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The Duck Club - Part 1 of 2

IRVINE —  Way back in the late 18th century duck hunting began in the Back Bay of upper Newport Bay, on up into Bolsa Chica and most likely Los Alamitos Bay and down into the lagoons and tidelands south of Oceanside and into Mission Bay. Remnants of old levies, cement duck blinds and remnants of a few of the old duck clubs still remain.


Upper Newport Bay is located under a major portion of the Pacific Flyway and each fall millions of puddle and diving ducks, along with other shore birds, use this wetland as a stop over both heading south in the early winter and again spending a few days on their northerly migration to nesting grounds in Canada and beyond.


As a youth growing up in Newport Beach, this hunting editor, can recall trips made to the upper Back Bay on a bicycle to dig out spent ammo from the bluffs that were used for plinking for decades after the end of WW II. I can recall sometimes my father would drive us to one of the many spots to set up a makeshift range where he would shoot his vintage Springfield 30-06, with armor piercing bullets, in the sandstone cliffs. During these trips to the upper bay, especially on Saturday morning, you could often hear sounds of shotgun blasts from an area farther inland. My dad said, "The shots were from duck hunters at some very fancy private duck clubs that boarded the wetlands of the upper bay."


I started working for Western Outdoor News back in 1966 and some of my first advertising accounts were the gun stores of Orange County and the greater Los Angeles area. The Grant Boys in Costa Mesa were a good account and the place where I purchased my first shotgun. It was a Remington Model 870 and I paid the amazing retail price of $69, plus sales of tax of a couple bucks.


One of my first duck hunts took place at Irvine Lake, which at that time had floating blinds in the middle of the lake, and allowed duck hunting on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the waterfowl season until noon. The birds that flew to this lake were those pushed off private duck clubs in Irvine. After liftoff at those clubs it only took a few minutes for the birds to show up at Irvine, Rattlesnake and Strawberry reservoirs or the old duck club at Peter's Canyon.


In addition to the ducks heading off to those nearby small lakes, many would return to the upper bay. Information passed on, told of public hunting in Newport's back bay during the first half of the century along a spot known as the "firing line", which was closed to duck hunting prior to the 1950's most likely from pressure of duck club members and the fact that Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Irvine had growing populations.


It was during that first season of shooting this hunter was drawn to stop by the Sprig Club on the Irvine Ranch, which was part of a collection of private clubs that were established and shot very well prior to the development of the Fluor Corporation and other industrial properties; as bean, pea, pepper, asparagus and other farmed crops began disappearing and fewer and fewer ducks used the traditional flyway. These crops offered up great duck food and the birds had a nearby loafing area in Newport's back bay to escape hunting pressure.


Driving into the Sprig Club, on a gravel road, with the twin blimp hangars in the background was quite a sight as flocks and flocks of sprig, gadwall, wigeon and teal lifted off roadside ponds. A knock on an wooden screen door of the old duck house didn't get a response. Soon there was a Chesapeake Bay retriever that came bounding around the corner with a kind of mean look in its eyes and he was followed by a young man carrying a shovel.


"Who are you looking for, what are you doing here and didn't you see those no trespassing signs on the road," asked the caretaker(I don't really recall his name, but let's call him Chris) in a very stern voice.


After introducing myself I told him I was just interested in finding out more about the Irvine Duck Clubs he settled down and invited me into the veranda of that club. It was like walking back into history. He willingly showed me around and we sat at an old claw footed oak table covered in an olive green WWII army blanket. He said that members sat around that table the night prior to a duck shoot where they drank and played poker.


We talked about duck hunting and how good it was at the clubs and the fact that members would not ever allow a non-member to shoot at any time, unless it was as a special invited guest of a existing member. Over the course of the next couple of weeks I stopped by the club and just talked with the caretaker. One day Chris finally said that maybe he could sneak me in for an afternoon shoot.


The next Wednesday I showed up at 2:30 p.m., after all the members had left, and Chris pointed me in the direction of one the better shooting blinds and told me not to shoot anything except big ducks. On the way out to the blind I flushed a wild native pheasant out of some thick cover and harvested a huge ringneck, which to this day is still mounted in the trophy room.


The hunting was awesome to say the least and a fine limit of big puddle ducks was harvested in short order. Chris, the caretaker, met me in the parking area (I know he was watching me at a distance all the time) and we talked about the future of the clubs.


"All these clubs are going to be bull dosed down in the very near future. The ponds will be drained and the entire area will become big industrial buildings. I think one of the clubs is going to be relocated close to the streets of Culver Dr. and Harvard Ave., where there is still some farming going on, but for the rest of these old clubs, there will be nothing left. The fact that much of the farming on the Irvine Ranch has already moved there really isn't much in the way of good duck gunning remaining," (as I recall) was how Chris summed up the shooting.


"Jim, I think I can get you back out to hunt at least one more time before this club is destroyed and why don't you bring your wife Toni along to share in what might be one of the last duck hunts to take place on this historic club," said the saddened caretaker.


Toni and I would shoot another afternoon and harvested full limits of big birds. Later that week the call came that right after the end of the season the Sprig Club, along with the rest of teh Irvine Duck Clubs, would be leveled and hauled off to a dump site and all the ponds would be drained and flattened ending a duck hunting era.


End of Part 1; Part II: Bull dosing, antiques and the new Duck Club, to be published in next week's issue of Western Outdoor News.


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