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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist
Saturday will mark the opening day of what I like to call my "If it flies, it dies" season. Nearly every game bird in the state becomes legal fodder for hunters including the second 'half' for doves, quail, chukar, pheasants, ducks, geese, turkeys and even snipe. While the drought has made a huge impact on some of the upland birds, they're still many choices hunters can make to enjoy their activities.
When I was just a kid growing up in Buttonwillow, there was rarely a shortage of game because the land outlying the tiny community had all four necessary factors for growing wildlife--food, cover, edge and water. Pheasants, for example, were everywhere because the local farmers grew lots of feed in the form of milo, rice and wheat, and there weren't many orchards of any kind around the valley floor. Cotton and alfalfa fields provided the birds with a place to raise their young because the outer edges of the fields were never 'clean-farmed' and the long-tails had plenty of cover from predators in the form of ditches, brush piles, non-tilled ground and heavy field growth.
When I first hunted ring-necked pheasants, hunters were limited to just ten birds per season, of either sex, and one had to purchase tags that, if memory serves me right, cost a whole $2 for the set. Every time we bagged one of the birds, we'd have to immediately wrap a tag around its leg, and we couldn't kill more than two in a day. If we didn't tag each one, Pat Campbell or Bob Fischer, the local wardens, would get a chance at writing a citation, so my brother and I were always very careful.
Eventually, the old two-week-long season became a 6-week season and the either sex rule became a male only harvest with a limit of a pair on each day of the opening weekend and then three per day for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, just about the time the DFG allowed us to go after the birds in earnest, the farming conditions collapsed up and down the San Joaquin Valley and pheasants were long gone. I rarely, if ever, see a wild bird any more and it makes me sick to see how the necessary agricultural changes have decimated their numbers.
Don't forget to get your tickets for Sportsmen's Night, November 26th at the Kern Fairgrounds. The gala evening features a huge raffle, dinner and fun for all. This year marks the first time the committee has honored a "Family of the Year", rather than a "Man or Woman of the Year" and ticket prices remained unchanged.
I've tried to get drawn for a Kern National Wildlife Refuge duck hunts for over fifteen years and I've never been drawn--not even once! Okay, that's the luck of the draw, I understand, but there needs to be some way for a local to get into the state-run system to hunt at sunup at least once in a while without having to go through the on site, daily lottery system at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.
Dutifully spending $1.34 (used to be $1.00) for each reservation application I've either sent in or bought on line, they've added up to a bunch of cash over the duck seasons of my life, feeding the state coiffeurs with 'free cash'. I've also twice purchased the necessary 2012 and 2013 non-refundable entrance permit one needs to get in if he is drawn that costs over $20. Each time a hunter enters the refuge, the pass must be renewed, but if one is not drawn all year long, then the pass is lost and a new one needs to be purchased the following season. I'm getting tired of financing the whole darned DFW's waterfowl hunt program when I see some hunters being drawn three, four or even five times to hunt.
I discovered that I am not alone in my disappointment. Lots of other local hunters cannot get into the prized waterfowl Mecca because so many other hunters from up and down the state apply and get drawn instead. Oh, there will be disagreements about that, I'm certain, but I've seen it myself.
I would like to propose a point system for hunting the refuge, the same way the DFW does with special big game hunts. Each time a person doesn't get drawn he gets a single preference point and when he or she amasses a certain number of rejections, he gets an automatic 'In'. When someone does get drawn, then they immediately start over at the end of the line, building points for each rejection notice they amass until they're drawn again.
I would still leave the 'sweat line' in place, but at least some of us might be able to enjoy a few quality hunts if we had the right opportunities.