SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
October 03, 1966
From the Atlantic's whitecapped bays to the rice-rich fields and sloughs of California, hunters across the nation are readying their guns and gear for what promises to be the best waterfowl shooting in a decade
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October 03, 1966

The Ducks Are Flying Again

From the Atlantic's whitecapped bays to the rice-rich fields and sloughs of California, hunters across the nation are readying their guns and gear for what promises to be the best waterfowl shooting in a decade

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A club hunter has none of these problems. He can afford to wait for his birds to get into range. He can take time to identify and choose the one he wants. And, with any reasonable skill, he can be fairly certain of hitting it. Because he invariably hunts with a dog—at most clubs this is mandatory—he can also be sure of recovering his birds. He thus winds up with maximum sport at minimum cost to the game.

For the privilege of such sport, a club member in the Central Valley is likely to pay a considerable sum. Memberships, when there are openings, which is seldom, often sell for anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Dues, naturally, are extra. When a member of one of the oldest clubs in the area died recently, he left his share in the club to the four remaining members. Each paid a $60,000 inheritance tax. Another chap bought a $75,000 membership in a club in order to take his new wife shooting and then discovered that wives were permitted only once a year. He kept the membership and bought her one in a club less discriminatory to women. It only cost him an extra $50,000.

But the returns on such heady investments often have proved to be more than strictly sporting. All that rice not only brings in ducks but dollars—several million of them. Today California's Central Valley is the largest exporter of short-grain rice in the U.S. And rice is big business. Clubs in the region double as rice farms on a full scale, employing their own professional managers, belonging to cooperatives and owning shares in shipping and transport operations. In the light of some six-and seven-figure annual yields, the notion that these clubs grow rice only to feed ducks is obviously nonsense.

Such income—from rice, other crops and, at one club, from natural gas (members collect $340 a month each in gas royalties, which is almost too much of a good thing!)—and spiraling real estate values in the area are obvious reasons why memberships in Central Valley clubs now sell so high. Acreage that was bought for as little as $25 at the end of World War II is valued at $1,200 to $1,500 today. But not every club is member-owned, nor is every waterfowler in the valley a millionaire.

Several of the largest tracts of land are owned not by clubs but by private individuals who each year lease portions of their property to loosely knit groups of hunters. For less than $500 a season these hunters enjoy waterfowl shooting that is every bit as spectacular, though not quite as exclusive, as that at the private clubs.

At Terrill Sartain's 12,000-acre Terhel Farms near Colusa, a mere long shot from the Colusa Outing Club, one of the most distinguished shooting clubs in the country, a hunter can rent a duck blind for the entire season for $350. Or he can split the rental of a blind with another shooter, leasing it Wednesdays only for $150 or weekends only for $200. As at most of the private clubs, shooting is limited to three days a week.

For his rental fee the shooter gets a 4-foot-deep rectangular 3-by-6-foot cement blind that is sunk flush into one of the checks, as the levees in the rice fields are called. By shooting time the rice has already been harvested and the fields reflooded. Ample water plus 200 to 300 pounds per acre of waste grain that remain after harvesting prove irresistible to ducks.

All the duck blinds at Terhel Farms are at least a quarter of a mile apart, and locations, fixed at the beginning of each season, are determined by drawing. Because guest rules are more informal than at most private clubs, there is always a certain amount of trading and borrowing of blinds, and no one seems to mind if a hunter brings along a friend on every shooting day as long as no more than two shoot from a blind.

Terhel Farms also has five goose-shooting setups that are comparable to any private ones in the valley. Each consists of 15 pits made from cement sewage pipes sunk into the stubble fields (the goose shooting is over dry fields) and set, about four feet apart, in a row. Although the goose pits are leased on a daily basis rather than by the season, their use is generally limited to shooters and guests who already hold duck blinds on the Sartain property.

Usually eight or 10 such hunters get together for a goose shoot and lease a full string of pits. They then line up three or four of the best goose guides in the area to do the calling and to set out some 300 to 400 decoys the evening before. The morning I shot geese at Terhel Farms we were in the fields long before dawn in order to be organized and in the pits by the legal shooting hour. It was just as well we started early.

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