Ducks on the Upper Klamath
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Randy “Hellfire” Gleysteen looks out onto Upper Klamath Lake in search of bluebill ducks.

The beautiful Upper Klamath Lake is one of the best places for duck hunting in Oregon. I spent a chilly weekend there hunting bluebills between the Cascade Mountains with old pro John Jones.

Here’s a photo galleryfrom the trip.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Randy “Hellfire” Gleysteen watched a bluebill duck sweep below the clouds surrounding the Cascade Mountains and flutter across the platinum grey surface of Upper Klamath Lake.

He raised his 12-gauge shotgun above the golden-brown strands of marsh grass as the bird’s fast, uniform wingbeats brought it ever closer to the decoys we’d set out earlier that day.

WAH-HAM!

WAH-HAM!

WAH-HAM!

Gleysteen’s preferred method of duck hunting involves unleashing such a furious round of shotgun blasts that even if he misses, the noise might well bring the bird down via heart attack.

“I think I’ve shot through a hundred dollars worth of ammo this morning,” lamented Hellfire Gleysteen.

But on this occasion, the 34-year-old Medford resident’s aim was true. A shot stunned the duck in mid-flight and it dropped like a sinking knuckleball into the lake.

At that moment, Repo the dog launched himself into the lake with a scramble of paws and a high-pitched yelp, swimming through the cold murky water toward the downed duck.

The chocolate lab arrived back at the boat with a mouth full of feathers and promptly celebrated with shake of fur that saturated everyone in the boat.

“Good dog, Repo!” said John Jones, the leader of our hunting trio. “Great shot Randy!”

On a frozen weekend in the Cascade Mountains, I went hunting for bluebill ducks in the Rocky Point area of Upper Klamath Lake.

The first serious snowfall had arrived and the entire shoreline was dressed in white. We scooted around the lake in a flat-bottom boat, hiding in marshy islands and wearing enough layers of clothing to feel almost mummified.

Our group consisted of two amateur shooters, myself and Hellfire, along with one old pro, John. The 73-year-old has been duck hunting the Klamath for 40 years and knows every nook and cranny of Oregon’s largest freshwater body.

That wisdom would be needed. Duck hunting is a sport reminiscent of baseball. There are long periods of stillness punctuated by fast, furious action. And it’s over just as quickly as it began.

“Keep watching them,” Jones would say as a group of bluebills flew in the distance, out of range. “If you don't shoot at them right away, they'll often circle back for a closer look.”

o o o

John Jones is a teacher, duck hunter, entrepreneur and Italian philosopher all wrapped into one.

Although into his eighth decade of life, his energy and wit, and the way his eyes sparkle after telling a joke, make him seem a much younger man.

After a glass of wine he will dispense advice and then test you on that advice later to make sure you were paying attention — something that comes naturally considering he was a teacher at Grants Pass High School (1969-77) and Rogue Community College (1977-79).

On cooking:

“To make something taste good, the four ingredients you need are enough garlic, salt, olive oil and onions.”

On women:

“Find one that’s your best friend.”

And life:

“I want to live long enough that I can enjoy drinking my own wine, go duck hunting and admire pretty girls.”

Jones owns a hunting cabin on Rocky Point, which is large enough for friends and family but small enough to be inherently comfortable. It has the feeling of an old college buddy’s place.

The main attraction, though, is the view through a large glass window.

Upper Klamath Lake spreads out like a titanium disc between the Cascade Mountains, a landscape turned golden in late afternoon and bright red during morning.

The lake itself is strange. Despite being the state’s largest freshwater body, at 20 miles long and 8 wide, it’s extremely shallow. And although the lake is slowly dying, being gradually turned into marshland, it’s teeming with life.

Particularly birds.

There are white pelicans and red-wing blackbirds here, along with gulls, terns and ibises.

There are egrets, herons, and grebes, along with one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the United States.

There are scores of ducks, too.

An estimated one to three million ducks and geese migrate through the Klamath Basin each October and November, including mallards, pintails, buffleheads and teal.

And, of course, bluebills.

o o o

The taste of coffee lingered on my tongue as we dusted the snow off John’s hunting boat and headed onto the water.

It was an overcast day, and the mountains disappeared into clouds that created a grey ceiling above the long, empty lake.

Our first stop was the narrow point of an island covered with enough marsh grass to conceal the boat and ourselves.

We dropped a small flock of decoys into the lake, an integral part of duck hunting that I’ve always found interesting. The idea, of course, is to trick ducks into flying over to join their buddies.

The history also is interesting. Native Americans made decoys from cattails and other vegetation, while market hunters created beautifully painted wooden decoys in the late 19th century.

A particularly sinister method of creating decoys was to use live ducks tethered to a rope or weight, though that practice has long been outlawed.

Our decoys were of the standard plastic variety, and it didn’t take long for them to begin attracting their live brethren.

The best part of bluebill hunting is that they come fast, whipping past the boat like a small, flapping streak.

It all happens so quickly, in the flash of an instant, you have to be prepared to raise your shotgun at unexpected moments, tracing the flight path and picking the perfect moment to unload.

Gleysteen struck first, downing two birds from the point of an island.

Later that morning we drove the boat to a different spot, this one overlooking a wide swath of lake with two islands draped in snow in the distance. It was here that the hunting really took off.

Flocks of ducks populated the sky in every direction, like specks of pepper that grew larger as they came into range.

There were times they’d whiz right past our boat, causing myself and Gleysteen to turn the previously serene lake into an apocalyptic war zone of shotgun bursts.

Each time a duck escaped our fury, flipping us the metaphorical bird as it hightailed it out of sight, John would chuckle.

“There,” he’d say, “flies a dead duck.”

Despite more than a few misses, Hellfire eventually bagged his limit — three bluebills and seven ducks overall. I downed two birds, a performance that was poor but not quite broadside-of-a-barn awful.

We hunted all morning and afternoon, but eventually collected our decoys and dead ducks and headed home in the late afternoon’s golden hues.

Rays of sunlight had cracked through the grey ceiling of clouds and washed the lake and islands rich shades of yellow.

In the distance, we could see the dark specks of ducks in the sky and on the water, totally impervious to a hunting trio that had come and gone on a frozen day on Upper Klamath Lake.


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