'Seeing the magic' of hunting on public lands

PHOTO GALLERY: Former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Cody Waller (left) displays his take of ducks with his hunting mentor, local guide Ben Martin. Waller was one of 11 disabled military veterans paired with local guides as mentors for a one-of-a-kind special hunt on Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, Jan. 6. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS [Click on the image above to begin slide show. [Click on the image above to begin slide show.]

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, California Waterfowl, partners and volunteers extend waterfowl hunting opportunity to group of disabled veterans

By Jon Myatt
January 24, 2018

On any normal morning during waterfowl hunting season on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, duck hunters arrive at “check stations” nearly three hours before sunrise to register for their hunt sites.

One recent Saturday was not one of those normal hunt days as 11 disabled military veterans arrived with local guides as mentors and refuge staff for a one-of-a-kind special hunt on Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Hunters arrive hours before sunrise at the fog-enshrouded check station at Colusa Wildlife Refuge on Saturday morning, Jan. 6.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

The hunt was in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Waterfowl Association, who partnered with local hunters who volunteered as mentors to support the California Waterfowl Veteran Hunt Program.

This is one of five refuges and three wildlife management areas in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which manages more than 35,000 acres of wetlands and uplands in the Sacramento Valley. The refuges within the complex were established for the protection of migratory birds and provide a multitude of opportunities for the public to enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, bird watching, photography, and hunting waterfowl.

Hunting on refuges is an important wildlife management tool that is recognized as a healthy, traditional outdoor pastime, according to refuge staff. Public access for hunting is one of six core activities featured on wildlife refuges across the U.S.

This was the first time the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex hosted an event as part of California Waterfowl’s Veteran Hunt Program. Veteran hunt events have been held previously at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in northern California.

The event was planned so that those who were injured while serving in the U.S. military could “see the magic of hunting on a National Wildlife Refuge,” said Garret Spaan, hunt program coordinator for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it is something we have been working on for nearly two years,” Spaan said. “It took a lot of planning and coordination, and a lot of meetings to figure out how to get this hunt in place.”

It wasn’t coincidence that the event happened on this particular refuge. A decade ago, Spaan and California Waterfowl hunt program coordinator, Jeff Smith were classmates in the natural resources program at Chico State University. One day in 2015, Smith and Spaan discussed the possibility of implementing a veteran’s hunt on the complex. After two years of discussion and planning, this weekend’s hunt brought that initial idea to fruition.

Former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Joel Ramirez shows his take of teal and wigeon after returning from his hunt site, Jan. 6.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

California Waterfowl Association created its Veteran Hunt Program in 2013 with the goal of providing exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities to servicemen and women and their families, said Smith, of the nonprofit organization.

The program promotes wellness through outdoor healing and the camaraderie of fellow veterans, he said. More than 1,000 veterans have participated in the program since its inception.

“Waterfowl hunting can be overwhelmingly complex to those unfamiliar with hunting in general,” said Smith. “We hope that through our program, we can help ease them into the sport slowly, at their own pace and within their physical limitations.

“We want them to feel comfortable out here,” he said.

While there have been veteran waterfowl hunts elsewhere around the country and up at the Klamath Basin refuges, this is the “first hunt conducted specifically for disabled veterans on a national wildlife refuge in California,” said Spaan.

In the past four years, participants have enjoyed hunter education courses, fun shoots, fishing trips, and hunts for waterfowl, dove and turkey throughout northern California down to the southern San Joaquin Valley, Smith said.

“Cal Waterfowl coordinates all hunt details and provides food and lodging, and also supplies all the equipment they need, including shotgun shells, guns, jackets, gear bags, duck calls, shirts and hats,” he said.

Previous hunts sponsored by California Waterfowl typically occur on private lands and are typically one-time events. This veteran’s hunt occurred on public land and refuge staff encourages first-time and veteran duck hunters to return.

“This hunt was unique because the hunters could easily return to hunt these public refuges,” Smith said. “We hope we can introduce them to the sport of hunting and help them get involved as a life-long activity.”

Those participating in Saturday’s hunt were disabled combat veterans, with most having been injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, with injuries ranging from physical wounds to post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. They all came from California with the furthest being from Oceanside.

Former U.S. Marine Sgt. Joel Ramirez, a financial planner from Grass Valley, took shrapnel to his face while serving in Iraq. Although not his first time in a duck blind, Ramirez, who has hunted in the past, said the hunt was a wonderful adventure and was happy with his take of several teal and a wigeon.

Thanking the staff and volunteers: “Hunting at the refuge was definitely a privilege,” he said.

Military veterans pose for a team photo after the special disabled veterans hunt on Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, Jan. 6.  Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

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Jon Myatt

About the writer...

Jon Myatt is the digital communications manager for the Pacific Southwest Region. Born in Oregon and raised in northern California's gold country, Jon brings his love of the outdoors and interest in photojournalism to his work every day promoting the Service's conservation work across the region through his images, writing and web design.

More stories by Jon:

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