Slim pickings

Local waterfowl butchers struggle with slow hunting season

Former Sacramento resident Lennie McClain couldn’t find a job anywhere until he started picking ducks.

Former Sacramento resident Lennie McClain couldn’t find a job anywhere until he started picking ducks.

Photo By S. Howard Bransford

Duck season was still on when I first wandered into Broadway Bait, Rod & Gun, a hunting supply shop located halfway between the Tower Theatre and Andy Nguyen’s vegetarian restaurant. A marshy smell hit me when I opened the door, covering the rubbery scent of hip waders and steelhead lures. Mostly it was a bouquet of wet feathers, moss and algae, but the scent of blood was hard to miss.

Chris Fulster Sr., the owner of the place, guided me into the back of the store to show me the source of the gamy aroma. We stopped just outside an area lit up as bright as an operating room. A snow of duck feathers swirled at the threshold.

Inside, two women in surgical masks were cutting at a pair of mallards, chatting in a language I couldn’t understand. Fulster, 76, said they only spoke Chinese, and I tried to talk to them anyway, but they just waved me off with their blades. “Too ugly,” they said in stern voices. It was hard to tell whether they were talking about the bloodstains on their shirts or the grim task at hand.

Bait, Rod & Gun is one of only a handful of places in Sacramento that offers duck picking, a seasonal service for waterfowl hunters. His workers do what most shooters like to avoid—plucking and gutting the birds they bring down in the surrounding marshlands.

Even with a near monopoly on this little-known trade, Fulster said he’s not turning a profit like he used to. The 2008–09 duck season, he said, will go down as one of the worst on record. At season’s end on January 25, business was off by about 30 percent. He blamed meager rainfall and warm weather for the shortfall, as ducks tend to be more active in stormy weather.

“It’s just not flowing,” said Fulster, who declined to give the exact number of ducks that workers picked in his store this season. “This is the worst year I can remember.”

An hour’s drive north to Colusa County, where flooded rice fields and exclusive gun clubs draw waterfowl hunters from all over the nation, veteran duck pickers are complaining just as much.

The conversation was glum around the ever-smoldering fire pit at RGB Duck Picking, a place housed in an old tractor garage in the town of Colusa. Idle seasonal workers warming by the flames said they’ve had plenty of time—too much time, in fact—to knock back Budweiser and talk about seasons past.

Rande and Joyce Brookins, the owners of the place, remember years when thick flocks of fowl scoured the fields, coalescing in the sky like giant parasols.

“You could go out in the evening,” said Rande Brookins, 53, “and the sky would be black with birds.”

The shooting came easier back then, they said, and so did the money. In years such as 1999, when RGB logged in 9,879 ducks, the profits rivaled what Rande made from his full-time maintenance job with Colusa County.

This year, however, only 3,347 birds came in.

“This year has not been profitable for anyone,” said Joyce. “Not for the kids who work here and not for me.”

RGB, a Colusa institution since the 1970s, employs a seasonal crew of about five, mainly folks who need cash to help them through the winter months. In this corner of the Sacramento Valley, job prospects disappear when harvests end and growers lay off employees until planting season, pushing unemployment rates as high as 20 percent. That makes duck picking a vital industry to folks such as 23-year-old Lennie McLain, who interviewed while running a mallard through a picking machine.

As he spoke, a knob-covered drum spun fast under his hands, tearing feathers from the bird’s torso until there was nothing left but pimpled skin. Later he’d singe off the leftover plumage with a propane torch.

“Pretty much all it is out here is farming,” said McLain, who drifted up to Colusa after tiring of life in Sacramento. “Until I started picking ducks, I couldn’t find a job anywhere.”

The talk of the Sacramento Valley is Brent Nobles, another duck picker based in Colusa. Nobles has had a record year. Hunters brought roughly 6,000 birds into his shop, and his taxidermy business is booming. Yet Nobles, who learned to pick ducks at the Brookins’ shop, said his success probably has more to do with his location than anything. Six years ago, he opened up shop a block away from a local guns-and-ammo store, making him a decoy for drop-ins.

On the last day of the season, Rande wasn’t nearly as cheery as Nobles, but he seemed determined to make it through the tough times. A good crowd showed up to stand around the fire pit, and with the whiskey bottle passing, people began to talk about next season.

“As long as we’re not losing money,” Rande said, “our doors will stay open.”