Ducking and weaving
Hunters in Victoria's north had to adapt to wetland closures and the risks posed by the spread of blue-green algae. Limited for choice, some decided tradition was more important than chasing a full bag on the opening weekend.
The beautiful stretch of Gunbower Creek just south of Koondrook isn't as busy as normal.
There are plenty of camps but there are also a lot of spare spaces.
The regulars can tell you who's missing, such as the group of about 40 hunters from Geelong way who normally occupy a large site on a bend in the creek.
The missing are missed but the consensus is news reports showing a fluorescent blue-green algal bloom spreading along the mighty Murray River and its tributaries has a bit to do with it.
As it turns out; the algal bloom along Gunbower Creek isn't too noticeable but, given its potentially toxic properties, there are fewer hunters and noticeably fewer dogs in the parties who have set up camp.
John Pearce is an exception; he's out in a boat with his curly retriever, Sally.
He's part of a group from Corowa in NSW who has been hunting the same area on opening weekend for 15 years.
John bagged five ducks on the first morning.
“It was a bit ordinary, a bit dry,” he said. “Not enough water, not enough ducks. I was lucky.”
Another member of the group, Troy Finnen, said the annual pilgrimage wasn't dependent on the abundance of game birds.
He was happy just to be in the wetland environment with his family. “This is not for me anymore, it's about educating my young bloke (nine-year-old Lawson); there are more kids here than adults and that's what opening weekend is about,” he said.
While the fathers talk about their first hunt for the season the kids are out in the boats exploring the wetland, finding bait and getting geared up to go fishing. “It is about a general respect for people and respect for animals and understanding that when we take something, we take it for a reason,” Troy said. “I explained to him this morning the difference between vermin control and hunting.”
The group has been travelling to Victoria each year since duck season ended in NSW
>> and have experienced an open wetland at Lake Buloke the year a massive storm wiped out campsites before a shot was fired.
Ever since that experiment the hunting party has been happy to keep returning to the Creek. “Every year we come with the intention of hunting somewhere different but we always end up coming here,” Troy said. “Working hard for your eight birds is the real thrill of the hunt here. “I got two but if I went out and got one, I'd be happy.”
A little farther along the Creek, Grazia Gouci is the elder statesman among three generations.
He bagged one duck on opening morning but it was a lack of opportunity rather than a scarcity of game birds. “They came over early before we were able to shoot and five minutes after opening they were gone,” he said. “They were shooting in the paddocks and the birds kept coming in high.”
Grazia, a long time Port Phillip Field & Game member was happy to wait.
Each year he spends an extended period on the Gunbower Creek and he's confident he'll harvest his fair share of birds. “It is beautiful here anyway,” he said. “It could still be all right, I've seen a lot of ducks.”
On the point of a small island two hunters are working in tandem.
Joel Millard and Nathaniel Whittle work together observing the flight paths either side of the island, working their duck calls and waiting for an opportunity.
Anti-duck hunting activists like to portray the season opening as a war zone, full of Rambos with shotguns and a thirst for killing.
The truth is out there — on the point of the island — where the two hunters over the course of an hour raise and then lower their shotguns regularly but only pull the trigger twice. “It was a good little shoot but we didn't know what to expect because it has been so dry,” Joel said after a second morning on his point. “Nathaniel is fairly new in the game so I've taken him under my wing and the more you hunt together the more you get a feel for each other and what each is doing,” he said.
Up and down the creek there's plenty of chatter as hunters call others in on birds and discuss strategy.
“There is a fair bit of talk while we're out there; it isn't just about hunting ducks, it's also about having fun out there and enjoying the day.”
Joel shifted the caravan into place five weeks before the season and estimates by the time he's finished he'll have spent about $6000 on equipment and supplies. He even admits to sneaking into town occasionally for a pie.
“Ninety-nine per cent of it for us is just about the camping, the mateship and the family side of it; the hunting is just an added bonus.
"The location is just epic; to be on a creek and still have the ability to hunt. Most of these places are National Parks now and you lose access to them; this is one of the last places you can come and have a fish and a bit of a hunt and do the things we do.
"It is a pretty special spot and I've been coming here since I was 10 years old, I reckon.”
With a young family in tow, the annual trip has taken on even more significance as Joel passes on his love for the bush and the unique wetlands in the area.
“I'd be lost without it; rain, hail or shine, we hack it out every year,” he said.
Nathaniel Whittle came along one year for a look and now he's enjoying learning a new skill — hunting game birds. “I came up for the first season for the camping and just got hooked,” Nathaniel said. “This is my second season hunting and I'm just starting to get the knack of it.
It has been challenging, just getting my eye in and the speed of the birds but Joel is a good teacher and a good companion.”
Joel said many years ago in some places there would be a lot of hunters, fierce competition and a few arguments but not now. “Even this morning guys I've never met, and still haven't met in a sense, were calling me in and helping out. I think the modern day hunter is reconciled to the fact that we have to look after each other, we're all one, the same at heart,” he said. “People want to enjoy the experience and there are no arguments on the water anymore and this year plenty of junior kids who weren't shooting were out there on the water just watching and learning and that is great to see. "My daughter is only 18 months old but she's spent the past two days dragging a duck call around camp playing with it and for me that's what it is all about."
What really irks Joel is the way hunters are portrayed by opponents of the sport. “We're the complete opposite; numerous times we leave birds that are well within range but can't be retrieved and things like that, probably because it is such a passion for me,” he said. “The most disappointing thing for me with those who don't get it or understand is that, although we're hunters, we have a greater understanding of the environment and the bush than many activists ever will. “I can take you out into this forest now and show you where rosellas nest every year and lots more; the idea of Rambo or just idiots out there with guns couldn't be further from the truth. The whole pursuit is about the environment and how much you look after it. “Yeah, we harvest a few ducks to eat but last year our group built perches out there for waterfowl and we're building nesting boxes this year; there are times we just sit out there and watch the peregrine falcons flying around, there are ducks landing on the decoys among us but we're too busy watching the falcons and enjoying the weather.
"It is really disappointing that there is still a minority group out there who maintain that we all turn up here and blast the heck out of everything before we get in our cars and take off leaving a heap of rubbish behind.”
On the first two mornings of the season, patient hunting yielded 40 birds among eight hunters — a five average for the group, which is in line with the GMA assessment of the opening morning average of two to three birds per hunter.
Curly retriever Sally gently returns a duck to John Pearce on opening morning
Troy Finnen takes a shot during the firsftiheoludr&ofgtahme2e0|16mdayu–cjkulsye2a0s1o6n
Joel Millard (right) gets calling as his hunting partner Nathaniel Whittle watches intently to see if the ducks turn