Recovering the Pintail

The pintail is by far the most graceful and elegant of North America’s waterfowl and a highly prized game bird. I may catch some grief from hard core mallard hunters for stating this, but in the Pacific Flyway the pintail is king.

Photo by Michael Furtman

Click image to enlarge
In the Pacific Flyway, the pintail is king. (Photo by Michael Furtman)

Since the 1970s, Pacific Flyway hunters have seen the bag limit on pintails reduced from 7 per day to 1 per day in response to severe and prolonged decreases in the species’ population. This frustrates many waterfowlers who often observe huge concentrations of sprig during the hunting season. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in California’s Central Valley. However, it is important to consider those observations in the context of the bigger habitat and population picture for the pintail.

Yes, when you hunt in the Central Valley you see a lot of sprig. That’s because the Valley supports a major portion of the entire continental population of the species. California’s Central Valley is the pintail’s primary wintering area in the Pacific Flyway. In an average winter it supports at least 75% of the Pacific Flyway’s and more than 50% of the continent’s pintail. The Sacramento Valley portion of the Central Valley alone supports a wintering population of about 1 million sprig. Pintail wintering concentrations of this magnitude do not occur anywhere else.

Although pintails appear to be abundant based on the concentrations we observe on Central Valley wintering grounds, the species’ breeding population has been well below the target level since the late 1970s. The 2008 pintail breeding population was estimated at 2.6 million birds. This is 22% below the 2007 population estimate, 36% below the long-term average, and 54% below the breeding population objective of 5.6 million birds established by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. We still have a long ways to go.

In 2003, Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU) kicked off its Pintail Conservation Initiative as the first step toward recovering pintail populations to the levels of the 1970s. The Initiative focuses major efforts on protecting, restoring, and enhancing natural habitats and developing and implementing agricultural programs to improve conditions in those regions that are most important to pintails.

Photo by Ducks Unlimited Canada

Pintails nest very early before farming actually begins in prairie Canada and readily nest in crop stubble. Consequently, many pintail nests are later destroyed by farm machinery before hatching. (Photo by Ducks Unlimited Canada)

The key to recovering the pintail lies on the species’ prairie breeding grounds. Through the research efforts of DU, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), and others we have learned that a major problem with the pintail is one of reduced reproductive success on the southern Canadian prairies. The pintail, more than any other duck, will nest in cropland residue. Since the 1970s, nearly 13 million acres of croplands in the Canadian prairies that were previously summer fallowed as standing stubble and provided relatively safe nesting habitat have been converted to annual cropping. Pintails nest very early; before farming actually begins in this region. Consequently, many pintail nests are later destroyed by farm machinery before hatching.

DU and DUC are working hard to find viable agricultural solutions that impact large acreages on the prairies. We are working to reform land-use policy and create government-led financial incentive programs for farmers to conserve native grasslands, wetlands, and riparian habitat, and restore marginal croplands back to grass cover and wetlands. Our work with the University of Saskatchewan and producers and agribusinesses has developed winter wheat varieties with improved cold tolerance and disease resistance and yield advantages over spring wheat.  Winter wheat is not worked in the spring when pintails are nesting so the birds have a much greater chance of successfully hatching their nests. Over the last three years our work has increased the amount of winter wheat seeded in prairie Canada by 1.5 million acres. We are making progress.

Over 1 million pintails breed in Alaska. The Canadian boreal forest provides critical habitat for breeding and molting. DU has worked with governments, industries, and First Nations to protect over 150 million acres in the Canadian boreal forest over the last 8 years. Conserving this northern landscape of 1.5 billion acres will maintain northern breeding pintails.

Hunters and non-hunters alike will welcome the day when pintails once again fill our prairies and skies. (Photo by Ducks Unlimited Inc.)

Hunters and non-hunters alike will welcome the day when pintails once again fill our prairies and skies. (Photo by Ducks Unlimited Inc.)

Although our focus on population recovery is on the prairie and boreal forest breeding grounds, we are also working hard to ensure that sufficient high quality habitat is available to support the pintail on its key staging and wintering areas including the Klamath Basin, Oregon Closed Basin and Central Valley. DU and DUC are dedicated to recovering the pintail population. The population will need to increase before there will be additional harvest opportunities. Hunters and non-hunters alike will welcome the day when this great bird once again fills our prairies and skies.

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Lay off the Hens!

Here in the west, opening day has either just arrived or is just around the corner. We have been waiting for this day since the end of last season. We made it through the long hot days of summer by thinking about wet windy days to come, flocks of sprig cupped and committed over our decoys, groups of specks whiffling into range, a special retriever hard at work, and full straps at the end of the hunt. Now it’s time.

Hen and Brood

(Photo by Ducks Unlimited Inc.)
Reduce your take of hens and thereby do your part to ensure that as many hens as possible return to the breeding grounds next spring.

As we head into this season, let’s challenge ourselves to be discriminating waterfowlers, reduce our take of hens, and thereby do our part to make sure that as many hens as possible return to the breeding grounds next spring. We are responsible for ensuring that not only this generation, but future generations as well, will continue to have waterfowl hunting opportunities. We need healthy populations to sustain those opportunities. A hen on the nest will contribute more to the population than will a hen in the bag.

Daily bag limits in the Pacific Flyway states (i.e., Arizona; California; Idaho; Nevada; Oregon; Utah; Washington; and portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming) include some stringent species restrictions. For example, only one pintail of either sex is allowed in these states. Although a total of seven mallards can be harvested in each state, only two hen mallards are allowed in the daily bag in all states but California. Only one hen mallard is allowed in the daily bag in most of California. These restrictions mean hunters must exercise restraint and there isn’t much room for identification error.

Waterfowl identification is an essential hunting skill for today’s waterfowler. You probably work in the off season to improve your calling and shooting skills. Why not also work to improve your identification skills? Late winter/early spring is a great time to work on waterfowl identification. The birds are more relaxed after hunting season and consequently much easier to observe at close range.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish hens from drakes or one species of duck from another in a hunting situation. Lighting is poor and color is difficult to see at the start and end of shoot time. Picking out the drakes in a flock coming in from the sun is always tough no matter how experienced of a hunter you are. Ducks can appear from nowhere, be on you in a hurry, and leave you little time to look for color. However, you don’t have to shoot at every bird that might be in range. Restrain from taking those uncertain shots and wait until you can positively identify your target. If you hone your hunting skills, get out in the field more than just occasionally, and hunt in areas that hold waterfowl, be patient because you will have plenty of opportunities to bag birds during the course of the season.

With a pintail limit of only one bird, there is no reason to shoot a hen. If you hunt in areas with high concentrations of pintails such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon and northeastern California, and the Central Valley of California, you will have ample chances to harvest a drake.

Annie with Drake Pintail

(Photo by V. Getz, Ducks Unlimited Inc.)
With a pintail limit of only one bird, make sure you harvest a drake.

Hen Jar

(Photo by V. Getz, Ducks Unlimited Inc.)
Implementing a fine system and using a hen jar is one way to reduce the take of hens at your blind.

 

 

My blind partners and I try hard not to shoot hens. We use a hen jar and peer pressure to assist with this effort. We pay a fine for any hen we shoot as well as any hen our guests shoot. Fines are highest for pintail and mallard hens since both species are very restricted in the bag. We have a lot of fun with this system and the ribbing we receive from each other for shooting a hen is at least as bad as the fine we have to pay.

Enjoy this waterfowl season to the fullest. Hunt hard, hunt often, but practice restraint. Lay off the hens!

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Guns for Girls

I’m 5’4″ and 110 pounds and, no, I don’t shoot a 20-gauge. And even if you are a small-framed hunter like me, you don’t have to either. There are some good shotguns available that let us smaller individuals take advantage of the wider load selection and greater payload of a 12-gauge without paying the price in uncomfortable gun weight or recoil.

If you are small, weight matters, and you don’t want to lug around anything much heavier than about 7 pounds. However, a lighter gun generally means greater recoil and that’s an issue when you are shooting heavy goose loads. The semi-autos produce less recoil than the pumps or double barrels, and there are several semi-autos available that weigh in at about 7 pounds. These lighter weight guns provide an excellent option for smaller shooters.

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Although I purchased my Franchi 712 primarily for waterfowl hunting, it is light enough to make a great upland game gun as well.

Three years ago I purchased a Franchi 712 gas-operated semi-auto in Max 4 camo. With a 26″ barrel it weighs just 6.9 pounds. Lightweight, yes, but recoil is not an issue. This gun is an easy shooter even with 1 5/8-ounce tungsten goose loads. Although I purchased it primarily for waterfowl hunting, I regularly use it for upland game as well. Unfortunately, Franchi no longer makes this model or I would definitely recommend it.

Following is a quick comparison of some of the other available semi-autos that match up closely to the 712. All data is for 12-gauge models with a 26″ barrel and chambered for 2¾” and 3″ shells.

Make and Model Operating System Magazine Cutoff? Available in Camo? Average Weight (lbs) Suggested Retail Price
Benelli M2 Field Inertia No Yes 7.1 $1,270
Benelli Montefeltro Inertia No No 6.9 $1,140
Beretta AL391 Urika 2 Gas Yes Yes 7.2 $1,025
Browning Gold Superlite Hunter Gas Yes No 6.75 $1,161
Franchi I12 Upland Hunter Inertia Yes No 6.3 $1,169
Remington 105CTi Gas No No 7.0 $1,548
Winchester Super X3 Classic Field Gas No No 6.75 $1,079

The magazine cutoff is a nice safety feature of the Beretta AL391, Browning Gold and Franchi I12. It allows you to remove a shell from the chamber without automatically feeding another one from the magazine. This comes in handy when crossing a fenceline or leaving the blind to adjust decoys.

The Browning Gold Superlite Hunter weighs in at only 6.75 pounds and features a magazine cutoff. (Photo courtesy of browning.com)

Supposedly, gas guns have a little less recoil but require more frequent cleaning than inertia guns. I’m not convinced that the type of operating system should be your primary criteria in selecting a gun. My gas-operated Franchi has worked reliably in pouring rain and below freezing temperatures, with light and heavy loads, and I don’t clean it any more frequently than I clean my Remington 870 pump. Beretta and Browning are very reputable gun makers and their semi-autos feature gas-operated systems.

I can vouch for the reliability of the Beretta AL391 and Benelli M2, as I have hunting partners that shoot these guns. At only 6.3 pounds, the Franchi I12 Upland Hunter might have too much kick with heavy loads. I don’t have any direct experience with the other guns listed above, but I would like to hear from those that do.

The Benelli M2 Field has a great reputation for reliability. (Photo courtesy of benelliusa.com)

Whichever gun you end up with, get it professionally fitted. If you are not the same size as an average-sized man, why shoot a gun designed for one? A well-fitted gun will improve your shooting consistency and comfort. Days in the field are precious, so make sure you have the right gun to take advantage of every one.

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The Sink

I’m a waterfowl hunter, so my view of the world is a little twisted. However, I’m pretty sure that Heaven is a lot like the Sink. It’s stands of watergrass and smartweed with plenty of groceries to carry a duck through the winter. It’s flooded willows and cottonwoods where a greenhead can tuck in from the weather. It’s clubs like Berry Patch, Live Oak, Field and Tule, Wild Goose and Greenhead Land Company. It’s a place where the waterfowling tradition runs deep, as does the commitment to conservation.

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A duck's eye view of a portion of the Sink. Butte Creek is in the upper left portion of the photo. The area between the levees in the central portion of this photo is a former rice field at Field and Tule Gun Club that DU restored to wetlands in 2007.

The Butte Sink in California’s Sacramento Valley consists of almost 13,000 acres of wetlands and contains some of the best waterfowl habitat in the Pacific Flyway. It includes almost 12,000 acres that are privately owned, as well as the 733-acre legendary Bean Field that is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Almost one-half of the seasonal wetlands remaining in the Butte Basin are located in the Butte Sink.

Years ago, landowners removed much of the dense tule and riparian vegetation in the Sink to open it up and make it more attractive to pintail. Since the 1970s, the bag limit on pintail in the Pacific Flyway has been reduced from seven per day to one per day. The reduced bag limit, in combination with a better understanding of working with the landscape rather than against it, led those landowners to turn their focus to mallards and restore the woody vegetation in the Sink. It doesn’t take much to get willows and cottonwoods to grow there. The Sink is meant to be mallard and wood duck country, and it provides critical wintering habitat for these and many other waterfowl species. It typically supports wintering populations of more than 300,000 ducks and 100,000 geese. Average peak populations number almost 750,000 ducks.

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A mallard and woody hole at the Wild Goose Club

Don’t think that Butte Sink wetlands are not important to you just because you may never have the chance to hunt them. The private clubs are serious not only about hunting, but also about conserving and managing wetlands. And public-land hunters benefit from their efforts.

During the winter, the Sink provides a source of birds for adjacent areas with public hunting access including Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area’s Little Dry Creek and Howard Slough Units. During the spring and summer, the Sink produces some of the birds that will be harvested on public lands in the fall and winter. The nesting cover and brood water the clubs provide for local breeding mallards, wood ducks, cinnamon teal and gadwall are very important because high-quality breeding habitat is extremely limited in the Sacramento Valley.

Most of the clubs are permanently protected through conservation easements held by USFWS. Many of the clubs are also enrolled in management programs with the California Department of Fish and Game and other agencies that require retaining water in some areas through mid-summer to provide brood-rearing habitat. Most clubs are hunted only three days per week and are not hunted past noon. Several of the clubs have self-imposed limits of five birds rather than the legal limit of seven.

The Sink is a vital link in the Pacific Flyway. Therefore, we all have a vested interest in its long-term conservation.

–Virginia

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Watergrass and smartweed stand at Field and Tule Gun Club before fall flood-up. Butte Sink wetlands like these provide abundant food for wintering waterfowl. Note the Sutter Buttes in the background.

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