Calaveras Enterprise

Bird hunting: the call of the fall

If you heard guns a blazing at 6:50 a.m. on Oct. 22, chances are pretty good you live near a body of water large enough to support waterfowl hunting. The season officially opened that Saturday and I was fortunate enough to join the throng of duck and goose hunters in Calaveras County who embrace the ancient sport of water fowling.

For me it was a week of hunting as I started out on Tuesday in the corn and milo fields of central South Dakota hunting pheasants. South Dakota is one of my favorite states as South Dakotans are typically rural folks and when you step off a plane in Sioux Falls there are banners greeting the pheasant hunters. Orange emblazoned clothing is seen everywhere and the local and out-of-town hunters mix to work the fields to take a few shots at wild pheasants. Add to this mix golden retrievers and Labradors and you have what I consider the perfect mix of guns, dogs and the outdoors.

Upon my return, I found time to chase a few quail out at the ranch on Friday. Pheasant and quail hunting are pretty similar. You work an area looking for groups of birds that use their legs first and their wings second to depart quickly from the advancement of the hunters. You need a place to hunt, a shotgun and ammo, and a hunting license to go after these two upland game birds. The shots are far more difficult than most imagine and for the most part hunters mimic their flyfishing brethren in the notion of catch and release – shoot and release we jokingly call it – meaning the shots miss and the birds fly away to a safe spot far from the hunt.

Duck hunting is something relatively new to me as the last time I hunted ducks was in the early ’70s. I used to hunt in the Bay Area just off the west entrance to the Dumbarton Bridge. I literally would throw a shotgun into my car, go to high school in Menlo Park, and after school a few of us would travel to the bay lands to shoot ducks in the evening. If a kid even took a picture of a shotgun to my old high school now he would be zip tied by the school authorities and expelled, but this was the ’70s.

When I found the guys who hunt the Salt Spring Valley reservoir I asked how I could join – fully unaware that modern duck hunting requires a lot more equipment than pheasants or quail. You need a camouflage boat with an outboard motor, waders, duck and goose decoys, guns that can shoot steel shot, and about a dozen other items that add up pretty quickly.

My wife was wondering why box after box arrived from Cabela’s and why I spent so much time at the Bass Pro shop in Lathrop. Choosing the right camo pattern took more time than I normally spend selecting ties and suits for work. You need camo waders, jacket, raingear, a head cover, gloves and then there is the actual hunting blind itself. Walking around the house with all this camo gear on made my wife ask if I was planning on putting a rusty car up on blocks in the front yard next. I grimaced, and gave her a courtesy laugh.

The Salt Springs reservoir is a lot like most lower Sierra lakes in that its size expands and contracts based on the rainfall and the evaporation of the summer. This means you need a portable blind and most of the hunting stores sell what is called a lay down blind. It is a contraption that I suspect was designed by former workers from the old MG convertible factory in England that combines waterproof canvas and support bars in a mind-numbingly complex arrangement. The goal is to hide from the wary waterfowl but still allow you to see birds zipping by overhead, and pop out at the right moment to fire when the birds are in range. The blinds are also supposed to keep the rainfall out, but like the old MG tops, they leak and are crazy hard to assemble in the dark on a muddy lakeshore.

The other oddity is duck hunting is an early morning sport. We met at 5 a.m. at the boat launch, and in pitch black I dropped a boat into the black liquid around me, and took off across the lake trying to visually distinguish the air from the water. I blindly careened over the water to an unknown spot somewhere across the great beyond. It was after the morning shoot that I discovered I was missing one key piece of equipment – a handheld GPS with pre-programmed coordinates that tell you where to point the boat to reach your shooting spot. Three ducks and one goose later I had plenty of meat for the dinner table and off I went to clean and prepare the birds for that evening’s meal.

Fall bird hunting is alive and well in the West County and, like South Dakota, it is uncrowded, beautiful and the bounty is plentiful.

Ken Johnson, a software industry entrepreneur, routinely contributes to the Opinion page. Contact him at


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