The prediction of an epic fall flight isn't bringing much joy to California duck hunters. The state is locked in its fourth year of drought, leaving much of the state's traditional waterfowl country dry. The state's duck hunters are, to put it mildly, nervous about the upcoming season.
"I've never seen it so dry," says Oroville resident and veteran duck hunter Curt Wilson. "A lot of clubs aren't going to get any drain water from the rice fields. Their only option is to pump their own well water, which will cost thousands of dollars in electricity. Some refuges may not get any water and a lot of rice farmers won't get any decomp water (used to decompose rice stubble), either. It's not looking good."
As the water goes, so go the ducks. California holds upwards of 4 million wintering ducks, but when they arrive this fall, they'll face an even bleaker scene than last year. Rice fields and marshes that held water last winter will be dry this season. According to data gathered by Ducks Unlimited, there are typically 350,000 acres of flooded rice fields in the Central Valley throughout the fall and winter.
This year there will only be 75,000. The amount of dry corn will be down. So will the acreage of managed wetlands. That means there will be less available food, and that translates to unhealthy ducks. It also means those ducks and geese that do stay in California will be more prone to disease. As birds crowd into available water, diseases like avian cholera spread more rapidly.
It isn't just migrating birds that have suffered under the long-running drought, now considered the worst in California's history. Surveys conducted by California Fish and Wildlife biologists found that the state's resident duck population is down 30 percent from 2014's count. Mallards, the most abundant resident bird, are down more than 50 percent from their long-term average. The decline is attributed directly to the drought.
"Mallards are at their lowest numbers since 1992," says California Waterfowl Association spokesman Holly Heyser. "Seventy percent of our harvest is local birds, so we expect the harvest to be down again this season."
How much is anyone's guess, but for guys like Wilson, it couldn't get much worse than the previous season. Many of the places he normally hunts were dry, but even when he did hunt over water, it wasn't very good. This year is shaping up to be even worse.
That's not to say no one killed ducks last season. Heyser says many of the private clubs that had water killed plenty of birds. Hunters who relied on public water?
"There was a huge increase in competition for the available public hunting areas. A lot of people that normally hunted private ground were forced to apply for the public areas," says Heyser. "Those who did get in actually did very well. The public duck harvest was way up, mostly because the ducks had no other place to go."
Heyser expects many of the state public hunting areas, including national wildlife refuges, will get at least some water this year, so there will be some hunting opportunities.
That's good news, but there may be even better news on the horizon. A weather feature known as El Nino is building off the Pacific coast. It's characterized by warmer ocean water, which produces abnormally high amounts of rain for the west coast.
A similar weather pattern in 1997 brought record rains, which normally start falling in time for duck season. Weather forecasters are saying the El Nino building in the Pacific could be one of the strongest ever, which may bring at least some relief to California.
It's too early to tell, and some forecasters warn that even with a strong El Nino, it may not be enough to end the state's drought.