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Of all the hunters across the nation who last week polished up their shotguns for the new season, perhaps the happiest were a small group of sportsmen in one tiny section of the Pacific flyway known as District 10, two miles north of the small community of Marysville. While almost every where else hunters could only hope the season might not be as bad as generally expected, the lucky few in District 10 knew their usual bonanza of up to 2,500,000 ducks and geese would be on hand.
Of all the flyways, the Pacific survived the best in a year which, as the national waterfowl survey on page 66 shows, features the most stringent limitations in the past decade. Conservation officials have unhappily assumed the role of the heavy in the piece as seasons and bags were sharply reduced on the remaining three major flyways of this nation. Dry breeding areas, leaving the productive pothole country in Canada barren, a late rain and an even later hatch of young birds could have spelled disaster—hence the cuts.
But Pacific coast hunters are fortunate in that their birds hailed from regions untouched by a drought that has blighted duck production in the Canadian breeding grounds for two years, and so they have the best outlook of any in the nation.
If such a bounty of wildfowl as Marysville shows seemed nothing short of a miracle to sportsmen in the central and eastern states it was only a routine matter in District 10. For no matter how bad the shooting may be anywhere else, these California gunners frequently find that their little piece of flyway is one of the fattest in the entire country. Even more remarkable is the fact that on this particular flyway the magnificent shooting conditions are almost entirely man-made.
District 10 is the official name for a 40-square-mile land reclamation project established in the flood basin of the Feather and Yuba rivers in 1914. In those days a respectable number of waterfowl usually stopped at Marysville in the fall. In a good rain year the rivers gave them a place to feed and rest; and the ducks, who need to take in a certain amount of grit with their feed to help their digestion, also seemed to like the kind of sand and pebbles they found there.
The only trouble was that the quality of the hunting was too dependent on the weather. No rain, no ducks, so the farmers of Marysville just tended their crops and took their duck shooting or left it alone, quite often the latter.
Then, about 40 years ago, several of these farmers decided to experiment with rice as a crop. The area was a natural—warm climate, good land and water from the Feather and the Yuba cheap and convenient. The farmers put up a network of low finger dikes, practically all of them in a small sector adjoining District 10, and then they flooded the land.
As expected, the rice crop was fine. What no one expected was the fantastic bonus of waterfowl which plopped down on the flooded paddy-fields. Actually, the mass arrival of the birds should not have been too much of a surprise. For then as now, one of the last decent meals a duck migrating south from Canada on the Pacific flyway could get before he headed down to Marysville was at the Tule Lake Refuge on the Oregon-California border. Therefore the birds habitually congregated on Tule Lake, the flocks growing into millions as they waited until cold weather forced them farther south. Their flight then carried them over hundreds of miles of dry, monotonous wheat country not at all fit for waterfowl habitation. But as they neared Marysville the countryside changed, the bright reflection of the sun on 6,000 acres of water shining out of the drab brown of the surroundings below.
The sight was, apparently, one which few waterfowl could resist, a good percentage dropping happily into the rice fields.
Despite the bonanza, as late as 1940 the ducks that came in were still greeted by the guns of only a few visiting sportsmen, plus the hard core of regulars among the local ranchers. Of course, the men who were clinging to those guns, blasting away at a fearful rate, were some of the most fortunate duck hunters in the world. Not only did they have the place practically to themselves, but the limit in that free-shooting era was 25 ducks per day.