Kings in Grass Castles: Mai Mai life
There's an old saying that three things mark a great experience: the anticipation, the doing of the thing, and the recollection afterwards. If that's true, then there is nothing in the world of hunting that has exactly the same qualities as Duck Season op
Here in New Zealand, Duck Season opens the first weekend in May, a date blocked on calendars across the country.
The regularity of the season and the need for a licence means anticipation is built into the whole experience. In the lead up, decoys get a touch of paint and dogs are given a refresher course in manners and retrieving. Favourite dams and stretches of river are scouted and old friends line up for what might be an all too rare moment each year.
A blind might be put up months in advance, or an old one repaired. It is not a casual undertaking because a good blind (to Kiwis, a mai mai) is never actually finished. Opening day, for many guys, is Man Christmas, and it wouldn't be the same without a little castle somewhere out in the swamp or on the river.
I've seen some duck blinds that looked like they need approval under the Building Act, with dog doors, benches, bird hanging rails, bunks, the whole shooting match — though to be fair, I've seen a few houses that could be mistaken for duck blinds too.
Beginners often think a mai mai needs to be completely undetectable but that's not true. Many put a lot of effort into making them invisible from the ground rather than the air, which is a waste of time unless you expect your ducks to walk in.
Truth is, the best blinds are placed to get flyways, the wind, the trees and the light just right. Is it a spot to use the sunrise, or the sunset? If conditions change, can you actually get to it and back?
Weird things happen. Once, our decoys, placed so carefully the night before, showed in the morning light as nothing more than lumps stranded in mud. A strong gale had swung and simply pushed the lake away. Now, there's a lesson for new players.
In some locations pegging day is a big annual event with its own culture, rules and controversies. Check the regulations but generally speaking, in New Zealand, holders of a season licence can claim a public stand a few weeks before opening day, provided they mark it with their licence number on time and actually show up at opening hour. If not, all bets are off.
Legally, only one stand can be claimed, so again we're back to location as the >>
>> number one factor to think about. It's worth doing, in some cases because the stand might be especially well built (mai mais over water can be a sod to put up) or even just a very historic one. Some have been in use for generations.
Whether strung together from grass and manuka (tea tree) or dug securely in the earth, a mai mai provides a totally different form of shooting to walk up. I grew up dam busting and loved every moment, but the birds are invariably headed sideways or away. To drop them cleanly meant penetrating layers of thick, supple wing feathers or bone. By contrast, decoyed birds present an opportunity to hit vital organs easily. Well, that's one theory anyway.
My first opening day was a long time ago. Wind and rain drove in waves past the mouth of the blind while occasional small flocks whistled past in the dark. Finally, the first muffled crump of guns sounded in the distance. Out in front of us, a mob of decoys pitched and bobbed in the chop, set up to allow birds to come in toward us with the wind and sun in their face.
A high flock of blacks — known in New Zealand as greys — swung past with the gale at their back and were gone before anyone could see them properly. Only one bird split off, wings cupped hard and losing height in a dizzy zigzag. In Britain, geese spiralling down and spilling air over their wings in this kind of sizzling tack are said to be ‘wiffling', but in the keen wind it sounded more like the ripping of a sheet. With a final twist of air through taut wing tips, he too pulled away unscathed before anyone could recover from the shock of his descent.
The old guys had a laugh about it. As the token young teenager, I was keen to get on to some birds but couldn't help noticing their gentle humour and the easy way they spoke to each other. They talked about their kids, joked about their dogs and old friends who couldn't make it, or drank tea and fed biscuits to Lady, the muddy old labrador. She was the first of many to teach me that a dog covered in cold dirty water will always come and stand next to you before shaking off. Sometimes one of the guys would wipe a dab of muck from an old, long-barrelled side-by-side, choked full and full. It was obvious that just being there together made them happy. The long silences didn't hang heavy but were filled with simple satisfaction.
Later, more small flurries began to drift in. It's a special moment when ducks set their course for your spot, with all eyes trained on them and taut faces kept low to cover. Lady watched keenly through the reeds and branches, still as a stone. Seconds ticked by as black silhouettes beat and pulsed against the red-gold sky, not yet within range and battling an unsteady wind. There's a strange suspension of reality as they make their final approach, and more than once I caught myself with breath held, gun at the ready, waiting for the call to rise up.
Afterwards there is the depressurising moment when the ducks are brought in. Then the tall tales emerge, and hot debate about who did what, or what happened with a particular bird.
The dogs search the horizon too, because they're there for the same reason you are, and what's more, they understand that perfectly. Only those who work closely with a dog for a shared purpose — and there are few of them apart from hunting — know the rare moments of teamwork that bridge the gulf between us. Fortunately, it's not all work, and retrieving dogs are generally good company even when there's nothing happening. (Sometimes you'll hear someone say that dogs can't count. They've obviously never
sat in a mai mai and given two biscuits to a gun dog and kept the third in their pocket.)
If a dog isn't kept well back from the muzzles it's a safe bet he won't hear much in the last third of his life — and a gun dog that can't hear isn't much use. Lean dogs such as shorthairs lose their heat fast in cold water, and even water dogs like labs have their limits.
No one will think you're a hero for sending a dog on a huge retrieve in a freezing chop, or where strong current can take him downstream under willows. If he doesn't come back — and every year some don't — that silence will be hard to live with. The great thing about gun dogs is unconditional trust, but it has to cut both ways. To me, there's no duck that ever flew worth more than a good mate.
Duck hunting is, without question, a gear thing. There's camo, Gore-tex, face paint, veils, Ceracote finishes, decoys both static and mechanised. Waders too, dangerous things that they are in a boat. What you don't see often enough are life jackets. In the old days they used to call drowning ‘the New Zealand Death' and even today the majority of bodies fished out of our waters aren't wearing one. It's not possible to shoot with a life jacket but wading or boating to and from the mai mai is where accidents happen.
All that gear can mean that instead of an old jumper and an oilskin, we end up looking like IRA recruits. One of my friends ended up with the Armed Offenders Squad on his doorstep after a passer-by saw men in camo traipsing across his fields with guns. A sign of the times.
Calls are a small but important part of mai mai gear. I call less than most because many of my birds are under pressure and suspicious of damn near everything, but also because my calling is marginal at best. I give them just enough of a toot to get attention then shut up. It seems to work, possibly out of pity. Sometimes you can even see a duck — usually a drake — swivel a bit as if to say “you guys hear that? That duck sounds bloody crook. Where is he?” My goose calling is worse.
The calls pictured are by Alan Hammond, a veteran of the local waterfowling scene and thoroughly nice bloke as well. He prefers to work with wood rather than plastic, in part because of its more natural tone but also, I suspect, because he sees the romance and beauty of it.
The same goes for many of our decoy makers. Gary Girvan, who wrote the excellent carved the collector-grade shovellers in the images that go with this article. Also, the biggest and best collection of waterfowl and related decoys in the southern hemisphere is right here, the result of years of work by Tim Birdsall of Taupo. What he has achieved is bigger than an interesting collection, it's a piece of history.
Don't drop anything in a mai mai, you'll never find it. Maybe a thousand years from now some archaeologist will excavate it up from a drained swamp and piece together what it all means. The signatures of rotten posts in the ground, an old Thermos, a reed caller and a perished plastic duck. They'll probably figure it was some kind of small theatre for primitive magic and ritual ceremony… and in a way, they'd be right.
I remember all my opening days and have kept every licence. In those memories are great characters and their dogs, and so many snug little nests, safe from the wind and rain, where you sneaked a hot cup of coffee and warmed your hands while scanning the sky so hard the eye began to imagine small black dots.
When I began waterfowling it was a simple thing, a world away from the technology of today, but the essentials have not changed at all. It's still there — the anticipation, the doing and the recollection afterward, all for the price of a licence. Some say it's expensive, but to be honest, for what you get, it's damn cheap.
Back in town the guttering needs replacing and the fridge might be on its last legs, but out here in mai mai country — here, where there is nothing but the wind and the sunrise and perhaps the whisper of wings from up the river, here in this place, we are kings.