregon by Klamath Falls your most likely not seeing the ducks. The usual resident flocks have been in the area and the occasional migrators have buzzed through but not many ducks to speak of. Geese is another story there are plenty of geese down. I’m not saying that the sky is dark with specks or the snow geese are crazy think but there are plenty of geese down, but this is only a small portion of the birds that will be coming down on the first big northern storms that come through the Northern California area.
When California residents discuss different regions of California everyone has a different opinion of where Northern California starts, and Central California ends. I have heard people from Bay Area tell people they are from Northern California and this has always perplexed me because they would have to drive another four hours north to get to the Oregon border but it’s a free country. But for discussing waterfowl hunting, for clarification when I speak of Northern California, I am talking about an imaginary line from about Ukiah on Hwy 101 to Woodland on Interstate 5 across to about Truckee on 80 over near Reno. Below that is more central California until you hit Hwy 198 at Visalia going west to King City. Everything below that I consider Southern California. California Fish and Wildlife have the state broke up into several Waterfowl Hunting Zones but for general discussions we will stick to these imaginary lines but remember to always follow State and Federal Regulations.
If you live in Central or Southern California, its going to be a tough year unless we get a big push of rain and wind coming out of the north.
The good news is that when the rain and wind do arrive the ducks can leave Washington and Canada and be in Central California in two days, with a layover here and there.
It doesn’t have to be a big nasty storm, of course the nastier the better but if it’s a storm with some high winds you need to be in a blind the day the winds hit until they stop. Wind and ducks go hand in hand.
When we think of the classic day in the field duck hunting, we think of torrential rains and wind that will blow your fat lab across the pond. The kind of wind and rain that stings your face and no matter what you do to stay dry, underneath that expensive duck jacket you still have a few wet spots. I think we owe this image in our minds to magazines like Outdoor Life who have always portrayed the glamorous life of the waterfowler as a no-nonsense tough guy who loves to stand in the rain and suffer and ducks love water, so it must be that rain and ducks go great together. Unfortunately, this is misinformation. Ducks love water you won’t get any argument from me there, and ducks do fly in the rain and wind and rainy days can be good days to hunt ducks also you should never turn down a good day or any day to duck hunt. But the truth is the day before a storm the local birds both ducks and geese tend to get a little restless. They can feel the barometric pressure dropping and they start moving. If there are already ducks in the area you should be out in your blind especially at last shooting light. The early migrators are just starting to drop in and there looking for decoys to set down with. On the days when the storms are already here and it’s just raining like crazy you might want to stay home and oil up the guns and get prepared for the day the winds come.
Ducks love wind and when you get wind and a light rain and the winds are coming out of the northwest, north or northeast that’s the day or days you need to pack a lunch and stay in the blind all day. Ducks will get up in the wind and circle and orbit all day long. They fly around and see decoys and the wind is helping the decoys look alive and tossing them around and to the ducks it looks like everybody is feeding and frolicking around and having a good time and the flying ducks want to join the party, so they just dive right into your decoys.
If you have only limited vacation time or only a few days to duck hunt you should pick a day after the migrations have started that are days with high winds. Winds of 10 to 15 mph are nothing to a duck, but if you can pick a couple days in a row where the winds will be in the 30s or 40s or more that’s the days you will shoot limits and go through a bunch of shells. Leave the small shot at home and just take the bigger stuff #2 and larger #BB or #BBB is even better. Have you ever tried to throw something light in the wind? It’s the same thing with shooting small shot in the wind. If you are shooting at a crossing duck at 40 yards with #4 with a 40 mph cross wind your pattern will be blown way off. If you use the bigger shot it will still be off but not by as much as it would if you were using the smaller shot. Larger shot will also retain more energy when it hits the target than the smaller shot.
Its unfortunate that here in California we experienced such a slow waterfowl year in 2019 due to the weather, but we still have the late season for Snow Geese and Specks.