From mallards to sea ducks, the Evergreen State is a waterfowl hunter's playground
When I moved from my native northeast Ohio to western Washington in October of 1993, I had nearly two decades of waterfowl seasons under my admittedly young belt. I hadn't seen it all, but thanks to my father, some very kind landowners, and the late 1970s populations of mallards, black ducks, woodies and teal, I'd seen and experienced quite a bit. Little did I realize just how much I had yet to learn.
Settling into my new surroundings 19 miles southwest of Mount Saint Helens, I spent the remainder of October and the first couple weeks of November in the Cascades chasing black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, ruffed and blue grouse. Exciting, yes, but every small alpine pond that held a pair of buffleheads or a pocket of ring-necked ducks reminded me I was missing something. Finally, I could stand it no longer. My questions of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife led me to a handful of state-owned properties and public acreages. Closer to home, relatives of my lady friend pointed me to a dairy farmer whose property held sheet water late in the year -- a deep, dark 15-acre woodland pond surrounded by Douglas firs and hemlocks and a sandy spit jutting into the Columbia River.
By the end of the year, I had returned as a waterfowler. What's more, I had recorded into my journal five species which I, having grown up on a strict diet of the mallards, black ducks, woodies and teal, had never before encountered -- bluebills, hooded mergansers, wigeon, pintails and grey ducks. Over the next five years, other previously unknown birds -- surf and black scoters, canvasbacks, redheads, common goldeneyes and the almost mythical blue duck, the harlequin -- graced my waterfowling craft. It was variety to end all varieties, a mixed bag the likes of which I never thought existed.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Evergreen State, as I was during my Pacific Northwest debut in the early 1990s, please allow me an introduction. I divide Washington into four regions in terms of waterfowling: Saltwater or Tidal, the Cascade Range West, Cascade Range East, and the Big Rivers, which includes the Columbia, the Snake, and the Pend Oreille. Please note these are solely my regional separations, done simply to make the state and its waterfowling opportunities easier to understand.
Washington's west side and its variety of habitats offer the best opportunity for a mixed bag.
The Saltwater or Tidal Region can best be described with one word: huge. It encompasses an area from the Columbia River estuary near Ilwaco north past Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, around the Olympic Peninsula, and into Puget Sound and the Hood Canal. Puddle ducks, divers and sea ducks all call it home, so Washington's saltwater attracts "one-for-the-wall" gunners from around the nation.
The Cascade Range West, by my definition, runs from the Cascade Mountains west to the coast. It is a land of environmental diversity -- tributary rivers to the Columbia, freshwater ponds, smaller estuaries and seasonal sheet water attract excellent numbers of puddle ducks. Refuges such as Ridgefield NWR offer opportunities, as do state-owned facilities such as Shillapoo WMA and others both east and west of the Interstate 5 corridor from Vancouver to the Canadian border.
Like the Saltwater Region, the area I call the Cascade Range East is immense. The geology from the mountains east to Idaho is much more dry than is the west, with much of the waterfowling taking place over agricultural ground, flooded corn, moving water such as the Columbia River, or large impoundments such as the famed Sand Dunes portion of Potholes Reservoir. The region boasts a number of wildlife areas, many of which offer walk-in hunting on smaller ponds or creek pools. However, don't look for the best gunning on such areas to be advertised. Hunters who know of them speak little, and have gained their knowledge of these hidden gems via long drives, even longer walks and a tight lips mentality.
Washington's big rivers afford incredible hunting, and I have enjoyed more than one memorable outing on the Columbia. Up in the northeast corner of the state, the Pend Oreille River harbors fine populations of divers, especially later in the season. To the south and east, the Snake presents excellent potential -- again, late season -- from the Idaho state line downstream to the river's confluence with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland.
Everything Except Mallards
I'm about as far from a so-called mallard purist as a man can get, not that there's anything wrong with going greenheads-only, mind you. I just like a little variety in my duck hunting, and that is precisely what Washington's west side has always given me.
Yes, there are more than mallards on the east side, but the west side's wide range of habitats holds the most promise for a true mixed bag.
More Washington hunters have targeted sea ducks in recent years.
For the best selection of species, I'm partial to the brackish water of the Columbia River from the Longview area downstream to the estuary at Chinook and Ilwaco. A rising tide hunt near Skamokawa not long ago, for instance, resulted in three of us paddling back to the rigs with mallards, sprig, wigeon, shovelers, green-wing teal, ringnecks, greater and lesser scaup, and one each goldeneye, bufflehead and redhead. Subsequent trips provided wood ducks, a rarity for us on the big river, and several subspecies of Canada geese, including cacklers, westerns and Taverners. (Check with the WDFW, Region 6, office at 360-249-4628, as the status might have changed.) The Bear River Unit of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (Ilwaco headquarters, 360-484-3482) on the southern end of Willapa Bay provided excellent gunning for puddlers and divers, as well as my favorite little hybrid duck, the ringneck.
Once the sheet water arrives in December and January, an almost infinite number of places on the west side offer ala carte style hunting in terms of species. However, most of
these temporary havens are privately owned, making preseason investigation and introduction necessary.
I haven't spent as much time east of the Cascades as I have between the mountains and the coast. Why, I always surmised, should I go out to eat when I live in the midst of the buffet? But if you are looking for mallards, then Washington's east side, specifically Grant County, is definitely a target.
Why the east side? Corn plays a major role, as do other cereal crops such as barley and wheat. Combined with a plethora of big-water, safe-haven roosts, including nearby Potholes Reservoir, Moses Lake and the Columbia, often-flooded agricultural ground is a magnet for mallards as the birds trickle south from Alberta and eastern British Columbia.
But a corn-water mix isn't the only draw for eastern Washington greenheads and those who hunt them. Dry field duck hunting has grown in popularity in the past decade, with outfitters benefiting from increased corn production in the Basin, as well as the willingness of west-siders to make the trip over the passes to take part in some of the best mallard hunting in the United States.
Is there room for the freelance greenhead junkie in eastern Washington? Permission to hunt private crop ground during the late season can be had, however, obtaining permission isn't easy. Unfortunately, acres that haven't been zippered via leases often have been locked up with a handshake or a Christmas fifth of Gentleman Jack. Spend time scouting crops, knocking on doors and coming to grips with the fact you will be turned down often. Persevere though, and you might just stumble across mallard nirvana.
Salt Water and Sea Ducks
Hunting pressure on Washington's sea ducks has risen recently. Perhaps it has to do with a decline in public access inland. However, the waters scoters, oldsquaws and harlequins call home are anything but hunter-friendly. Hunting them requires major equipment: big boats, big spreads, high-horsepower outboards, sophisticated electronics, heavy anchors, a current tide table and the ability to interpret all of those little pluses and minuses.
Maybe graying waterfowlers are simply seeking something different, a change of scenery. Whatever the case, West Coast sea duck hunters have become more numerous.
The good news is the Washington coast, along with the Hood Canal, Puget Sound and the various big-water bays, offer almost infinite sea duck opportunities, if you are willing to invest the time and equipment. I've had the chance to hunt the salt with skilled men who possess the gear and knowledge to gun the open water successfully and safely. Sea ducks aren't a type of waterfowl you decide to hunt overnight.
Washington's east side boasts excellent chances for mallards, pintails and wigeon.
Washington sea duck hunters are required to obtain and possess a current Sea Duck Authorization Card, on which they record harvest statistics for scoters, oldsquaws and harlequins. If you are looking for a heavy duck strap filled with blue ducks, you're going to be disappointed. Washington's limit on harlequins is one per year. If you want more, you'll have to go to Alaska.
Lifetime of Memories
In the 35 years since I shot my first duck, I have enjoyed the waterfowling riches of many states and provinces. I've been most fortunate. During those years, few hunts have matched the experiences I've had in Washington. Black-and-white bluebills against fog-shrouded, century-old firs. My wife, Julie's first canvasback, a silver-backed blur skimming atop the Columbia's whitecaps and the congratulatory smiles etched on our memories. And Maggie, her grey-flecked muzzle contrasting the almost bottomless white of a January drake wigeon's belly.
She is gone now, after 14 incredible seasons. Every now and then, when the salt air is heavy and the spartina grass folds and ripples like windblown wheat, I wonder where she is hunting now, and if it looks a lot like Washington. I'd like to think so.
M.D. Johnson has hunted Washington extensively, but now resides in Martelle, Iowa.