THE FOG WAS SO THICK, we couldn’t see a thing – and I mean nothing! So for two hours we anchored up – unsure which way was home, or where the lethal oyster beds were that threatened to ground our boat. And to make matters worse, we could hear ducks all around us – quacking … laughing … mocking …
For thousands of Kiwis across the country, the first weekend in May signals the start of one of the most significant events of the year – indeed, for many, it’s the most significant event of the year!
In case you’re one of the few who don’t know, we’re talking about duck-shooting season – the two or three month period (depending on region) where war is declared on the humble quacker.
I’ve never taken much interest in harvesting game-birds – preferring to concentrate on larger, four-legged beasts. And, apart from taking the odd swipe at a noisy ‘Parry’ for ruining a deer-stalk, duck-shooting hasn’t been high on my agenda.
However, all this was to change for the 2010 season …
For several years now I’ve been surrounded by a bunch of mad-keen bird-shooters. And, up until recently, I’ve managed to keep my distance during ‘the season’ and avoid their infectious deeds. However, the lure of adventure was strong – and the opportunity to hang out with some good mates, at some ungodly hour, in a cold wet maimai was difficult to resist.
So as the saying goes, “When in Rome …” The time eventually came to dust off my old single-shot!
One of the things I have appreciated about duck-shooting is its tradition. Most of my mates have been doing it a long time – and it was always something they did with their dads, uncles and granddads. Now they’re getting their own kids involved, creating family memories of their own – and I reckon that’s got to be a good thing!
For most keen bird-hunters, duck-shooting starts weeks (and sometimes months) before opening weekend. There are maimais to build (or repair), decoys to paint, calls to practise, ponds to prepare – and ducks to feed!
However, my pre-season prep involved shooting a couple of annoying roosters that had started cock-a-doodling too early – and getting a duck-caller.
After settling on a ‘Double Nasty’ caller, I tried to harness its power – much to the annoyance of my wife and neighbourhood. To be honest, I sounded more like a hammer drill with stuffed bearings, boring through reinforced concrete. It was a lot harder than I first thought. And, to add to the complication, there was more than one call I needed to learn! The humble ‘quack’ wasn’t going to be enough …
For example: one call (the internet experts told me) was supposed to sound like a “Kanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc” – and another like an “Aaaaaaink … Aaaaaink … aaaaink, aaaink, aink”. Then there was the “tikkitukkatikka” and the “quaaCK”, the ‘hail call’ and the ‘lonesome hen’ – not to mention several others! It took a while, but eventually I started sounding like a duck – albeit, a very sick and mentally challenged one …
Come opening weekend, I was sorted. I had my trusty single-shot, my season licence, and my camouflage kit. I’d decided to leave my caller at home – I was worried I might end up scaring the birds away. And, if that happened, my mate Nigel, whose pond we were shooting on, probably wouldn’t invite me back.
We’d set out his decoys the night before and chucked a cooker and some food into the maimai. A few birds were hanging about, so things were looking up!
After a 4:00am start, we made our way to the pond in the dark. There were three of us shooting – me, Nigel and his son Josh. His daughters Renee and Amber were there as well, keen to be a part of the action.
Not long after 6:30am we started hearing the distant ‘booms’ as the season officially got under way. And, in no time at all, we saw the first mob of ducks heading our way.
They say, about duck-shooting, that “You make your own luck!” – meaning, those prepared to put in the most effort, get the greatest reward. Attention to decoy-spreads, maimai-placement and concealment, personal camouflage and blowing a caller correctly are all features that make a top duck hunter. However, there’s always an element of good fortune surrounding success.
The weather, for instance, plays a vital part. Wind and low cloud will keep the ducks on the move and flying low – while clear blue skies and calm conditions … well, you may as well sleep in!
Nigel did some duck-like calling, and soon had a small mob circling our pond. And as we crouched in the maimai watching and willing them in, I found myself getting all excited. What, over a bunch of ducks? Surely not! But, yes, when they swooped in with their wings flared ready to land, I had to concede: this was way better than I’d imagined!
We got our limits that day – thanks largely to a productive pond and to Paige, Nigel’s Labrador, who did a great job retrieving the ducks. We still had a fair bit of plucking ahead of us, and I’d foolishly thought that this might’ve been something my wife would like to do …
The season went quickly, and I sought to make the most of the opportunities I had left. I reclaimed an old family dinghy, painting it up into a lethal duck-boat, then drifting a couple of rivers nearby and floating onto some unsuspecting ducks. We stalked our opening weekend ponds again, and had a crack in a few canals.
I had a great time shooting the Firth of Thames with my mate Greg on his heavily-camoed duck-boat. And I went out with Bert (Greg’s dad) a couple of weeks later … which wasn’t, unfortunately, so successful: that was us stuck in the fog!
So why did I enjoy it so much? Well, I’d be lying if I said that the shooting wasn’t a big part of it. Killing a duck with one nicely placed shot is immensely satisfying – bagging a double, even better! But of equal importance are the sights and sounds surrounding a hunt: watching the sun rise over a misty pond … hearing the chorus of morning-birds and the distant chatter of mallards as they return from a night feeding. There’s the satisfaction gained from well placed decoys … the luring of ducks with some skilful calling … and watching the whole process fall into place as they come in to land.
And finally, there’s the camaraderie … the good mates … the family … the tradition. The tall stories … the mockery … and, of course, the great feeds of tasty wild duck!
SNAPSHOT OF A PASSIONATE HUNTER
Bert Laing has been shooting ducks since 1948 and is one of those people who rate the season as the most significant event of the year! In fact, over that two month period, Bert leaves his home in the Coromandel, and moves into his Hauraki Plains shooting lodge – a small cottage he shifted onto his runoff a number of years ago.
They don’t come much keener than Bert. During 2010, he shot 52 days out of the 58-day season – and yes, he has a very understanding wife!
It’s easy to get him talking about ducks – but it doesn’t take long for the discussion to turn to family. You see, it goes without saying that Bert is passionate about his shooting – but he loves nothing more than sharing the season with his grandchildren, in-laws and kids. In fact, there’s a specially-made sleep-out on their property to ensure plenty of room when they all turn up for a shoot.
Bert started hunting with his father as a kid – and his shooting-lodge proudly displays a beautifully restored shotgun that his grandfather used. So to say the man has a proud duck-hunting heritage is an understatement. His father Ron was 85 when he called it quits – arthritis finally putting him out of action. But today, at 96, Ron still loves the sport, and has a number of great-grandchildren now following in his footsteps.
Bert (an honorary ranger for Fish & Game) reckons his best memories are of him, his dad and his son Greg, all shooting on the Firth together – all trying to outdo one another!