A local hunter speaks out

02/04/2016

The two most recent editions of the Light featured a letter by Roy Nee, titled “Restrict duck hunting,” and a Q&A by Mark Dowie, with his friend Hammy from the Midwest. I wanted to offer a reply, and hopefully some useful information that has not been presented in a forum like this since the issue was debated some years ago. 

First off, I am a duck hunter, and I hunt in the Tomales Bay Ecological Reserve. When I began, in 2005, I did extensive research and talked to every entity with jurisdiction over the bay in order to learn about boundaries, regulations and access. At the time, just a few locals were hunting there. That has all changed in recent years, in large part because of the publicity brought to the area by the group Action Tomales Bay. 

In California, public hunting opportunities are disappearing at an alarming rate, so hunters are reluctant to give up any opportunity that currently exists. When Action Tomales Bay launched a campaign to end all duck hunting on Tomales Bay—a mission they are still actively pursuing, according to their website—I and another local hunter approached some of the people behind the organization to propose ideas we had about a reasonable compromise. We met with indignant opposition. No one was interested in talking with us. So the group took the issue to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, before whom we each said our piece, and the commission voted unanimously to leave things as they were. We won a victory, but the outcome could have been very different. 

Unlike in Midwestern states, there is very little public access to land in California. As a result, we have state and federally run wildlife areas, refuges and ecological reserves. Hunting is not permitted on all of these lands, but it is on some. The refuges are managed and maintained for waterfowl, bird breeding and habitat. Fees from hunting licenses and state and federal duck stamps, along with daily and seasonal access fees paid by hunters, contribute greatly to the funding of these lands. 

If there was no hunting on any of these lands, 98 percent of public hunting access in the state would be lost, and these lands would be left to seed. I think we can all agree that government funding would not take up the slack. 

In this state, and in surrounding states, these lands are the migration lanes. There is not enough natural habitat left. We have developed it all. California has lost over 80 percent of its wetlands to development. Hunter-sponsored organizations like Ducks Unlimited and California Waterfowl Association have preserved, restored and maintained over 600 million acres of wetlands in the United States, Canada and Mexico. No other nature or environmental organizations have come anywhere close to these groups when it comes to wetland preservation. Without duck hunters, there would be no ducks. Read the history of how Ducks Unlimited began. We are the original conservationists.

That said, duck hunting on Tomales Bay would be considered marginal by any hunter’s standards. There is no “wholesale slaughter.” Action Tomales Bay suggests that a hunter could take seven ducks and up to 25 geese per day for the entire 100-day season. I have never come anywhere close to these suggested numbers, and I am an accomplished hunter. Tomales Bay ducks are the wariest, smartest and most elusive of any ducks I have hunted in 35 years of waterfowling. In addition, the tides are unpredictable, the mud horrendous, and getting stranded is a real possibility. It is not a great place to hunt, from a “killing birds” perspective. 

Mr. Nee gives some poor information about the use of a shotgun and how it performs on game. This is how a shotgun works. Pellets exited from a shotgun shell are controlled by a constriction in the diameter of the barrel, known as a choke. This constriction controls the density of the pattern of pellets and is designed to put more pellets in a lethal pattern. Steel shot is not as effective as lead, but lead shot has been outlawed in the take of waterfowl since 1991. So chokes evolved as a result. 

Hammy expounds on the lethality of shot consisting of steel or bismuth. He notes that many ducks are now simply injured from the same shot that was previously lethal with lead. Modern steel shot loads are lethal, period. And bismuth is more lethal than lead was, and vastly more expensive. I was around in the lead days, as perhaps Hammy was. Crippled birds are not a fault of the shell, but of the shooter. Crippled birds are a fact of bird hunting. It happened then, and it happens now. How often depends on skill. 

A head shot does a clean job of it, but is not required for a clean kill. A pellet in the neck, as Mr. Nee mentioned, will not provide a clean kill; what matters is targeting the vitals. With the lethal energy of today’s modern waterfowl loads, more pellets are put on the vital target and the vast majority of pellets pass cleanly through the bird, resulting in a more humane death. 

Anyone who thinks there is no skill in waterfowl hunting has never tried it. Ducks fly fast—real fast. They are not easy to hit. And a shotgun is by far and away the most lethal and humane way of doing so.

Mr. Nee’s idea of hunters using “automatic rapid fire” is absurd. Fully automatic weapons of any kind are illegal in California. Current federal law restricts the use of shotguns capable of holding more than three shells in any combination, so for an individual hunter to fire five or six shot volleys he or she would be breaking federal laws. I would personally report anyone I knew to be hunting with excessive shell capacity. Semi-automatic shotguns capable of holding no more than three shells are legal. 

Hammy also mentions five-shot semi-automatic shotguns. Again, illegal on a national level for the take of waterfowl. He also opines that semi-autos wound more ducks than “traditional” shotguns. What? Gas-operated semi-auto shotguns are designed to greatly reduce the recoil felt by the shooter. 

If a shooter feels less recoil from his or her firearm, thereby becoming less fatigued over the period of a hunt, wouldn’t that contribute to greater concentration, less flinching and overall accuracy? The answer is yes. 

This season I fired a total of 19 shells while hunting Tomales Bay. I killed 12 ducks. More than some years, less than others. Of these 19 shots, some were before 8 a.m., and most were not. None were after 5:30 p.m., when the legal hunting day is over. I picked up my empty shells, I picked up trash and fished it out of the water. I left the marsh better than I found it, every time. My father taught me to respect the game I was pursuing, and told me I had a responsibility to ensure I was doing everything possible to dispatch that game as quickly and humanely as possible.

I understand that the shooting is disturbing to some residents, I really do. I get it. I hunt Tomales Bay for the same reasons many others pursue outdoor activities in this amazing area. Perhaps we should all ask ourselves what that reason is. Most will say “Not to kill!” Well, that is one’s choice, and one is entitled to it. Will you allow me the same courtesy?

 

Nate Dorris is a hunter, fisherman, conservationist, crabber, forager, camper, husband and father. A resident of Fairfax, he has been plying the waters of Tomales Bay for nearly 40 years. One hundred percent of the game he kills goes to feed his family.