Per­fectly at home Down Un­der

Twenty min­utes had passed since the boys had de­clared of­fi­cial shoot­ing time. A black duck trio was spot­ted beat­ing it down the far side of our hole in the mid­dle of a sprawl­ing cat­tail marsh. In­stinc­tively grab­bing the call lan­yard, I hit them with a lou

Field and Game - - RAMSEY RUSSELL ON HIS AUSSIE ADVENTURE -

Twenty min­utes had passed since the boys had de­clared of­fi­cial shoot­ing time. A black duck trio was spot­ted beat­ing it down the far side of our hole in the mid­dle of a sprawl­ing cat­tail marsh. In­stinc­tively grab­bing the call lan­yard, I hit them with a loud se­ries of de­scend­ing Mal­lard notes.

Two were ap­par­ently deaf but the rear bird looked like a hit teth­erball when it broke ranks and banked steeply to­wards us. Quack-quack-quack-quack-quack, it talked it­self all the way into the de­coys, right off the end of an await­ing gun bar­rel. It folded like a greet­ing card at the shot.

A shak­ing-wet black lab, Lar­ney, soon de­liv­ered the first of many Pa­cific black ducks the week would ren­der. “Yes, mate, those black­ies can be quite vo­cal at times,” said host Glenn Falla, “Wel­come to Aus­tralia, mate.”

That first black duck would be one of many pleas­ant sur­prises dur­ing the week.

Get­ting there had been a chore. The ini­tial flight had been can­celled so in­stead of 6.30 am, the flight landed 18 hours later, just after mid­night. My host had just gone to bed an hour-and-a-half from the air­port when I called to tell him the great news. After wheel­ing up to the curb on two wheels only an hour later, he had asked if I wanted to rest or go hunt­ing.

“We’ll sleep plenty in the grave, and after three days of Air­port Hell in­car­cer­a­tion I re­ally need to air out,” was my quick re­sponse.

After a re­fresh­ingly ice-cold shower at Trent Leen’s shop and a dou­ble ba­con cheese­burger topped with fried egg and grilled pineap­ple from an all-night café, we were soon back­ing down a boat ramp.

We’d kicked out plenty of birds dur­ing the loud ride in. “They’ve bug­gered out for the time and will trickle back through­out the morn­ing. They were fog­ging this spot yes­ter­day morn­ing,” ex­plained Lar­ney’s owner, Trent, while pitch­ing a cou­ple-dozen over-sized black duck de­coys from the boat.

Sure enough, after that talk­a­tive sin­gle ice­breaker, ducks be­gan work­ing the area, mostly small flocks of black ducks. A breeze picked up mid-morn­ing and they started work­ing beau­ti­fully.

Tak­ing turns pick­ing over sin­gles and pairs, we worked to­gether like parts of a well-oiled ma­chine on larger flocks. Hav­ing spent a few days to­gether pre­vi­ously in an Arkansas duck blind, catch­ing up be­tween vol­leys came as nat­u­rally as chat­ting with your bar­ber.

I felt al­most dou­bly at home when hear­ing the daily limit was 10 ducks.

Think­ing we’d missed our chance on a 12-pack of black ducks that had caught us deep into a for­get­table dis­cus­sion, we coaxed them nearer with a blind full of come­backs, soft quacks and pleas. On the third swing, they dumped abruptly into the pocket — the lead birds splash­ing pad­dles-down into the de­coys, en­tic­ing the rear­ward bunch into cross­ing the magical 20-yard mark. We made them pay rent.

Still suf­fer­ing whiplash from try­ing to swing through a pair of ma­roon­ish­coloured, low-fly­ing blurs called hard­heads that had streaked like light­ning bolts through the de­coys, the delu­sion that sleep de­prav­ity deep in the South Pa­cific had some­how greatly en­hanced my shoot­ing prow­ess was shat­tered when a flock of chest­nut teal but­ter­fly-flut­tered over the de­coys and I punched two holes worth of miss in their direction. We pulled de­coys with about a half-dozen birds apiece.

Show me a group of duck hunters any­where in the world and, not brag­ging or any­thing, I’ll show you folks that can put away a 14-day diet be­fore lunchtime. After load­ing the boat and shuck­ing waders, we visited with a few other lo­cal hunters, hatched plans for the fol­low­ing morn­ing and fu­elled our am­bi­tions on hearty An­zac bis­cuits and de­li­ciously sweet cap­sicum muffins that Glenn’s wife had pre­pared.

We scouted a few prop­er­ties and

fin­ished the day work­ing over a few more black ducks in a shal­low-flooded pas­ture. The di­vine smell of crock­pot-bar­be­cued lamb shanks greeted us at the door, they proved to be a de­fin­i­tive south­ern hemi­sphere com­fort food. Deep sleep came eas­ily. “I want you to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing Aus­tralia has to of­fer in the short time you’re here, mate,” yelled Glenn over the bel­low­ing en­gine as the boat cut through the slick, blood red sur­face of a reed-lined river at dawn.

The plan was sim­ple: we’d split into two groups and bounce birds be­tween a cou­ple of ponds. The one pond lim­ited par­tic­u­larly quickly and Plan-b was de­ci­sively ex­e­cuted; I walked across an­other flooded field mid-morn­ing and slid into a strip of sparse, head high-cover. The grab-youran­kles-mud and trip-you-up veg­e­ta­tion felt like home.

Not yet hav­ing even caught my breath I loaded the Brown­ing two-shooter, an Aus­tralian shel­duck’s clown-nosed honk di­rectly over­head had me scram­bling. With time to only load the top bar­rel and swing quickly be­hind my left shoulder, I some­how man­aged to con­nect with my first “Moun­tain duck” prize. And then things got se­ri­ous.

Mobs of black­ies and Grey teal, sea­soned with sin­gles and pairs for good mea­sure, in­ter­mit­tently swarmed the field. Com­ing off the river and fly­ing head­long into enough wind to pre­dictably steer, they worked low over an ir­reg­u­larly strewn line of de­coys. Sin­gles and oc­ca­sional dou­bles be­gan fill­ing the strap, but it’s dif­fi­cult to trip with an over-un­der and my trig­ger fin­ger grew weary pump­ing for that third shot when flocks were float­ing on the deck! A 10-duck limit came quickly enough; the leather-strapped heft sway­ing across my shoulder felt es­pe­cially grat­i­fy­ing while slosh­ing to­wards the boat.

We moved north sev­eral hours to Glenn’s home­town in cen­tral Vic­to­ria, hop­ing that a par­tic­u­lar “turkey dam”, would pro­duce op­por­tu­ni­ties for a cou­ple of new species in ad­di­tion to ubiq­ui­tous black ducks for which I’d de­vel­oped a se­ri­ous crush.

“Those pinkies are tiny lit­tle bug­gers,” Glenn re­minded me as he dropped me off where the reser­voir ta­pered to an end. Peer­ing over the levee, there were piles of ducks, in­clud­ing Pink-eared ducks and maned geese. Hop­ing the ma­chine-gun chat­ter of the cam­era drive didn’t spook them, I en­ter­tained my­self while wait­ing for the sig­nal.

The pond erupted into a plume of wa­ter­fowl at the thunderous clap of Glenn’s first shot. That was the sig­nal. Slid­ing into a tall clump of cover, I waited for the in­evitable rally.

Picked from a pair, a fine, rusty-headed drake maned goose soon cartwheeled to the water with a splash. A low fly­ing Grey teal fly­ing couldn’t be re­sisted. Yet an­other tightly bound knot of tiny lit­tle shore­birds had been given a pass be­fore the light hit them just right and I re­alised they were pink-ears. Prop­erly tuned, I di­alled in on the next cou­ple of flocks and picked up three beau­ties be­fore the mu­sic stopped.

Ze­bra-striped with rac­coon-like eye patches, a spat­ula-shaped bill that has spe­cialised, mandibu­lar flaps for

After driv­ing as slowly as an up­hill race on crutches to avoid col­lid­ing into the ‘roos that bounced across the Land Cruiser’s yel­low low beams, we parked qui­etly and as­sem­bled our gear.

>> feed­ing on plank­ton, and dis­tinc­tive carotenoid pig­men­ta­tion that ren­ders the un­ex­pect­edly con­spic­u­ous pink ear patch, they are ex­actly like what you’d ex­pect in the land of platy­puses, kan­ga­roos and koalas!

Swamps are among the most-hunted features through­out Vic­to­ria. These low­ly­ing de­pres­sions were formed pur­suant to prehistoric vol­canic ac­tiv­ity that over long pe­ri­ods trans­form through ex­tended wet-dry cy­cles. We’d driven by plenty that ap­peared to be noth­ing more than gi­ant, dead-tree stick ponds, but I’d not yet pieced it all to­gether the morn­ing we sled­ded de­coys into a sev­eral thou­san­dacre water body. That un­der­stand­ing came dur­ing the fi­nal hunts of the trip. We found am­ple natural cover a few hun­dred me­tres from shore in a swath of scat­tered young trees about twice as tall as our­selves. Be­yond us were open water and a vast stand of dead, gnarled trees.

Ducks were con­spic­u­ously ab­sent for the first half-hour. Then, like a magic spout had opened they be­gan to trickle in from all di­rec­tions — left, right, be­hind, front — “no, mate, your other right” — quack­ing black ducks, bark­ing Grey teal, me­ow­ing maned geese. From sep­a­rate cover, we com­mu­ni­cated with soft whis­pers, whis­tles, and some­timesabrupt shots and flip-flopped ducks to alert each other to in­bound fowl.

The spout opened wider, more ducks flew. Glenn clob­bered one from a pair of black­ies, and I caught the other as it evac­u­ated over­head. A sin­gle black duck from his side, a sin­gle one from mine; a pair tum­bled in a flurry of flap­ping wings from low fly­ing trio of Grey teal sweep­ing break-neck be­hind me, and a high-fly­ing “Wood duck” that had tried sneak­ing past Glenn wadded up like a spit­ball.

From the direction of the an­cient sticks came a flock of 40 some-odd Grey teal that passed high and wide on the first turn. A rapid-fire stac­cato of barks turned them and they passed low and out of range. Feel­ing red-faced and breath­less, I stood on the call and again turned them. We punched four from the flock as they made a third pass and with that, the spout clamped shut and the flight ended.

At times it feels like count­less miles traipsed through six con­ti­nents’ worth of wet­lands have di­vinely cul­mi­nated at a spe­cific lo­ca­tion with­out which the en­tire jour­ney would have been for naught; the penul­ti­mate af­ter­noon’s scout­ing foray into an enchanting flooded green-tim­ber stand was one such time.

Mas­sive river red gums with di­am­e­ters span­ning the length of a truck’s long-bed tow­ered over­head, their canopies seething with thou­sands of rau­cous, sul­phur­crested cock­a­toos, as bright as freshly laun­dered white li­nen.

Small flocks of black ducks flushed ahead, their retreat strobed through in­ter­vals of sun­beams and shad­ows. We’d walked a few hun­dred yards through shin­deep, iced coffee-coloured water when the sound of star­tled deer crash­ing through water — ex­cept that it was kan­ga­roos, dozens of them — tem­po­rar­ily dis­rupted my spell­bound reverie. We knew ex­actly where we’d be the next morn­ing.

After driv­ing as slowly as an up­hill race on crutches to avoid col­lid­ing into the ‘roos that bounced across the Land Cruiser’s yel­low low beams, we parked qui­etly and as­sem­bled our gear.

With two black duck de­coys, a mojo de­coy, shot­guns, ammo-filled pock­ets, we skirted silently and light­less along the wood­land edge. Quacks re­ver­ber­at­ing within the dark for­est beck­oned us through the murky, knee-deep water to an elon­gated open­ing, ducks jumped from pock­ets as we ap­proached. First plac­ing the mojo 30 yards to the front so that it could be seen from all an­gles ex­cept from the down­wind ap­proach, we then placed the pair of de­coys in the hole and re­tired un­der a cou­ple leviathan red gums. Our brief wait lasted un­til the first sun­beam hit the de­coys.

The morn­ing’s first cus­tomers were a pair of tree-top high black ducks that sulked in silently on out­stretched wings. Glenn’s bounced on a few limbs be­fore splash­ing down, but my shots did lit­tle more than whit­tle a cou­ple of over­head branches. Re­demp­tion came with the next pair that re­sponded to a few soft quacks and sailed in to the de­coys at can’t-miss dis­tance, eye-ball-high off the water. The morn­ing pro­gressed at that per­fect pace, nei­ther so fu­ri­ously that you can’t visit be­tween vol­leys, nor so slowly that you can drop your guard for a sin­gle mo­ment. Other than a stray Moun­tain duck and a few teal, the strap slowly but surely filled with fat­tened black ducks. For two days we’d en­joyed a thou­sand-acre pub­lic-use swamp en­tirely to our­selves. Asked how many other hunters would have used the prop­erty back home, I truth­fully an­swered, “We’d have had to spend the night here to share it with sev­eral groups that had trav­elled from as far as 500-plus miles away.”

With too much ground to cover in too lit­tle time, we came up short on cape teal and hard­heads. The lost day due to can­celled flights didn’t help, nei­ther did punch­ing holes in the sky that first morn­ing. De­spite the pret­tier faces, the black­ies stole my heart. Home or abroad, isn’t it usu­ally just the hard-boiled ba­sics of in­ter­act­ing with re­spon­sive ducks that makes one’s heart beat most? Pa­cific black ducks made me feel per­fectly at home.

The story of duck hunt­ing re­peats it­self world­wide. Put a group of duck hunters from just about any­where to­gether in a duck blind, and for that brief span of time dif­fer­ences cease; they are above all else, sim­ply duck hunters. Scenery, species, lo­cal pro­to­cols and tools of the trade may vary among lo­cales, but the ba­sic rules of the game re­main un­changed. With friendly, English-speak­ing peo­ple and a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of duck hunt­ing, Aus­tralia is sur­pris­ingly more sim­i­lar to duck hunt­ing in the US than most other for­eign des­ti­na­tions. And yet so won­der­fully dif­fer­ent.

Ramsey Rus­sell

Hunt­ing guide Glenn Falla

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