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.
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.
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.
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.
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.