Opening day!

Opening day: “Hunting at Sacramento refuge is a family tradition,” said Matthew Ernst (left), of Sacramento with his wife Cathlene, son Bryan Ernst and daughter in-law Momo Ernst. “My son is my hunting partner, and I really can’t afford a private blind or a private club for the both of us, so, the wildlife refuge is one of the places where we can come and hunt.” Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Opening day of waterfowl season is a tradition for northern California hunting families at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

By Byrhonda Lyons
November 15, 2017

It felt like Christmas morning. About a hundred adults and children rose early to stand outside a government building and wait to hear their number. For many, it is yearly routine.  For some, it is a new experience.

It was cold, dark, and people were anxiously checking their clocks. As the clock hands arrived at 3:45 a.m., the announcer began calling numbers over the faint speaker. One-by-one, folks donning camouflage walked to the front of the building, selected a blind (a cover device for hunters reduces the chance of detection) and headed out for the season’s first hunt on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California

Waterfowl hunters begin to line up at the "check-in" shack on the southern end of the Sacramento refuge to sign up for the opening day hunt blind lottery held later that night. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

In mid-October, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Delevan, Colusa, Sutter and Sacramento refuges, opened for waterfowl hunting season.

“It’s one of our most popular hunt days,” said Lora Haller, visitor services coordinator for the refuge complex.

The Sacramento Refuge has more than 10,000 acres, and about 40 percent of those acres are used for waterfowl and pheasant hunting. Within a waterfowl hunting season, more than 18,000 hunters visit the complex.

“Hunting at Sacramento Refuge is a family tradition,” said Matthew Ernst, from Sacramento. “My son is my hunting partner, and I really can’t afford a private blind or a private club for the both of us, so, the wildlife refuge is one of the places where we can come and hunt.”

Ernst, along with many hunters that night, was camped out, waiting to learn where they stood in the lottery. The lottery is one way people can get a blind on opening day. Either hunters have reservations, enter the lottery or stand in the first-come, first-served line. Those with reservations are the first to go out, the lottery is second and those in line are last.

Opening day is the busiest of the year, so “having multiple people filling out lottery cards and checking hunting licenses helps us better manage the demand,” said Lora Haller, visitor services coordinator for the refuge complex. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“Because opening day is so busy, we cannot accommodate everyone at the same time,” said Haller. “Having multiple people filling out lottery cards and checking hunting licenses helps us better manage the demand.”

For lottery holders, the goal is simple: draw a low number to get the blind or free roam area of their choice.

However, it doesn’t always work out like that.

“Last year, I put about 200 miles on my truck going to four different refuges and putting in for the lottery, and I pulled the highest number at my first stop,” said Ben Martin, a 28-year-old who’s been hunting on the complex for 17 years. “I put in for the lottery here, and now I’m about to leave and go to Delevan to sign-up for the lottery there.”

As hunters poured into Sacramento refuge, Service employees couldn’t hide their smiles. Months of hard work led to opening day.

As the sun rises gently over the eastern horizon on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California, hunters on the refuge have already taken up their blinds, waiting for the first ducks to appear and hunt season to begin. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Days Before

Complex park ranger Garrett Spaan jumped in his federal government vehicle and headed to the nearby check station. It was one day before opening, and he had his tools—a drill, a socket wrench, educational displays, and maps.

Months of hard work went into opening day, so with all the preparation for hunt season complete, complex park ranger Garret Spaan can take a break. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“This is the easy stuff,” he said as he began posting maps of the refuge around the check station.

In the days leading up to the season opener, refuge employees are tying up loose ends—final mowing, printing maps and posters, posting signs, answering calls and updating their website and Facebook page.

“Our phone calls increase dramatically as opening day gets closer,” Haller said. “Hunters want to know what areas are going to have water. They’re planning, using Google Earth, our habitat descriptions, everything to try to figure out where is the best place to hunt on day one.”

While the phones are buzzing and everyone is adding the final touches, the staff still has to help train employees from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Service ensures the habitat and facilities are ready for the migrating birds and hunters, while CDFW handles the check station–where hunters go to get the lay of the land. It’s a partnership.

“We train the employees on the rules, regulations, operations, procedures, program changes, and give them direction,” Spaan said. “Throughout the season we work together to make sure everything is running smoothly and solve any problems that come up.”

Refuge manager Steve Emmons (left to right),  maintenance manager Richard Pence,Vinnie Alaimo and Tyler Michalewizc discuss activities before the hunt season's opening day. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“Unlike most jobs, where you get a lot of practice before things get really busy, this is the opposite,” said James Allen, a former YCC crew member who is working at the check station. “Our busiest day is opening day, so we have to be ready to go. We make sure they have their licenses and duck stamps.”

In the days leading up to the season opener, refuge employees tie up loose ends—final mowing, printing maps and posters, posting signs and answering hundreds of phone calls. Here, maintenance manager Richard Pence knocks down vegetation before the unit is flooded for the birds. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Although hunting day is exciting, the work for Service employees begins long before the check station is open and hunters are standing in line for blinds.

In the Off-Season

Getting ready for hunting season is no small feat. In the off-season, all of the employees come together to plan how to provide the best habitat for the birds by conducting habitat management tours.

Once they have a habitat management plan, they get to work. Refuge employees build and clean blinds, mow, burn, and irrigate for plants for waterfowl. All of this is to make sure the habitat is just right for the migrating birds.

“People drive by and it’s dry in the summer, and they come back during Thanksgiving or Christmas and, ‘look, it’s flooded,’” said Rich Pence, an irrigator for the refuge. “They really don’t have an idea of what goes on in-between those times to actually get it ready to look like it does when the peak migration is here.”

The refuge also maintains dozens of hunting blinds. At Sacramento Refuge, there are 50 blinds, 29 at Delevan, 13 assigned ponds at Colusa and 12 assigned ponds at Sutter. Nine of the blinds are designated for hunters with disabilities.

Snow geese land among a flock of white-fronted geese on the sanctuary side of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge on opening day of waterfowl season 2017.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“We spend months rehabbing, building, and cleaning blinds, to prepare for opening day,” Spaan said.

While the refuge’s staff does a bulk of the work, they also enlist others to help out. They host volunteer days for hunters to help maintain the blinds. This year about 40 hunters came and helped.

Maintenance manager Richard Pence opens a flood gate on the refuge to direct water to a unit scheduled for flooding. The refuge's detailed water management plan is packed into a three-inch thick binder that details the weekly water distribution on the 10,000 acre refuge. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“When they [hunters] volunteer in these areas, they can really see what’s going on at these locations,” Spaan said. “It’s just another way to educate them about what we do and connect them even more to the hunting area.”

In addition to the hunters, the refuge also enlists employees from the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) to get the refuge ready for waterfowl hunting season. It’s how Allen started working on the refuge. One of his most memorable experiences as a YCC employee: building tree blinds.

“We built these blinds in areas where people normally wouldn’t come and hunt,” Allen said. “And when we came back the following season, hunters talked about how much they appreciated having those tree blinds.”

Although the large bird migration numbers is welcomed news for hunters, it is also good news for people who prefer observing the birds. From bird watchers to photographers, the refuge has blinds available for the non-hunters too. It’s definitely a multi-use refuge.

White-fronted geese are among the  nearly 300 species of birds that visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  The complex provides nearly 70,000 acres of wetland, grassland, and riparian habitats for a wide array of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, water birds, songbirds, reptiles, and mammals. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“It’s not only during hunting season,” said Pence. “We have lots of other species, and providing habitat for all of those animals is really rewarding.”

Opening Day

It was cold and early, but Martin was ready. After trying at Delevan and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges, he drew number six at Sacramento, meaning after those with reservations selected their blinds or free roam, Martin would be the sixth person in the lottery to choose his.

As lottery numbers are drawn late into the evening, hunters gather at "the shack" to learn when and where, or if, they will be hunting at first light.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“I did a lot better than what I expected,” Martin said with a slight smile. “I’ve got my dad with me, and it’s going to be a relaxing time to get a few birds today. We’re just happy to be getting our waders wet this morning.”

Martin had his plan of what he and his father would do, but he was sure it would change. “The plan never stays the same,” he said. “But, I’ll be happy [harvesting] about four or five [geese] today.” In the background another hunter yelled, “Come on! Bag a limit for me!”

As the first round of hunters headed out, others with high lottery numbers congregated around—waiting for a chance to get out there. By the time 9:30 a.m. rolled around, the first groups out began coming in with their harvested birds in tow, making sure to stop by the check station.

After returning from the morning hunt session, a hunter has his "bag" checked by California Department of Fish and Wildlife and USGS biologists. The ducks and geese taken are identified, weighed and documented, providing data that will help state and federal wildlife officials manage the health of the species and ensure a bright future for sport hunting.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

While hunters brought in their geese, Matthew Ernst, joined by his son, was at his camper still waiting on their chance to go hunting.

Her first hunt season: Bryan Ernst and his wife Momo show off their daughter, nine-week-old Mikan, on the first day of the 2017 waterfowl season on the Sacramento refuge as their mother Cathlene looks on. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

“Our ticket number was 415, but we haven’t gotten a chance to go out there yet,” said Ernst’s son, Bryan Ernst. “We hope to get out this evening if enough people come in [from hunting], but if not, we’ll try to go out again tomorrow.”

In the meantime, the Ernst’s ate breakfast and enjoyed spending time with each other—especially Mikan Ernst, who was nine weeks old at the time. Bryan is looking forward to passing on to his daughter, Mikan, the family tradition of hunting on Sacramento Refuge.

“I cannot wait for her to start walking and to get out where it’s safe enough for her,” said Bryan Ernst. “We’re going to get her out there and make sure she loves the great outdoors.”



Story Photo

Byrhonda Lyons, public affairs specialist and social media coordinator, Pacific Southwest Region.

About the writer...

Byrhonda Lyons is a public affairs specialist and social media coordinator for the Pacific Southwest Region's external affairs office located in Sacramento, California.

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