Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When not pulling the trigger is the right thing to do...

Tony, Matt, Chewie and I lay in our blinds in a quagmire watching and waiting for geese to appear. It was cold and windy and ducks flew around in the early morning gloom. During the week, the boys had scouted about 150 birds using a paddock – they’d walked the birds off the previous evening. Because we’d have to walk our gear into a wet and slusshy paddock, I’d decided to travel as light as possible so had the dozen Higdon shells on my back, my layout, blind bag and gun. We managed to get the gear in without too many dramas and set the decoys for the cold SE wind. Because of the presence of a house we couldn’t set exactly for the wind, but none the less it felt like a pretty good setup overall.

I detect a goose

From time to time rain pelted down and we sheltered down. The sun came up, raising temperatures marginally. Finally a ragged group of 5 geese appeared on the horizon. We got down and began to flag and they came our way… before passing overhead and landing 2 paddocks over. Uh-oh.

20 minutes later, a huge group of birds got up and began to fly towards us. At a guess 100+ birds were up and approaching. They hung over us, well up in the breeze before meandering away, then swinging down wind. Half of the birds split off, set up and landed well upwind. The other half continued to mosey around before dropping flaps and landing in with their mates. We were snookered. After a couple of minutes we released the dogs to push the birds away  and they took to the air, disappearing over the horizon. We’d done all we could – there’s absolutely no point in taking random shots, maybe hitting a few but educating the rest. Hopefully they’ll keep.

Next time….

Friday, July 12, 2013

Big bucket list number

In life you need a bucket list, and on mine for a long time has been a hunting trip to Lake Ellesmere. In geographical terms the lake, which lies west of Banks Peninsula is very young at something like 5,000 years old. The lake is like a rather large and shallowish lagoon, which opens to the sea either naturally or by the hand of man.

It is an absolute haven for wildfowl and hosts a massive number of ducks, a stack of geese and innumerable other species. (For example until this week I had seen maybe half a dozen White Heron [kotuku] in my life; so to have a pair circling just overhead on Monday morning was simply stunning).

Last year at this when talking with my mate Tim as he stood lakeside he let a hen mallard go by as he stood in full view while she decoyed, I realised that I just had to go. I told him on the spot that I would be tagging along for a few days (like he had a choice in the matter) next year.  We caught up occasionally during the duration of our short duck season, and his longer (2 month) Wellington season. I booked my air tickets, ummed and arred about what gear to take, and we began to plan in earnest. I figured my part would be easiest, as Tim had travelled the area for a month for each of the 3 preceding years.  We decided that I’d fly to Masterton, he’d grab me from the airport and we’d head to his place to catch up and have a meal, sleep for a bit, drive to Wellington and catch the 02.40am ferry to Picton. Then drive to our accommodation outside of Lincoln, the university town. (Tim informed me that Selwyn district was the fastest growing in NZ).
As usual when getting away from work prior to a break, an emergency crops up. I worked my way through it as calmly as possible, all the while in the back of my mind knowing that I hadn’t yet packed for the trip. Got home, laid out my gear, checked off the mental check list. Got the gun case, broke the gun down, locked the case. Packed everything in to duffel bag. Waders. Gumboots. Jacket, insulated inner, sleeping bag. Anyway, a whole shitwack of gear.
Said bye to the family and got to the airport in time. Made the airport, checked in gun and gear, and sat in the departures area drinking a beer and thinking. Plane left on time and arrived at Masterton on time as well. Got bag, took receipt of gun and walked out of the terminal to meet Tim.  The next part didn’t go to plan….. well the sleep part anyway. We ended up catching up well into the evening and soon had gone past the point of no return. The time arrived to hit the road and we chucked Max the lab in the back, trundled over the Rimutakas, through the respective Hutts, past Petone and casually past the turnoff for the ferry – being a country lad naturally Tim had a conniption so I directed him off onto Aotea Quay, we did a u’ey and were in the right place soon enough. It was cold out, too cold to get out of the vehicle. A nasty wind was blowing so I hoped like hell the crossing would be ok (last time across on the ferry it was a hellish 5 hours of smashing into 6m swells. Crew and passengers took a pasting). Once aboard we found a spot to watch the tennis – little did I know I’d be watching the longest semi-final in Wimbledon’s history. And watch it I did, in its entirety as Tim slept on the floor. Once at Picton we drove off the ferry and headed up to Blenheim where we watered Max at the Wairau River before pulling in for coffee at McDonalds. The wind was howling overhead and the drive down the Kaikoura coast was freaky – 100m offshore the wind was whipping up waterspouts; onshore trees were down every few metres and a huge truck unit had blown across the road and tipped over. Next stop St Anne’s lagoon for a walk, then Cheviott, then onwards. Finally we arrived at Lincoln and drove to The Lodge, our home base. We got our gear in, said hi to Sam who is living there and made ourselves at home. The power had been cut by the storm, but came back on at 2pm. By this stage having been awake for 30+ hours straight I was feeling pretty light headed by the time we hit the supermarket to get supplies in. The afternoon seemed to whiz by and soon we were getting stuck into a meal prepared by Sam. We snuck out for a hunt with no joy, then back for a few beers and a rugby match later and I was wiped out from lack of of sleep so hit the hay – next day we’d be hunting.
Up at 5, toast in toaster, coffee in mugs and we were off. Our destination was the NE end of the lake where we’d lay out 2 dozen decoys and try to hit anything that came by. We had a bit of a navigation moment before finding our way to the famous Birdling’s Flat. We drove to our get out point, loaded up with decoy and blind bags, grabbed the guns and headed out to a maimai we could see in the gloom. The NW wind was steady – certainly not the gale of the previous day. As I took my first step into Lake Ellesmere, I had a breath-taking moment… my waders had sprung a leak! It was a cool morning but luckily the water was only about shin deep so it would be only a wet foot as opposed to leg. We set the decoys and sat back to watch. Geese were in the bay but well out of range. In the morning gloom, ducks were moving. A pair of swan came into range and I shot the lead bird – my first Ellesmere bird. Tim got a shot in on a grey duck and brought it down. As the sun rose it became obvious that birds were avoiding the maimai (unsurprisingly) – however they were traversing the main lake shoreline so after a few hours we decided to take a walk across the lagoon to the spit and check out the lake. It took a few minutes to get over there and we quickly scoped a spot that would put us in calling range of passing birds. As we were deciding on a spot a brace if mallards approached - we sat down in the salt bush and when they came in range I shot the drake bird, my first Ellesmere duck! To say I was stoked is an understatement. We got the gear packed out and sat in the truck planning our next morning’s hunt. On the way home we passed the Kaituna Lagoon which was absolutely stacked with mallards. I’d never seen anything quite like it in my life – the birds were sheltering from the NW wind and had arrived in their thousands. I can’t convey in words how many ducks were piled in there… but they were quite safe from us.
Back to the hut to hang the birds, have coffee and lunch and a chit-chat with Sam. That afternoon we decided on a hunt on the northern shore close to base. We took a couple of floating dekes and a wing spinner, found a decent sized back water pond and got ourselves ready. The evening was stunning and I just loved being out there. The ducks that did move were up high and no chances were had.

Up at 5, toast in toaster, coffee in mugs and we were off. This morning we’d be catching up with Andrew, a mate of Tim’s. We caught up in the allotted spot, drove to the parking spot and loaded up. We’d be lugging in 3 dozen duck and a few swan decoys. We splashed across the lagoon, across the spit and set ourselves up at the spot we’d found yesterday. There was certainly some breeze, but nothing like the wind of the day before. Andrew and I got some old scrub and set up a low profile hiding spot while Tim set the dekes. By the time we were done we were well hidden, with a good spread in front of us. The hunt was memorable for the birds that decoyed in, the birds shot and missed, Tim taking down a passing goose, me having to run into the deke spread to scare out a poor drake that obviously had nookie on his brain. We all had some great shooting and ended up with over a dozen birds by mid-morning, when Kelvin arrived in his jet boat. He and I went for a blast around the Northern part of the lake, what a fantastic experience! We put up fowl of all types and the numbers were staggering. Teal blackened the sky, mallards and geese charged in all directions… before settling where they took off from. Kel dropped me back and we said our good-byes.

Ellesmere fist-pump!

We grunted the gear back to the trucks, bade farewell to Andrew and headed back to base for lunch. A quick kip and we readied ourselves for an evening hunt. The wind had suddenly gone to the south and was strengthening so things looked good. We arrived at the pond early, tucked down in sunken maimais surrounded by rushes, loaded up and waited. As can happen when conditions are right, we had an awesome hunt. First in were 5 parries, 5 down. 4 swan swung downwind, turned and came in feet down. None escaped. Mallards, teal and parries came in continually, so by closing time we had a good mixed bag in hand. What a hunt!
Up at 5, toast in toaster, coffee in mugs and we were off. This time in the opposite direction. We’d decided to head south and look for a bay where we could set up a reasonable spread. This morning would prove to be a bust from a hunting point of view but from every other perspective it was great. Great to be in a new place, great to witness nature’s powers with devastated maimais washed up on the shore, and best of all we were visited by no less than 3 kotuku. After a couple of hours of listening to geese we pulled the pin and went for a mission to find birds. As we headed south we passed the Boggy Creek reserve, had a look at Hart’s Creek reserve and then found what we’d been looking for – ducks. Not lots, but tucked up in a bay were small mobs, whilst teal filled the rest of the bay. We checked the WAMS site, realised it was public reserve – game on….
Up at 5, toast in toaster, coffee in mugs and we were off. (Original huh?). After locating Andrew we set off for our hunting spot and arrived to find access restricted. A quick scout around in the dark and we found a way in, another decoy laden slog. The wind was whipping through the bay and waves pumping. Our first challenge was the sucking mud just a few metres offshore, both Andrew and I found ourselves cast, me because with my dodgy knee I just couldn’t bend it to get out, and Andrew ‘cos he’s a big unit and simply sank. Tim set the dekes while we worked on freeing ourselves, then finally we were set. Soon birds began to move, teal and mallards with the occasional black scaup. The first ducks to arrive landed well offshore and swam in, I stood when they were 40m away and wounded one of the pair. Cursing myself I began to wade out when a mallard drake came over high and fast with the wind behind him and I pulled off a shot I was quite proud of. The drake hit the water and began to drift along shore, meanwhile the earlier bird was paddling down wind.  Max picked up the drake and then we ran down the shoreline where he picked up the first bird, a hen. I wandered back with the birds and sat back to let the others take the next few shots. We had a great hunt, with birds turning up throughout the morning and finished with a dozen mallards.

Yet another bluddy fist-pump

I have a new appreciation for the big water hunting now, with a number of opportunities lost through not taking shots when offered. You gotta be in to win this game.
Sitting in Christchurch airport that evening I reflected on 7 very different hunts over the 4 days I spent at Ellesmere. None of the successful hunts happened without 2 vital ingredients:
1.       Scouting to find birds
2.       Wind
Get those right and you’re a chance.

Another tick off my bucket list.