First Sea­son Solo

NZ Fish & Game - - Features -

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

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