The joy of Opening Day
The first Saturday in May has always been a special day for many New Zealanders.
Known as duck hunting’s Holy Grail, Opening Day is an annual event eagerly awaited by waterfowlers throughout the land.
This year we stayed close to home, with bigger and better duck hunting expeditions to come over the next three months. At short notice, we scouted locations on our local estuary the day before Opening Day and dragged the decoys out of retirement in the back shed.
Hurriedly dressing our newmobile duck blind with dry grass, we threw everything in the truck for the long manual haul out across the mud early on the morrow.
As the morning glow intensified, we searched the estuarine skies for wild ducks on the wing. Actually, it was a bit underwhelming, but there wide open spaces, sea birds flighting overhead, and plenty to talk about while the hours flew by.
Over the years I’ve shot a lot of ducks from theWairarapa to Southland, so for me the best part was sharing the experience with my oldest son, Jake, 17. We even had our licences checked by Fish & Game Rangers and the Police Arms Officer, all attired in highviz orange vests.
We saw ducks but they weren’t really interested in our offerings, despite the well camouflaged blind, our swan, paradise, shoveller, mallard duck decoys, and our pleading calls. Jake got a couple of shots away but after a few hours the ducks had won and we had in cricket terms, literally ‘scored a duck’.
We hadn’t done our homework well and got punished by the ducks for setting up in a place they really didn’t want to go, despite it being a good historical spot where we’d shot plenty of ducks in decades past.
At a kids’ football match later that morning, someone asked me if I was disappointed about our lack of success but I couldn’t care less.
I’d had a great time out on the mud with Jake, enjoyed seeing flighting ducks, and knew that temporary failure was actually corrective feedback from the ducks that showed our hunting techniques could use a tune-up.
Jake was keen to go again the next morning, so we went to another spot we’d seen ducks congregating while out on the estuary the day before and our fortunes changed for the better. Hiding in two layout blinds that look for all the world like cloth coffins with ametallic frame inside, the ducks swooped low over our decoys in the half light as Jake fired his 16 gauge pump-action shotgun.
We were in the right spot and opportunities came our way. As it grew lighter the ducks became more suspicious with fine skies, no wind, and bright sun but it wasmagic calling to mallards circling high above while ignoring grey teal pitching into our decoys, and enjoying highly-coloured shoveller ducks rocketing overhead.
Modern duck hunters generally need to be more mobile to enjoy consistent success. Duck and waterfowl have changed their habits, there is a need to explore new areas, and building large conspicuous maimai or hides is no longer allowed or encouraged on public waterways.
I’ve always enjoyed hunting the big public waters, whether it be lagoons, estuaries, lakes, or riverbeds where you are hunting wild birds that are not pre-fed like on many farmponds. Big water involves good camouflage, cover, decoys, good calling, and often long challenging shots.
Alas, duck hunting opportunities are declining in many areas around the country with urban development, new farming methods, agricultural chemicals, and loss of habitat and feeding areas all taking their toll.
Many times hunters are in a competition with other resource users – cyclists are one group who have grown stronger in numbers and have demanded new tracks, trails and opportunities.
Jake and I found the runners and cyclists we encountered on our way back to our vehicle to be very pleasant and interested, and that made our continued right to hunt the estuary a real success.