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

Field and Game - - NZ Feature -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.