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.

Field and Game - - Duck Opening -

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.

Troy Fin­nen takes a shot dur­ing the firs­fti­he­oludr&ofg­tahme2e0|16mdayu–cjkul­sye2a0s1o6n

Curly re­triever Sally gen­tly re­turns a duck to John Pearce on open­ing morn­ing

Joel Mil­lard (right) gets call­ing as his hunt­ing part­ner Nathaniel Whit­tle watches in­tently to see if the ducks turn

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