Pondering pintails

"Here they come!"

Those words ring true to every waterfowl hunter's heart.

Your gun is clutched in hand as you peer over the edge of the blind at those specks in the sky that are approaching your decoys and growing larger by the second. The adrenalin rush kicks in as the heart rate climbs. Your retriever is quivering with excitement, silently giving you that "Go for it, man, and don't miss" look.

It's not close enough to see the whites of their eyes; but you sure can see the whites on their breasts and the sharp white line that runs up the sides of the cheeks.

"Pintails," you grumble as the flock of chocolate-headed, white-chested males with long, pointed tails and their brownish-gray mates come into range. Stand down.

Quite frankly, pintails are swarming in California's Central Valley, but the bag limit is only one per day. So, hunters these days are doing a lot of pintail watching as the numbers of these beautiful birds move one to ponder how bag limits and seasons for waterfowl get set.

Not to be confused with the Bahamian pintail, Anas Bahammensis (which has a red on the sides of its bill and white cheek patches like a giant ruddy duck), the Northern pintail, Anas acuta or "sprig," breeds globally in northern regions all around the world. Northern pintails are found in Scotland, Iceland and Scandinavia and are quite common in Russia, as well as California's Central Valley.

The pintail once was one of the most abundant ducks in North America, as common as the mallard. But as a result of drought and loss of grassland breeding habitat, the pintail population has been in a steady decline since the 1950s, when it exceeded 10 million.

In 2001, the breeding population of pintails was estimated at 3.3 million birds, substantially below the North American Waterfowl Management Plan objective of 5.5 million.

The last waterfowl count at the Central Valley's Sacramento Refuge complex in early December reported that out of 2,222,332 total dabbling duck, 1,062,602 were pintails. In contrast, there were 161,737 mallards, 285,622 greenwing teal, 453,458 widgeon and 168,686 shovelers.

There are more pintails there now; I can assure you of this because I have been sitting in blinds and watching them.

And there are at least that many more pintails living quite comfortably outside the refuges. The other day a half-dozen were sunning on dock in San Francisco Bay right beside a busy road.

Pintails are pretty, maybe even elegant. In courtship flight, with several striking white-chested males chasing a hen, they are very entertaining. But so are the other ducks, ibises, cormorants, willets, curlews, cranes, geese and swans that are milling around the rice fields.

I'm talking about equal rights, here, and from the seat in my duck blind I think that pintails must have an inside track with the feds.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 gave the primary authority for managing all migratory birds across the nation to the Department of Interior of United States government.

In 1951, the International Association of Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners passed a resolution that created the four Flyway Councils — Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic — to give the states some say in setting regulations and creating conservation programs.

Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service sets the frameworks for the waterfowl regs, then negotiates differences in season length and other factors with each council. This past year they consulted their biologists and looked into their crystal balls and came up with a nationwide limit of one pintail per day and a 60-day season.

There were more than 10 million Northern pintails in North America in the l950s, so the present pintail population of roughly 3.5 million is certainly cause for concern and conservation.

However, pintails don't spread their numbers equally nationwide. I hunted Lake Erie in the l950s and l960s, when pintails were at their highest concentrations, and I only bagged one and can't recall seeing more than a handful. Then I moved to California.

California has a hunting secret. It has some of the best waterfowl hunting in the U.S. The state is divided into five zones, each with slightly different season dates and lengths ranging from 105 days in the northeast to 99 days in the balance-of-the-state region, which includes the Sacramento Valley.

The overall bag limit for ducks in California is seven per day, with some restrictions: only two hen mallards, four scaup, two redheads, one canvasback and one pintail per day.

In addition, out here in pintail central, the pintail season is 60 days, which in the balance of the state is Oct. 18-Oct.26 and Dec.6-Jan. 25.

Personally, I only shoot drake pintails, or "bull sprig," when they are in season. But identification of female pintails on the wing is not easy. Hen sprigs can even be difficult to identify in the hand, and I have a master permit bird-banding license.

If a mixed flock of hen pintail, hen widgeon and gadwall comes in, I defy you to accurately ID the species.

The limit on canvasbacks, which are easy to pick out, also is one bird per day. But according to Ducks Unlimited, there are less than 500,000 canvasbacks in North America. That is sad.

In Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, the ultimate limit of ducks was all male canvasbacks, or "bull cans," as the real duckbusters called them.

The limit on redheads is two per day, yet DU says the number of redheads stands at about 700,000, only a quarter or a fifth the number of pintails.

Ring-neck ducks also buzz by the decoys in the Sacramento Valley. You can take a full limit of ring-necks, yet the ring-necks' breeding numbers average around 500,000 a year.

There are somewhere around 2.7 million gadwall, but you can take a full limit of seven gadwall a day.

The limit for lesser scaup, which number about 3.3 million, is four per day during the full season.

So from my duck blind, as clouds of pintails swish past, my question for the feds who set seasons and bag limits for waterfowl is, if the population of lesser scaup, gadwall and pintails is roughly the same, why is the bag limit allow four scaup per day with a full season or seven gadwall a day for a full season, yet we are only allowed only one pintail a day and restricted to hunt about half the full season?

In addition, why do we have a nationwide limit on pintails of one per day, when, according to Bill Gaines of California Waterfowl, about 70 percent of the pintails in the U.S. come to California every year for the scenery and flooded rice fields?

My dog really wants to know this. If I can't explain it to him soon, he may get nasty and refuse to retrieve even that one bull sprig a day.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.