First Season Solo
BECOMING A DUCK-A-HOLIC
UM UMBERS HAVE NEVER mea meant much to me -- bragging ab aboutbout bags and size is not in my nature, nor do I find it a particularly endearing character trait in others.
Even if it’s the only fish of the day, an unremarkable 2lb brown rising furiously in a quiet and hard to reach backwater, which refuses numerous casts and an arsenal of imitations, is far more memorable when eventually caught than taking a dozen or so larger fish that almost catch themselves on another outing.
Despite this notion, I confess to a tally foreshad- owing the game bird hunting season as it closed in this year. It weighed heavily on my preparation too, which began months in advance of the first Saturday in May -- the established and long-held traditional opening day in New Zealand.
One mallard. That’s all I was after. A modest target by any measure, yet vitally important to me on a personal level. You see, the beginning of the 2015 season was a significant milestone in my apprenticeship as a hunter. It was the first time I had struck out solo in pursuit of winged quarry, and it proved to be another steep learning curve as I determinedly set about tackling every aspect of the
pastime on my own.
It wasn’t as if I was a complete novice though. I’ve had several fantastic outings with colleagues in Southland where everything was laid on for me, including the right spot, an expert decoy set, experienced callers and birds literally raining out of the sky.
This season was an entirely different proposition. This was a fledgling hunter striking out alone. One man, one bird, start to finish. A simple equation that has resulted in a rollicking ride of good fortunate, comedic mishaps, annoying malfunctions and, yet, an entirely satisfying sense of accomplishment.
I’m more convinced than ever now that, if entry into this most intoxicating pursuit was easier, far more people would pick it up. Arguably the greatest barrier to increasing participation in game bird hunting is finding somewhere for newcomers to hunt, somewhere that will reliably pull in enough birds to keep the interest levels up. Sometimes you need a bit of luck in this regard, but being surrounded by the right people helps.
The first and biggest break I received in my quest for a hunting possie was a simple introduction. Wellington Fish & Game councillor Andrew Morris acquainted me with an elderly friend of his who had given up bird hunting and subsequently had several vacant maimais on and around his beautifully developed wetland complex. Howard Egan and I hit it off and he duly invited me to take a pick of the choicest spot, should I be interested in taking up waterfowling. He didn’t have to ask twice.
That was almost a year ago, but the race to complete maimai preparations before Howard closed the wetlands down at the end of January for his obligatory “rest the birds” period crept up incredibly quickly.
I’d chosen the proprietor’s old possie on advice from seasoned hunters that it was the best spot on any of the three ponds. And knowing Howard’s proclivity for having everything ‘just so’, strategic placement would have been paramount when he first selected the site. From what I’d read, it certainly seemed like the ideal orientation: positioned in a depression below the pond wall, the hunters back is to the prevailing nor’westerly so as to catch the ducks as they flare into the wind for landing. Yet there’s still a wide field of fire covering most water where the birds might alight, and it even offers a shot into the neighbouring ‘Pond 3’ should they set down there. Topping off this prime real estate is a clear view to the south and east, which ensures the twilight sky is unobstructed by dark hills or tree lines, and a small thicket of flax and manuka provides ideal natural cover at any hour of the day.
When first led to the site, however, it was immediately evident that I had my work cut out to resurrect a hide from the ramshackle assortment of rotten posts, battered plywood, tangled wire, and mesh. Any former glory it may have held was well hidden beneath a knot of weeds and grass growing four to five feet high in places. There was also the lessthan-minor matter of dismantling and removing a more recent -- yet equally run-down -- maimai on the crest of the pond directly in front of the spot I’d be shooting.
Those last few weekends of January melted away under the blazing Wairarapa sun. The old foundations of my hide were slowly reclaimed from the sweltering jungle, materials were scavenged and nailed or wired down, bundles of manuka brush were gathered and woven into place. I even flew my drone over the platform to get a duck’s eye view of how it presented, noticed some of the supporting structure was distinctly visible (there are no straight lines in nature), and camouflaged it accordingly.
Finally, my maimai was ready. A work of art? Hardly. But certainly a good hide. Standing back and admiring the fruit of my labour, it dawned on me that never lost in any man -- no matter what age -- is the basic boyhood delight of building huts.
HE H HARD PHYSICAL TOIL MAY have b been over with the completion of my maimai maimai, bu but the preparation was far from finished. Indeed, the only asset I had at that time was somewhere to hunt -- other than that there was nothing tangible in the form of callers or decoys, not even a shotgun. And to be quite honest, nor did I have that much idea about any of the aforementioned basic requirements.
“Read,” said Howard, thrusting a handful of waterfowling books at me. Which I did. I devoured anything remotely to do with bird hunting; books, YouTube clips, magazines, smart phone apps, and anecdote gleaned from talking to colleagues. I read, watched, listened, practiced, and basically tormented my family with nothing but ducks for months on end. I even took to quacking incessantly on a newly acquired caller while driving, instead of listening to the radio, which elicited more than the occasional amused glance from passing motorists.
Satisfied that I was taking the gig seriously, Howard took pity on me (and my meagre field officer salary) and produced two sacks of battered and paint-chipped old decoys.
“These should save you some money, just give them a good clean up and they’re yours.”
I was so obsessed by this stage I gave the decoys more than a clean – I completely repainted them. A ‘how-to’ guide was sourced from the internet and off I went, mixing paints to the desired colour and carefully layering on the coats. They looked quite lifelike when completed; I have to admit to being quite proud of the result. That sense of triumph lasted until the pre-season hunting supplies mailout arrived and I realised that for the amount I’d thrown at paint I could have purchased twice as many decoys…brand new.
At least I was pleased with my shotgun. It wasn’t the beautifully engraved over-under I coveted (finances most certainly wouldn’t stretch that far), but a very nice semi-auto of Italian origin was procured at an outlay that, thankfully, posed no significant threat to marital harmony. And it shot perfectly ‘straight out of the box’ too, which, after becoming completely confused in my attempts to navigate the mire of information on shotgun ballistics and choke differentials, was another blessed relief.
The patterning sheets produced by Fish & Game helped my understanding a great deal though. After trial and error I managed to select a shot size and choke combination to consistently deliver the minimum 95 pellets into the suggested area at 30m.
Fair to say, those paper targets never saw me coming! And in hindsight it was with some degree of over-inflated confidence that, after what I thought was all my preparation behind me, I settled in to wait for the real thing.
Lesson one: Real ducks move faster than static targets.
I couldn’t shoot opening day because of ranging commitments. On Sunday, however, I managed to sneak out to the maimai for an early hunt. Rising well before the sun wasn’t a problem, overwhelming anticipation saw me in position ahead of any of the other hunters. And when the first birds appeared, dark silhouettes with cupped wings dropping -- almost plummeting -- silently into the decoys, I’d forgotten how quickly everything can happen in this game.
Needless to say, I wasn’t quick enough.
“Make sure you take time to get your eye in on some clay targets,” I recalled Howard telling me well before opening, now ruing not listening to his sage advice.
All was not lost though. My decoy set had worked perfectly (what I’d gleaned from my diligent pre-season study had paid off) and I still had two hen mallards swimming around within range, oblivious to my presence too, such was the quality of the trap I’d set. After taking a moment to gather my wits, I popped up and yelled out to get the birds off the water. They rose beautifully, arcing away while trying desperately for more lift and more distance from the maimai.
Lead the birds, lead the birds. Selecting the furthermost target, I tracked the foresight through the flight line, past the bird, and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. I couldn’t believe it. After waiting so long for this moment, and preparing so studiously, ensuring I had everything right on the day, I’d forgotten to cock the shotgun. What a moron! You live and learn.
Fortunately, I didn’t have long to beat myself up about my rookie mistake before more birds started to come in. And I mused how duck hunting is strangely similar to sea fishing apart from being far more visual. In essence, both pursuits require a ‘bait’ being set and then sitting back patiently to wait. Just like the initial tug on the line as a fish announces its presence, the sight of a flight of ducks in their first fast and furious arc over the decoys sets the heartbeat racing; all you can do is hope beyond hope that your deception will work, that the bait will be taken.
Clearly, the incoming birds on this particular day had been moved off neighbouring ponds going by the muffled whumps in the distance. They come in irregular but frequent flights -- sometimes twos, fours or fives, but seldom more than eight mallards (we don’t have big numbers in Wairarapa, but we have enough). After decoying beautifully, most survived to check their descent, beating wings wildly to lift off, safely out of range before disappearing towards the horizon. Several folded in mid-flight though, seemingly in slow motion, and pitched into the water and surrounding foliage. A beautiful tragedy, as only a hunter understands.
My opening exceeded both expectation and any quaint goal I’d set myself. I should have had a limit early on but for my own poor performance. Failing to cock the shotgun, getting stuck kneedeep in mud so I couldn’t spin to take a crossing shot, and other silly mistakes have been ironed out of my regular forays into the maimai to feed what has become a new addiction. As the season has endured, I’ve had to improve my skill and guile to get birds, which have grown increasingly wary, to come in. This has only added to the challenge and the compulsion.
My long-suffering wife noted at one low point that that only reason game bird hunting is better than the fishing season is because it only lasts six weeks. Knowing a loved one is grieving is always hard to handle, particularly when you’re not there. Fortunately, she only raised the issue of my smelling like a duck once, though in hindsight that probably gives an indication of the amount of time we were spending apart…At least I’ve put food on the table.
My name is Hamish, and I am a duck-a-holic.
THE WAITING GAME
THE FIRST DOUBLE
THE DILAPIDATED ORIGINAL MAIMAI ON THE POND WALL
LEXIE ON THE RETRIEVE
SALVAGING MATERIAL FROM THE OLD MAIMAI
DECOY TOUCHING UP
THE VIEW FROM WITHIN
SEARCHING CLEAR SKIES