“Here they come!” whispered my hunting partner. We tucked even deeper into our blind, peering through our face nets. Scanning the sky, we immediately saw a small group of mallards approaching our decoys from the north. “Let them work,” he said. “A couple more passes and we’ll take them.” I felt like a caged tiger. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t wait to spring from the blind and begin shooting. It was on their third pass that they turned into the wind and set their wings, committing themselves to land. “Take them!” he shouted. We jumped up and unloaded our shotguns within seconds. As the smoke cleared from our muzzles, ducks splashed down all around us. What a pure adrenaline rush! His trusted dog and long-time hunting partner, Dusty, leapt from the blind and began retrieving ducks one at a time. He didn’t miss a beat. That day we ended up with limits of beautiful, large mallards. It was a morning I’ll never forget.
The camaraderie shared between two hunting partners, the distinct smell of the marsh, and the whistles and quacks cutting through the darkness just before daybreak are just a few things that make duck hunting such a unique and addictive outdoor adventure. As I walk away at the end of every hunt, I can’t wait to return and do it all over again. The best part about hunting the Suisun Marsh is that it’s close to my home, making it convenient for me to return on a regular basis.
Grizzly Island and the Suisun Marsh are considered to be prime duck hunting areas for bay area hunters. Both are located within an hour’s drive of most of the Bay Area. The Suisun Marsh is the largest contiguous brackish water marsh remaining on the west coast of North America. It includes 52,000 acres of managed wetlands, 2,000 acres of upland grasses, 6,300 acres of tidal wetlands, and 30,000 acre of bays and sloughs. For thousands of years these marshlands have been a haven for wild ducks and geese. Although there are more than 150 private duck clubs located within the marsh, there are still many places where a duck hunter can take a limit of ducks on public land within an hour’s drive of his home.
Suisun Marsh is located in southern Solano County, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. It’s bordered on the east by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, on the south by Suisun Bay, on the west by highway 680, and on the north by highway 12 and the cities of Suisun and Fairfield.
Rather than driving 2 1/2 hours to hunt the Sacramento valley, Bay Area hunters are blessed with thousands of acres of natural wetlands right here in our own backyard. Hundreds of years ago Native Americans that called the Bay Area their home, hunted these same ponds and provided their families with fresh ducks and geese daily. Then, in the late 1800s, market hunters began supplying San Francisco restaurants with these tasty ducks directly from the Suisun Marshlands. Their average pay was $1.00 to $1.50 per dozen ducks. Soon after, limits of 50 ducks per hunter per day were established to control the onslaught from the market hunters. In the 1880s, after the railroad from Benicia to Suisun City was built, elaborate, private duck clubs began popping up along the rail line hosting some of San Francisco society’s finest. As time went on, hunting became more organized. Daily limits were reduced and hunters began thinking more about preserving the marshland for future generations of hunters. Department of Fish & Game (DFG) limits are now seven ducks per hunter per day.
Grizzly Island Wildlife Area Complex is located within the Suisun Marsh, in Solano County, and is owned and operated by the DFG. The complex is divided into several units consisting of approximately 7,900 acres open to public hunting. These are designated as “Type A” areas for waterfowl and pheasant hunting. Waterfowl hunting is during the regular “Balance of the State” season. Hunt days are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and is permitted on either a reservation or on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hunters may apply for reservations in advance through the DFG’s License and Revenue Branch. Junior hunting license-holders are admitted without charge, but they must be accompanied by an adult 18 years or older. Permits and maps are obtained from the “hunter check station” on Grizzly Island Road, located approximately 11 miles from Highway 12 in Suisun. All hunters must check in and out at this station, which is usually open two hours before shoot time. For further information, contact Grizzly Island Wildlife Area Complex office at (707) 425-3828.
Joyce Island Unit is located on Grizzly Island Road. This is designated as a “Type A” hunting area. Waterfowl hunting is allowed by reservation only. The authorized hunt days for Joyce Island Unit are on Sundays, usually beginning the first Sunday in December and continuing every Sunday through the remainder of the season in the “Balance of the State” zone. Hunters must check-in at the Grizzly Island Check Station with their reservation.
Island Slough Unit is located on Grizzly Island Road, approximately 7 miles from Highway 12. This is designated as a “Type B” hunting area with approximately 450 acres open to hunting (free-roam area – no blinds installed). Hunting is allowed on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for waterfowl and pheasant during the authorized seasons only. Permits are available at the booth in the parking lot on the area.
Gold Hills Unit can be reached from Highway 680. This 50-acre unit is designated as a “Type B” hunting area. Hunting is only allowed for waterfowl during the authorized season. Hunt days are Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. All hunting must be done from one of the three blinds on the area. Permits are available at the booth in the parking lot on the area.
Goodyear Slough Unit can be reached from Highway 680; take the Lake Herman Road exit. This 70-acre unit is designated as a “Type B” hunting area. Hunting is allowed for waterfowl only during the authorized season and only from designated blinds. Blinds are assigned by DFG personnel approx. 1 1/2 hours prior to shoot time. Hunt days are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
West Family Unit can be reached from Highway 680. This is designated as a “Type B” unit for junior waterfowl hunters and their adult chaperones. Hunt days are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday during the authorized season. Hunting is allowed only from the four designated first-come, first-served blinds. Chaperones may hunt with the junior hunter if they possess a valid California hunting license, appropriate stamps and a “Type A or B” season pass. Permits are available in the box at the West Family Unit parking lot.
Grey Goose Unit can only be accessed by boat from Suisun Slough to Boynton Slough. This 73-acre unit is designated as a “Type C” hunting area. Hunting is allowed for waterfowl and pheasants on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the authorized seasons.
GREAT OPPORTUNITIES FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Introducing youths, our next generation of hunters, to waterfowl hunting is extremely important for the future of hunting. Their first experience is the one that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. What better way to do it than by taking them to an area where the hunting pressure is low and the opportunities to shoot ducks are plentiful.
I remember the day I brought my son duck hunting for his first time. He was 11 years old, bright-eyed, full of energy and ready to go. Prior to our hunt, I had taken him to the trap club where he shot clays with his new 20-gauge shotgun. With plenty of practice under his belt, his confidence level was up and I knew he was ready. It was a cloudy day with a strong north wind; perfect duck hunting conditions! In the darkness, we settled into our blind and prepared ourselves for shoot time. I could feel his energy level overflowing as I tried my best to keep him calm. As the first flights of teal dove past our blind at what I’m sure he thought were supersonic speeds, he began to see how the game was to be played. Now he prepared himself for the next flight of ducks. Here came the dive-bombers once again. Shots rang out, but nothing hit the water. Then, a few minutes later, larger ducks began to work our decoys. Shots once again rang out, but this time his shooting was right on target. Ducks folded in mid-air and splashed into the water beside us. We immediately broke into celebration mode, high-fiving each other and hooting and hollering so loud that hunters across the pond later told us that they could hear us loud and clear. That was a moment in time that I’ll never forget. By the end of his first duck hunt, Alec had shot three ducks; a mallard hen, a widgeon hen and a drake spoony. I think he was smiling as he slept that night.
EARLY SEASON DUCK HUNTING TECHNIQUES
During the early season, ducks are much more willing to work your decoys than later on in the second half of the season. In the Suisun Marsh, the first half of the season is your best chance of limiting out on mallards. The second half seems to bring more sprigs.
Because we’re not allowed to use battery-operated decoys during the first half of the season, wind ducks, jerk cords and flashers work pretty well. Everybody has their own different setup. My early season set-up consists of one dozen mallard decoys, one dozen green-winged teal decoys, half dozen widgeon decoys, two wind ducks, one jerk cord and two flashers. It sounds like a lot to carry, but between two guys it really isn’t that much. Many of us spend our off days in our garages tinkering like mad scientists trying to invent new gismos to try out during our next hunt. I know I’m guilty of doing this and so is my son. I have to admit that I’ve seen some pretty effective duck hunting gear made in a garage and pieced together by hand.
LATE SEASON DUCK HUNTING TECHNIQUES
Although we are allowed to use battery-operated decoys during the second half of the season, ducks eventually become more educated to blinds and tend to shy away from spinning decoys and large decoy set-ups. When this happens, I reduce my decoy spread drastically. I set up much smaller decoy groups and place them closer to the tulles rather than in open water. My late-season set-up consists of one dozen sprig decoys, one dozen green-winged teal decoys, 1/2 dozen mallard decoys and one jerk cord. Because I feel that too much movement during the second half of the season raises a big red flag with the now well-educated ducks, the only movement I want in my spread is my jerk cord, which has three mallards on it, two drakes and one hen.
Another tactic you may want to try later in the season is to pair up your decoys, one drake with one hen. During this time of the year you’ll see ducks paired up and flying in small sets with drakes following hens. I try to mimic actual duck behavioral patterns when setting up my decoy spreads. I think it looks more natural from the air when your decoys are paired up in this manner. I also slow down quite a bit on my duck calling, blowing it with much less volume. Educated late-season ducks associate loud and sporadic calling with hunters.
I’ve watched them fly straight up the pond toward my blind, then veer off to the side at the last moment and completely avoid my decoy spread. Not only was my blind totally brushed in, but nobody, including the dog, moved an inch as they approached. They’ve become so educated after surviving so many shots throughout the season that they recognized my blind set-up from a long distance. I’ve also seen them change course and intentionally fly between two different blinds with totally separate decoy spreads. What it basically comes down to is trial and error. You have to see what works for your spot during that specific time of the season. What works for me in my spot may not necessarily work for you.
Duck hunters are a close-knit group of guys. They share experiences with each other that I think are totally unique from other types of hunting. I’m an avid big-game bowhunter and enjoy it immensely, but there’s something about duck hunting that is very special. It’s close to home, the season is over three months long, you’re either hunting with your best buddies or your son or daughter, the action is non-stop and the adrenaline rush is off the charts. What more is there to say, other than get out there and do it? Once you try it, you’ll be hooked – I guarantee it!