We are wa­ter­fowlers

New Zealand is not short of duck hunters, in­clud­ing many with a life long pas­sion. And there are also those who just need to be there, to help and en­cour­age the life they love.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH - Peter Ryan

New Zealand has its share of duck hunters. It even has its share of mad keen duck hunters. But it also has those who have moved into an­other space, the one to do with just Being There, help­ing the life they love move forward. You might find them putting the fi­nal touches to a blind, or down on their knees pho­tograph­ing a string of Mal­lards in the crisp, pale light of a June frost. And you will prob­a­bly take a while to fig­ure out who they are be­cause they wear their achieve­ments lightly.

Ge­off Irvine is one of them. By rights he should have been a big-game hunter, grow­ing up on a farm with deer on the doorstep. But it didn’t click, and it might have died there if not for some hunt­ing mag­a­zines and the odd book. This wa­ter­fowl­ing busi­ness was in­trigu­ing and Ge­off set out to teach him­self duck hunt­ing.

It’s hard to grasp what the world was like pre-in­ter­net, how dif­fi­cult it was to find things out. He went through the usual stages, mak­ing mis­takes, then look­ing for big­ger tal­lies. Week­end after week­end spent fig­ur­ing out what works. Half a life­time later, the goal­posts have moved. He’s more selec­tive about get­ting the best ex­pe­ri­ence rather than the big­gest num­bers.

Over the decades, you’d think there would be some knowl­edge built up, and you’d be right.

“I like labs as all-rounders,” he told me once. “My cur­rent bitch Mad­die is a clas­sic. Like a lot of field dogs, she’s a bit of a pocket model, can curl up in the seat well of a car, but she’s the hun­gri­est worker I’ve come across. Being a bit smaller she can get in un­der low cover too.” The mem­o­ries keep com­ing. “We strike some odd mai-mais (blinds) from time to time. There are the pimped out ones, but the best was about twenty years ago. We were there for the Molesworth shoot, the most iconic wa­ter­fowl­ing event in New Zealand. They were about half­way along the Acheron. Two of them, thick stone walls, a lot like a grouse butt ac­tu­ally. Must have been a huge amount of work, but the river took them even­tu­ally.”

I tell him about a mate who has a dose of duck fever — garage stuffed full of de­coys, falls out the car win­dow go­ing

past a swamp, can’t sleep a wink the night be­fore open­ing. Teas­ing a bit, I ask if he knows many like that and the an­swer is just a chuckle. “Mate, you just de­scribed all of us, noth­ing un­usual there,” he said. “Hap­pened to us on a hunt in Ika­matua. Ev­ery­one was so ex­cited we couldn’t sleep, just stood up all night try­ing to stay warm and telling yarns. I know a guy who is go­ing to dip his new four-wheel drive in camo. We’re com­mit­ted, you might say.” There must be some­where to go next? “I’d love to get to Chea­peake Bay one day, chase some sea ducks. They have can­vas­backs and eider, both on my bucket list. Then there’s south­ern Illi­nois for geese. Holly (his 12-year-old daugh­ter, one of the top duck-call­ers in NZ) de­serves a go out in the wider world too.” On the fu­ture, his thoughts are mixed. “Well, the North Is­land is go­ing back­wards a bit on Mal­lards, but the rea­sons I’m hear­ing are guess­work,” he said.

“The fly­over cen­sus is a bit su­per­fi­cial and can’t be treated as gospel. We need good sci­ence, not guesses. Go­ing the other way, goose hunt­ing is on the up, de­spite the down­grade of canadas to un­pro­tected sta­tus.”

Then there’s the killer ques­tion — what should the wa­ter­fowl­ing com­mu­nity not be do­ing? “Well, there is a bit of a groundswell against it of late, the sit­u­a­tion is mov­ing. The usual an­swer is to just get some sta­tis­tics and win it with sci­ence. But sci­ence is un­emo­tional, and with so many com­mis­sioned stud­ies turn­ing out dodgy, it looks like sci­ence can be bought. It won’t swing pub­lic opinion. “Bird dump­ing, even though it’s not wide­spread, is a worry. We take a lot of birds each sea­son and when peo­ple taste the kran­skies and bier sticks they go into they’re im­pressed. If you’re ever in a group and some­one is drag­ging the chain on clean­ing birds, step up. In the long game, the way to keep this life­style is to give some­thing back. Start groups that en­cour­age kids and build wet­land habi­tat. It’s good for them, and peo­ple see that we’re se­ri­ous and give a damn.’

I fin­ish writ­ing up our chat, wondering how you can sum up that pas­sion in a few words. The truth is you can’t, but later that day I’m sort­ing through my li­brary of im­ages when one pops up. It’s the en­trance to a huge piece of wet­land habi­tat in the USA, paid for and main­tained by hunt­ing rev­enue. The tin sign is cov­ered in frost, the first thing you see go­ing in and the last thing go­ing out.

We wake while ev­ery­one is asleep, walk through mud and water car­ry­ing our gear, sit in the freez­ing rain for hours … all for a few mo­ments of mad­ness.

We are wa­ter­fowlers.

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