MODESTO, Calif. --
The three mallards were just teasing. At least that’s the only explanation for their behavior.
They were giving Mike Reynolds fits. His cheeks were blown out in bubbles on each side of his round face and his forehead was getting redder as he put monumental effort into blowing the right series of notes to entice these feathered fiends out of the air.
Those particular three ducks would have nothing of it. They made one full slow circle in the early light of dawn, then a slightly wider pass, with one drake slightly craning his neck toward the spread of decoys below before all three sauntered away.
Reynolds was beside himself. The Modesto, Calif., professional angler, who by his own admission fishes professionally so he can duck hunt, gets angry when the music from his duck call goes unnoticed.
“They’ve been here before,’’ Reynolds said dejectedly.
It was the third day of California’s waterfowl season and after two banner days of toppling mallards from the air; Reynolds was feeling the first taste of defeat in a season that will likely consume his life for the next 100-plus days.
If California is known as “the land of fruits and nuts” count Reynolds and his “crew” as part of the nut section, all crazy nuts about duck hunting.
When I was young I hardly ever missed an episode of “The Big Valley.” It had two great things going for it: It was a western (every kid in the ‘60s wanted to be a cowboy) and it had Audra Barkley (played by Linda Evans) who was totally hot.”
It didn’t take much motivation to tune in to hot cowgirls. Not much has changed in 40 years.
If you were a fan of “The Big Valley,” (if you have no idea what that is Google it) then you will remember opening scenes that showed wide sweeping vistas of a valley that was actually Central Valley in California.
That is actually the location of this Duck Trek stop. Although “this location” isn’t exactly a specific spot: California's Central Valley is a large, flat valley that dominates the central portion of California.
It stretches approximately 450 miles from northwest to southeast inland and parallel to the Pacific Ocean coast. Its northern half is referred to as the Sacramento Valley and its southern half as San Joaquin Valley. All-in-all it’s roughly the size of West Virginia.
We were somewhere in the northern half of the San Joaquin Valley, on Modesto Reservoir, a 3,800-acre water supply lake. You won’t read about it in travel brochures or Ducks Unlimited Magazine. It’s best described as a wayward spot on the map between areas much better known for their duck hunting.
To the north is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta or California Delta where literally millions of waterfowl pass through or winter during the course of the year. Those that leave make their way south to the Central Valley Grassland, where there are some of the most fertile, pristine wintering grounds in North America.
Smack in the middle of those two very large dots on the map is a speck called “Modesto Reservoir.” It’s a roadside attraction or better put, a roadside bar for mallards, pintails, teal and widgeons traveling from one big spot on the map to the other.
“They mostly come here to drink,’’ Reynolds said. “We’ve called in ducks, had them land and immediately they start drinking. There isn’t any food for them really, they just drink and loaf.”
Ducks do live here though, just not in great numbers. During the spring and summer a healthy population of mallards and other puddle ducks utilize Modesto Reservoir and the vast agricultural land surrounding it with a sprinkling of pothole-like ponds as home.
“The high dollar hunting places are at the Butte (Butte Sink) and the Delta,’’ Reynolds said. “But this is what I like. It’s close to home. Affordable.”
Then duck season opens and for the first few days it’s a duck hunter’s dream that lasts as long as an afternoon nap, but only for the few hunters lucky enough on the draw.
Modesto Reservoir is one of three bodies of water that is fed by the California State Water Project. California is one of those states where water is king and its ebb and flow within the state is part engineering marvel, part environmental savior and wholly a savior for a group of duck hunters.
The state doesn’t get the rainfall that many of the nation’s leading states in waterfowling receive. In the Modesto region it’s somewhere between 12 and 20 inches a year, but little of it provides any significant runoff. Still the Delta region within The Big Valley is key to migrating waterfowl making their way from Saskatchewan to the fertile ground of the valley.
A series of reservoirs captures mainly runoff from snowmelt and through a series of concrete canals distributes water throughout the thirsty state.
In the case of Modesto Reservoir, it gets its water from Don Pedro Reservoir, the fifth largest body of water in California that distributes its water to three reservoirs like Modesto. The water feeds a thriving agricultural community and provides a needed stopover for migrating ducks.
Hunters in these reservoirs put their names into a hat each year in hopes of drawing one of 25 spots on Modesto Reservoir. Reynolds and his “crew” like many groups put in individually for a chance to get the choice spots.
To date, it’s worked well. His group has consistently gained a spot on the lake for the last 30 years. Today, you could look at a satellite image of the lake and see floating blinds dotted around. They have to be more than 300 yards apart, all of them have big spreads of decoys, a spot to park the boat in cover and some of them sport finer things like stoves to cook in.
It’s like they have their very own duck club for a season, then they have to go through the drawing process again. But plenty of people do it over and over, just for the chance to get in on the shooting.
The ducks, though, have to be migrating for them to have the type hunts dreams are made of or at least be there on opening weekend.
Reynolds was semi-high when the Duck Trek joined up with him after two days of the state’s season. The opening day had produced 40 ducks in the bag, the next 26, almost all of them greenhead mallards.
Reynolds is old school and lives by the motto: “If it ain’t got a greenhead, it ain’t a duck.”
Because of the trend from those two days, Reynolds was feeling good, but cautious.
“I’m afraid we’ve shot every last one of them,’’ he said. “I just don’t think it will last three days.”
Not that it mattered to him in the long run. The California season is 107 days long, and in 2010 he hunted every day of that season, plus the two days of youth season. He still had 105 days to go and fully intends on hitting that mark again.
“I go every day,’’ he said. “It’s not good or great every day. But when everyone else thinks it’s done and we get a good push, I’m the one that is there. I want to be there. I don’t mind being early, I just can’t stand to be late.”
So regardless of two good days, and the promise of a drop off, Reynolds and his motley crew made up of a farmer (Bill Loretelli), a student (Garrett Adams) and a best friend (Andrew Bearden) who has hunted with him for the last 30 years, we were going.
That was where the three teasing mallards came in. At daybreak as soon as they came into site and Reynolds began his pleading with his call, it was obvious the group of mallards had obviously been to this rodeo before.
“That’s the way it is,” Reynolds said, “until we get some weather.”
Like duck hunters everywhere, the crew waited, sitting in a floating blind wishing for a change in the weather and watching clear skies for the hope of seeing a couple of specks of ducks materialize on the horizon.
On a couple of occasions they did show up. The first was a quad of widgeons that Reynolds coaxed into range to Adams and Bearden, who quickly peeled out three of the four. The second was a quad of teal and another three were put on the water.
At sporadic times, the trio of mallards would show back up to check out the commotion and drive Reynolds nuts once more. By mid-morning, he was able to coax one of the drakes from the group and Loretelli dropped him in the dekes. All in all, there were eight shots fired from the blind, with seven ducks on the water.
The first thing an outsider noticed was that these California duck nuts could shoot and shoot well.
But none of it was up to par for Reynolds.
“I live to call these things,’’ he said. “I don’t care about shooting, I just want to break their necks in the air with my calls.”
The next day it was more of the same, two teal, three wood ducks and three mallards and a day that mostly consisted of clear skies with little duck movement.
“We’re just waiting for Thanksgiving, that’s when the ducks start pushing,’’ Reynolds said.
And in the land of fruits and nuts, these duck hunting nuts will be there practically every day scanning the skies and waiting for the next push. They don’t mind being early; they just don’t want to be late.