I have often wondered how many duck hunters from the Central Valley head over to Morro Bay not realizing they are visiting one of the prime waterfowl areas on the California coast. The bay is home to a large number of ducks most hunters have never seen, including scaup, mergansers, buffleheads, surf scoters and white-wing scoters. There are also a few pintail and mallards scattered about.
But, by far, the largest number of birds seen are black brant.
The brant is a small goose that migrates along the Pacific coast from its breeding grounds in Alaska to its wintering in Baja California. Its stops along the way are at various bays in Washington, Oregon and California, where it feeds on its primary diet — eel grass. Morro Bay is loaded with this. Unless something has changed since I hunted there years ago, the southern half of Morro Bay is near solid eel grass beds. The northern half was mostly oyster beds. These long green shoots can be seen floating all over the bay, and the brant relish it. As a result, they are one of the best-tasting waterfowl imaginable.
I first starting hunting Morro Bay in the late 1960s with my close friend of 60 years, Ron Hurlbert. Together, we started a guide service called B & H Brant Camp. There were no commercial decoys for brant available at that time, so I just repainted some of my Canada goose decoys and they worked well. Later, we were able to find a company in Oregon that started making them, so we bought a few dozen.
Before that time, most of the hunting for these birds was done by guys using a scull boat. These small boats only protruded about a foot out of the water and were propelled by a single oar out the back of the boat. Laying flat down in the boat, the oarsman would glide as close as possible to flocks of birds in the water and then raise up and shoot.
When we were guiding, we used four methods of trying to get the birds close enough to shoot.
During regular tides, most of the bay is fairly shallow. There is a deep channel running the length of the bay, down towards Baywood and then back up to the docks. We would take hunters out into the middle of the bay, where the bottom was hard, and set them on a stool with decoys in front of them, usually two guys about 40 yards apart.
I would always get a good laugh when going across the open water at daylight, stopping and telling a client to get out right here. They would look around and see nothing but water and say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I would say I’m not kidding ... stand up and leap out of the boat into two feet of water! They would then follow.
A second method was putting white parkas on the hunters as they sat on their stools. To the brant they looked like a couple of pelicans in the water and would rarely flare off.
A third method was using huge, black plastic garbage cans and setting them along the edge of the channel. The channel had huge buoys placed along the edge every so often. The hunter would get into the trash can and use it as a blind. To the brant, it was just another buoy.
The best way to decoy these birds was by going into the east cove of the bay, or to the west side along the sand dunes. We would put up stakes into the ground and string camouflage netting across it. The hunters would sit on stools behind with decoys out front. The brant really worked these set-ups good, and I was able to get some fantastic old 8mm film using a Bell & Howell camera with a pistol grip that allowed me to film in slow motion when pressing the trigger all the way down.
Many of you who know me know that since video cameras came out in the early 1980s that I have almost quit shooting photos and gone to just taping hunts. I have been on some great hunts in Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Iceland with many of my friends. I will try to talk about some of these trips in a later column. I filmed hunts with my old friend Steve Merlo in Alaska, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Arkansas. A lot of great memories of a real special guy for 40 years.
If you are interested in hunting Morro Bay, be sure and check the California Fish & Game handbook for rules and regulations for the area. When I was guiding there, the brant season did not open until February and it ran for 30 days. I know that is not the case now. This year’s season went from Nov. 9 into December. The daily limit was two birds. When I hunted it was four, so times have changed.
And there may be areas in the bay that are restricted, so you need to check that out.