Dixie Down Un­der

Bradley San­ders had just turned his duck de­coy hobby into a busi­ness when his ser­vice with the U.S. Ma­rine Corps landed him on the other side of the world. Here he de­tails how he found fel­low duck hunters and the ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

In June of 2017 my fam­ily and I moved to New South Wales, Aus­tralia to be­gin a three-year ad­ven­ture while I served as an ex­change of­fi­cer with the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force.

Not long be­fore com­ing to Aus­tralia my brother-in-law and I for­malised our hobby into Dixie De­coys, LLC. Our com­pany pro­duces high-den­sity ure­thane foam wa­ter­fowl de­coys to match a style of hand-carved, gun­ning de­coy one would have hunted with along the Vir­ginia and Carolina coasts at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

Ad­mit­tedly, prior to ar­riv­ing here my knowl­edge of Aus­tralia was that of a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can: red Out­back, crocodiles, kan­ga­roos, and a lively zoo keeper that lost his life in a tragic way.

From across the globe I fol­lowed my friends and in­dus­try con­tacts dur­ing the 2017–2018 wa­ter­fowl sea­son and I longed for the fa­mil­iar, cool morn­ings of East­ern North Carolina in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary. I reached out on so­cial me­dia and was ex­tended a very gra­cious and help­ful hand from Sav Man­gion and a band of first-class blokes who were keen to share their wa­ter­fowl­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with this Amer­i­can. In late April, I set out on my ex­pe­di­tion through Vic­to­ria where I cre­ated many mem­o­ries and made life­long friends. These are our sto­ries.

Ramp Traf­fic

The first stop on my Aus­tralian wa­ter­fowl ad­ven­ture be­gan the same as any other duck-hunt­ing ad­ven­ture. Upon an early wake up, the ex­cite­ment starts to build as you anx­iously wait for the cof­fee to fin­ish its steady drip. One can hardly get out the door fast enough, and de­spite all of the prepa­ra­tion and plan­ning, the fa­mil­iar ques­tions be­gin to sow seeds of doubt in what was once an abun­dantly con­fi­dent man. As we made our way down the road, my host, Sam Tyler, be­gan to show signs of this uni­ver­sal ail­ment shared among sports­men, but only so much as his Aussie ‘she’ll be right’ de­meanour would al­low.

When we turned onto a dirt ac­cess road the off-road lights of Sam’s ute il­lu­mi­nated our com­pe­ti­tion, the ramp traf­fic. The race was on, but in­stead of com­pet­ing against trucks tow­ing boats, our con­test was with kan­ga­roos. As they jumped along­side Sam’s truck, seem­ingly rac­ing us to the ramp, I knew my Aus­tralian wa­ter­fowl ex­pe­ri­ence was go­ing to be un­like any other hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion I had ever un­der­taken.

After launch­ing the boat, we made our way up a long and nar­row canal out to the open wa­ter of the day’s hunt­ing grounds. When as­signed the task, and be­ing un­fa­mil­iar with my sur­round­ings, I dili­gently ful­filled my du­ties of spot­light­ing our way through the canal only to be de­nied by the re­flec­tion off the dense fog that sank into the chan­nel. When Sam asked me to turn off the torch I re­alised we were nav­i­gat­ing un­der the brightly il­lu­mi­nated and un­cor­rupted sky of a Gipp­s­land moon. After be­ing awestruck by the grandeur of the Milky Way, we ar­rived at our lo­ca­tion and it was time to set our de­coys. Hav­ing never hunted in Aus­tralia, and as the de facto am­bas­sador for all Amer­i­can wa­ter­fowlers, I was care­ful not to em­bar­rass my­self in front of my host, but the fa­mil­iar sound of de­coys hit­ting the wa­ter as­sured me of the com­mon­al­ity of the water­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence, no mat­ter the lo­ca­tion.

With the rig in place and the sun steadily ris­ing we took our place be­hind a half-sunken tree that had fallen on its side. In the waist-high wa­ter we drew our shot­guns from their cases, hang­ing pre­car­i­ously from a dead limb, and stead­ied our­selves for the com­ing flight. Be­fore we had fin­ished pour­ing our cof­fee, ducks were be­gin­ning their daily mi­gra­tion from a pro­tected swamp at our backs out to the open wa­ters in front of us. Sam, through his ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence and lo­cal knowl­edge, had placed us right un­der this pre­dictable path. His scheme was to call the ducks into our fakes be­fore they com­mit­ted to the safety of the open wa­ter.

En­joy­ing but a sip of warmth from my mug, I quickly loaded my gun and in a mat­ter of sec­onds I had downed my first Aus­tralian duck, a Grey teal with a deep emer­ald specu­lum and pierc­ing red eyes.

While I paused to re­flect on the mo­ment I could sense that Sam was over­joyed, know­ing he would not be ac­cused of skunk­ing the ‘Yank’ on my first day of Aus­tralian duck shoot­ing.

As the morn­ing wore on we were greeted by pairs of Pa­cific black ducks and small groups of teal trad­ing back and forth be­tween points to our flanks. The beauty of hunt­ing open wa­ter is that we were able to watch ev­ery move­ment the birds made as they re­acted to the con­di­tions. We were af­forded the op­por­tu­nity to eval­u­ate the place­ment of our de­coys and the pre­ci­sion of Sam’s call­ing as the birds were given a wide breadth to make the de­ci­sion to com­mit. When they

turned hard to­wards us, we were able to en­joy that long slow wob­ble as the group pitched in. As the wind quick­ened, our ex­posed but pro­duc­tive po­si­tion be­came un­ten­able. Hav­ing taken a few pairs of teal and black ducks we were con­tent with the morn­ing’s out­come and de­cided to re­tire to an early lunch be­fore we en­deav­oured that af­ter­noon to fill our daily bag in what would turn out to be yet an­other un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence of jump shoot­ing cat­tle dams.

The Heart

Gary ‘Pud’ Howard and I be­gan the long slow trek to our hunt­ing spot, each drag­ging be­hind us a sled con­tain­ing our de­coys and gear. We were trans­ported to a stage where the scene was set in a swamp cov­ered by a low-ly­ing fog that grabbed and tugged at us as we steadily pro­ceeded on our march.

The con­trast be­tween the per­fectly clear air around us, brightly il­lu­mi­nated by a nearly full moon, and the dense fog be­low our knees was breath­tak­ing. We were ac­tors, aided in our per­for­mance by a mas­ter set de­signer that, with the dis­tant echoes of un­seen black swans, es­tab­lished the con­di­tions for what was to be our sem­i­nal per­for­mance. This was Heart Morass.

While plac­ing our de­coys and cre­at­ing our hide be­hind a lone patch of reed grass sur­rounded by wa­ter that barely cov­ered our feet, the dense fog be­gan to climb and fill the air such that we strained to see the cen­tre of our spread. With ev­ery­thing in place, the sun slowly made its climb and we bore wit­ness to a mighty strug­gle be­tween its rays and the stub­born de­ter­mi­na­tion of the dense fog. By mere chance, I looked sky­ward to catch the last glimpse of a group of teal pass­ing over­head, which promptly dis­ap­peared into the mist. With the con­fi­dence of a man who has spent his whole life hunt­ing birds in this area, Pud said: “Get ready. They’re com­ing.” I shoul­dered my shot­gun and peered fruit­lessly into the grey mass that sur­rounded us in its cool, misty em­brace.

On the af­ter­noon prior to our hunt, Pud took me scout­ing and showed me around the Heart Morass wet­lands restora­tion project. Be­gun in 2006 un­der Field & Game Aus­tralia’s Wet­lands En­vi­ron­men­tal Task­force, the Heart has grad­u­ally been re­stored from its non-na­tive sta­tus as low­land cat­tle graz­ing pas­ture back to its pris­tine wet­land form, sup­ported by the ded­i­cated ef­forts of 15 reg­u­lar vol­un­teers in­clud­ing Pud, who led me around beam­ing with a sub­tle but no­tice­able pride.

For Pud, restor­ing the Heart was giv­ing back to the land that raised him.

With­out warn­ing of sound or fore­sight of ap­proach, a large group of teal ap­peared di­rectly in front of us in what could have eas­ily been con­fused with a straf­ing run by at­tack air­craft. Quick to the trig­ger, Pud and I dropped dou­bles with our first shots into the densely col­lected flock that, upon our salu­ta­tion of steel, pulled away ver­ti­cally in a for­ma­tion rem­i­nis­cent of a pre­ci­sion ma­noeu­vre from the U.S Navy’s Blue An­gels. By the time we reloaded, mixed groups of black ducks and teal were de­scend­ing into our de­coys from ev­ery di­rec­tion. For the next few min­utes, we could not sat­isfy the vo­ra­cious ap­petites of our shot­guns. Wa­ter­fowlers talk about find­ing the ‘X’ as a ref­er­ence to be­ing where their quarry wants to be. On this day, we were the ‘X’.

A Sport of Gen­tle­men

The day started with no small amount of ef­fort. The jour­ney took us on a pow­ered boat ride to a spot where we un­loaded all of our gear, then a portage through a reed grass swamp, and fi­nally a lengthy pad­dle in an old ply­wood punt. We hunted a place my hosts af­fec­tion­ately called “the se­cret spot”, and given the sim­i­lar­i­ties of our jour­ney to that of Odysseus, I de­ter­mined it was aptly named.

The small mix­ture of hand-carved corks and Her­itage Se­ries Dixie De­coys were placed with care un­der a full moon, but it wasn’t un­til God slowly raised the lights that the true splen­dour of our lo­ca­tion was re­vealed. One doesn’t typ­i­cally as­so­ciate the pesti­lence of a swamp with sights to be­hold, but I was struck by the uni­form grey­ness in the back­drop of ex­pired grey tea trees and black wa­ter. As shoot­ing light ap­proached, I quickly learned this “se­cret spot” was any­thing but dead.

The si­lence of the morn­ing was first bro­ken by the re­port of the gun that had been lent to me for the day. My host shared with me one of his prized English gen­tle­man’s shot­guns: a 1910 Charles Boswell 12-gauge side-by-side with a dou­ble trig­ger. Who was the man this mas­ter­fully hand­crafted piece of gun­ning his­tory was orig­i­nally fit for? What was his story? What were the fam­ily mem­o­ries made be­hind this gun?

At this point, the im­agery of the morn­ing cre­ated an al­le­gory to the his­tory and her­itage of the sport of gen­tle­man that was un­avoid­ably clear. Hand-carved cork de­coys, foam vin­tage repli­cas, an old wooden punt boat, a pair of 108-year-old shot­guns, all topped off with a sport­ing coat and tweed tie. Along my trip my tra­di­tional at­tire was typ­i­cally greeted with a grin and a, “Good on ya, but why?” My re­ply: “Be­cause the hunt is an oc­ca­sion, not just an oc­cur­rence.”

With me in the small stake blind perched just above the sur­face of the swollen wa­ters of the swamp was noted carver, call maker and writer, John By­ers.

Like me, John has an affin­ity for all things old. He has amassed one of the largest vin­tage de­coy col­lec­tions in Aus­tralia, and is among the fore­most au­thor­i­ties on Aus­tralia’s 20 000-year his­tory of wa­ter­fowl de­coys.

John’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of clas­sics is not rooted merely in feel­ings of nos­tal­gia; rather, he ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive cre­ated over the life of an­tiques. The items them­selves, while in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive and unique, are not nearly as im­pres­sive as the sto­ries, both known and imag­ined, that cre­ate the holis­tic pic­ture of the piece.

As the morn­ing went on John con­tin­u­ally worked groups, or ‘mobs’, of teal and black ducks in close with his mas­ter­ful demon­stra­tion of call­ing on his hand-turned wooden calls made of na­tive Aus­tralian tim­ber. Time and again, we were the au­di­ence to im­pres­sive dis­plays of mixed teal that worked the de­coys like they had writ­ten the play­book.

Surely this was the kind of day that in­spired the clas­sic wa­ter­fowl writ­ers to au­thor their leg­endary tales. It wasn’t long be­fore our pair of vin­tage side-by-sides had ful­filled their du­ties and our lim­its were full. As we re­trieved the last few birds from the tan­gled roots of the tea tree, we con­grat­u­lated one an­other on a suc­cess­ful morn­ing hunt and tipped our waxed can­vas hats to the gen­er­a­tions of gen­tle­men that have helped write the story of our wa­ter­fowl­ing tra­di­tion.

The Con­ver­sa­tion

With my time in Gipp­s­land com­plete, I packed up, con­tin­ued my trek west through Mel­bourne, and fi­nally to Gee­long, on the shores of the lush marsh lands sur­round­ing Port Phillip Bay. It was here I was to meet yet an­other prom­i­nent per­son­al­ity in Aus­tralia’s duck hunt­ing cul­ture, Blair Find­lay. Blair’s mas­sive per­son­al­ity is high­lighted by his quick wit and mas­tery of dry sar­casm. To say noth­ing more, we got along swim­mingly.

The morn­ing of our hunt Blair de­cided to place us in a small la­goon con­nected to a larger net­work of wet­lands by a very thin but deep trench hid­den amongst the stran­gling grasp of over­grown reed grass. The area had been suf­fer­ing from drought, and the no­madic na­ture of Aus­tralian wa­ter­fowl drew them out of state to fol­low the rains. With the pres­sure on him, given my suc­cess in Gipp­s­land, Blair had been scout­ing vig­or­ously in the days prior and de­cided this iso­lated hole would give us the great­est chance for a fruit­ful hunt, thereby avoid­ing the in­evitable jeers from the Gipp­s­land crowd. I felt like a pas­sen­ger on a Vene­tian gon­dola as he worked with all his might to force our small marsh boat through the dense reeds. Our pas­sage was fur­ther com­pli­cated by Blair’s Abrams tank of a lab, Os­car, and his in­sis­tence on shar­ing the small craft with us. Even­tu­ally he chose the more ob­vi­ous means of bull­doz­ing him­self through the dense reeds, as one would ex­pect a main bat­tle tank to do. To quote Blair: “We all have that friend who isn’t very smart but can lift heavy things. That’s my buddy Os­car.”

As we placed the last few de­coys and hur­ried to hide our­selves in amongst the tall grass we were alerted by a sin­gle ‘quack’ from a black duck cir­cling over­head. Blair be­gan to work the duck call like he was read­ing from a script. The pre­vi­ous night he im­parted that for him: “It’s all about the con­ver­sa­tion. Mate, I just love talk­ing to ducks. Get­ting them in range and tak­ing the shot is the log­i­cal con­clu­sion but it’s that in­ter­ac­tion. When I talk and he talks back I think, ‘Right. Let’s have a chat.’”

Blair’s pas­sion for ‘the con­ver­sa­tion’ was ev­i­denced by his in­ter­pre­ta­tion and un­der­stand­ing of his tar­get’s lan­guage. He did, in fact, seem to be hav­ing a di­a­logue with the ducks over­head. As the sin­gle black duck com­mit­ted he called the shot and I obliged. When it fell to the wa­ter Blair let out a “Whoo! Yeah baby!” Never be­fore in my hunt­ing ca­reer had I seen some­one so over­joyed to watch an­other per­son take a duck. It was the cul­mi­na­tion of all of his hard work and de­ter­mi­na­tion, and the grat­i­fi­ca­tion he re­ceived was get­ting to watch me shoot my first Gee­long black duck.

Duck Hunt­ing Days

The coun­ter­in­tu­itive na­ture of a duck hunter’s hopes for the weather is re­ally quite an in­trigu­ing phe­nom­e­non. Dur­ing wa­ter­fowl sea­son, when tem­per­a­tures fall and a dreary grey pre­dom­i­nates, the well­bal­anced in­di­vid­ual hopes for clear skies, calm winds, and per­haps a lit­tle warm­ing of tem­per­a­tures. The wa­ter­fowler would have none of this, for a com­fort­able day means com­fort­able ducks that are unin­spired to move. He longs for days when the cold bites and the rain main­tains an ag­gres­sive yet in­ter­mit­tent pos­ture that con­strains its fury just enough to make winged flight pos­si­ble. These are the days that keep the well-bal­anced in­di­vid­ual in the warm con­fines of their homes, but the wa­ter­fowler en­dures with a grin be­cause these are duck hunt­ing days.

After a long day of scout­ing drought­stricken mud­holes, we set­tled on a lake known to hold birds but also known to at­tract hunters. When morn­ing came, we made our con­voy back to the lake and after nearly strand­ing my wife’s SUV in the slick red mud near the wa­ter’s edge, a hearty read­just­ment from my hosts, Sav Man­gion and Si­moun Hakim of Fowl Talk­ers, got me back on the nav­i­ga­ble path and to the boat ramp. Up to this point the se­ries of mis­for­tunes that morn­ing had led me to be­lieve the great po­ten­tial of the day was slip­ping through our fingers. Ar­riv­ing at our spot the light alu­minium boat was whipped by the wind, mak­ing set­ting out the de­coys ex­cep­tion­ally te­dious, and by the time we were es­tab­lished in our spot it was more than 30 min­utes after shoot­ing light. Surely, we had spoiled our chance and the day was lost — but on duck hunt­ing days, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

Wedged in the mid­dle of thick cum­bungi, Sav and I set­tled in and did our best to shield our faces from the force­ful but in­ter­mit­tent rain while keep­ing our eyes to the sky. Soon, pairs of black ducks ap­peared and strug­gled des­per­ately to seek refuge within our false flock. In what was a text­book sce­nario, the strong wind blew from our backs and made any ap­proach­ing duck work stren­u­ously to reach our de­coys. The first ap­proach­ing pair seemed to be fly­ing in slow mo­tion, hung in sta­sis as they flapped their wings with lit­tle avail. The im­agery of the mo­ment was stun­ning. Pairs soon turned into small groups and small groups be­came even larger flocks. Ev­ery one of them fren­ziedly clos­ing to­wards us to find safe har­bour; a lux­ury they would not be af­forded on this day.

Time and again, groups that com­mit­ted were thinned by our shots, and re­formed to cir­cle back in to the de­coys. We con­sis­tently were given two and some­times three chances at the same group of birds, and each time they re­turned with pre­dictable pre­ci­sion to the sim­ple V formed by our mix of Fowl Talker and Dixie De­coys, even as Sav’s re­triever Tess swam laps through the rig re­triev­ing downed ducks.

In short or­der we had taken 19 of our limit of 20, and after a brief re­prieve a pair of Wood ducks ap­proached from over­head. With lit­tle de­bate, they turned hard and cir­cled back to us. I pa­tiently waited for the birds to sep­a­rate and with one last pull of the trig­ger, I filled our limit for the day and brought my Aus­tralian wa­ter­fowl ad­ven­ture to an end.

In the end

By the time I re­turned home I had driven more than 3000 km and seen most of Vic­to­ria. I was con­sis­tently re­minded by each of my hosts that I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a trip most Aussie wa­ter­fowlers could only dream of. I hunted eight times over seven days, each day and each hunt be­ing en­tirely unique from the day be­fore. The in­di­vid­u­als I met along my jour­ney em­bod­ied the best of Aus­tralia’s wa­ter­fowl com­mu­nity. They were wel­com­ing, gen­er­ous and kind, but most im­por­tantly, they were each ex­tremely proud of their Aus­tralian tra­di­tion. I am eter­nally grate­ful to those who took me in along the way and al­lowed me to ex­pe­ri­ence a bit of Dixie Down Un­der.

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