Ducks Galore on These Washington State Wetlands

Duck hunter (Ryan Bersen) w/Labrador Retriever & Mallard(s) by GaryKramer.net, 530-934-3873, gkramer@cwo.com

Gary Kramer, Correspondent

Editor’s note: Correspondent Gary Kramer has found a bonanza waterfowl hunt in Washington State. Enjoy!

Washington State, specifically the Columbia Basin in the eastern portion of the state, ranks second only to California in the number of wintering waterfowl and the number of birds harvested among the states in the Pacific Flyway. Historically, waterfowl were attracted to the Columbia Basin because of the region’s major rivers: the Columbia, Yakima, Snake and their marshes and backwater sloughs.

However, wintering populations were limited by the amount of available food. That changed in the late 1950s when center-pivot irrigation came to the basin and farmers planted vast acreages of corn. Waterfowl, particularly mallards and Canada geese, began wintering in increasing numbers, and by the late 1970s, waterfowl populations peaked at more than a million birds. The combination of abundant food and secure resting areas on private lands, the Columbia River, national wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas brought waterfowl to the Columbia Basin to stay.

Within the basin, the Moses Lake/Othello area near Kennewick/Pasco/Richland is a major waterfowl migration and wintering area. Here the waterfowl magnet is the 23,000-acre Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and several state refuge areas. The region is a combination of rugged cliffs and canyons, marshes and potholes surrounded by agricultural land dominated by irrigated pastures and grain fields. This concentration of waterfowl and the consistent hunting they provide has attracted a number of guides to the area. Even though public hunting is available on the refuges, many people use guides because the area is vast and the private leased lands offer better hunting.

Last fall I spent several days at Eagle Lakes Ranch (509-488-4484; http://eaglelakesranch.com) near Othello, Washington, owned and operated by Mike Bernsen. The Bernsen family has been hunting the basin since 1952. They have more than 200,000 acres of land owned or leased for hunting.

Most of the duck hunting is over water, and with more than 100 lakes, ponds and wetlands available, there are plenty of areas to choose from. Among these are 30 or more flooded ponds in corn fields, many with aerator systems, so they never freeze even when the temperature drops and much of the basin is solid ice. The season-long open waters and thousands of acres of nearby corn make for epic duck hunting.

All hunting is from well-concealed blinds (stand-up, floating, pit and portable) with a guide to do the calling and a trusty retriever to fetch the birds. I hunted three days and limits of seven ducks were the rule rather than the exception. The bag is about 95 percent mallards. Though I did not hunt geese, Eagle Lakes offers both field and water hunting with the bag about 70 percent greater Canadas and 30 percent lesser Canadas.

Although most locations in the US have a “prime time” during the season, Eagle Lakes appears to produce all season long—early migrants and local birds in Oct. when the season opens and the main wintering population in Nov., Dec. and Jan. Some birds never leave the basin even during a deep freeze because of the food and open water. The waterfowl season in Washington is Oct. 14 to Jan. 28, and limits are four Canada geese and seven mallards daily (only two hens). Other ducks have species restrictions.

Hunters stay in an exquisite 16,000-square-foot lodge atop a hill overlooking the Columbia Basin. The centerpiece of the great room is a 30-foot-high fireplace. Nearby is a big-screen TV room with an adjacent dining area and bar. The food is excellent and there is a great selection of Washington wines. The lodge offers 12 nicely furnished double occupancy suites with two queen beds and en suite bathrooms. There is a pool, hot tub, sauna, conference room and sporting clays course.

Per-person rates for hunt packages, including guide, food, lodging and bird processing, is $800 per day for ducks or geese and $1,075 for duck/goose combo hunts. It is not necessary to stay at the lodge to book a guided hunt. Guided daily hunts without accommodations are $350 per day for ducks or geese and $625 per day for duck/goose combo hunts.