My hunting legacy was passed down to me by my old man and has been shaped through the scope of a rifle and the lens of a camera while in search of big game. But for some time now I have been keen to expand my horizons and found myself becoming curious about what draws duck hunters to pursue their quarry. So early on in 2020 I tossed around the idea of tagging along with Anto Hall, a passionate waterfowler based in the lower south of New Zealand, to document some duck hunting. Lucky for me, he was sure he could work something out.
Anto assured me that it would be an eye opening experience and suggested that I tag along for the opening weekend of the season. He told me this opportunity would give me an initial insight to the world of waterfowling and that I would get the chance to experience their excitement, tradition and culture, and gain respect for the passion that I’d been told drives the passionate duck hunter.
Plans were well set early on, but with COVID-19 there were more than a few weeks of uncertainty about when the season would be opening, or if there was even going to be a duck season at all. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long as the opening was only delayed by a couple of weeks.
After doing some research and asking some questions I learnt that opening weekend is unique. It is considered to be a safe hunting bet and everyone has a good chance to harvest a bag of ducks. This is because the birds are being pushed around by thousands of enthusiastic shooters and almost all suitable bodies of water have a keen group of hunters waiting in anticipation. This weekend is also unique because of the sheer amount of hunters that keep the birds in the air as they attempt to find a safe place to rest and hide for the day. For the rest of the season there are fewer hunters out to push birds around so being successful involves more organisation in advance. Locating where birds are living before even attempting a hunt is the key to success and is a big part of the challenge. Coming along on this particular weekend meant I would get to see some of the tradition and experience waterfowl hunting on a day that is different to any other day of the general season.
On opening day hunters are competing with others in their area for ducks that are travelling great distances and sometimes flying hundreds of metres in the air as they flee from what they knew to be a safe pond only to be shot at again as they attempt to land somewhere new. So, in the lead up to opening, successful hunters put in the time to ensure the area they are choosing to hunt looks attractive from a bird’s perspective, which includes ensuring their blind (hide) is well camouflaged and conceals them from the ducks’ specialised colour vision that can pick up on the smallest movements from a long way out.
The plan was to meet in the deep-south at our accommodation for the weekend. I arrived at dinner time when the crew headed to the bar with smiles on their faces that showed their anticipation for the next day. I love moments like these: chatting over a few brews and eagerly discussing the good ol’ times and prospects of the next day’s hunt and what it can bring. The boys told me that the day was going to start off in the dark and end that way too.
Before midnight the team, consisting of Anto Hall, Brad Pedersen, Nick Geddes, Rob Craig-Brown and Dave Shaw, producer of the Red Stag Timber Hunters Club, retired for the night to ensure they weren’t too rusty for the big day ahead.
We were all soon waking up at what seemed to be an incredibly early hour but we all had an extra spring in our step as we got things organised for the day ahead.
I didn’t really know what to expect as we pulled up to our destination. Prior to the trip Anto had given me two options: I could come out the day prior and help set up with the team or, if I really wanted to feel like a ‘duck out of water’, I should just turn up for dinner the night before then come to the hunting location for the first time in the morning.
Well, I couldn’t help but go for the option of starting off the day completely in the dark, in both the literal and figurative sense, as I really had a very little understanding of what was about to commence.
Once the vehicles were parked up I was greeted by a very excited Chesapeake Bay retriever called Dakota; a dog that I can only describe as a super powerful looking labrador with a reddish-brown coat, wagging it’s tail with anticipation, seemingly very aware of what was about to happen.
Anto threw me a pair of waders and smiled, “you’re gonna need these, and you’ll learn to love them”.
It was time to head off.
In convoy, we marched off into the thick swampy tussock grass until we hit the edge of what was some sort of pond. We then piled ourselves and our gear into a rather ramshackle dinghy and proceeded to paddle our way across the pond. It was an adventure like no other, and we still hadn’t got to where we were going to hunt.
I soon realised that getting there is half the fun.
It didn’t take long to get across the pond and soon I saw what the boys told me was the blind. To me it almost looked like a mound of tussock grass perfectly blending into the environment, but looking inside it revealed a well-engineered seating area with storage and gear shelves.
It was at this moment that it became clear to me that these boys were serious and here to really have a good go at these ducks since all around me were decoys of uncanny realism.
The team got to work, and with a few adjustments of the decoy spread to accommodate for the wind, or lack of it, we were soon into the hides and making a cup of coffee. Then it was time to camo up and don the face paint. Laughter was intermittent as we kept our eyes on our watches for the commencement of opening day.
Soon the first shots of the day rang out in the distance, and again and again they could be heard. Seconds later, we had the whistling of wings overhead as ducks began flying past us in the weak dawn light. The boys chatted but soon determined it was light enough to shoot and began calling out to ducks trying to convince them to come in.
While everyone was clearly excited, there was a sense of nervousness about what was going to happen.
The first real chance of the morning resulted in a lone mallard dropping into the pond with a splash right in front of the team with no shot being fired. Quickly it was back up and, with a series of short quacks to say goodbye, it was gone.
It surprised me just how quickly the light strengthened. Within five minutes the sky began to light up and birds became a bit more obvious rather than simple silhouettes in the moonlight. With some calling from the team and a clear decisive command of “take em!”, out rang a series of shots from the crew.
A couple of ducks went down and on command from Brad, off went Dakota bringing the birds back to one happy owner. With the smell of fresh gunpowder in the air the boys looked at each other and began to replay what just took place before ushering each other back to the job at hand with some more ducks approaching and calling hard.
The boys were quickly back on their callers talking to what turned out to be a very keen lone mallard drake calling with a series of short quacks.
As the morning went on it became very apparent to me that there was some real science to the calling. Here are a few things I picked up:
- The team used calmer, gentle calls as the birds were approaching;
- There was no calling at all when the birds were over-head;
- Strong, quick calls were used in a last-ditch effort as the birds appeared to be leaving the area.
Talking to Anto later in the day, we touched on the basic dynamics of duck calling and its relationship with working the birds into the ultimate position to decoy them in. He explained that duck calling is like dealing with people arriving or leaving a party. As people approach, you tend to happily welcome them but as they leave, you yell out with more vigour for them to come back.
The other key element to be understood is that combined with a duck’s great vision is their ability to pick up on exactly where calling is coming from – you can sometimes even see them moving their heads to look. Calling at ducks over-head is like eyeballing someone across the room: there is no way they have not picked up on you being there.
The team were keen to get birds in close and were waiting for the ones that appeared to be in range to circle again before calling the shot. The team mentioned the lack of wind was playing a part since it meant the birds didn’t have a set direction to land in (they rely on the wind to choose their direction to land in). The boys advised me that for them the challenge is having the birds work their way into the decoys rather than showing them. Letting birds get away on the belief that you can fool them was all part of the game.
Despite the lack of wind in the morning, multiple birds came right into the decoys and were dropped out of the sky. A range of birds were taken: mallards; paradise ducks endemic to New Zealand; shoveler or spoonbill ducks; and Canadian geese. It was a real mixed bag heavily dominated by the prized mallards.
Even when there were easy opportunities of taking paradise ducks, they were left in favour of the chance of enticing mallards into the spread. The team were convinced it was worth letting a half dozen ‘parries’ go to have the chance of fooling a single mallard, which is a far more worthy adversary since it’s smarter, faster and most importantly, tastier.
Lunch was called when things got quiet and on the menu was a huge lamb leg that had been put on the slow smoke traeger when we first arrived in the morning. We sat around enjoying the day and giving each other shit about either missing or scaring the ducks with the old ‘blame the cameraman’ line being used in defence by the team. To be fair there were certainly a fair few chances ruined by me and Dave as we moved about in the hope of getting the optimum angle.
After a few hours of relaxation, we could see a few birds dropping into the decoy spread so it was time to gear up and get organised for an evening session.
The evening was amazing. It began slowly but built up into what was at last light some seriously hot action with birds dropping in with full commitment.
What an amazing opening experience. It’s one that I will never forget. However, it was not until I was back at our accommodation while having a feed with the team reflecting and looking through some images from the day that I really began to appreciate what it was all about. This wasn’t the end though. The next day we were up early again for one last morning hunt and while the scene was the same as the previous day, it felt different with slightly different conditions and bird behaviours.
We saw less birds in the air but the ones that were up there were travelling in significantly larger groups and when they finally decided to come in from hundreds of metres up, with a tipping of their wings reacting to a call, it was impressive to watch. I found it amazing how you can convince a couple of dozen ducks to begin dropping down from so far up in the air and bring them right into 20 yards with feet out ready to land.
Pack up took place and with some photos to capture a memory of the day we were soon on our way having completed what was another opening weekend in the books for the team and a first for me.
During pack up the team went and caught up with Nick’s wider family and friends that also hunt in the area and have been doing so for over 40 years. Soon a duck processing production line was formed.
It was fascinating to see such a tradition take place before my eyes without even a word being spoken by the group of men around me. It just happened, except this year it happened with social distancing rules applied.
On a closing note, Anto left me with the key message to get some waders and get ready for an invite to another waterfowling experience. I can only say that I am super keen and cannot wait to see where I end up next and what we will be targeting.
This is only the start of a new understanding of our hunting heritage and environment. Watch this space and keep your eyes on the sky.