This coming fall will be my 65th season hunting waterfowl. During all of those years I have had the pleasure of taking some great trips around the country, and out of the country.
I once leased a pond from the old Gilbreath Brothers and have been a guest at many other private duck clubs. But, if I look at all the time I spent chasing ducks and geese, most of it has been spent freelancing. And there is no better place to do this than hunting on ditches and canals.
The San Joaquin Valley is covered with hundreds of miles of waterways that are used for irrigation. These can be a real boon to the unattached hunter.
I remember back in the late 1950s and early 60s when we would shoot on my pond at Gilbreath's and would not get a full limit of birds. We would immediately take off north on Corcoran Road and run a route of canals I had established over the years. It usually took about 3-4 hours and covered an area all the way to King City and then back southeast near Corcoran and criss-crossed Central Valley Highway to Wasco. It was a rare day when we failed to pick up birds we needed to fill our limits.
There are two methods used to hunt these waterways ... driving and jump shooting, or setting a blind near the water. Let's talk about jump shooting first.
One thing you must have is a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. The higher the power the better. You cannot trust just your eyes when driving down a canal trying to spot ducks. You must scan the area ahead of you, then drive a quarter-mile or so and scan again. Many times the ducks are not swimming in the water but sitting on the banks. There is nothing more exasperating than driving the canal only to have birds jump right next to your vehicle and fly off.
After spotting birds, you have to ask yourself, Can I retrieve one if I shoot it and it lands on the other side of the canal? A good dog helps if you have one. If not, you need to know if the canal is shallow enough to get across wearing hip or chest waders. Or look for a road crossing behind or ahead of you that may be used.
Next, you must try to line the birds up that are in the water with something on the shore close to them so you know how far to sneak. Hopefully, on your way to the quarry you can find a spot to crawl up on the bank and reaffirm the distance.
One last piece of advice that I learned over all those years: On a long sneak, be sure and go about 20 more steps after you think you are right where the birds are. Nine out of 10 times you are short of your mark unless you do this.
If you have a hunting partner with you, they can start flashing the headlights of your vehicle when you are in the right spot if you are unsure of the distance.
Another thing to consider is the choke on your shotgun. A good sneak usually puts you right on top of the birds, so I would recommend an improved cylinder if you have one. This is an effective pattern for up to 30 yards, and most shots are less than that.
Over time, you will find certain ditches and canals that seem to usually have more birds on them than others. There may have more natural duck feed in them such as watergrass or smartweed. Stick with these areas for your runs.
These hot spots take us to another method of hunting ... blinds. That will be the topic of next week's column.