Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Fish and Game NZ has some really good staff. Really, really good. Our local Gamebird Manager is one of them. According to word around the traps, he’d been the pivotal guy in thinking about the where’s and how’s of a gamebird season happening post the Covid-19 lock down – what would be allowed and when. I’m sure that the trepidation I’d felt around the relaxation of NZ’s lockdown level was shared by each and every game bird hunter; many of whom had already endured missing the deer roar due to lockdown restrictions. Daily the Covid infection stats were posted – and daily the hope levels rose in direct inverse proportion to the ever-declining numbers being posted. And then – the season was posted. We’d start on May 23 and go through until the final weekend in June. On the one hand we’d get a longer than normal season, on the other, the trade off is that we’d encroach on the all-important start of the breeding season as birds paired up in June. Its worth reflecting here on all the birds had endured; a wet breeding season (ideal!) followed by an enduring country-wide drought and in our region, mass outbreaks of botulism. The drought had in no way abated and the stream feeding our ponds was as low as I’ve ever seen it, not at all helped by the massive leak in the weird that directs water to us. We’d patched it as best as we could but the hole was massive so the fix is definitely temporary. Camo day, where we dress the maimais was hurriedly arranged and thanks to Matt & Larry we were able to source enough ti tree to get it done a week before the season. Still no rain. Guys were saying that with no water they simply wouldn’t hunt this year. Our water was a brown murk, quite unlike the black clear tannin stained water we usually have. No, nothing about this year was going to be usual. Our Aussie contingent were barred by closed borders. Ducks were simply absent from the swamp. Nothing at all about this seemed normal, yet still the big day loomed.
I’d drawn up the shooting roster for our crew, and it goes like this. No hunter can open on a pond they’ve hunted opening day on within the previous 2 years. And, no pairing can be the same. With reduced crew it would be a challenge and I ended up pairing 2 oldies (Tom - mentoring his grandson Connor, and dad) which generally isn’t ideal. I’d intended to shoot only mallard drakes. At shooting time, it was pretty quiet, a few shots from up and downriver rang out. My first visitors were protected grey teal which alighted on the dark water with a ‘swishhh’, quite unlike the splashy touch-down of our dabbler species. Our ponds are loafing destinations so generally don’t hold overnighting birds in numbers, hence our shooting starts a little later than other places. The sky brightened and birds began to appear, however it was 7am and with nothing in the bag as yet I decided to take a grey duck that ditched into the decoys and presented an easy going away shot. I was a bit nervous about my shooting, as I’d really not used up much ammo in the off season. I needn’t have worried as I shot pretty well on incoming ducks, finishing my bag with 5 mallard drakes, a couple of greys and a couple of mallard hens. In between my shooting, I’d watched duck after duck pitch into the pond Andy was tagged to hunt – but he’d decided to join up with Paul and they had a steady stream of ducks go in. I called Matt over to shoot while I called and he soon filled out his bag.
With most of the crew absent for the second weekend, we’d invited Richard, Tony and Chewie for the weekend. Chewie was able to arrive mid week; meanwhile I watched the forecast closely. A stiff easterly was forecast at sometime on the weekend so I made the call to stack out The Park, a fine pond with a large maimai and plenty of cover from the easterly wind. We could shoot 3 up and take turn about without any dramas. I rolled in on Thursday night; Tony and Richard would arrive Friday. We had a good little hunt on Friday before the fellas arrived. Saturday was spent in the maimai for 20 odd birds with a lot of story telling going on; and finally the wind arrived on Sunday morning, providing an amazing hunt including a good bag of spoonies. As we began to pack and tidy, we were visited by a few of dad’s mates who we invited to shoot the ponds while we were away and at that stage season’s tally was just over 250 birds, a strong return for 17 day’s hunting.
The third weekend saw a change of scenery. Richard and I met up at Parakai and headed out to the farm, picking up an extra quad to complement Richard’s. Matt and Dave arrived shortly afterwards and we headed off to setup our decoys in a well picked over maize paddock, sewn with what we later discovered were radishes. With not a kernel showing we didn’t really expect a frenzy of birds.
That evening we were in our blinds early. As the light began to drop, birds took to the air. The first 4 to pass split into pairs and buzzed in. It was simply amazing to see the aerobatics and while we missed 2 of them it was pretty satisfying. The next group were even more spectacular, peeling in on cupped wings. The final paid dropped in out of the murk as I called and called to encourage any passing birds and we took them both. At 6 the hunt was over, we collected our 7 birds and headed back to the hut. A spotlighting mission for fallow failed to turn up an animal, and it was late in the evening by the time we turned in.
We rose well before dawn to hunt deer, Dave and Richard heading to an adjacent farm while Matt and I headed to a nearby spot. We parked the quad and waited for the sun to come up… waiting, waiting.. and with enough light available to be able to discern our prey we began our stalk. The first gulley system held nothing, and as we glassed the cover we failed to come up trumps. At the head of the gulley we alighted a ridge and I poked my head over, spotting a mature fallow hind. We hit the deck, where I chambered a round into the Howa mod 1500 .223 and set upo the bipod. Crawling forward I settled the cross hair on the base of her neck and cleanly dropped her. Matt hissed that there was a spiker there as well, and while he wasn’t confident with the shot I got the scope on him as he stopped moving… only to take 3 hurried steps into cover. Matt went back to collect the quad while I dressed out the deer, after which we traversed the farm to see if we could find another animal. With no luck as it turned out. Back to the hut. Food replenishment.
Post breakfast with Dave leaving and Tony arriving, Matt and I set off to walk up a pheasant while Richard headed up to collect Tony and say goodbye to Dave. There’s a favoured bank adjacent to an overgrown low-lying paddock, that provides shelter from the wind. Matt took his old boy Zulu to the top while I pushed Layla in from the bottom. 2 pheasants took to the air almost immediately, but I couldn’t discern gender; and Matt didn’t see them. We continued when from under a bush a grey duck burst out; the little Merkel boomed out and the 1oz of #5 caught the bird flush. Shortly another pheasant pushed out well ahead of us, landing out in the paddock and then another popped, back tracking and avoiding Matt’s shot. By the end of the bank we’d seen between 4 and 6 birds, dep[ending on whether you were speaking with me, or Matt. I called him up on the walkie talkie and told him I’d try and cut in on the bird that had taken to the paddock. In the stiff breeze Layla caught his scent amongst the heavy rushes, and bumped him cackling into the air. And I clean missed, twice! Not a difficult shot by any means. Layla chased the disappearing bird before returning to give me the stink eye.
At the hut Tony settled in, while Matt and I headed up to collect our decoys and scout a spot for the evening’s shenanigans. We selected a low paddock with new surface water and got our decoys and blinds set up with the prevailing wind coming over our left shoulders. It was a pretty ideal setup. And so it proved, the afternoon hunt was a cracker with nicely decoying birds, greys, mallards and the occasional parrie joining the pile. What a productive wee spot! After our evening meal it was time to saddle up and head out for deer again. It was a spotlighting mission, although with a huge moon overhead I thought it may be possible to read a book without any artificial lighting. Tony and I took a deer each and I missed another. It was a tired group that arrived back at the hut to a clamour of dogs and we hit the hay. I slept like a baby for what seemed like only minutes before the alarm called us back… and soon we were in our blinds again. Matt had opted to take a rest; he works strange shifts so his internal clock would be pretty stuffed up. The hunt was interesting, and we picked up a dozen birds before the flight was over. Packing up is always a bit of a downer after a great hunt, but with a concerted effort we cleaned up the birds, got the hut ship shape and packed our gear. With quads fully loaded we made it back to the trucks.
With my birthday falling on the Saturday, I’d promised the family that I’d take them out for a family dinner. Not that I’m particularly interested in town, or town stuff, but fair is fair. My parent has pencilled in a visit on Sunday but had called to wish me a happy day and let me know that they couldn’t visit. I guess that my wishful thinking paid off when SWMBO told me to go hunting! A quick call to Craig and it was set. Layla loves hunting pheasant and having missed a whole season due to my long convalescence she’d got pretty rusty in terms of working in range – I’d spent a fair bit of last weekend’s pheasant walk telling her about her parentage. I’d set the alarm for 4.45 but was awake before 3am so decided to get up and go. Dog fed. Me fed. Coffee made. Thermos filled. Lunch, electrolyte replacement drink, snacks. Craig’s place is a fitness test – would my preseason exercise pay off? My last haul around his farm had left me sore and half crippled (that was pre op and my hip was playing merry hell). The drive down was pleasant, the Huntly bypass cutting out traffic jams and shaving 15 minutes off the trip. I’d stopped in both Pirongia and Otorohonga for mini breaks and an ill fated attempt at a snooze. I felt pretty bloody tired when I rolled into Craig’s at 07.30. Old mate Tim was there, as part of his extended road trip, and it was great to catch up. The boys had hunted the day before for 4 pheasants between them and Craig explained that the birds were both flighty and well spread. I mentally prepared a game plan. 1. Avoid the well-trodden easy areas (i.e. tackle the hills and steep gulley’s) 2. Go as fast but quietly as possible 3. Go into the crazy little nooks that most people would walk past
It felt great to stretch out, and soon Layla was covering ground like crazy – and if she’d been a naughty so-and-so the previous week she was now listening and working with me. And, in one of those nooks described in 3. Above the plan paid off. Layla snookered a cock bird in a thick clump, driving him against a rock buttress and despite him putting a small tree between us my shot caught and dropped him. And in that moment the world was perfect. The months and months of graft and rehab had paid off, I was back walking the hills behind my girl and we’d delivered. What a bird! Heavy, large spurs, a trophy!
Back on the trail. It would be a couple of hours of scouting before we next found birds, during which time we routed goats and at one stage what I thought to be a fallow. I glimpsed a white flag tail entering the bush. Finally at the base of a steep gulley 3 roosters jumped, well out of range and set sail. Given the steepness of the territory I felt that they may not have crested the head of the gulley, so set about climbing up and out before circling to the top of the ravine. There I sent Lalya in and she quickly bumped a hen bird. After an age there was a clatter of wings and a rooster boosted. If I say it was a long shot I’m not fibbing, but the bird dropped like a sack of spuds. I sat on a tuft of ferns listening as Layla (panting heavily) worked her way down towards the bird. After several long minutes I heard her return, gasping for breath through a feathery load. She topped the ridge and lay down for a rest before picking the bird up and bringing it to hand. If the first bird had been satisfying, this one was marvelous for the dog work alone. And man was she a happy girl, grinning from ear to ear!
A circuit back to the truck brought no further birds. Coffee, re-hydration formula, snacks for dog and handler. Then off again. We’d be moving through heavily hunted territory, so I didn’t really bother about covering too much of the ground; instead the dog and I crossed the river and set off towards what I hoped were greener pastures. The cock bird that jumped was a marginally difficult shot, but I’d hit harder and really should have done better than emptying 2 barrels well behind him… given that I’d been told that this area had been hunted the previous day my guard was too low and I’d been caught out. That’s the largest part of the the deliciousness of pheasant hunting; the adrenaline surge invoked by the clattering of wings and cackling as a bird launches. The area that I’d hoped to provide the limit bird was empty but given that I was still feeling pretty fit I decided to roll the dice on a final circuit involving climbing to a high point, and then working down through a dense gully. It’s a bugger of a walk as a good part involves crouching and avoiding overgrown gorse and scrubby ti tree. Layla was out of my sight for most of the first part of the expedition but finally we arrived at the head of the gully. Its of paramount importance here to remain totally quiet; no whistling the dog, careful footsteps. Layla lit up and headed up into the thick scrub. The bird that popped was dark but otherwise indistinct and totally silent, I picked it to be a battle-hardened rooster. And further down the dog picked a hot scent that led slightly back uphill. I turned to follow the hound and had taken no more than 3 steps when a cock bird took to the air 30m downhill of us. I took one snap shot but it was futile. At that, with 14km under the belt and with midday approaching I called it. With a 3 hour drive home, arriving completely exhausted didn’t appeal.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
. perhaps this part of the river will now be cut off? Immediately and despite overcast skies, we began to spy large browns, deep torpedos under the banks and mostly safe from our attempts to get flies to them. The banks were overgrown with tall grasses and blackberry and as we smashed our way upstream our energy was sapped.
Saturday, March 14, 2020
The world has suddenly gotten very complicated.
We went hard on our drags. A 16lb leader while not unbreakable, does take a fair hammering to part so stopping these mangrove fish before they hit cover was the name of the game.
My personal favourite was when I left all of my gear bar my rod at the boat and walked along a brush covered bank separating an estuarine flat from the open sea. As I moved along slowly, a pair of bones approached and I laid out the cast perfectly. The fish raced each other when I twitched the fly, and (for once) the larger fish engulfed the fly. I struck and the fish ripped out into the backing, the first to do so for the trip. Its second run was equally hard, out again ripped the backing loops and the sound of GSP singing in the guides rang out. I worked the fish hard and then it ran again… straight to a snag offshore where it holed up. The only thing that saved that fish for me was that it was exhausted. It had tied itself to the snag with a series of half hitches, and as it struggled, I could see the snag pull down then spring back. Reeling as I went, I waded out and the fish attempted to swim between my legs.. at that stage I realised my only course of action would be to lift the snag to shore which I did, with fish trailing. I called to Coba to bring the camera and he arrived soon after. The fish swam away gamely after being digitally entrapped.
Our trip home saw us with a free day in San Fran, and it was an honour to be able to visit the Golden Gate Angling and casting Club, where friendly locals were happy to hand over rods for us to use. It was truly in the spirit of angling brotherhood, and a morning that I'll never forget. The historic clubhouse was a museum of angling treasures and the casting ponds were a spectacle.
Long may the angling adventures continue. Next stop...