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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist
For some, there aren't many things as exciting as sitting in a cold duck blind, sipping a hot cup of coffee and anxiously awaiting the last few minutes before shooting time. To the east, the orange glow of the soon-to-be-rising sun sets the stage for that moment of moments when the first flight of birds appear, dark silhouettes against the growing light, peeping, whistling or quacking to announce their presence over the decoys placed a half hour before.
A light breeze moves the blocks enough so that they look alive, doing their work of luring unsuspecting birds into thinking they are the real thing. Without the indispensible fakes, ducks would land haphazardly around the pond, failing to come into shotgun range.
Down the shoreline, a hundred feet away, a feeding great blue heron stands, still as can be, waiting for a fish or other aquatic creature to swim within reach of its spear-like beak. Extremely cautious at all times, the hunter knows his own camouflage works or else the pterodactyl-looking bird would have left the area, croaking and squawking its displeasure at being rousted from its stand.
A half-hour before the actual sunup, shooting time arrives, and within minutes, the first flocks wing overhead. They are mallards, whistling wings announcing their arrival, and those in the blind become motionless, depending on the natural cover of the blind to conceal their location from the prying, binocular vision of the greenheads.
There they are! Wings locked and losing altitude, the flight of eight birds, necks craning and looking for possible danger, circle over the water, drawn closer and closer by the decoys' irresistible and magnetic appeal. One hunter blows on his call, not loud, but just softly enough to alert the birds that they are welcome here, in this spot, to share the food and flock together for safety and companionship.
To a waterfowl hunter, there is no greater feeling in the world than when the birds commit. Wings backpedaling, orange feet down and each looking for the best place to land among their newly discovered friends, the mallards descend into shotgun range.
Take 'em! Take 'em now! Shotguns up, barrels swinging, the shooters stand and fire, again and again, until all their rounds are expended and the remaining, unscathed ducks climb high and fly away. Birds splash into the water, creating huge geysers as they smack onto the surface, most dead on arrival.
The event is over in seconds, and then another single shot explodes, killing the only bird still alive before it can swim away. A sharp command to the Labrador and he's off, a running leap into the frigid water to retrieve the first kills of the day.
This is duck hunting, and for many waterfowlers Saturday marks the reopening of the season after a two-week hiatus. Since the first-half closure, ducks by the thousands have been piling into local hunting clubs and out at the Kern Wildlife Refuge.
More than 20,000 mixed waterfowl species have recently moved into the popular hunting Mecca west of Delano, and predictions for the second half in the Southern San Joaquin Valley Zone are definitely brighter than for the early season opener. This is good news for the local duck clubs because many birds will be driven from the refuge to scatter around the valley floor, ensuring at least decent shooting for those paying high dollars to hunt them.
The refuge continues to receive its monthly allotment of water, and with close to 3,000 acres already inundated, nearly 50 hunters will be allowed to enter on a first-come, first-served entrance after the drawing. On the last shoot on the last day of the first half, hunters took a nearly five-bird-each average to finish in the top three in the state.
Mallards made up the bulk of the birds, followed by gadwalls, shovelers and teal. Units 1A and 2, plus several blinds, including the ADA1 blind, will be open to hunting.
Tickets are on sale for the Sportsmen's Night event at the Kern County Fairgrounds on Nov. 26. For the first time, this year's event will honor a Family of the Year, Mark and Karen Gardner and their daughters Kayla and Amanda. Tickets can be purchased at all the usual outdoor oriented establishments around town and the price has remained the same as in previous years. Many prizes will be raffled, including lots of guns and other outdoor-oriented equipment. At least half the prizes go to the kids in the crowd.
Aqueduct bite improving
Some nice stripers are being caught out at the concrete canal as water temperatures decline along with the moss. Anchovies, gitzits, pile worms and crankbaits are all taking their share.
Isabella catfish still red hot
Channel and white catfish continue their torrid bite at Isabella Lake. Best bait seems to be hotdogs, shrimp and liver. "Hebrew National" wieners (not a joke) seem to be the best overall bait for fish running up to and in excess of 10 pounds each.