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A Great Day's Sport on Warner's Ranch.
Think of three days in the open! Three glorious days in the sunshine! "Far from the madding crowd!" Far from the rush and stir and whirl and hum of business! Far from the McNamara horror, and its sickening aftermath of jury bribing!
A short time ago, whirling over good roads and bad roads, through orange groves with their loads of fruit, rapidly assuming golden hues; through miles and miles of vineyards, now 'reft of all leaves, vineyards in which the pruners were already busily at work; past acres and acres of ground being prepared for grain; through wooded canyons and pine-screened vales; ascending from almost sea level to upwards of 3000 feet - a party of us went to Warner's Ranch after the famous canvasback ducks.
We left my home at 7:30 o'clock a. m., some of us in my machine, and two of the party in a runabout. Filled with the ambition of youth, the driver of the latter car reached Mr. William Newport's place in the Perris Valley, a run of seventy-six miles, in two hours and twenty minutes. We jogged along, reaching Newport's in three hours, and found the exultant, speed-crazed fiend waiting for us. He was loud in the praise of his speedy run. Of all of this take note a little later in the story.
We lunched with Mr. Newport, and then took him with us. What a day it was! A radiant, dry, winter day! The whole earth was flooded with sunshine. Not a cloud was in the sky. The air was full of snap and electric energy. The atmosphere absolutely clear. We wound in and out of the canyons, over dry and running streams, always ascending, climbing the eastern shoulder of Mt. Palomar, not to the top, but to a pass by which the ranch is reached.
Before 4 o'clock we were on Warner's Ranch. This property could well be described as the "Pamir" of Southern California. True, its elevation is but slight compared with the 16,000 feet of that great Asiatic country, bearing the name of "Pamir," where roams in all his freedom the true "Ovis Poli" or "Big Horn."
The ranch comprises about 57,000 acres of land, and is the largest body of comparatively level land at even an elevation of 3500 feet in Southern California. It is an immense circular valley, rock ribbed and mountain bound. Out of it, through a narrow gorge to the southwest, flows the San Luis Rey River. The ranch is well watered. Much of it during the winter season is semi-bog or swamp land, and at all times affords wonderful grazing for stock. There are circling hills and level mesas and broad valleys here and there. Nestled between the hills are a number of mountain lakes, fed by innumerable springs around their edges. These lakes furnish food for the canvasback duck in the various grasses and other growths, of which they are extremely fond.
Contrary to good judgment, we drove to one of these lakes, and had half an hour's shooting that evening. We got about twenty birds. We proceeded to the hotel, and after drawing our birds, hung them up where they would freeze that night and not be in the sun while we were shooting next day.
A cold north wind was blowing, which whistled mournfully through the cottonwoods, and suggested a night where plenty of blankets would be more than acceptable.
The hotel is situated at the Warner's Hot Springs, celebrated throughout all of Southern California for their wonderful curative properties. The proprietor, Mr. Stanford, and his good wife, made us comfortable, and were as accommodating as we have always found them. After a good supper we proceeded to our rooms and got ready for the next day's slaughter. Well into the night the wind whistled and blew. It finally went down. Then the temperature began to fall. The thermometer went to 29 degrees before morning. Wherever there was a thin surface of water, there was ice.
We did not get out very early. It is not necessary at Warner's. The ducks fly from lake to lake when disturbed. If too heavily bombarded they leave the valley. We breakfasted about 7 o'clock. Taking our guns and ammunition, we started out over the frosty roads for the lakes. As we reached the lower ground the frost was heavier. I found the surface of one small lake solidly frozen. At the larger lakes there was just a little ice on the edges. We distributed our men to the various lakes, and the shooting began.
Say, neighbor, did you ever hunt those big mountain canvasback? If you have, you know the story. If you have not, I am afraid I can not give you a correct impression of it. Sitting in a frozen blind, all at once you hear the whirring of wings, far off in the sky. Before you can locate the source of it, "Swish!" an old Can goes by. You look at the streak of light he leaves in the atmosphere. Then you hear another far-off alarm. You seize your gun as the gray mark passes overhead at about 125 miles an hour. You shoot at it and realize that you have shot just fifty feet behind it. Another one comes by. Bang! again goes the gun. You have done a little better this time, but you are yet not less than thirty feet in the rear. Again you try it. Just a few feathers fly. You are alarmed now, and there comes to you the admonition of an old duck hunter, who laid down the following three rules for duck shooting, viz:
"First, lead them considerably.
"Second, lead them a little more than last time.
"Third, still lead them further yet."
The next time you get your bird, a great big, magnificent Can. Kerplunk! he falls into the water, or with a dull thud, he strikes the ground with force enough to kill a horse if hit squarely by it. What a bird he was! How beautifully marked! How bright his wing! How deep his breast, compared with any other duck in the land! How magnificent the dark brown, velvet coloring of his head! How soft and satiny the white streaked back!
All over the valley the guns were booming. Out of the sky, a mile away, you would see ducks flying rapidly, suddenly crumple up and plunge to the earth or water.
Ducks Go Skating.
In a lull in the shooting I left my blind and went a quarter of a mile away to the little lake mentioned before as frozen over. I crept up to the top of a hill and looked down upon it. Although the sun was high in the sky, the lake was still frozen. It was surrounded by ducks. I don't want to say that they were skating on the ice. I saw one old canvasback drake, however, peck at another duck. The latter squawked and waddled out of the way, going where the water should have been. When he struck the ice, he slid for quite a little distance, balancing with his wings in a most ludicrous fashion. While cautiously watching them, I saw this performance repeated several times.
There was no hope of my approaching them within shooting distance, so I stood up to arouse the ducks, hoping to send them to my companions. They filled the air with a great clatter of wings, and circled off to various portions of the valley. I heard a great bombardment as they crossed the other lakes, and I knew that someone had taken toll from them.
It was a beautiful day, with cloudless sky. The sun's warm summer like rays were in marked contrast to the icy breath of winter, encountered at sunrise. What a grand sunrise it was! From behind the mountains of the East, up out of the depths of the Salton Sea, Old Sol first illuminated the sky, the mountain tops and wooded ridges to the southwest and north, and then with a rich show of crimson coloring, he suddenly vaulted into the sky, touching with his golden wand each frosted leaf and frozen bush and tree, and hill and vale and mountain top.
We shot with varying success during the morning hours.
Many of the ducks, especially the larger ones, circled high in the air like miniature aeroplanes, almost beyond human vision. How they sped on frightened wings, gradually going higher and higher, and finally darting off over the eastern rim of the valley in the direction of Salton Sea. Just before noon time my companion at one of the lakes, and myself, gathered up our ducks and hung them high in a tree at the water's edge. We then went to another lake by which the autos stood, where we had agreed to muster for lunch. The entire party were in high spirits, and pronounced the sport the best they had ever had.
After lunch two of the party in the runabout drove out of the valley to some place familiar to them. They returned later with the limit of jacksnipe - big, fat, thick-breasted, meaty looking birds.
My companion and myself returned to our blinds. The duck flight during the fore part of the afternoon was exceedingly light. I managed to land, among others, a beautiful canvasback drake. Shortly afterwards I stopped as fine a Mallard drake as I ever saw. This was the only Mallard killed on the trip.
In the gathering shadows of the coming night we drove back to the Springs. Seven guns had killed 118 ducks, fifty of them canvasback. There was a fine sprinkling of sprig, redhead, widgeon, plenty of teal, bluebills and some spoonbills, all fine, fat birds. Then there were the jacksnipe.
Tired and happy we dined. Until retiring time, we lived again the sport of the day. When we sought our beds, sleep came quickly, and I do not think any of us turned over until it was time to get up. We had packed our belongings, taken on gasoline and breakfasted, and started homeward a little after 7 o'clock.
We visited another section of the country known to one of our party, and fell in with some mountain pigeons, and in a couple of hours managed to kill sixty-eight of them. Talk about shooting! Oh, Mama! How those pigeons could fly! And pack away lead! No bird I ever saw could equal them in that particular.
Even at close range, a well-centered bird would, when hard hit, pull himself together as his feathers flew in the breeze, and sail away out into some mountain side, quite out of reach of the hunter, undoubtedly to die and furnish food for the buzzards or coyotes. We had to take awful chances as to distance in order to kill any of them.
While looking for a dead pigeon that fell off towards the bottom of a wooded bluff in some thick bunches of chapparal, I heard the quick boof! boof! of the hoofs of a bounding deer. I did not see that animal. An instant later, in rounding a heavy growth of bushes, I saw a magnificent buck grazing on the tender growth. He stood just the fraction of a second with the young twig of the bush in his mouth, looking at me with his great luminous eyes, and then he made a jump or two out of sight. Strange that these two animals had not fled at the sound of our guns.
A game warden hailed us and insisted on seeing all our hunting licenses and on counting our ducks. This privilege, under the law, we could have denied him, but we were a little proud of the birds we had, and as we were well within the number we could have killed, we made no objection to his doing so.
As a result of its speedy run the day before, the runabout had for some little time been running on a rim. We left its occupants, who disdained our help, putting on a new tire. After a beautiful run we again reached the Newport place, where we lunched. The car did not appear. We hated to go away and leave them, as we thought they might be in difficulty. We telephoned to Temecula and found they had passed that point. About two hours after our arrival they came whirling in. They had had more tire trouble. They took a hasty lunch, and we all started together.
We made the home run without incident. Spread out in one body our game made a most imposing appearance. Besides the 118 ducks there were 50 jacksnipe and 68 fine large wild pigeons.
Such days make us regret that we are growing old. They rejuvenate us - make us boys again.