I remember bagging my first duck back in 1952 on my uncle’s duck pond he was leasing from the Gilbreath Brothers commercial club in the area northwest of Wasco.
The brothers — Vern, Elmer and Bob — had taken over the operation from their father. I am not sure how long it was in existence at the time, but probably since the 1920s or before.
Many of you “old-timers” might remember my uncle, Doyle “Blue” Barnes. He was an oil well core driller in this area for many years.
Shooting was on ponds scattered in about an 8-square- mile area. I think the brothers had about 20 ponds, and hunters could shoot them on a day basis for $25. Some of these were leased to groups on a yearly basis.
It was really great hunting until the Fish and Wildlife Service installed the Kern National Wildlife Refuge. There was no hunting on the refuge for the first two or three years, and the clubs really suffered for it because the birds had all the food and water needed and no reason to leave the area.
The Gilbreaths were losing a lot of funds so they came up with a crazy idea to change things. They installed a CO2 cannon on the back of a jeep and would drive around the refuge, blasting it to scare the waterfowl off.
It worked well, but the government did not like the idea and sued them. It went through the courts for a while, and I am not sure what was actually settled, but thereafter the refuge was opened for hunting and things got better again.
Another area for clubs in the valley was around the old Buena Vista Lake area that sometimes was as large as 150 square miles. Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl typically spent winters there, and it was a very active site until Isabella Dam was installed in 1953 and all the Kern River water that fed it began going to farm use and dried it up.
One of my old skeet shooting friends, actor Robert Stack, told me he used to hunt clubs in that area that were located on both sides of Highway 99. He said Hollywod actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable were frequent hunters in the area. Leroy Fontana, the “Pie Man,” used to tell me of all the great hunts he had on the lake in the 1940s.
I was sitting with my friend Steve Fanucchi having lunch recently, and I mentioned I was thinking of doing this article about local duck clubs. He said he had something I really should see before writing it. It was a large poster printed in 1927 showing the different soil compositions around the farmland near Wasco. Included on it were various locations of the many private duck clubs in that section of the county. The photo in this column is a portion of that poster.
Today, there are still a large number of private clubs located in that same area northwest of Wasco. I have been lucky enough to hunt on a few of them over the years with many of my friends. Back in the 1920s those old clubs had a lot more water available than today. The whole region was fed by water through the Kern River Slough. This was Kern River water diverted north from its natural pathway west of Bakersfield. The southern portion fed Buena Vista Lake. The Goose Lake Slough also poured into this same area.
There is a real diversity of names for the local clubs today. Included are the Pintail ... Hog Island ... Dos Coyotes ... Robins Roost ... Dos Amigos ... Central City ... Pandol ... ECLA and Spoonville.
Then there is the Widgeon ... Pasuza ... El Pato Loco ... Burbank ... Santura ... Los Alamos ... El Cinco ... Poso Creek ... Da Rita and De Lorenzo Lawrence.
And let’s not forget the La Cienega de Chicca ... Houchin ... Badger Almond ... Semitropic ... Westside Waterfowl ... Escondito ...Eagle GL ... Goose Lake and Tug Boat.
In closing, I would just like to say thanks to all you guys that know me, and that I have had the opportunity of hunting or filming with over the years. Mike Griffith said it best in a column he wrote more than 20 years ago: “There’s something special about 3 a.m. wake-up calls, strong black coffee and eating greasy food at a truck stop.”
He’s right, of course. And all of us waterfowlers are special if we’re willing to sit on a stool in knee-deep water on a bone-chilling foggy morning looking ... looking ... forever looking.
One last note: The California State Skeet Shooting Championships are this weekend at the Kern County Gun Club. They started Thursday and run through Sunday. It’s a good chance for you to watch the best gunners in the state in action. The club is located at the south end of Enos Lane near Buena Vista Lake.