Friday, September 28, 2018

Kick'n with Pete

A couple weeks ago while on Kirimati I'd got a message from a well known fly angler that he'd be in Turangi for roughly a week and would have the new Sage X5120 along if I wanted to catch up for a swing?

I booked a trip in as soon as I got back. But I'd sort of screwed up and booked to arrive the day he was leaving. That's how I roll.

But I kept that booking at the motel, and let the proprietor know I'd be down late, with dog in tow. I rolled into town pretty late, got set up in my unit (I'd be on the water before anyone else! Haha!), tucked Layla into her blankets in the back of the truck and then tried to get to sleep. Unfamiliar bed, main highway noise, trucks rattling the windows... ahhh shit here we go.  The alarm blared at 04.30. I drank coffee, ate, fed her royal blackness, pulled on waders and boots, loaded the truck and got going. We were second car in the car park - 3 guys were readying themselves in the dark to assault Reed's pool, an easy piece of water suitable for geriatrics. Just sayin'. I let them know where I'd be and Layla and I set off down the track. We needed to make 3 crossings to our spot. In the dark I readied my wading staff and stepped into the first and most gentle crossing. I fell over halfway across.... water sloshed around under my raincoat and made its way down my legs. It was mild out luckily, or I'd have been heading back for a change of clothes. We made it into position without further mishap and sat on the bank waiting for a glimmer of light. It was still dark when I made my first cast, setting the anchor by feel and swinging barely more than the head and tip - I retrieved the fly through some slack behind a log jam WHAM a fish hit with purpose and rocketed downstream before the hook pulled. NOT COOL.

As the sun rose I moved through the pool, covering the water carefully. 2 more hits came, one fish shaking loose after a good minutes of head shaking runs and the other a bump as the fly moved through the prime water. In this pool its better to fish through once then rest the water for an hour or more. On the way downstream I dropped Pete a line. He would be walking Kaiser so told me he'd come down the track on the opposite bank. The water here is enticing, emerald green depths hard against the far willow lined bank, shallowing my side over rounded stones and pebbles. The deal is to cast hard into the far bank, throw a mend to help the fly sink and swing deep to shallow. Its nice water. In my minds eye I'm in Alaska or NW USA casting for a fresh from the sea steelie. The takes here can be subtle but this one isn't as the fish hits with a thump-thump - lift and I'm on.  Immediately the fish takes to the air, leaping, leaping all the time boring upstream and I cant get him on the reel. Stripping yards of running line in is no way to get control and with slack in the system the fish jumps one more time above me, gives me a finny salute and shakes the hook. Pete shows up and we yell greetings across the river. Layla sees Kaiser and wants to join him. She's a brave little thing, swimming over to the faster water but the bank's not climbable there so she paddles around before returning. Pete observes that her activity can't be great for the fishing - I on the other hand have a notion that fish aren't really put down by dog activities, having on numerous occasions taken fish immediately or soon after Layla's invaded a pool or run. Pete says he'll be free for a fish later on so we arrange to catch up. I decide to head upstream and see how Miles is getting on with his client. They're in the braids, fishing a small run with a couple of other guys on each side of them. Reminds me of shags on a pier.  I don't want any part of that in my fishing. But they're catching, and as a guide his primary role is to catch. His dog Paddy and Layla catch up and play in the long grass beside the river. We natter for a while, watching client Warren cast, his budgie indicator drifting back down. Across the river, one of the shags briefly hooks up, then the fish is gone. We agree to catch up later for a tour of the upper river pools.

I part ways with Milo and head down to the pool I started in. No one's in there. Cool. My wet feet are starting to chill a bit so this will be the last run before heading back for a change and clean up. I've barely set foot in the run when not one, but three budgie casters descend on the run from the far bank. This water holds a maximum of one Spey guy or 2 nymphers (one operating per bank) and when they enter the water with no by-your-leave my stress levels rise a bit. The Tongariro is, unfortunately, notorious for a lack of courtesy. Some call it etiquette. I try not to lose my shit, instead I'm dropping my fly at the foot of the most upstream guy - he's trying to achieve the impossible anyway. With a high rocky bank behind him and a double nymph rig there's no way he can switch the direction of his cast to cover the lie. I throw an off-shoulder cast slightly upstream and overcook it a bit - I'm snagged in the fast water. F*CK!!! I haul back, and the rod takes on a bend that it wasn't designed for - then the snag takes line ... I don't kill many trout (1 in 5 years) but this gleaming fat hen is a fine candidate for the smoker so I take a rock and kill her. Layla, basking in the sun, watches over the fish where I lay her in the shallow water edging the pool. I make my way back into position. Nympher #1 has moved up to the next pool. Nympher #2 is tangled in the scrub atop the rock bank. Nympher #3 is snagged on the notorious snag in the tail. I figure these guys aren't from around here. No one in the know  would risk rig after rig on that underwater eater of flies. In the fast water a fish hits and goes. A good fighter this one, solidly refusing to be subdued. He's a fine fresh silver jack and will make a great smoking partner to the earlier hen. Nymphers 2 & 3 move on. Nympher #1 returns and begins casting very near the snag when the inevitable happens. Time for me to move anyway. Layla and I cross the tail where I call to #1 fluff chucker that the snag he'd hit probably has $ thousands of flies adorning it.

For the smoker

At the motel I clean my fish and into the refrigerator they go. A change of clothes. Off we go to Miles's digs. We kick back in the sun, grab a smoke and coffee and catch up. Client Warren's a really nice guy. We head upstream, Miles has intel that the Fence Pool is full of fish. I hate that pool, deep and swirly with an ugly upstream eddy on the near bank. Not swinging water. Evil nymphing water, but anyway I leave them to it and head down to the Whitikau. Wet prints on the bank show that some one's left the water recently. I need to hit the far bank where the fish hold, and get a couple of feet of drag free drift. I struggle. Guys like Jase and Greig can do this with regularity. I get started and Pete appears on the bank, armed with his #4 trout spey. He casts beautifully and is in the groove immediately. I get it right occasionally and get an elusive hit; but the fish bites and is gone. Pete and I natter about what I can't remember. We head downstream and drop over the bank to the Reef Pool. That pool has changed a lot. The deep heavy flow beneath the reef on which one stands is interrupted by a large rock so the heavy near bank chute at the tail is gone, replaced by a more sedate tail out. Pete sends me to the head and begins to probe the tail. His hit comes early as he swings under the bank, a natural holding lie.  But its gone. My take is positive and the fish rips line. Shortly Pete nets a fine silver fish.

Reef Pool

There are a lot of guys around, an indication that the runs have finally arrived upriver.

Next stop is Blue Pool. Pete takes the upper half of the tail and I go in below the big rock. Its such sweet swinging water. We know its been hammered today but by now all the holding water will have been fished. So hitting the far bank and combing the water where fish will have retreated to is important. Its late afternoon by the time we're done. I'd had 2 hits and Pete one, for no hook ups. We really don't know why our hit to hookup conversion rate is so low. I mean we've debated it extensively, theorised that hook up configurations are less effective than hook down, and vice versa... but we just don't know for sure. Pete who's observed a million billion zillion fish eats in his many years as a guide doesn't subscribe to 'short takes' and 'tail nips'. He knows that fish hit streamers amid-ship which is why when fishing articulated double hook flies he removes the rear hook to make the fly compliant with local regulations and not the forward hook. We agree to meet at his 06.30 the following morning for breakfast, giving me time for a pre-dawn assault. Heading back to town with a 19.00 dinner date with the boys to meet, I realise that despite having already gone hard for 12 hours I'm still keen. We jump out at the Island Pool and head across the bouldered rockscape. Layla likes it here, lots of grass holds quail and she's lit up. 2 guys are nymphing the head of the run and I slide in below them - literally - the bottom here is uniform smooth round small rocks coated with algae. Wading staff mandatory as each step is a slippery lottery. Layla visits the upstream anglers and barks at them. I call her back. I need to be out of the water by 6. Under the waterfall a fish takes and stays on, flashing dark red in the late afternoon sunlight.  I'm in shin deep fast water and without a net (curse my damn short memory!) I need to move downstream and bring the fish into the lee of the near bank where the current swings wide. He's well hooked and is well disgruntled. He gives me a tail spray as he swims away. I slip-slide my way back up. This is nice water but I'm yet to hit a fresh fish in here. The line tightens and I'm in again. Another dark fish, a recovering hen. The tail out is lovely looking water but I come up with nothing. Back at the truck I realise I'm stuffed.

04.45 and the alarm goes. Its cooler this morning. Layla is awake in the truck and wolfs down her food before toileting. Coffee and weetbix on board and we're away. We're the first car in the park this morning. I figure I'll get through one run and choose the "Lodge Run' which gave us so much fun last year. Jase had told ,me that the floods had altered the run somewhat. Layla and I stumble to the head of the run. Again I start fishing in relative darkness. But I stuff up and over cast, hitting the far bank. Breaking the fly off I know I'll have to wait for a bit of light to tie a new fly on. Upstream a car drives to the edge of the Lower Bridge pool. The original troll hole. With enough light available, a new fly is bent on. Conscious of time I fish faster than I might normally and its only near the tail that goods are produced. A small fat jack eats in the heavy water, and takes quite some subduing before going back.

Pete and I eat eggs, bacon and fried spuds on his front porch. Life takes some interesting twists and meeting honest genuine nice people like Pete and Sherrie is such a bonus. Layla's staying for a day date with Kaiser and Sherrie. Pete and I head out. We'll start up at Mill Race. Amazingly only one other car's in there. We're almost set when Sean Andrews (Cat 3 Fly Co.) and his mate pull in. Same plan but with limited water he agrees to head elsewhere. A call from Andy and he's looking for water too. Pete and I get to Mill Race. The head's occupied. There, 2 nymphers work the juicy seam. We jump in the tail. I find this water very hit and miss but usually good for a fish. Not today. Andy, Sean and his mate are in Carty's Run. We regroup and decide to head upriver. Talking to Sean, its fishing double handers that brought him back to this river. That's a common theme amongst the spey guys, the challenge of swinging flies for the thrill of the take is the summit, the very apex of fishing this river. Andy and Sean's mate (sorry I am so bad with names) fish the Whitikau while Pete, Sean and I talk. The river is busy, a couple of canoeists carry their white water boats upstream. Saying good bye to Sean, Pete and I head downstream. We soon bump into Greig, the speymesiter. We have a chit chat and drop into Reef. Its already been thrashed from the far bak so hopes are not high, Greig leaves shortly and we need a new plan. With limited time we make the call to head to the lower river. And its a good call, only a couple of cars are in the park, Pete draws the Stump and I head up to the Lodge Run. A  couple of nymphers are in there on the far bank. I could easily jump in but I'm not given to bad angling manners. It shits me, so why do it to someone else? Rather I head down to the messy water above Pete. Jase says its "no good". The rush of the river heads down the True left under an undercut bank before the flow charges headlong into a thicket of stumps of old trees. Floods have driven this river path, having destroyed some fine old pools in the process. I'd hit fish from the far bank before, where the heavy water slackened under the cut of the bank. So fish definitely held... but with the main rush of water closer to the far bank I'd struggle to drift a fly through the holding lie. Technical water keeps a lot of guys away. In the fastest of fast water the fly came up tight and I was connected to a fish that took line at an alarming rate before turning away from the snags at the very last second. In no way would she come out of the main flow though and it took quite a lot of side pressure to draw her forth, each time though he charged back in the shelter of the torrent. Finally the fish gave in, and unhooked charged home.

And it was time for me to head home as well. Layla had had a fine morning with her mate. So had I. Always good kick'n with Pete.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Into Spring

Looking back a year and its remarkable both the parallels and differences on a week-to-week prior corresponding period basis. This time last year the North Island was wet, the trout were running hard and we'd been snowed on. This year, the South Island has had the snow event. Farmers have reported Major lamb losses due to the wet. The big difference seems to be that the trout runs in the Tongariro have seemed very sporadic. Rather than hitting chrome fresh minted fish regularly, those specimens have been harder to come by.

We've fished some different water this year, no doubt about that but the explorations have often been fruitless or the rewards minimal. As a rule, the fishing above the township's main bridge has been difficult whilst in the uglier waters below the bridge, fish have been regularly found. For sanity's sake, a good amount of time has to be spent in the peaceful beauty of the upper river once the need to hook a fish has been sated. The hope that the runs will appear in force keep driving us on, but last weekend a change was needed.  We wanted to swing up some resident fish that equally wanted to smash passing bullies and leeches. We needed a change of location. A plan was hatched.

We'd left ate the gentlemanly hour of 5.15am, a little later than I'd normally set off. The weather was stunning, a still day lay ahead of us and fog blanketed the land. As such the drive was a little slower but we still made good time and on arrival fell into our routine for setting up. I had along the Sage One 4116 Trout Spey and Jase had packed his #3 Spey - whilst other methods draw more fish we both prefer to swing up our trout. The hits are super addictive. The river looked in smashing condition as Jase and I walked up to our chosen water. In the backwaters we spied browns cruising - they could wait until we returned armed with single handers later in the season. Layla frolicked around until suddenly from behind a bank a lamb charged at, and hit her. I'd never seen the like! My first chosen water comprised shallow shingle rapids with individual inflows contributing to a stronger current under the far bank that flowed into a gut before shallowing into a really nice tail. The confused currents made a simple swing impossible so I chose a cast and jerky retrieve approach. Soon enough, the fly stopped with a thump. Lifted into a largish fish that fought dourly, rolling in the current. When extracted he proved to be a very old fish with large teeth, past his prime but still ready to chomp on a passing bully.

After that I struggled a bit. Nothing moved at the fish imitation. Plan b needed - off with the skagit head, on with the scandi, a med sink tip and a team of small wet flies. Having not really done much of this type of fishing I needed to hit fish to get some confidence. And the first hit wasn't long in coming. The fish throbbed under water and the fight was protracted, so I was quite surprised at the long skinny fish that I landed. At that stage I noticed 3 anglers walking upstream.... our plan for solitude was scuppered. I wandered down to meet Jase and he said the other guys had fished up, so any water from here down had been covered. It was now pretty hot - Jase was having a nap on the bank and Layla was stretched out on the sun. The run I probed was long and had always coughed a fish, Jase told me that the 3 guys had extracted half a dozen fish already, so I wasn't all that confident. When the fish hit, I was bringing the wee wets back with a jerky retrieve. The small brown fought gamely and when brought to hand had taken the darker wet (name unknown) loaded with a small bead for weight. 

Jase woke up and moved downstream while I swung the tail out hoping for a larger brownie.  Overhead the sun beat down. Layla chased a pheasant out of the undergrowth and got excited by quail scent as we moved down to find Jase. Rounding a corner we came upon 2 other anglers working upstream - maybe the beautiful day forecast had brought a rush of other anglers to the river? 

While Jase worked downstream I covered a favoured run but the lack of action told me that the other blokes had already been through. Layla and I lay on the bank, she flicking at flies with her tail while I caught some shut eye. Then it was time to go.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Island time

Island Time has a quaint homesy aura, and CXI runs on Island Time. For this, our third trip, we were greeted by Shimano at Cassidy International. Progress is being made and the tin roofed shed is being replaced by a modern looking terminal facility. I predict that the quaintness factor will go by the wayside faster than ever now. This was reflected by the attitude of some of the guides who, after a long season were frank in their admissions that Australasian anglers are given second rate treatment behind the higher tipping US based anglers. Shame that. By now they should realise that we work as hard or maybe harder for a buck, so they should either step up, or step aside in the case of some of the older guys leading the young fellas astray.

The frustrations of guides not showing up for work, or in our case on the final morning the boatman not arriving, topped off the the feedback above given were on the whole evened out by several experiences.

Day 4 and I was on the "Long Walk" with my guide "T". I had 1500mls of water on board and my lunch... T had nothing and refused water when offered. We'd been dropped off the boat and wouldn't see it again until late in the afternoon. The pancake coral amongst the back country lagoons is a very special environment and we'd done well on the bones and were hunting a GT. Several shots were taken but the fish were very cagey and turned away at the last second. Come lunchtime and T asked if I liked eating fish? Sure I do! We set off for a small island and once there I was tasked with collecting salt brush and grass for firewood and tinder respectively. T in the meantime had my fly line in hand and was jigging the fly over the rocky outcrop, soon throwing fish after fish over his shoulder. When he deemed that we had enough we set about starting the fire - my role was mainly to lie in front of the pile of grass and tinder to block the incessant wind. Once lit and embers formed, the fish (snapper) were raked into the coals and cooked whole. Once skinned and with the head removed (taking the guts with it) the flesh was sweet and juicy - amongst the very best fish meals I've ever eaten.


The formidable drag
Post our GT trip earlier in the year where our gear was simply smashed, an excessive amount of research had gone into reels with responsive, powerful drags. Jase and I had both settled on Hardy Fortuna XDS 10000's - one drag knob turn and you've gone from zero to 32lb of fish breaking drag.

Until that is, you meet fishzilla. One minute the pink bill fish fly was idyllically swimming through the cobalt water, next minute the ocean opened and a fridge sized yellowfin mashed the fly. Within seconds the 65lb backing was disappearing at an alarming rate and the fish was unerring in direction or pace, quite simply it was flat out for the horizon. 

Over my shoulder, Dion, the driest Aussie you'll meet drawled "turn the drag up, he'll spool you...". I sunset the drag knob. Less than 10 seconds later, the fish was gone. At first, I'd thought that my rigging had failed but as I wound in I realised that the backing had parted. Why???? It wasn't until I tried to back off the drag that I discovered it had seized solid. The formidable drag.... good on paper I suppose.

Later, Dion fought a tuna to a standstill but lost it at the boat as the hook pulled. Mike boated a junior fish soon after. I call that an ass whooping :) - I'll probably never attach to a larger fish on fly gear and I'm ok with that!

Yup, it was good to be back in Kiribati.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Home runs

With the Kiribati trip looming, the end of my pheasant season had arrived. I would be able to squeeze one final day in. I decided to make it a big one if need be, and packed lunch and snack bars, along with a meal for Layla. After several days of rain, I was hoping the fine day that was forecast would get the birds out and active. I wanted to get to a few places that I hadn't visited this season, and quietly hoped that the other guys who hunt the property hadn't got to. I needn't have set the alarm. I was awake at 04.30 and with gear ready all I had to do was make coffee for the road, grab my lunch from the fridge, feed the dog and then get going. The drive was quiet and I arrived 45 minutes earlier than I'd thought I would. I called in to see Craig but he'd left for the day. On with gumboots, vest, camera slung, GPS switched on, gun readied and we set off. I'd gone several km before realising that I'd left my water bottle at the truck... that would be a problem later in the day. My plan saw me quickly covering the river bank while getting to the old bridge where we crossed - and Layla got hot. She got out a bit and pushed a bird, up with gun - hen... we carried on around to the area I really wanted to get into. I'd taken a ridge line route. In the gully below a hen took to the air. Over the rise and into the first spot I'd wanted to cover. Layla was going full noise but we didn't push any birds at all... strange. Maybe the other guys had been through recently? Up and over arise and onto the peninsula. Always holds birds. Always? Not today, although fresh footprints were visible. Ok, out and back down the river. The bend by the hut is usually a good spot to prospect. I sent Layla out and across the river. She pushed straight into the thicket. I  moved quickly to close off the predicted escape route. A clatter of wings and a bird came out - cock bird - he was away, my first shot was wide but he fell at the second. Another clatter and cackle and a rooster came out... I wasn't able to reload in time so he was safe. Layla swam back to me, then hit the rooster's scent, he'd run from where he fell but had only gone 10m before dying. The pup delivered him to me. I drank from the small clear stream on my way back, the sun was up and whilst not scorching I was sweating as I'd tackled a few hills and had ahead of me a steep climb. The next ridge was smothered in gorse. Layla worked it hard while I puffed my way up. At the top I took a breather and grabbed a few photos of the surrounds. Beautiful country on a beautiful day. Hard to beat.

South East


I knew there was a track down through the next valley, but there was no obvious path to it from where I was, so I entered a cattle tunnel through the gorse. Track found, and Layla got really birdy. She charged up into some thick native bush and pushed a bird out, out of view. There was never a chance of a shot so I was ok with her getting out of range. Moving down the track, I sent the dog into the scrub on my left which looked more likely to hold birds. She hit a scent then stopped and stared into the scrub. The cock bird launched straight up. A shot I'd taken a hundred times. Maybe I was too casual. Maybe my head wasn't down. I swung up onto the bird and fired. When he didn't drop I pulled ahead and hit him again.... in my dreams - I hadn't touched a feather! On a hot still day the last thing you need is to miss easy chances. I gave myself a mental uppercut. Out of the bush, and back to the stream for a drink. I didn't really think about it, but that was the last substantial water I'd take on board for the next few hours. And the next few hours involved plenty of hills. I shared an energy bar with the dog. I decided to track through the most heavily hunted area on the property, but moved with as much haste as my legs could muster. Up and over then back down and through some rocky outcrops. Layla busted a hen right in front of us. I was hot, hot and sweaty. A quick detour into the bush gave a reprieve from the sun. Back now, to the end of the farm. Past a swamp that had in the past given me birds. Nothing. The next part was all uphill. In the sun. Heart beating. I was making heavy weather of it. At the top, over a gate and into a bush track, pocked with cattle ruts. Down into the old clearing. Craig had once told me that a Maori village had been sited there. A herd of wild goats grazed the clearing. We got pretty close to them and I sent Layla in to give chase. Not her thing, those stinkys. We worked the meadow and Layla got interested in a scent but nothing jumped.

The next part of the traverse is truly interesting. A cavern is entered, where water has bored at the rock beneath a saddle. Here I took a handful of water on board. Having been underground for several thousand years I figured it to be pure enough. Icy and refreshing. Ahead of me lay a large bowl, stretching up a steep gorse and t tree covered incline. I'd always seen birds here. My legs were complaining. I knew I should have taken a route to the right of the bowl. Instead, I went up the middle. Layla's head turned rapidly and she bolted as she spotted the rooster, I got a rapid and futile shot away as he put bush between us. Mental uppercut #2. Halfway up the incline I sat for a rest. The GPS showed 12.5km covered. Phew. At the top of the valley, a small mob of goats with kid in tow, made a getaway. I made it up, a puffing mess of sweat and red in the face I'm sure. Layla hit a patch of scrub hard and a hen paradise duck emerged - I call the dog in as the shelduck would be nesting in there. Over the gate, downhill, thank god. Along the bush edge shady relief. The face 150m away was covered in young head high gorse. I wasn't sure how to work it, I was sure that it would hold though. Layla, still looking fit and fresh, worked in. 50m away, a fat cock took to the air. Layla clearly was on a scent and with a whir, a hen took air in front of us. If only hens were cocks...

We moved down to work around the swamp. Once our release site, these days it seems slightly barren. Against the high rocky banks, moss grew. I grabbed handfuls and squeezed the water out, a few drips per handful but welcome none the less. The final climb lay ahead. Energy bar shared with dog. Ok, up we go. Arriving at the head of the valley I had in mind, I pushed the dog in. She hit a scent and ran - I blew a stop whistle and she pulled up... as a cock jumped and flew ahead. I couldn't have shot but damn, another chance blown! Ok, settle down. I pulled the dog back and pushed her into the gorse below me on the left. She breezed through and then BOOM, nose down. I got behind her and closed the gap as she charged a gorse clump - CACCKKKLEE!! Snapshot, bird plummeted, break gun, holy shit another rooster's running, close gun as he takes to the air, remember second trigger, pull through as he begins to gain speed, pull trigger and he folds. Double rise! DOUBLE RISE!! From mental uppercut to top of the world! Home run with bases loaded! A six off the last ball of the match to win it! I tracked back to pick the second, Layla would be onto the first one. Soon she appeared with the gleaming bird in her mouth. Photo time. Pain in legs gone! Success, the sweet taste of success. This is why I hunt, hard work paying dividends. Pheasant hunting drives me like no other type of field sport. Spey casting is about perseverance, a mental challenge. Pheasants are hard physical work, covering ground, outwitting the cunning rooster.

Gun over shoulder. Birds in vest. The final push, back to the house. My mind was on water. By now the skin on my fingers was beginning to shrivel, a sure sign of dehydration. Head down, I focused on the final km back to the house when I heard a call -  Mike was asking how I'd got on. I detoured across to see him and thank him for use of the property. We nattered for a while and I checked my GPS - 17km covered. Saying a farewell, the dog and I carried on. Finally we arrived at the truck. 1.5 Litres of water gone in seconds. A large can of V followed.  I fed and watered the dog and put her in the back of the truck; despite being young and fit she'd hurt tonight. I'd covered 18.2km, so I'd say she would've done that plus a quarter, call it 22km of running and swimming.

The cramps came halfway home. By then I was one milkshake and 2 bottles of Coke Zero down (yup, a diuretic, I know..). Inner thighs were cramping and a couple of times I had to stop the truck and stretch the abductors. Lesson learned - NEVER, EVER forget the water bottle. If it had been a summer's day, I'd have been in trouble.

With the season over, I can now reflect on how good its been. A freezer full of pheasant tells me all I need to know.

2 days

4am start again. Jase and Layla were the passengers, and Turangi the destination. A good run to Pete's place where we dropped off our excess gear; in the past both of us have had our cars robbed. Far easier to prevent fate being tempted, than to run risks.

First stop, the Over The Hill Pool (OTHP). Really good swinging water, directly upsteam of The Silly. I started half way down and Jase went in at the head. I swung right down covering the water as well as I could... not a tug. Jase caught one right off the bat, but that was his total return. 2 guys already in the Silly each caught a fish on scratching gear.  I went in at the head of the OTHP for a fast run through the head. Again nada. We crossed at the bottom of the run and set off downstream, dropping down to Cattle Rustler's. I moved up to fish Barlows which is a beautiful run and went through thoroughly - not a damn thing. Uh-oh, this wasn't looking so bright. Jase had hit a couple of fish.

Crossing Cattle Rustler's at the tail, Layla in tow. Going downstream ok, I'd not like to cross against the current. Mill Race. Hit or miss water. Nice for swinging, but scratchers get in here a fair bit too. Jase was already well down the run by the time I started. I was at the halfway mark when the fly was hit upon landing at the far bank, and a strong fish took line. It was a good fight and as I drew the fish ashore an angler stepped in upstream - Connor, who I hadn't seen for a fair while. We caught up and Jase came up to see us. He’d swung nothing up from the run. After a natter we got going and took the bush trail up to where the truck was parked. We decided to have lunch at the Blue and were soon brewing tea and eating rolls and chorizo Saussies.

Up at the Sand pool, a ranger checked our licenses (after many years between being checked, this was the second license check in a month) before we crossed and moved down to swing the water below. Jase calls it the Pig Pen. He let me swing the more productive lie and I was almost at the tail of the pool proper before I got a hit and landed a small feisty fresh fish. I pulled out and Jase swung the tailout and began to cross the river with the current. He bounced across and I began to follow, with Layla in tow. I blessed the fact that I'm 6'3". With dog held by collar we got across no problem. Layla's quite calm in crossings that aren't everyone's cup of tea.

Back at the car we made the call to swing the Blue. I had one tug but was fishing in auto mode and sort of pulled the fly from the fish half heartedly.

We called back to Pete's to grab our gear and then headed down to our accommodation. What a delightful old school bach! Set back amongst trees, old school fittings with a few modern amenities, it was like stepping back in time. We made ourselves at home, got Layla settled in the laundry and then went out to find dinner. Burgers and fries filled the gap.

Up and at 'em early Sunday. Breakfast then over to Pete's. We made a call to fish the town pools. I'd never fished the Island Pool so that was a new piece of fishy looking water. I went through it as thoroughly as I could, but achieved nothing except lost flies. Pete and Jase went down to the Judges to fish the True Left. I swung the tail out. Nothing. I really wasn't troubling the scorers. I grabbed a very bored Layla and we headed down to Judges. I arrived in time to watch Jase land a nice fish. Its a tricky cast in here, with limited room and very deep water just a step out from the bank. A couple of nymphers plied the pool on the far side. Pete had pulled the pin by this stage. Back to the car.

At the Bridge Pool coffee cart we ran into young Connor. He was planning to fish the Bridge Pool but we formed a new plan. Downstream to Grace's Road car park. Only a couple of cars in residence. I wanted to fish Karl's "No Face Fish Pool" so headed downstream while Jase and Connor fished a closer piece of water.

Connor with a smashing fish

My casting was gone. I stuggled my way down to the NFFP. I hadn't put a Spey swivel into my system so had a few curls in my running line. I sat down. Tore 15m of running line off. Cut it. Put new loop knot in. On with Spey swivel. Back into it. The fly swung slowly into the holding water and the tug pulled line from my fingers. A fit fish gave a good account of itself and I beached it.

Connor wandered downstream and as he arrived I had another hit. This fish soon detached after a strong start to the fight. I withdrew and gave Connor the water which he covered nicely.

I wandered back upstream to fish the water Jase and Connor had covered. Good move. Cold showers smattered the water.The run is full of ugly snag like structure but actually has a clean holding lie. The first hit was a full-on SMACK and the fish launched sideways, throwing the hook. The next hit hooked up solidly and I played a fish in through the snags. Stunning. Silver. Fresh. Connot walked up and the following hit saw a fat fresh fish take to the air. I thought I had control but the hook threw, just as Connor was ready to net him.

Fresh & silver
Jase came up to find Pete who had arrived and I hit a snag that ate several flies before.... my running line parted. Connor waded in below the snag and retrieved my head and tip, thanks bro!

Back at the truck Layla made herslf at home, curled up on Jase's seat. Ooops. We had a beer each and talked smack until Jase and Pete joined us. Concept flies were handed out. Gear exchanged. The fellowship of fly fishing is alive.

Carpark concept fly... :D

Fat & fighting fit

Monday, July 23, 2018

Back at the big river

3.45 am. Alarm... yikes. Coffee and muesli, dog fed. Coffee for the road. Bye to Marcia, dog in truck, here we go. Winter 2018 campaign underway. Karl and Jase had had a hit out or 2 and had reported patchy fishing, but both had hit good fish. The drive down was clean with no hold ups. I'd phoned Tim and Pete on Friday to figure their plans - we'd catch up during the day.

First stop - Mill Race. Lovely swinging water. I'd walked the track with a spring in my step. First in the car park after a 4 hour drive - virgin water! Tim phoned - he and Greig were up at the Blue Pool car park, so I agreed to catch up with them a bit later. At the car park I'd rigged up the Sage One 5116 with a Rio Skagit Short head and light MOW tip, 10 feet of T-8. Wooly Bugger on 1m of 10lb Maxima.

It's been a while between casts. Focus on foot placement. No shortcuts with the lift - anchor placement critical. OMG the cast booms out - did I do that straight off the bat? Its going to be a good casting day! I use 2 casts here. At the head a quartering Snap T that drops the fly into the fast shallow water past midstream then swings slowly into the deep seam. The other cast, used when abreast of the big rock is a double Spey across the current, landing the fly at the far bank and achieving a faster swing as the current takes the fly down. By using this combo I can show a fish the fly with 2 different drift profiles.

It was the quartering cast that brought the first take, just in the lee of the big rock. The fish hit and took line and despite being slightly coloured and a bit  on the skinny side, gave a good account of herself. I beached her, removed the hook, let her go and prepared to swing the deep seam. I've seen a nymph guy take fish after fish in this seam, its perfect holding water. Cast after cast raked the seam. Maybe I wasn't getting depth (uh-oh. Not this thought. Resist the urge to change tips...  R-E-S-I-S-T damn it!).

I changed tips. 10 'of T - something heavy. Stupido. Fool. Idiot. My casting went straight to crap. Must be not "T something" but T-14. IDIOT. Off with that, and on with 10' of T-10. In all, 10-15 minutes of fishing time lost with not a damn thing achieved. Ok, the T-10 while not as elegant as the T-8, was certainly not killing the cast. I swung the seam, only hitting one further fish where the tail out began, and that was only a brief tug and a few feet of line ripping off the reel... but the fish was gone.

2 other guys arrived and began to fish down above me. Layla told them this was her pool. I told her to play nice. Grumpy little cow. Nothing else came to the fly. I'd spent 2 hours on the pool, so was due for a walk to warm my legs.

At the Blue Pool carpark I called Tim. He and Greig had covered the upper pools; Greig was in the tail of the Blue and Tim came up to meet me. Just back from Montana, he was sporting a tan - jealous much! Greig joined us and we ate some of Tim's excellent veni Kranski sausages and had a coffee while catching up. Layla played nice and got some saussie for her troubles.

The boys headed downstream. I wanted to fish the tail of the Blue, but with the human vacuum cleaner Greig having gone through I didn't hold out much hope of hooking anything. I gave it a red hot go, covered the water as best as I could, but drew no strikes. Pete phoned me and he'd finished his home duties, so said he'd come up for a fish. I crossed the tail of the blue and headed down to the Boulder. I LOVE this pool. As mentioned elsewhere, it's the scene of my first ever hook up with a Spey rod. I got into my work. The throat of the pool is heavy heavy water - worth swinging the inside seam but the mid to tail out is where its at for swinging. I was still banging out casts ok. Pete sms'd me that he'd jump into the Blue for a swing - I let him know I'd be an hour at least. The first hit was a goodie and the fat little jack that ate gave a good account of himself.

Back in the pool I lost my fly to a snag as I took a phone call and let it sit too long so tied on a fresh one. I sent a cast across to the stump where a large proud Pinus Radiata used to stand pre-logging activity and the swing stopped dead. The fish felt solid but was just a big skinny old slab that I dragged shore.

Several casts later the line was ripped from my fingers as the fish dashed off. Another fat jack that fought like a demented creature.

At the bottom of the pool I turned and headed upstream. Layla's got this crossing sorted now and made it across no problem. She beat me up to Pete's pozzie and jumped all over him. We walked upsteam talking smack and at the cars made a plan to swing the run below Admiral's. Its often overlooked. Pete went in half way down to swing his red rabbit and I started above the head of the pool. Layla chased rabbits and quail in the scrub. She likes it here. Pete soon had a hit. Watching him effortlessly roll out casts is a pleasure. My hit when it came was in the slower water mid pool. Pete netted the fat little hen for me. And with that we drew a line under the day.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Unlocking the lake

I'm not really a still water angler. I mean, I've caught plenty of lake fish on lakes from boat or shore but I can't say I've built up a knowledge base of deep dark secrets. I can hold my own in river mouths that tip into lakes and in fact, when I think of 'lake fishing' I sort of mentally conjure up images of casting across or along a rip where a stream or river enters a lake and where fish arrive either on a mission to spawn, to seek shelter in the invariably cooler water of the stream, or to hunt prey where the current focuses food.

Where I'm not so good is the winter shoreline stuff in Rotorua, when fish return to their original release point to spawn. I've spent an inordinate amount of time casting into the darkness, retrieving slowly or sometimes incredibly s-l-o-w-l-y as prescribed by Milo, a master of the sport. One form of this sport involves casting out a "heave and leave" floating glo bug on a 20cm short leader following a DI7 shooting head. When in Rome.

A gathering

In 1996, The All Blacks won their first ever series over South Africa, in South Africa. Brian, Andre, Al, Milo and I watched that match in a small bach on the shoreline of Lake Rotoiti. We'd fished hard and I remember that (true to form) Milo had caught 2 large fish, one at Rotoiti and the other from the shoreline of Lake Okataina. I'd got nothing. As usual. We'd hired the house and I only remember vague bits and pieces of the weekened.

Time travel forward to 2018. 22 years, a lot of waistline pounds, much international living and heaps of grey hair later, we'd managed to conjure up a weekend where we all could shake off family duties and reconvene. We'd made various iterations of the trip before but all of us in one place? Not for 22 WHOLE YEARS.

As it happened, I couldn't get down on the Friday night. I was tired and had too much going on at work. I love driving but felt it wasn't worth the risk of getting there to be on the road as late as I would be. I left @ 06.30 on Saturday and by 10.20 was at the hut. Andre and Milo were in residence. Dre looked wretched; he was unwell and needed sleep. Milo filled me on on happenings. He, Brian (2) and guest Stu had all taken a fish the night before.

Milo had another early in the morning. I unpacked, and went to grab my #8.... in the tube was my 11 weight! I'd made an error at some stage. A Bad one too. Milo had a spare #8 so eventually I got my crap together and went down to the pipe where Al was set up. I got sorted out and settled in for a day's fishing. 5 hours went by and I thoroughly enjoyed the social aspect of the spot with lots of coming and going, even if nary a fish showed itself. Al and I stayed in place while anglers came and went. I felt like a change of pace so went back to the hut to rig up a floating line for the evening session. The guys all had plans. I went along for the ride; hardly as if I knew what I was doing.

With a Super New Moon, wind and showers I expected a good evening. We fished mostly together a tiny stream mouth and I fished with confidence over the change of light. Then back to the hut for a meal and a recharge, I left my last push until 9pm then went out. The guys mostly retired before 11.30 but I stuck at it. Nothing.

When I left at 05.30 the next morning, everyone else was comatose. I was home as a huge weather front proceeded to flood the Coromandel region. Al, who stayed late to fish (and was rewarded) too an agonising 6 hours to get home. I was done in just over 3....

Al scores
Thanks lads. Good times.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mist, not rain

By Thursday, I'd called a pheasant hunt. Heading to our group's Facebook Page, I'd asked if anyone else was interested and only Mick had shown an inkling of desire - subject to the weather. Based on the forecast I called "a 100% chance of rain" ..."but only after lunchtime". I spoke to Craig's brother Mike (Craig's away with his family in Germany) and told him I'd be down Saturday morning.

Not sure if I've said as much (actually I am, and I have), but this season I've struggled a wee bit to put roosters in front of me. Hens? No problem. No-no birds. A bit like only seeing teal when you're ducking.

As we drove South, I wasn't worried about the slow traffic I encountered. It was misty and I hoped that the cloud would burn off for a couple of reasons, first so the pheasants would get out and be active and second, so that scenting conditions would be better than if the air were cool and heavy. Exiting the forest at the farm end of the valley revealed sunshine, sure some cloud wafted around on the steady Northeast light breeze, but I coulen't have asked for a better start weather wise.

At the cowshed I popped in and saw Mike to ask if there were any areas he didn't want me in "nah , mate, help yourself" was the reply. I let Layla out of the truck for a rest stop while I got ready and was fiddling with stuff when out of the corner of my eye I saw her go hot. The slight breeze was playing over the scrub belt to our left and coming in. I had to whistle a loud stop command to halt her - she wanted in there badly. Jacket on, camera over shoulder, gun out of bag and loaded. I slipped under the hot wire and with Layla at heel, sort of, we headed up. I motioned her in to the gorse while I looped around the top, thinking any pheasant that broke would head over and downwind. The dog muscled in and worked the scrub hard before heading to the far end where I met her. Nose down she headed up to the right to the brow ahead of us and the with a clatter of wings hen pheasants, a group of 10 or 11, burst out. The only cock that flew did so from a good 50m away. The birds without exception headed for the next large patch of gorse 250m away.

I turned us around. One hundred and eighty degrees. If we were lucky later in the day, we may just cross paths with Mr Rooster where the group had flown to, but I had another plan in mind, to cover some areas not as heavily hunted. We moved on, covering a couple of likely spots. Several weeks ago, Layla had moved a rooster in a nice gorse patch that neither Craig nor I could draw a bead on because the black dog was in close pursuit of the bird. So when she got hot near the same gorse patch I moved uphill to cover any exit routes. Layla moved around the gorse and drove in and the cock burst out trying for speed and height. A comfortable shot. Layla brought a weighty brightly burnished bird to hand. Good start, 15 minutes in, bird in the bag.

Look Left! Look Right! How 'bout looking at the camera, dog?
A light drizzle came in, more Barely a veil of moisture rather than rain. None the less I put my rain jacket on, hoping to not get drenched while also hoping to not get too hot in it.

We covered the rest of the brush in the gully and the dog showed real interest from time to time, maybe birds here earlier had moved on at the shot? I was still in the zone that gets a bit of attention from the crew so moved with pace while we covered likely spots. Up and over the hill, into the next valley. Ok, here we could slow down. In the past I'd moved birds here. We worked the basin and surrounds hard and again Layla heated up, circling some low brush hard - the hare that burst out was lucky. I wasn't hunting ground game today. Up the hill. Steep. Puff puff. Rain stopped. Off with jacket. Wet anyway. Sweat build up. At the brow and under some totara trees, Laya's nose hit the ground. We'd stayed quiet but the bird had moved on. I lifted Layla over a fence and motioned her to sit. We were at the head of a gully that last time had held a veritable covey of birds, mostly hens with one wily rooster. Wind in face. I stayed uphill of the belt of gorse and sent Layla in. She was birdy as hell and hit a big scent. The rooster when he went gave me only a glimpse at the top of his trajectory and my snap shot took him. I heard his body fall into the scrub well downhill and so did Layla who appeared to have marked it well. She was gone long enough for me to decide to follow her and I'd barely travelled 20m when she rounded the corner with a gleaming and quite dead rooster in her mouth. Photos taken, he went into the back of the game vest. Wicked.

This valley is a good 750m long and heavily gorsed. Layla was in her element. She was on a scent and it weaved this way and that. We moved along, she at a good clip and me trying to keep up. My GPS would later show a max speed of 10kph, a half jog speed. The dog exited the scrub and headed to a fence... she's not good with fences so she stopped. I crossed and gave her a boost over. Now on a bank over a track above a steep wooded valley stretching left and right, I was weighing up my options... Layla, ears back charged down the bank, across the track, and plunged into the thicket below. With a huge cackle the pheasant launched out and over the valley at tree height, my snap shot catching him flush... the sound of him hitting below took several seconds in coming. Layla charged down but I thought I'd need to go to the head of the valley, enter and then backtrack to below my shooting point. I marked an obvious tree as a landmark on the other side of the gully and was about to head off when I heard the dog returning.... with bird in mouth! Super work, that was a tough mark for even an experienced dog!

Stopped time 1 hr? I don't remember stopping... :)

90 minutes of hunting. 3 cocks flushed, 3 duly taken. A limit, loving it. I had brought along some sandwiches in anticipation of a long day, so we sat and shared a bite before having a photo shoot. I surveyed our situation. The fastest way out was by taking my intended route anyway. With gun slung over my shoulder, I wandered into a sheltered ti tree belt. The sign in here was incredible so it was not at all surprising that a cock bird cackled away out of sight.

On the road as we exited the hill country, the day brightened markedly. Pity Mick hadn't come out for a hunt, it had been mist, not rain, anyhow.

Monday, July 2, 2018


Yesterday I reminisced. Maybe 30 years ago, over my yellow dog Rex I'd taken a rooster from a clearing in the swamp, a big classic warm spot fringed with willows and dotted with cabbage trees. He'd landed in a puddle at the shot so looked bedraggled, not at all helped when I'd stuffed him in the front of my shirt which is how I carried birds back then. I had taken 2 pheasants that day, the one and only time I managed that feat in this area. Yesterday I took a walk that I used to do often back then, before the swamp became 'developed' with ponds and literally a road was put through the block. The swamp felt like mine then, a big personal playground. Seeing another human face on a weekday was a rarity, and many fewer hunters worked the area than today.

Yesterday, I'd approached the clearing as I would have back then. Layla worked the fringes, casting for scent. The knee high grasses were wet and with no morning breeze I was looking for shorter shrubbery where a pheasant would hold. I'd first come here as a boy with dad, looking for pheasants. I remember the little SKB side by side that I used then and how weighty it seemed despite in reality being a light gun. We'd found a pile of feathers that dad's lab Bessie snuffled around - someone had beaten us to the bird and made a kill by the looks. A pheasant back then was a bird of mystique, a prize above all others. It would be some time after that walk with dad until I managed one.

Yesterday the black dog and I didn't complete the circuit around the clearing, rather cutting the corner as it were and continuing to move to the east, down the treeline and down the river. Early on we'd seen a distant rooster take to the air, and had possibly bumped another. More than possibly, I knew it had been a cock bird who had heard us, the lack of wind playing against us doubly by not spreading scent and also providing no cover for our noise. The water in the swamp these days is much higher than in the past, so the hunting corridor is narrower. We walked to the end of my planned area then turned back. When we got near the clearing we approached from the side we'd not covered. Layla lit up, a bird had been here. The scent trail was erratic. I moved to where I thought a bird would jump, but I got it wrong and when he did with a series of mini cackles more like clucks, he made good his escape at tree canopy height, earning his freedom by using trees as cover from me. Layla had done well. I hadn't.

A bit later in the day and again reminiscing over hunts so many years in the past and in the company of the big dog long gone over the rainbow bridge, Layla and I covered territory that I knew held pheasants. Warm, sunny, with scrub cover and close to food, its a no brainer to find pheasants here. It always has been. Layla bumped one towards me almost immediately, a tawny hen that flew over me with that brrrr wing sound. Soon she heated up again and the pheasant that jumped at my toes was well covered - again a hen bird. Later on and in the prime zone she moved another hen from in front of our feet. The rooster that went did so out of sight with a big cackle. It was lunchtime. I'd seen what I came to see. Home time.

8 birds seen in 150 minutes of hunting. 4 cocks, 4 hens. I don't remember numbers like those back in the day. Yesterday was as a good day as one could wish for. I'll take that walk again and I wont wait 20 years to do it.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A quiet walk

Layla had slowed a bit. The morning session had taken an edge off her youthful oompf, but as she hit bird scent there was no doubting her energy levels as her body language changed completely.

The dog and I had set out together post lunch, walking to our hunting point. With the M. bovis outbreak, our vehicles are now quarantined to the house area, and we'd cleaned our boots in bleach to ensure that we weren't going to put the farm's cattle at risk in any way. Walking suited me anyhow, as pheasants have great ears and I prefer a silent approach. My plan was to hunt the river bank to the back of the farm and get in a few hours to see if I could add a couple of roosters to the morning's bag. Earlier, Craig, Mick and I had hunted the farm centre with Axel, Jock and Layla in tow - or I should say, leading us. Our early flurry had been productive with Craig taking two early birds and Mick and I one each. We'd then swept a few gullys before circling around and working down towards the river before retiring for lunch with a nice bag.

Morning bird

As per the previous week's hunt, I bumped hen after hen. These things happen, but this year I seem to be a chick magnet! Layla was working her bum off. On one occasion in front of Craig she got super birdy and drove a magnificent cock bird from a gorse thicket. The angle and her close pursuit of the bird made a safe shot impossible for either of us; even so it was a neat bit of work.

After a 15 minute walk we entered the first paddock. The breeze wasn't ideal as it was on the back of my neck. Layla skirted the blackberry and flax fringe above the river while I kept her as close in as I could. The 2 cocks that burst away did so a ways out. The spooky buggers had watched us come in and with a leeward wind Layla hadn't been able to pick them up. We got to their launch point and she was crazy with birdyness. Moving another 50 metres we got to a thick patch of blackberry. The dog pushed in and began to crawl her way through. She exited, ran back down and got stuck in again - this time pushing a hen that rose with a clatter of wings in easy range.

It was some time later and several km further before we hit the next scent on the bush edge. Layla pushed into a ti tree thicket and drove a hen out; she curled back over me and would have presented a challenging shot if she had been a he. Several hundred metres on the dog lit up and drove into the native wood - out sailed yet another hen! We worked our way through likely spots, and arrived at a gorse thicket where the previous hunt I'd snaked a bird. Layla told me she was on a scent and got in. I positioned myself below the thicket - surely the bird would - before I'd even finished my thought "Cackle CACKLE!!" the rooster burst out at the far edge of the gorse and flew away over the nearest hill. I didn't even lay eyes on him. Layla grinned her way back to me. She'd chased the bird out and up the hill and was returning with a smile on her dial. She seems to not mind my foibles.

We sat for a rest and a couple of minutes contemplating the scenery. Its a beautiful part of the world and we're so lucky to be able to share it. There was another reason to take a rest. In the back of my mind I'd been aiming to hunt this part of the farm. Its just plain birdy; scrubby riverbank, with low cover backing into native timber. Re-energised, we got underway. The first cock bird wrong footed me and gave no chance for a shot. We worked through the scrub but it was damp underfoot and didn't seem to be holding. At the point of the peninsula we turned and worked the far side, which whilst drier underfoot wasn't holding either. Strange, this was really good territory. The next hillock has scant eaten out scrub and an overhead canopy - Layla hit a scent and boomed in on a bird but I was well behind and the rooster cackled away into the distance without being shot at. We pushed into a patch of fern and birds began to erupt  - hen after hen jumped and flew. At least half a dozen hens had gone - surely a rooster was in here? Layla pushed in and finally with a beat of wings and a crow a rooster jumped - his trajectory was limited by the kahikatea tree he launched from under so he tried to fly directly upwards and presented an easy shot. Layla brought him in and handed over a fine bird. A quick photo shoot. A drink. A pat for the dog. She lay on the ground rubbing her belly on the wet grass to cool down. Funny, funny little dog. 2 birds down, 1 to go.

Dad I got a mouff full of feathers
We crested the next rise and followed the bush edge down to where it intersected the river. The cock bird that launched from the far riverbank was pretty unlucky that my snap shot undid him. At 35m an ounce of #5 lead isn't a dense load and he was well in flight when I fired, but I saw his head snap back and he fluttered down to earth dead as a doornail. Layla leaped into the river, crossed and picked him up before fording the river back and delivering the gleaming bird to me. He was bigger than our released birds and upon checking him out I found no tags. A fine wild bird, not one of our releases - a real trophy.

Phew, take this damn thing!

With birds tucked away in my vest I slung the gun over my shoulder and noticed that my dodgy knee was sending out signals, little pain spikes with each step. I couldn't have cared less. Layla trotted along beside me, she'd had a big day and had worked like a demon. I decided on a less circuitous road home and took the old bridge. As we got closer to the morning's drop off point I saw Craig on top of a nearby rise and then a bird got up - both he and Mick fired as the cock shot away. 10 minutes later I'd caught them up. They'd hit the rooster and Jock had recovered it from a massive tangle of blackberry. By mutual agreement that had been our last act of the day. Drizzle set in as we headed back to the house, framing what had been a perfect day chasing long tails.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Flipping pheasants

As the cock bird wrangled with the size dominant turkey for presumably territory it really looked a David Vs Goliath battle - only Goliath on this occasion seemed to be making headway in a battle where the contestants jumped, flapped and flashed with raking claws. At one stage the rooster clean flipped over backwards and landed on his feet. He got back into the fray immediately, staunchly defending his patch. "Cocky" is his name, a favourite of Craig's dad and who as such has earned god like immunity from being hunted.  We drove on after watching for a few minutes; we had a decent bag to clean.

It was lunchtime of the second day of our annual 'pheasant opener'. We were done for the weekend with 35 odd birds in hand for the 7 of us and our assorted dogs. While driving I reflected about the trouble I'd had putting myself in a position to shoot cock birds during the Saturday morning session.  A succession of hens had been pushed by Layla and my only chances had been sharp momentary glimpses of rooster bum. Layla had at least got rooster taste in her mouth by whipping in and grabbing birds that Craig had shot; I was hunting with him and his new dog Jock and Jock was being out-experienced by Layla. He'll learn.

Craig had 2 birds aboard by the time the group split into smaller teams. He and I, Jock and Layla worked pockets of blackberry and gorse. Twice cock birds ran ahead of me and refused to fly. Twice I yelled out and they only increased their pace and outdistanced me. Finally a bird flushed my way and I took him, a really nice bird, with an overhead shot.  Layla retrieved the rooster and posed for a shot.

Near dusk Layla was pushing into a large gorse thicket. She was lit up and when the bird jumped I had time only for a snapshot. Feathers flew but so did the bird. My last sight of it was as it curled around some trees. Jethro was well above me and walked down to tell me that the bird had fallen stone dead 150m away. I took his directions and moved towards where he said the bird lay. Almost there, a shot rang from 100m away. I spun and a bird hurtled over my shoulder, I snapped a shot and the pheasant hit the ground then performed an almost perfect back flip - flipping pheasants indeed. 

It had been a memorable day in the field.

That evening we drank cold beer in front of a raging fire, which after a day's hunting is an unbeatable combination in my opinion.

My luck turned somewhat on Sunday morning. I killed a limit and a paradise duck in a mostly solo hunt. Back at base we hung the birds for the annual photo shoot and then set about cleaning them.

Job done.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Back in the saddle

The second weekend of the season. I haven't hunted ducks on that weekend for quite a number of years, as we've kicked our pheasant season off that weekend normally. Because our pheasants are late to mature this year the decision was made to push our opening back to June - fine by me! Dad, Matt and I would be hunting together and were able to make an early call as to where to hunt. We'd be less than imaginative and hunt Puru. Its a pond that produces birds more by dint of how much effort is put in than for any other reason. I got in way later than I would have thought; traffic was diabolical and a 90 minute trip took twice that in reality. Matt and dad had arrived earlier and set the decoys. They hunted the Friday afternoon and evening for 2 birds to hand.

The weather forecast was for rain, both patchy and heavy as the day progressed and sme generally northerly wind. I doubted the wind forecast and said as much when I spoke with Tony while on my trip south. He and the lads were planning a paddock hunt over some surface water.

We arrived at the maimai nice and early and got set. The first shots, as usual, rang out well before 06.30. Our first birds arrived closer to 07.00 and we got underway. The rain began to fall. With 3 guns in the maimai we rotated the shooting, 2 guns up and one standing by. At 11am and with 10 or so birds in the bag, I'd seen enough birds landing back in the trees to warrant a walk. I told the guys that I'd be gone an hour and set off in the direction of a semi abandoned pond a half km or so away. Layla got a grin on and began to cast around, covering territory in search of a scent. With a damaged shin, I opted for the easiest path I could find through the windfall and swamp. Its just plain noisy getting around in there so there's not much of an opportunity to stalk quietly, so when we approached the old pond the birds flushed out of sight. I caught a glimpse of 6 birds disappearing into the distance. The rain was persistent and with the sweat I'd worked up I was drenched, but at least it was warm. I waited by the pond to see if any birds returned (sometimes they'll come back) and formed a new plan. Rather than simply returning to our pond I'd do a circuit through the trees, visit another pond and pass around the guys hunting near us. The track to this old pond was overgrown and it took a bit of effort to make headway. I was passing a thicket when lo and behold a very large chocolate Labrador appeared. I called out 'good morning' and three young guys almost jumped out of their skins! I was camo'd head to toes inc a face mask so they probably didn't pick me up easily. We chatted about our intentions - they were on their way to visit another pond and parted ways. Soon after Layla pushed a bird out of a flooded depression but I was nowhere near ready and missed the chance. We continued and suddenly 40m out in front, a grey duck burst from the trees. My second shot, a pretty long one, felled the bird and I saw it fall out in the open to my left. I realised that the bird had actually dropped into the river and called Layla over. Just then, the guys I'd met earlier came around the corner in their boat. They picked my bird and threw it to me, a fine looking duck. Layla and I got back on our way, visiting a pond that I'd hoped would hold a bird or two but that was not to be. We reentered the trees and Layla quickly flushed a hen mallard which I dropped. The dog brought my duck in and I added it to my belt. Soon after, she went hot again and chased down a grey duck that wasn't able to fly. I was now nearing our hut so veered back into the swamp to intersect our ponds. There I found dad and Matt out looking for a bird they'd dropped. Layla got out into the flooded willows and chased a bird out just as Matt's Zulu grabbed another! Having completed a strong retrieve, Layla delivered the bird. I was soaked to the skin and tired, so after a short stint back in the maimai I headed back to the hut to prepare some lunch and change into a dry set of clothes. Hot coffee and sandwiches made, it was back to the guys for the afternoon shoot. We had a few chances and I was pleased to knock off my limit bird late in the afternoon. Darkness descended and we headed in to the hut with 18 birds for our day's effort.

We dined on goose burgers and had a few quiet drinks. I was completely stuffed and my shin was swollen out. Layla was dead on her feet. We were in bed by 20.30. Still the rain fell. Wet gear was draped on chairs in front of the fire, or hung above.

When Matt's alarm went off, I really didn't want to get out of bed. But, a hunting morning lay ahead and there's not one that can be missed. We weren't exactly on time to the pond, but soon had birds in range. The rain had drenched our guns and despite (or because of!) meticulously cleaning them the previous evening, we all suffered jams or malfunctions! Several times I could only get one shot away and even Matt's A400 suffered.

At 9 we pulled the pin with 5 birds in the bag and made our way back to clean the bag, the hut, get everything ship shape and get underway while we had tide on our side.

As I write this entry now, my shin is pounding, telling me about the effort I'd exerted. And Layla, well she's tired too...

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Friends and family season

 The big day was almost on us.Duck opener. Greg and Daryl had got in from Melbourne with Daryl’s boy Jack the day before and were set up in the hut with dad and Larry already. I’d arranged with Matt to meet at the landing pretty early, so had hit to road @ 5am with her Royal Blackness Layla onboard.

As we launched and loaded the boat in the morning gloom, a family group of pheasants got up and flew across the river for their morning feed. We counted 11 in total. Greg came down to help us offload our gear and then Daryl arrived. Matt and I had managed to fill my wee tub with an inordinate amount of stuff! Once settled in we set about getting our decoys in order, jerk string lines sorted, batteries for electronica worked out and soon we were motoring around the ponds setting the decoys. With sunny blue-sky weather forecast and no wind whatsoever, there would be a real danger of fog the following day. As hunters entered the swamp masses of ducks whirled overhead and their calls could be heard for miles. 

It’s a busy area. As habitat shrinks there is more and more pressure on the remaining resource. I think back to those lucky and happy days of secondary and tertiary education, where I could disappear into the swamp for a week or two and be surprised if I saw another person. Now there are literally hundreds of hunters in the area for at least the first week of the season. It does taper off later on, and I crave those days later in the season where birds can be worked without undue pressure on sky busting idiots nearby and where hidey holes can be worked for ducks looking for quiet loafing and a drink of water.  

Tom arrived mid-morning leaving only Andy and Paul to arrive and round out the numbers. We caught up on each other’s tales, trials and tribulations. It was a good time to reflect on party members past and present. Later in the day Matt and I put out decoys on the pond that Paul would hunt, in his absence, and then took the opportunity to watch birds work the ponds. We both commented on the large number of beautifully coloured up mallard drakes. I’d be shooting greenheads only – or at least that was my plan – so it was good to see plenty of the quarry up close and personal.

Andy and Paul rolled in late in the afternoon and as at this time of year camp got quite busy, with 10 people and 6 dogs in attendance. With dad’s curry in our bellies it was time to have a few quiet drinks and tell some lies.

The Opening. That magic day of days. No duck shooter would miss it – and I say ‘shooter’ deliberately because there are plenty who only go out for the one day, leaving the serious hunters to work the balance of the season. Andy and Greg dropped me and the Black Piranha off at McLennan’s, a kidney shaped pond at the outer edge of our setup. I got set up and decided at that point to not even switch on the wing spinning decoy. I’d not need much more than good calling to bring birds in. There was a cover of high cloud so picking drakes was going to be more difficult than yesterday. The first shots boomed out well before legal hunting time as usual. Its always a disappointment that some fools can’t wait the extra 20-30 minutes until legal shooting time. As I get older and grumpier I wish more for Darth Vader like throat crushing dark force powers. From afar I’d dangle the offenders in mid air while the gasp for… ok, back to the opener. My first bird came at roughly 6.45 am. In the pre-dawn gloom he gave himself away with a drakey-croke and soon Layla came back and handed him over.

My morning was glorious. Numerous times grey ducks and mallard hens dropped in to be left alone, while I picked off my greenhead limit bird by bird. To my surprise, my shooting was quite good, and I was done in under a box of cartridges which included 3 shots finishing off a bird hit by another party. At 9am I was done and sat down to tidy up my spent shells and get my birds strung on the stringer.

I called Matt who reported slow going down his way so asked if he and Larry wanted to move locations, and soon they came chugging along in the punt. Matt got to work immediately and in short order finished up his limit. I spent some time calling in birds for Larry but he was shooting poorly indeed. After a while, Paul who had closed his limit came by and offered to do the lunch run on Larry’s behalf. Paul soon delivered large chunks of bacon & egg pie (NO PEAS!!!) to the pond crews. I took my birds back to the hut and hung them to cool and tidied down my gear. The action had quietened down substantially as birds had moved into the stratosphere. After a coffee I took Layla and we walked (in short boots) out to The Park, where Greg and Andy had set up to close out their limit birds. We spent the afternoon chatting and occasionally a bird or two arrived to interrupt. By dark the guys were finished or close to limiting out.

The day after. Day 2. It can be good hunting, it can be diabolical. I call it hunting because the birds are generally wised up already and we’re hunting a localised population, not migrators.
 Matt and I had made the call to hunt Bollocks. Our largest pond by size, its also generally neglected by most of the team. Again I decided against using any electronic decoys. They have a time and place, but on still days when every pond has at least one in operation I’m looking for differentiation. That can be strong calling, water ripples, different decoy posture and positioning… anything but what the birds are being mass force fed. Things were a bit relaxed so it was after legal time by the time the boys had finished being ferried to their spots, which involved driving through our pond. Matt and I had waded out so were all set up and ready. Our hunt that morning was classic in your face stuff as we worked birds into feet-down range. With only a couple of stuff ups we made our number by 9, and the other guys knocked a few down also. Matt had taken a wonderful hybrid.

I moved down to work with Larry on Watsons. First hand I saw that the pond was simply not working. While I could pull birds from afar they wouldn’t commit, rather they’d peel into one of the other ponds. Larry was keen to stay on there But with birds to clean and an injured leg from a fall earlier, I wanted to get back to the hut. I hobbled back and caught up with Paul. He’d dug an offal pit while I cleaned the hut floor and then we got on with breasting the birds. As the guys came back to the hut the plucking line got started and after a couple of hours of effort we’d broken the birds down into edible packages. Andy and Paul left on the afternoon tide, with busy jobs they couldn’t stay on.

The rest of the season beckons.