The orange sun melts slowly into the horizon on legendary Suisun Marsh, flocks of ducks are trading overhead and Yancey Forrest-Knowles speaks to Ramsey Russell from the heart of California duck hunting times past, present and future. A lifetime duck hunter and former director of California Waterfowl Association, he is an articulate storyteller, a passionate waterfowl conservationist. What was duck hunting like when California became the 31st State and how’s it since changed? Who was Duck-A-Minute Bill Banta and how’d he earn that title? How many duck clubs are there in California and what’s the California duck club culture? What is the Butte Sink, and what befell duck hunting on the fabled Salton Sea? Why’d Clark Gable once get kicked out of a duck club? What’s the significance of the Klamath Basin to California waterfowling? This is a fascinating Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode, covering full-range California duck hunting topics from past and present, for the entire length of the state. Like one of those picture-perfect duck hunts, you’ll not want it to end.
California’s Storied Duck Hunting History: California Duck Clubs, Interesting Duck Hunters from the Past, and the Role of Duck Hunting and Duck Hunters in Wetland and Waterfowl Conservation
Waterfowlers are, without question, the chief conservationists.
California’s Local Duck Hunting and Goose Hunting History
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: In California, the local history of duck and goose hunting is a story about hunting as an integral part of California’s environmental, social, economic, and even cultural history. In this story, we learned about the utter transformation of the state’s landscape, from the Pacific coast to the Central Valley to the desert interior. As early as 1850, when California joined the Union as the 31st state, the state contained an estimated five million acres of wetland. The same year, the Federal Swamp and Overflow Lands Act—which turned swamplands into the public domain, all over the states, to be sold and reclaimed—initiated the process of draining California’s vast freshwater and tidal marshes, primarily for agricultural development. The process of reclamation carried on on even larger scales continued largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century, but the discovery of the Pacific Flyway and its importance to the migratory waterfowl of western North America began to change all of it. Once California’s importance for providing migratory bird habitat—especially for wintering waterfowl—became well understood, the tide of reclamation began to turn. Both the state and federal wildlife refuges were created to protect and restore as much of the state’s remaining wetland habitat as possible. By the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, well before the establishment of refuges, duck clubs proliferated in California. There are actually some 1,000 active duck clubs as recently as today, and some 2,600 over time. Beginning in the San Francisco Bay area, the range of shooting clubs expanded as railroads, especially—and later the automobile—rendered formerly remote locations more accessible.
Now, as we bring this story to light, I want you to try to imagine the turn-of-the-century duck clubs and wetlands throughout what is now the urban development of San Francisco Bay and the urban conglomeration that is Greater Los Angeles. We see how the Sacramento Flood Control Project of the early 20th century finally led to the draining of the Sacramento Valley’s vast marshes. You can imagine ten miles of tulies on both sides of the state’s largest river, the Sacramento River, and why the valley’s Butte Sink followed a different course and remained a waterfowl mecca. We discover how the Central Valley Project, which moved water from northern California to southern California, threatened to obliterate the wetlands of the lower San Joaquin Valley until, during the 1940’s and 50’s, duck hunters in the San Joaquin grasslands organized to fight back and protect them.
We ponder unintended consequences of our manipulation of nature, and we learn about the accidental creation of the Salton Sea and the sea’s unique role in California waterfowling history. This and more further demonstrate that waterfowl hunting is much more than an interesting aside, or a footnote, in California’s history. Rather, it has been as integral to the state’s development as any other activity. In addition to that, all that our waterfowling history reveals about hunting culture and about the conservation of wetlands on private club lands brings to light the importance of wetland conservation on California’s public state and federal refuges, as well as the important role played by conservation organizations such as the California Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, and Delta Waterfowl.
In California, as elsewhere, hunters have been responsible in large measure for the continued existence of wetlands. We are now back up to some 3.5 million acres, by the way, from a low of 1 million acres, and, therefore, of the flocks of Pacific Flyway waterfowl that returned to the state. Some 6.5 million of them every fall and winter. By bringing the history of duck hunters and duck clubs and refuges into our discussion, we can arrive at a fuller appreciation of the important role of waterfowling in California’s history.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, folks. I’m in Suisun Marsh, California. That’s where it’s duck season, today. Y’all have been listening to my friend Yancey Forest-Knowles. Yancey and I actually met down in Mexico, duck hunting. We got to spend four or five days in the blind. We hit it off immensely. He’s a talker, he’s a storyteller. I’m a talker, I’m a storyteller. But, in between stories, we managed to shoot a whole bunch of ducks and have a good time. He’s a historian. He’s a conservationist. He’s had his hands in so many conservation movements here in California. But, most importantly, he is a duck hunter. Yancey, how are you today?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I am doing great, and I am so happy to have you here with me.
Ramsey Russell: Man, I’m glad to be here. We’ve talked about my coming out to California during duck season since I’ve known you, and I’m finally here.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I can’t believe it. I’m so happy. It’s really a pleasure. Thank you.
How’d Yancey Forrest-Knowles begin duck hunting?
Ramsey Russell: I’ve been here for a while. I’ve been taking pictures, doing a lot of social media, and the inbox and the texts are blowing up. Most people aren’t aware that there is such a profound history and culture and serious amount of duck hunters here in California. To most of the world, myself included, if you believe everything you see on TV, California’s predominantly Hollywood glamour and surf boarders. But you obviously grew up a duck hunter. Is that true?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I certainly did. My earliest memory of my father is walking behind him, on the edge of a marsh, when I was probably about five years old. I didn’t actually get to start hunting with a gun until I was about eleven. That means that this year is my 67th opening day in a marsh, somewhere; mostly in California, but sometimes in New Zealand, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in western Europe, South America, Mexico, Canada. You name it. It’s provided a lot of opening days for me.
Ramsey Russell: Do you still remember your first duck?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I don’t remember my first duck, but I sure remember my first hunt. It was cold, and my dad wanted me to have a good time, and had to carry me out across the water. I was so small. I was probably, again, five or six years old. That particular hunt was near his home in North Carolina. Family had property, back there, and we hunted a lot along the Santee Cooper River. I know you’re probably familiar with that, being a Southerner. We hunted the swamps back there, and, I’m telling you, I think hunting is in everybody’s DNA. Some people get it tapped into. Some people get it tapped into real early. Mine was tapped into, and it happened to be ducks and geese. I love all types of hunting and all styles of hunting, but it’s the ducks that make me want to get up in the morning and get on the road. It’s almost an addiction. I know that’s a negative term, but I’ll tell you: I couldn’t imagine my life without being in the wetlands, often, during the year.
Transitions from subsistence hunting to market hunting to recreational hunting in California
Ramsey Russell: Well, it’s beautiful out here in California, and you captured my imagination. I was out here, three, four, maybe five years ago—I hope it wasn’t that long ago, Yancey—for the California Waterfowl Association State Convention, and you grabbed me up at the airport. It was late August, and we went spinning around Butte Sink. Even with it dry, and even with the duck season months away, I was blown away at the amount of habitat, and the duck clubs, and the dates on some of these duck clubs. It’s captivated my imagination, ever since. It took a while to get here, but here I am, really getting to see and experience a lot of what California has to offer. But you grew up in that environment. That’s right. You grew up here.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I did. As a matter of fact, this Suisun Marsh is one of the more well-known, more famous marshes in California. It still has about 150 clubs. There were about 250 clubs in this 90,000 acres of Suisun Marsh, at one point. This is the spot where subsistence hunting, and then market hunting, took place for California.
Ramsey Russell: How long ago would that have been?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: That would have been in the 1860’s. The subsistence, of course, started immediately when people came in, but the market hunting was very, very strong starting in the 1860’s. It continued on the west side of this marsh until people started getting a little more leisure time, a little more wealth, and individuals wanted to come duck hunting, then. To get here, it took them up to three days, from San Francisco. Now it takes about an hour and a half in a car, but it took up to three days. They had to sail here, and they had to tack back and forth across the bay and the different winds to get here. So when the individuals came in and started leasing all the land, and we no longer needed the market hunters, the clubs came in. It was right about the late of the 1870’s when you had your first clubs here. 1879 to be exact. Most of the clubs were on the west side of the marsh, originally.
The next thing that really made a difference and brought people into the marsh, besides the clubs developing, was the railroad coming in. As a matter of fact, the railroad is probably, nationally, what brought wilder areas, and more difficult areas to get to, available to the average man. Eventually, it became the automobile, of course, but it was trains that changed it. While we’re sitting here in this club house, you’re going to hear trains go by. This is the same track that was put in in the late 1860’s. They had four stops along this railroad, right here. Between the bay, right out here, about five miles down the road, the nearest town is Fairfield-Suisun.
The way people got here: they would leave San Francisco on the ferry, they’d come across to Oakland, they’d get on the train, they’d come all the way up to Benicia—which is the nearest large town, here. By the way, Benicia was one of California’s spots that was a capital at one point. Then the train would be barged across the Sacramento River. The train would come right past these ducks clubs. They had four famous stops, and you know where those stops are, today, because that’s where the trains still have to blow their horns. You drove across one of them when you came in here today. Then the train would go all the way to Sacramento. Then people would catch the electric train from Sacramento, and they’d go up to the Marysville-Yuba City area, where you just were. The wagon trains, the wagons and mules, would be there to pick them up and take them out to the Butte Sink duck clubs.
Ramsey Russell: It’s interesting that we talk about the railroad, because we had Robert Sawyer, a historian down in Texas, on recently. I’ve been up to Utah several times, met with Jack Ray and others. Back around 1879, 1878, when they connected the eastward bound and the westward bound railroads with a golden spike, right there in the Bear River Valley around Great Salt Lake. Same thing in Texas. Same thing in California. It was at about that time—because of that technology of the old choo-choo train—it was that time that hunting in America transitioned, drastically, from subsistence/market hunting to recreational hunting. In came this whole new era of conservation. It’s crazy, isn’t it, that sport hunters who come out, leave San Francisco, and take a train for a little bit and come up here and shoot ducks on the Suisun Marsh, or go to Utah, or down to coastal Texas, and shoot a bunch of ducks back in those days—that they chased out the market hunters to bring in hunting opportunities, quality hunting opportunities? To go out, to immerse themselves in nature, to shoot ducks, and hunt. A lot of the conservation laws that we have today, and ethos, started with that. That just blows my mind.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Absolutely. And, of course, a major milestone in that conservation effort, and stopping the market hunting, was 1918. 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It was actually between Britain and the United States. Of course, Canada was still part of Britain, at the time, and it’s gone on to include Mexico, since then. That’s been a major role, and you’re right. You’re absolutely right. It’s been waterfowlers who have saved the wildlife resource.
It took a lot of education to learn that we needed to save the resource. The biggest time, I think, in the US where this became a reality was the 1930’s. Especially during the Dust Bowl. We realized we couldn’t shoot a limit of thirty sprig every day, anymore. We had to dramatically cut that back. At certain times, certain years—we had a thirty-day season in California, in the 30’s, and we had the opening day starting at noon. There were all these things that were put into effect to help the conservation effort. They stopped allowing 8-gauge guns. You couldn’t use bait anymore. You couldn’t use live waterfowl decoys. All these things happened in the 30’s, and it was essential. If we hadn’t done it at that time—I’ll tell you what, we wouldn’t have the ducks that we have today. Another important thing that happened in the 30’s, in ‘37, was the forming of Ducks Unlimited. It just went on and on and on. But I would say that waterfowlers are, without question, the chief conservationists.
The Role of California Duck Clubs in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation
If we didn’t have private duck clubs, we wouldn’t have wetlands, and, thus, we wouldn’t have waterfowl in California. I would say the same is true for every state. – Yancey Forrest-Knowles
Ramsey Russell: Well, we always say—non-hunters don’t quite understand it, anti-hunters won’t accept the fact—that hunters are conservationists. Yes, we shoot the resource, but we grow an abundance of it. We provide habitat. We’re sitting here overlooking hundreds of acres of beautiful marsh, and all I see, out to the horizon, are ducks flitting around. They’re sitting there, just enjoying the resource, so that somebody, maybe, can go out there and shoot them tomorrow morning, or whatever. but they’ve got the rest of the day to themselves. You brought out a pretty good point, while reading your introduction, about the clubs. I know you’ve written books and written a lot of stories about the clubs in California. Again, like the trains, and hunters, and recreational versus market— Again, the duck clubs—there are people that maybe have an axe to grind against “rich private landowners” hogging up all the ducks, short stopping them, shooting them. But as I look at it, duck club members—the money, their money, that they put into the resource, into duck habitat, into improving waterfowl habitat quality so that they can go out a few mornings a week and shoot ducks—it benefits all of society. To me the duck clubs are—especially when you get out in this part of the world, out West, where water is such a premium—they provide such an essential component in the conservation model. That’s private landowners motivated by recreation, their recreational interests, that are providing societal benefit.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, I’m telling you, if we didn’t have private duck clubs, we wouldn’t have wetlands, and, thus, we wouldn’t have waterfowl in California. I would say the same is true for every state. As I mentioned earlier, we were five million acres of wetland, originally, in California, and we got down to less than one million. We’re back up—91%, to be exact, we’d lost of our wetlands. We have gotten back up to about 3.5 million acres, and that’s due, primarily, to duck clubs. But also the advent of federal and state refuges and the conservation wetlands, strictly conservation, the lands bought by The Nature Conservancy, or TNC, or Audubon, or others. But all of these, in conglomerate—we’re back up to about 3.5 million acres. It’s amazing. We still have 6.5 million waterfowl come into this state in the fall and winter. Originally, it’s estimated it was about 40 million, but we still have 6.5 million regularly. We still harvest about a million and a quarter birds, here in California. Can you imagine that with 40 million people? And you know why we do that? Because we were smart, and we bought these lands, and we learned how to manage them properly. Moist-soil management, when to water, when to take the water off, everything. For the sake, not just of waterfowl, but the four hundred wetland-dependent species. Waterfowlers are very generous. They love what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. It’s our life. That’s what I tried sharing earlier, that waterfowling is an integral part of who we are. Not just in California, but in North America. It’s part of the economic, social, environmental, and cultural parts of where we live and who we are.
Ramsey Russell: I would say that about duck hunting, in general. It’s not all about the trigger pull. It’s about the people, and the food, and the culture. I’m blessed to get to travel around the United States, around the world. A lot of times, it’s like walking through the pages of National Geographic magazine with a shotgun and waders. That’s what I love so much about it. It’s just the overall experience.
What’s it like to be a duck club hunter in California?
That sunrise, that being with a friend or a son or a daughter, the dog you work, the calling you do, the magnificent sights and sounds and smells that you experience. But it’s also about the human interaction. The camaraderie. Being with people who have similar interests, and cares, and concerns, and joys in life. Being in a club is one of the most unique things that a waterfowler can experience.
Ramsey Russell: Now, look, you’ve written some stories. I know that you have been to a lot of these clubs up here. What are some highlights? Tell us a little bit about a California duck club. Some of the fun stuff, the lighthearted stuff. Tell us some fun stuff about duck hunting, and what it’s like. What is it like to be a club hunter in California?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, first of all, it’s a privilege. It’s a real privilege. When young people ask me today, “What was it like when you grew up? Were the skies dark with ducks?” And so on, and so forth. I tell them, “Yeah, there were days where it was truly dark. Opening day, and some special storm days, and so on, and so forth. Or dramatic cold events that brought all the birds at once out of Canada. Yeah, the skies were dark on those days with ducks. But you know what was really different? We’d always have a place to hunt.”
Even the refuges that you hunted on—you could pull in Friday night in your car, and there might be a dozen cars in front of you. They didn’t have lotteries. Today, some of those refuges have four or five hundred people trying to get in on a 10,000-acre refuge. That was the big difference. As I mentioned, there are about 1,000 active clubs today. Some 2,600 clubs over time, in all of California. But, still, that’s pretty amazing. A thousand active clubs. All of the clubs enjoy inviting guests. Some of those are folks that are members of other clubs, but a lot of them are people that are not club owners. So this is the way that we try to share the incredible experience that we’re having.
Personally, I’ve been to over two hundred clubs in the state, and I’ve traveled 55,000 miles in this effort of interviewing and photographing and getting to know what our clubs are like in California. It’s an amazing range from literal little shacks that you’re not even comfortable going into, to these incredible places that are almost palaces. That’s being pretty flamboyant, in my description, but a great deal of money and effort and thought has gone into building them, because they are places where people like to be and they like to entertain. But you can be just as comfortable walking into that shack as you can in that magnificent building, if it’s a duck club, because the same thing brings all the people there. It’s their love of waterfowling and all that that means. That sunrise, that being with a friend or a son or a daughter, the dog you work, the calling you do, the magnificent sights and sounds and smells that you experience. But it’s also about the human interaction. The camaraderie. Being with people who have similar interests, and cares, and concerns, and joys in life. Being in a club is one of the most unique things that a waterfowler can experience.
The wonderful evenings, the cocktail hour, the hors d’oeuvres, the incredible dinners, the wonderful duck dinners. We all, most of all, enjoy the roasted duck dinners. All the anticipation about what’s going to happen the next morning. How different clubs select who’s going to shoot what blinds the next day. The draw, as we call it. The anticipation of all that is what excites us and makes us look forward to the next hunt. That duck club culture is very, very strong in California. It’s what’s going to make it so there will always be waterfowl and waterfowl hunting in this wonderful state.
California’s Butte Sink Duck Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Sure. When we went out and did our tour, that year, around the Butte Sink— I’m from the Deep South. And rice, big rice fields. It’s only 6 states, I learned this week. The entire American rice industry is limited to six states. California, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. All the rice industry that’s in the United States. Being from home, that’s kind of a big deal. That’s a good place to hunt. If you’re in an old rice field that’s on the X, let’s say, that’s a good place to hunt. That’s good habitat. So we were riding around, and they were just harvesting rice. A lot was going on, and you explained to me that that’s not really where the hunting, necessarily, is in Butte Sink. For example, in y’all’s camp, at the time, y’all had a significant rice field, and, because of decomposition, you flooded it, but you didn’t hunt it. You went off to another part of the property where you had established moist-soil, what you called the willows. I hunted the Butte Sink the other day, and it was natural and planted willow trees. It was smartweed, it was swamp timothy grass, a lot of just natural flooded, and that’s where the ducks wanted to be. That’s a very foreign concept to me, a Deep South hunter. Wow, I’m going to leave a rice field alone, and move over here, and hunt natural? Wow. That’s impressive.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, the Butte Sink is a unique place. It is, without question, one of the cherished—
Ramsey Russell: Why is it so unique? Talk about it.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I always say it’s the trees. You see these incredible green timber hunts, and dead timber hunts, in Arkansas. The classic photographs and films you always see in everything. Well, this is the closest thing to it. We have it right here, in California, in the Butte Sink. It’s the trees. We hunt in the willows and the oaks and the tulies and natural foods, especially the water grass and the smartweed, and we are surrounded. We’re about 50,000 acres total, with some thirty duck clubs, and we are surrounded by 500,000 acres of rice. There goes one of the trains right now. Could you see that? Yeah, it’s really neat seeing that and hearing that. But we are surrounded by 500,000 acres of rice. So these birds go out into the rice, and they feed at night. Then they come back into the clubs in the morning, and that’s what provides our shooting. Most of the clubs in the Butte Sink shoot to about ten in the morning. Some shoot till noon. Very, very few shoot in the afternoon, because we want to give those birds a place to rest—unencumbered, unpressured—so they’ll make sure and be there day after day after day. Most of the club houses in the Butte Sink are up on stilts, ten to twenty feet off the ground, because, quite often, Butte Creek itself—which runs through the middle—floods. When it does, you got to get out of there. It’s like an ocean. Yeah, it just changes overnight.
Ramsey Russell: Butte Creek will flood, but Butte Sink is just like this big natural depression. It’s just like a bowl. It’s like a washbasin, so it attracts a lot of water. I was hunting up there the other day, and at the club I was hunting at—it’s all moist soil now, but it used to be rice farmers—he said, “The problem was that Butte Sink would flood, and the ducks would just eat us out. We were fighting them. Finally, my granddad was like, ‘To heck with fighting ducks, let’s just turn into moist soil and make it a duck club. Make it a duck property. We’ll just capitalize on the ducks instead of on the rice, because we’re in this basin.’” Can you speak to what Butte Sink is, or how big it is?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: It’s about 50,000 acres, and it’s right next to what’s called the Sutter Buttes. Which is the only spot, matter of fact, in the whole Sacramento Valley that has any relief to it. It’s about 2,000 feet high, and it’s a beacon that waterfowl have been coming to for 10,000 years, here in California, now. They settle in the sink. It’s got this visual attraction, and they’re creatures of habit so they know that there’s food there. They know this 500,000 acres of rice surrounds it. By the way, the way you get the water in the Butte Sink is: you do have Butte Creek, but there are times when Butte Creek doesn’t have much flow in it. Of course, in the olden days—when I say olden days, I mean prior to 1912—they had to wait until the rains came to flood it. People didn’t always get to start hunting in the Butte Sink early. They had to wait until the rains came.
In California, they usually start mid to late November. So you may not have hunted, except in certain areas that were naturally flooded, until the first of December. But what happened was, rice came into California in 1912, this new crop. Before you can harvest your rice, you got to get rid of that water, so they would send the water down Butte Creek, and other creeks, and that would come in and flood up the Butte Sink. But the problem was that it was not dependable. Or, sometimes, they would send too much water. So in 1922, there was an agreement, called the 1922 Agreement, between the Butte Sink duck clubs and the rice industry. This was a guarantee that they would send their water down when they drained the rice fields, but in a controlled fashion. They had to send the water down, but in a controlled fashion. It was a reciprocal arrangement. That’s what gave some continuity to the Butte Sink. But, originally, it was just this incredible riparian habitat.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’d read something. For those listening, the Butte Sink is recognized as the world’s smallest mountain range. It’s tiny.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: The Sutter Buttes.
Ramsey Russell: The Sutter Buttes. That’s what I meant to say. The Sutter Buttes themselves. I’m sitting out here looking at a wetland in front of it with a bunch of ducks, so I wasn’t even thinking when I said that. But, yeah, the Sutter Buttes, smallest mountain range in the world. There’s some history going around it. Hunting, historically, some of the major expeditions back when settlers and military were moving in here.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: In 1846, General Fremont spent almost a whole month at the base of the Sutter Buttes. Some of his writings describe his men going out, and what they brought back to camp in a day for food. In one day, they’d come back with like fifteen elk, twenty deer, two hundred ducks. It just went on and on. I’m telling you, there were grizzly bears, too. California had a huge population of grizzly bears. They were a little bit smaller than the kind that you find in the Rocky Mountains, or Alaska, or other places, but still, nonetheless, real predators. They were a huge problem for the farmers and the ranchers coming in, and just the settlers in general. These were nasty animals. I think the last grizzly bear in California was harvested in 1921.
Yes, it’s a famous area, and it’s probably known throughout the world as being one of the preferred spots to duck hunt. All the blinds, or 99% of the blinds in the Butte Sink, are what we call stand-up blinds. We’re standing in these camouflage blinds above the water. That means that your dog, most of the time, is not seeing the duck that you’re shooting. You’ve got to have a great dog, well-trained, and they’ve got to be able to go out and follow those hand and whistle signals to get to that duck. A lot of tulies, lot of tulies, and it’s tough for the dogs getting around. A lot of the retrieves that are done are swimming retrieves. It’s not all shallow water. Originally, the first boats that were used in the Butte Sink were called tulie-splitters. That’s probably about a ten- or twelve-foot, thin boat that’s pointed at both ends. An individual would stand up in it with a long pole and pole his way out to the blinds. Then, in the 20’s, they started bringing in the first motors on boats to go out to the blinds. When they did that, they had to build their canals for the boats to get out in, because of course with the outboard motors the shaft would go down deeper and so on, so forth. What that did is, that gave deeper water to the Butte Sink in general. It was no longer a shallow marsh. I’d say the average water depth in the Butte Sink is knee- to thigh-deep. It’s just indescribable duck hunting. It’s just this classic image that we all think about in our mind, or we see in the magazines and the books. It’s a very, very special place.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday was my first time to hunt there. We got to the boat ramp, cranked up, we motored. It was a large, spacious, floating blind built thirty years ago. The boat pulls right up into the belly of it. Step on this little deck. Got to bend over, you can’t stand up, because it’s low. You get to the shooting deck, you stand up. The reason the boat cover’s so low is because I can shoot 360° around the roof of that blind. It’s built perfectly, set up nice, and it was a million dollar view. When the sun started coming up, and I looked to the East, there was Sutter Butte, right there. It was gorgeous. The purple water, and these little clump-looking things that turned out to be just smartweeds, grasses, clumps of tulies. Off in the distance, willows, and everywhere the ducks in the sky. My host said, “This is nothing. It’s not windy enough. This is nothing like what you’d see when there’s really a lot of ducks flying.” But in all directions I looked, it was like ants showing up to a picnic. It was just ducks flying in every which way. It was spellbinding.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: One of the other values of the rice properties surrounding—and going both north and south, east and west, from the Butte Sink—is that, when they increased their acreage about thirty years ago to where it is now—almost doubled it—ducks now go home with 25% more body fat than they did just thirty years ago. It’s been a great health thing for the ducks. Being able to go back healthier. Being able to do a better job at producing their eggs. So we consider agriculture our friend.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. I know duck hunting in some of the rice fields in the Sac Valley, we shot some pintail and wigeons that had more fat than any duck I’ve ever seen. They were as succulent as butter pats. It was unbelievable how good those ducks were to eat.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: You know when the rice hunting is really good? You give me some wind, some real wind, like today, and I’m going to go out in a rice blind. That’s where the good hunting takes place, in the big wind. Not to say that it’s any less than the Butte Sink, but it’s pretty neat being out there in the rice in a big wind.
Ramsey Russell: That’s where my buddy John Wills and I were today, duck hunting with Scott Feist, and everybody I have met, or seen, or talked to, kept talking about the big wind. The big wind. Well, every day I’ve been here, we’ve been hunting in ten miles-an-hour, enough to steer a duck. They’re like, “No, no, no. Big wind. Big wind.” We went out there today, and it was a big wind. We had a headwind walking in and a tailwind walking out. You could feel it. You really had to let those ducks get in right because—the minute you stood, the minute you shot—you got one or two shots, and then they faded real quick with that wind. But it was, I’d say, thirty miles an hour. And you’re right, I saw more ducks today than I’ve seen in the week I’ve been here.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I hunted once—and a lot of people will remember this, it has to be about fifteen years ago, now—the wind blew so hard, it was measured at 88 miles an hour in the Valley. They closed the Golden Gate Bridge for the day. Let me tell you, you want to talk about some duck hunting? We weren’t sure we wanted to go out at first, even, because it was kind of scary out there. You saw trees being blown over. You saw telephone poles being snapped in half. But I’ll tell you what: what a duck hunt. Man, it was wonderful. But, listen, as famous and as wonderful as the Butte Sink is, there are multiple famous wetlands. Both tidal, coastal wetlands and inland wetlands in California. Everywhere from the northeast corner, the famous Klamath Basin—I could talk for days about the Klamath Basin—to the northwest, up in the Humboldt Bay, where a lot of brand hunting takes place. You talk about coastal California, before the turn of the century, up to about 1920, especially southern coastal California? The duck hunting and the goose hunting was indescribable.
California’s Salton Sea Duck Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Would that have been like the Salton Sea?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: No, that’s inland. I mean right on the coast. I’ll tell you about the Salton Sea in just a second. But the coastal duck hunting in southern California—all the way from Ventura, all the way down to San Diego—was absolutely indescribable. Because it was like wilderness, almost. It wasn’t really wilderness, but people wanted to live in or near cities, in those days, so it was too far to travel. To try to live out there and get your kid to school, and to go shopping, and get to work, and so on, so forth. So the only thing they had on the coast, originally, down there were wheat farms and duck clubs. The water, as unbelievable as this sounds, was all artesian. There was so much water, at one point, down there. So the duck hunting was phenomenal.
You talk about the Salton Sea. Interesting story. 1905: the levees holding the Colorado River back break open. Colorado River comes in and floods this whole area in south central California and fills up this massive basin. It took them almost a year to get that levee reclaimed, to get it back into shape again and shut that off. Now, what happened after that was that they started growing a lot of lettuce in that area. The lettuce attracted wigeon. Tens of thousands of wigeon, every night, went into that lettuce, and it was just decimating the farms. So the ranchers and the farmers and everything really worked hard to get people to come over and set up duck clubs in the area. But what they did, soon after they were there, they convinced the federal government to set up something called the Feeding Program. And in this program—that went to 1989, actually—these clubs that enrolled had to sign agreements with the federal government, and they had to bring in so much poundage of wheat seeds every week, and had to put it in a specific spot, and to follow specific rules. For example, there couldn’t be any blind within two hundred yards of it, and so on, so forth. But I’m talking about a lot of pounds, like two hundred pounds of wheat seed a week. So this attracted sprig overnight. It attracted sprig overnight. The sprig hunting around the Salton Sea was phenomenal. When they stopped the Feeding Program—and this was done because certain organizations in the nation felt that this was really baiting so it stopped overnight, there was a federal lawsuit and they had to stop it—overnight, the sprig hunting died off everywhere in southern California. It’s come back quite a bit, actually, because a lot of those clubs are being rebuilt now—especially by the California Waterfowl Association—with mallard habitat. So the hunting has really come back in those areas. But all the way up the high desert backbone of California on the east side: little reservoirs and clubs all through there.
California’s Central Valley Duck Hunting
This little town of Drawbridge: 50% of the people that lived there were people who duck hunted, and the other 50% were people that just loved that environment and wanted to live there. Those folks lived there, made their living right there, duck hunted every day of the year that they possibly could. A whole town of nothing but duck hunters and people that wanted to be near duck hunters.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Then, of course, you have the whole Central Valley. There’s the north Sacramento Valley, and then the south Sacramento Valley is actually divided in two parts. The northern part is the San Joaquin Valley, and the southern half of it is called the Tulare Basin. There still are a massive number of duck clubs in the northern half, the San Joaquin Valley. The most famous area is called the grasslands, both the north and south grasslands. Still about 250 clubs down in that whole area. Then below that, the Tulare Basin had a lot of clubs up until about twenty years ago when it just got so difficult to get water in there. They still have a few clubs, and they still shoot a few birds in that area, but nothing like it was a long time ago. But I want to mention: in that Tulare Basin, interestingly, was the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. When agriculture moved in there, they started reclaiming it, of course. By 1905, it was fully reclaimed. It was the most amazing wildlife area in its heyday. You’ve probably heard of Lake Tahoe. You’ve probably seen the pictures, twenty-five miles by fifty miles. The Tulare Lake was twice that size. There were elk in there. There were deer in there. Untold waterfowl. There was a commercial fishery. It was shallow, it was about ten or twelve feet deep at the deepest. Multiple Native American tribes around it, and so on and so forth. Commercial fishery, where they went in there and netted these fish. Interestingly, there was a commercial turtle fishery for turtle soup, for San Francisco. It’s really an intriguing area. San Francisco Bay, itself, had some six hundred duck clubs over time. Some clubs would go, and others would go. There was a little town—it’s still there, it’s almost gone now, nobody lives there anymore—on the southeast corner of San Francisco Bay called Drawbridge. And there was a drawbridge there because there was a train that went down, and sailboats had to go underneath it. This little town of Drawbridge: 50% of the people that lived there were people who duck hunted, and the other 50% were people that just loved that environment and wanted to live there. Those folks lived there, made their living right there, duck hunted every day of the year that they possibly could. A whole town of nothing but duck hunters and people that wanted to be near duck hunters.
But the Bay; I grew up actually hunting on the San Francisco Bay, in the Palo Alto area. I can remember my buddies and I riding our bikes at ten, eleven, twelve years-old through town with our shotguns strapped on the handlebars. Riding our bikes down to the Bay, and nobody said a word. That’s how the culture has changed over the years. If you did that today, you wouldn’t make it a couple of blocks before the police would be called. It was not just where, because it was all of North America at that time. Our culture was to hunt, by the general society. Hunting and fishing was a way of life. And it was really nice. At 76 years old, now, it was really nice to have grown up in that time, in that generation.
Duck-A-Minute Bill Banta
I consider Duck-a-Minute Banta to be the most interesting waterfowler in California in the 20’s and 30’s. A lot of other people said the same thing, and I know that because—in the old newspaper articles I’ve been able to find, and other bits of research about Bill Banta—everybody said the same thing. He was an amazing hunter.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Yancey, all the research, all the history, growing up here for a long time—can you discuss some of the interesting and colorful characters in California duck hunting?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Yeah, you betcha. Boy, there’s been a boatload of them, let me tell you. One of the ones that I think you might find the most interesting is one that I’ve done some recent research on. Matter of fact, wrote an article on, most recently. This fellow’s nickname—or sobriquet, as you would say in French—was Duck-a-Minute Bill Banta.
Ramsey Russell: Duck-a-Minute.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Duck-a-Minute Bill Banta. This guy was famous in the 20’s and 30’s, here in California. Matter of fact, this marsh that we’re sitting in right now, this was his prime marsh. This was a preferred hunting area in the whole Bay area. Today, there are ten million people living within one hour of this marsh. It’s amazing that it’s been preserved. But I consider Duck-a-Minute Banta to be the most interesting waterfowler in California in the 20’s and 30’s. A lot of other people said the same thing, and I know that because—in the old newspaper articles I’ve been able to find, and other bits of research about Bill Banta—everybody said the same thing. He was an amazing hunter. An advanced sort of guy, for his times.
He grew up in the little town called Banta, which still exists, but it’s unincorporated, about 15,000 people right on the corner of Livermore, which is an East Bay town here in this area. Anyway, what he did was he developed a lot of duck clubs in California, and his duck clubs were always incredibly successful. The first one was just for membership. But, interestingly, all the ones afterwards were commercial clubs. People would come in and either get day shoots—pay for day shoots—or seasonal shoots. But the two that he had that were real famous in the Suisun Marsh: the first one was the Banta Club, and the second one—and that was, gosh, 1925—and then the second one, in 1931, when he left and he came back to the marsh, was called the Banta Gun Club. So that’s how those two changed, the Banta Club and then the Banta Gun Club. Each of these were about a thousand acres, and, you know, the most incredible hunting.
In between that, he went closer to Sacramento and the area called the Yolo Bypass, which is a wetland area that feeds into the famous Delta—another indescribably beautiful and effective waterfowl hunting area in central California. He had the backing of the San Francisco Elks Club, of all things. He went in, and he leased five thousand acres on a place called the Mound Ranch. Then the Elks Club got more interested in it, and they said, “Look, we want you to try to buy some of that acreage and build a special duck club for our members and guests.” He was able to help them buy a thousand acres of the Mound Ranch, which is nearest the town called Dixon, off of Highway 80, a little bit southeast out of there. He built a seventy bedroom club house, and they had incredible hunting there.
The thing that made it so incredibly interesting, to me, was that most of the hunters that went there were flown there in Bill Banta’s airplane. In 1926. Can you imagine that? In 1926, flying your guests, or members, to your own duck club? He was very advanced in a lot of respects. He was very advanced in bringing women hunting. A lot of women still hunted in those days. It was a way of life up until about World War II. Our society changed a lot right around those times. But women were prolific hunters. Matter of fact, historically, there were three all-women clubs in California, at one point.
I forgot to tell you how he got this nickname. He invited a lot of interesting people to come out and hunt with him. He invited the sports writer for the San Francisco Chronicle—that’s the paper that still exists, in San Francisco—and he brought him out to shoot with him. That guy was so amazed at what Banta was doing, he just sat back and watched. Bill Banta shot thirty sprig in thirty minutes, which was the legal limit in those days. So this guy nicknamed him Duck-a-Minute Bill Banta, and he was known that forever after. Commercially, professionally, he owned and ran hotels all around the Bay Area. But he made his fame in his duck hunting, and he’s not an unusual guy. There were a lot of really interesting people.
California’s Mega Clubs
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Today, we still have a lot of extremely interesting people. Some of these individuals built incredible private wetlands, and some people refer to them as the mega-clubs, in California. There’s about a half a dozen of them, but the important thing about these extra-large clubs, today, is that their owners really are committed to the conservation aspect of waterfowling and wetlands. They put tremendous effort—a tremendous amount of money, to be honest—into maintaining these wetlands. It’s kind of tough on some of the smaller clubs, or the rice lands, or something, because most of the ducks are attracted and want to stay on these larger clubs. But, let me tell you, they benefit from the bounty of these clubs also, when these birds do come off. I’ve hunted them. I’ve hunted them all, these larger ones that I’m talking about, and they are memorable in all respects. They’re strikingly beautiful. Well-planned, this diverse habitat for a variety of waterfowl, ducks, and geese. They are really quite spectacular. Up in the far north, you’ve got the Rancho Esquon. A little bit west of there, you’ve got Llano Seco. Coming down, you’ve got Bird Haven and Casa de Patos. Then you jump down into the Butte Sink and the amazing clubs in the Butte Sink. The largest one, the one that really has the most positive effect on the Butte Sink, is the Bearing Ranch in the northwest corner. Then you go down into the Delta and you’ve got Mandeville Island. This incredible 5,200 acre island, the unofficial refuge in the Delta, and everything that the owners do to really make it a healthy, vibrant habitat for waterfowl is so very, very important. So, yes, these gentlemen have created special places, and, I’m telling you, they have great benefits for waterfowl in California. It provides a very important role for that in California.
Famous Hollywood California Duck Hunters
John Wayne. Robert Stack, the Crosby’s, Clark Gable. All of these people were hunters because it was part of our national culture.
Ramsey Russell: Yancey, you’ve been around a while, you’ve hunted a while, you’ve got a lot of perspective. As we were talking about Duck-a-Minute, I got thinking about some of yesteryear’s Hollywood glam crowd. Totally different, then. Crosby, Rock Hudson, John Wayne; all those guys were hunters. There are several groups I follow online that post pictures of those guys, out here, duck hunting with pump shotguns and having a great time. What happened between then and now?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, one of those clubs is just down the road, here. It’s called the Family Club, and Bing Crosby and Andy Devine were frequent guests there. In that lower end of the Sacramento Valley—down in what I call the Tulare Basin and that wetland area down there—that’s where a lot of them hunted. Because they could leave the LA Basin where they worked—Hollywood—they could leave there, in a few hours they could get up into the Tulare Basin, they could have a wonderful evening, visit with their friends, party, have great meals. Get up in the morning, have a wonderful duck hunt, turn right around, and be right back to work by noon at the latest. Back on the set, or wherever they wanted to be.
It wasn’t just the actors. The directors and the producers and everything—they were all duck hunters. It was a different culture. You mentioned John Wayne. Robert Stack, the Crosby’s, Clark Gable. All of these people were hunters because it was part of our national culture. Let me tell you a really cute story. You’ll enjoy this one. In the Ventura area, on the coast—which is part of southern California. There are still three hunting areas, right there. You have the Point Mugu, you have the Ventura County Game Preserve, and there’s a missile base right next to it. All three of these have wonderful wetlands.
Anyways, Clark Gable initially belonged to the Point Mugu Club. In these days, most of the clubs were all-men clubs. A women weren’t allowed on the grounds at all kind of thing. Now, at Point Mugu, they had a big club house with rooms in it for people to stay, but they had three or four little cabins off to the side. Clark Gable had one of those cabins. There is a wagon, even to this day, at Point Mugu that carries the hunters out, drops them off at their blinds, and comes back to pick them up. Originally, that wagon—it’s a large wagon—was pulled by mules. Then, over the years, it was pulled by a big, old pickup truck, and now it’s pulled by four-wheel drive vehicles.
So, Clark had one of those little cabins. One day, the club president came by in the time period just before they took off to go to their blind. So it’s still dark outside, but there’s a little diffuse light coming over the wagon from the club house. The president looks over there, and he sees this diminutive body amongst all these men. He goes over, and he says, “Clark, you know you can’t bring a woman guest here.” He says, “But that’s Lauren Bacall. That’s my fiancée.” He says, “I’m sorry. She can’t be here. She’s got to leave now. And, if you ever bring her back, or any other woman, we’re going to throw you out.” I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, now. Clark Gable.” I’m just trying to imagine this. One of the world’s most popular, favorite guys. He’s probably thinking, “Oh, sure.” But several weeks later: same scene, just prior to being taken out. Club president looks over there, and he sees the diminutive body. This time, he goes over, and he rips her hat off. This flowing, beautiful hair comes flying out over her shoulders, and everything. Obviously it’s Lauren—not Lauren Bacall, but who was it? Oh boy, I’ll think of it in a minute. I can’t remember. Anyway, so: on the spot, Clark Gable gets thrown out of the club. Literally, he’s gone. He’s out of the club.
Let me tell you, about maybe ten years ago now, interestingly, a good friend of mine in southern California invited me over to his house and he was showing me this incredible collection of L.C. Smith shotguns. Biggest collection anywhere that I know of. Something like 125 L.C.’s. What a collection. Wonderful. Anyways, the last one we get to, we look at, and he says, “This is the gun that Clark Gable’s wife had made for him for her wedding gift to him.” He opened it up, and there’s the picture of Clark and his new wife.
Ramsey Russell: Franz Dorfler?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, I just didn’t remember— There was somebody else he married. No, there was somebody else. I’ll think of it.
Ramsey Russell: Frankly, he didn’t give a damn!
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I don’t think he did, did he? Anyways, it was nice to have this kind of full-circle story and then see the actual gun that was made for Clark for his wedding. And their picture of the two of them.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a great story.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: He actually got thrown out.
Ramsey Russell: That is a great story.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Can I tell you one more? A little bit south of that Yuba City-Marysville area, there’s an area called Wheatville. I went to visit a fellow there, and that guy, actually— Bing Crosby and he were best friends. Bing hunted a lot of places, but this is the place that he kind of settled towards the end of his life and spent most of his time. This guy told me two cute stories. One was that, while in his home, one time around Christmastime, his son—who was like ten or eleven years old—the phone rings, and his son picks it up. The response was, “Hey, Dad, it’s somebody named Bing Crosby for you.” He just didn’t know who this man was. The fellow comes up and spends about a week with him, duck hunting and everything, during Christmas. But the great story is, they walk out to the blind—and it was a rice field—they’re walking on the levee out to the blind in the morning, on Christmas morning. What is Bing singing? “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” You could just imagine that.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, that’s the good old days. Times have changed, haven’t they?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Boy, they really have. But the same things that excite us and are meaningful to us as waterfowlers, today, are the same things that were meaningful to those folks sixty, seventy, and a hundred and fifty years ago.
Favorite Duck Recipes
Ramsey Russell: Have you got a favorite duck recipe?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: I’ll tell you, I’ve cooked duck so many different ways in my life. What I do today is, I fillet the breast and back leg together, with the skin on. I’ll throw it in a Ziploc with straight teriyaki for an hour or more. Throw it on the barbie, real hot, 500-600°. Put it skin-side down, cook it for eight minutes. A nice mallard, cook it for eight minutes. I don’t even have to check it. I take it off, it’s perfect every time. If that skin has gotten burnt beyond good taste, I might even remove the skin or something. But the meat is perfect every time. That’s just my go-to recipe, right now. What I really prefer to eat is a sprig, a teal, or a wood duck. Of course, in California we’re so fortunate. We have phenomenal specklebelly goose hunting, especially up north. You know the nicknames: “ribeye in the sky,” “flying filet.” It’s given for the right reason. It’s indescribable. My wife and I, that’s our real preferred bird to eat. We’ll throw a couple of breasts down like that. I’ve had people over to dinner that have never eaten wild game in their life, and a husband or wife might say, “What kind of beef is this? This is the best beef I’ve ever had.” And I have to say, “You know what? It’s waterfowl. It’s goose, in this case.” It’s that good.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good. I think good, simple recipes are good to remember. I love—and I think it’s a California thing—the way y’all handpicked these birds, and filetted the breast and the leg, and left it attached with the skin. It takes 80-90% of the edible part of that bird. All the good parts. You can’t go wrong, especially with these super fat ducks out here. It’s unbelievable.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Even our diver ducks are good. They are real good. I heard you talk, a little earlier today, about shooting a ringneck. Some people go, “Oh, a ringneck, oh, blah blah.” Let me tell you, that was one of the preferred birds to eat at the turn of the century. It’s a great duck. I’m talking mostly if you’re eating them in freshwater, or brackish water, and not saltwater, of course.
Ramsey Russell: You think about a ringneck—I love to shoot them because they’re fun and sporting—but they’re an interesting diver. Where I hunt them, back home, and have hunted them, primarily, has been puddle duck habitat. So they’ve got a very similar diet.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Our ducks in California—except for bay ducks, of course—they pretty much eat the same thing they’re eating— Well, there’s a sequence of food that they’re eating throughout the season. The first sprig come here mid-August, and that’s another value of these private duck clubs, because they flood up early in anticipation of these birds coming in. The birds are going to eat the waste rice first. Let me tell you, there’s less and less waste rice, all the time. It’s about 1%, now, because of the efficient harvesters that are used. It used to be 10-12% waste. Anyway, so they’ll eat that rice, and then they get on those clubs, and they’ll start eating. If it’s down south, the swamp timothy; if it’s up here, they’re going to eat that water grass. Then they’re going to move to the smartweed, which gives up its seeds in December. Then they’ll move on to other things like bullrush, tulies, things like that. There’s probably two hundred different plants that they’ll eat in the Sacramento Valley. When that’s all finished, of course, what do they go to then? They need that protein. They’re going to get on those freshly-emerged insects once it gets warm. Of course, the geese, they’re going to eat all the fresh green grass that’s coming up before they go back North.
Waterfowl Conservation in California’s Klamath Basin
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: That brings up the Klamath Basin in the northeast corner of California. Interesting place. Originally, it was some 390,000 acres of wetlands, both in the very northern section of California and the very southern section of Oregon. The Klamath Basin transcends the border. It’s on both sides. Today, it includes six federal refuges up in that area. The second refuge, but the first waterfowl refuge in the nation, was Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
Ramsey Russell: Established by President Roosevelt.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Yes. 1908. Well, that lake was 90,000 acres at one time. It was huge. It was so large that they had steam-run paddlewheel boats on it. Those boats ran all the way to Klamath Falls, from that area. By the way, Klamath Falls was originally called Linkville, and they still have a Link River. But soon thereafter, something was established called the Klamath Project. What the Klamath Project did was start reclaiming all that land for agriculture and making land available for families to farm. Especially after World War I and World War II, where these fellows came back, and they needed a place to farm and a place to raise their families. Over time, we’ve lost the vast majority of the wetlands that we have up there. What the Klamath Project did was, everybody gave up their water rights to the federal government. And what the federal government did, in return, was to guarantee them water on demand. So that started drying up what is known as Tule Lake. Started drying up Lower Klamath Refuge. The two of the three refuges on the California side. As a matter of fact, from the 1910’s all the way up to 1940, Lower Klamath Refuge was totally dry. So when agriculture was through with its water each year, they’d send their water into Tule Lake.
That started expanding Tule Lake so much, back to its original size, that they had to figure out a way of getting rid of some of that water. So they built a 7,000 foot-long tunnel through a mountain range between Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake called Sheepy Ridge. They would pump that water, out of Tule Lake, back into Lower Klamath Lake. That was finished in about 1940. so the lake received water again, but, since that time, it’s been very precarious whether they can get any water or not because of droughts and other priorities. One of those priorities, a serious priority, came in 2000.
They had a horrible drought. Water really warmed up in the Klamath River, which is the main source of water for all those refuges. Something like 70,000 silver salmon died, which is the main source of protein for the several Native American tribes that lived downriver from there, and upriver from there at Upper Klamath Lake. We started losing the short-nose sucker and the Klamath River sucker, which are a main part of the diet of the Klamath Indians. The Endangered Species Act, ESA, came in to protect these fish. The first priority are ESA creatures, for water in that area. And the tribes, of course. The second priority is agriculture. There is virtually no priority for the refuges, whatsoever. We’re in a period of drought, now, where it has become so serious that there’s literally—other than one spot—there’s no water on the 90,000 acre Lower Klamath Refuge.
Now, what that resulted in this summer is, all the birds that would have been there went over to Tule Lake, just over the ridge. Settled in there. Masses of birds close together. No fresh water. Warmth, horrible hot summers. Avian botulism set in. We lost 60,000 birds this year. Many of them were birds that were raised in California, and we know that because, as we collected them to get them out of there, many of them had bands on them. The average bird was a six year-old California mallard that had gone up there to molt. We’re back in drought again, so it’s even going to be worse this year. A group of us, working with the California Waterfowl Association, developed what we call the Klamath Task Force. Our role is to get this refuge re-watered. We found a willing seller in southern Oregon and went to work on that process. We’re very fortunate, in December, to be awarded— This is, by the way, to get the minimum water that we need for Lower Klamath. Some 30,000 acre feet—it takes 90,000 to operate, optimally, but the 30,000 acre feet that we’re putting in there—the cost is $50 million. This is a huge lift. You can’t do it without the help of the federal government. We were considered for an award by the Secretary of Interior, David Bernhardt. In fact, we were awarded some 6.3 million per year, for five years. Not the full fifty million, but a significant portion of it. We were very, very excited.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a lot of money that can go to a very valuable cause for the Pacific Flyway and California in general. That’s a lion’s share of what you asked for.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Absolutely. We were so excited. A short time after, politics being what they are, and the transformations that are taking place right now, that was taken away from us. So depression set in. Serious depression, with us. Finally, we made up our minds, we were going to find this money somehow. Well, since then, we’ve received a good message that that funding might still actually come to us. If not, there are some wonderful foundations that are considering working with us. That’s our task force, that’s our main goal, to get that water back in there. If we don’t, I think you’re going to see that waterfowling will be affected in California within five years.
Ramsey Russell: If anybody was listening, especially if they were in California or elsewhere in the Pacific Flyway, what could they do? Is there anything that regular guys, like me, listening can do to affect whether or not y’all get that funding?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Yes. We want you to do two things. We want you, of course, to talk to your Congresspeople and let them know how important it is that they support the legislation that will be coming up, very soon, to fund water purchase for Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. The other thing folks can do is, they can go on the California Waterfowl Association’s website and follow the links to the Klamath Task Force. They can make a donation. According to their ability, of course. We have a need for working capital, at all times, for the efforts that we’re putting forth. All of us who are on that committee are all volunteers. We’re not getting a penny for this. So none of the money comes to us, of course, and it’s tightly controlled.
California Waterfowl Association
Ramsey Russell: I’m born and raised in Mississippi, and I support the California Waterfowl Association. I’m not aware of any other group like CWA. I’m going to meet with one of your biologists tomorrow and record him. There’s a lot the California Waterfowl Association does for California and for California hunters, right?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: I know you got Ducks Unlimited, you got Delta Waterfowl, you’ve got these other national NGOs, but for a state group— I’m completely unaware of anybody that even comes close to being what California Waterfowl Association is.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Well, I appreciate the support. I know you’ve had support for CWA since day one, Ramsey. There were some twenty state associations, at one point. Now, there’s only a very few. Probably the second largest is the one in South Carolina. Very active there. California Waterfowl Association started in 1945 as the Duck Hunters’ Association of California. Then, in ‘76, legally changed the name to California Waterfowl Association. Their roles are to protect our waterfowl and wetlands and our hunting heritage in California. I would say, emphatically, if it wasn’t for them, we would not be hunting in California today. They have very effective, full-time lobbyists that work both in Sacramento and in Washington, DC. They work very closely with the other conservation organizations, with DU and Delta Waterfowl, specifically. They do a wonderful job here. Fourteen full-time biologists and other employees that help duck clubs either develop or improve. They have incredible programs for youth and women in hunting, minorities, and so on and so forth. They’ve had to make a lot of growth changes, over the years, as federal funding becomes less and less dependable—or less and less in amount. Over the last ten years, they now own six wetlands themselves that they maintain, and provide hunting opportunities for community folks—especially folks who don’t have the ability, or don’t care to, to join a duck club. They can go in and hunt these properties with CWA. Again, you can go on their website, and you can follow the links. You can find out about how you can get involved. Dads and moms take their kids there and spend the night. They get up, and the guide shows up and takes them out and hunts with them. They all come back in and have their late lunch together. These are great opportunities for the average hunter. I can’t promote CWA enough. I was chairman of the board about ten years ago and had the opportunity to work closely with this incredible staff and board of volunteers. It’s a wonderful organization, and they’re dramatically affected by COVID, of course, like all organizations that need to do fundraising to exist. I can’t promote them strongly enough, support them strongly enough, and mention to your listening community: if you have any interest in helping them, please do. Go on there, CaliforniaWaterfowl.org, and see what might be of interest to you.
Reconciling California Social Scene with Duck Hunting Culture
Again, it’s not only about the ducks and geese. There are four hundred wildlife species that depend on these wetlands. It’s really a statement on who we are as people. If we keep them wetlands healthy, they help keep us healthy. I just don’t mean physically healthy, but emotionally and spiritually healthy.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to throw you a wild card. I got to ask this question. We’re fixing to wrap up, folks. You can just tell Yancey and I spend a lot of time in a duck blind, talking and visiting together. But, Yancey, I started off my trip, several days ago duck hunting on San Francisco Bay. We shot a bunch of divers, had a good time. My host, Charlie Barberini, said, “Is there anything else you’d like to go see and do while you’re here?” I said, “Yeah, I’d like to go see downtown San Francisco. Big city. Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and Haight-Ashbury.” So we go down there. We leave this wildness of the San Francisco Bay—shooting ducks, and the beautiful mountains and everything in the background, all this good stuff—and, all of a sudden, we’re right at the epicenter of the hippie movement back in the day.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Haight-Ashbury?!
Ramsey Russell: Haight-Ashbury. But I’m going to ask you, because you were a young man. I tried to do the math—I’m not very good, and I ran out of fingers—but I tried to do the math. You’d have been in your teens and twenties when all that was going on.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: In my twenties, really, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Of all the United States, and all the places in the world they could have gone, what was it that attracted those young free spirits to that street corner? to right here? Why to California? Why to that part of California? Why not, I don’t know, Midland, Texas? Why not somewhere else? You got a guess on this? How did it all start right here in San Francisco?
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: That’s where the famous bands all lived. All of those bands that provided the music. The Grateful Dead, especially, and many others. Jefferson Airplane, and you could go on and on and on. They were all right there in the Haight-Ashbury, and that attracted so many others. Each state has its uniqueness, but the social scene in California is very special. Look at LA: you’ve got Hollywood! San Francisco is one of the five or six most vibrant and special cities in the whole world, I think. Paris would have to be in there, of course, and a few others like that. Then, of course, one that I’ll just throw out, for other reasons that you and I both would agree about, is Buenos Aires. The Paris of South America. Hey, anybody out there that hasn’t been yet: you don’t know what you are missing. I don’t mean just the social life, I mean the great hunting and fishing that’s available in Argentina. It’s my favorite place in the world. If I was twenty years old, or not married, I’d be there in a heartbeat. What a special country. But the center of that, of course, is always Buenos Aires.
Ramsey Russell: That answer it, the rock bands, the movement— What a special time. I wanted to bring that up because when the rest of the world thinks of California, that’s what you think of. You think of San Francisco. You think of the conspicuous vocal minority politics of California. You think of the Hollywood people and their opinions. But that’s not California. This is California. 90% of this great state could be just any Mayberry R.F.D. in the Midwest that you pick. It’s just regular folks that have a profound hunting culture. It’s such a contrast. It’s such a little part. Just a street corner. A street corner in this great big state defines it to people that haven’t been here and experienced what I’ve experienced this week in the world of duck hunting, or heard your story.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: But also, Ramsey, you’re the kind of person that attracts that special part of humanity that means so much to all of us. You are the epitome of that. You attract people, and people are attracted by you. You have the ability to find and seek those special corners of each town, and special people in each town. You know, we’ve got forty million people in this state.
Ramsey Russell: Forty million people. I wondered how many people there were. Forty million!
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: It’s absolutely amazing.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fifteen times the entire population of Mississippi.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: Yeah, and we have some of the most incredible waterfowl hunting in North America right here.
Ramsey Russell: But it didn’t happen by accident.
Yancey Forrest-Knowles: No, it happened because we have waterfowlers and others who are also conservationists, and they understand the value and importance of maintaining these special wetlands, keeping them healthy. Again, it’s not only about the ducks and geese. There are four hundred wildlife species that depend on these wetlands. It’s really a statement on who we are as people. If we keep them wetlands healthy, they help keep us healthy. I just don’t mean physically healthy, but emotionally and spiritually healthy.
We’re very fortunate to still have some 55,000 duck hunters in California. We sell about 60,000 duck stamps, but about 5,000 of them are duplicates or collectors’. But 55,000 dedicated, passionate waterfowlers. Again, about a thousand clubs. About forty federal and state refuges. And I will say, with cautious optimism, that we’re going to see even better hunting in California. If we can just get guaranteed water, we’re going to see wetlands increase. We’re going to see waterfowl increase, and people will always be able to hunt ducks and geese in California. It might be that you’re going to have to either hunt on a refuge, or be an owner or a guest at a private club, but you’re still going to have places to hunt. Again, you can hunt on California Waterfowl’s properties. Do you know that San Francisco Bay is still almost entirely open for hunting? You can go a variety of places in San Francisco Bay and still hunt ducks. I don’t just mean divers, I mean great puddle duck hunts. Wetlands have an amazing ability to heal if you just treat them right. If you get them water when they need it, and you keep that water clean. They’re always going to be prolific places for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species.
Ramsey Russell: Amen. Folks, y’all have been listening to my good friend and hunting buddy Mr. Yancey Forest-Knowles, sitting here in the Suisun Marsh of California. An amazing state. You guys that like to jump in a pickup truck or hop on a plane and fly somewhere to hunt? Hey, California duck hunting belongs on your bucket list. I don’t have any USHuntList outfitters here. Yet. I’m just saying, as a duck hunter—the public land hunting opportunities, the private land hunting opportunities—there’s a tremendous amount of hunting opportunity here, a tremendous waterfowl culture I was surprised to experience. Anyway, thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. I’ll see you next time.