Monday, May 26, 2014

Variables at play: season length as a game bird management tool

I'm left pondering the adjustment of the game bird season length as a game bird management tool. Ultimately, management tools (and there are only 2 available to our game bird managers - daily bag limit and length of season) are used to try and manage the overall harvest of game birds, and in our region the focus is on ducks. Our party diarises (amongst "moments" - those events which are memorable, funny, tragic or plain idiotic) weather patterns, locations hunted and birds harvested on a daily basis and has done ever since I began hunting. I know of other keen guys who can grab their diary and tell you what they shot on any given day; they are the keen observers, part of the 10% who shoot 90% of the birds harvested.

One of the benefits of game diaries is that a diary can give you specific data (specific to your party/area hunted). Specific data can be used to get an idea of what's going on around the place to a greater or lesser extent.

With regard to season length, in our region over the past 5 years we've been moved from a steady 8 week 10 bird a day season to a number of adjustments such as 8 weeks and 6 birds a day limit, 5 weeks and 10 birds per day and 4 weeks with 10 birds per day. Interestingly, over that time our party's harvest results have remained pretty similar. There was one exceptional season in there under the old regs that saw perhaps an all time record harvest taken, but with that outlier recognised and taken out of the equation (not for any other reason than I choose to), the seasonal harvest results experienced are remarkably similar. For our group anyway.

This is where some considerations must be taken into account:

1. Water. Irrespective of drought, our ponds are stream fed, so we have water. This is important for us; our ponds are loafing areas so birds that have fed all night are seeking areas like ours to rest and top up with a nice drink of fresh water. We are on the end of the driest summer I've ever seen; I have never, ever, EVER seen the swamp as dry as it is now, and there's a saying about ducks taking to water... what I'm saying here is that we may have opportunities not afforded most guys.

2. Our hunting party is keen. We mostly live with a key focus on the duck season, it is the first and foremost important time of the year for us. So our hunting efforts are intense and constant as with other keen water-fowlers.

I'm not a huge fan of the season length reduction; I'd by far prefer to be able to choose weather windows over a couple of months to hunt ducks. But when discussing it with dad on the weekend, he asked if I could remember the days of the 3 week season... that certainly gave me pause for thought....

So I for one will be watching the overall harvest stats when they are published. I'm really interested in the net effect of the reduced season when read in conjunction with all of the other inputs. All I can really observe is our small part of the giant puzzle; and that is that we've harvested more birds in less time.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Bollocks hunt

Bollocks is the largest of our ponds by surface area, and our lowest producer simply by dint of the fact that it is under-hunted. There's a great story about the old timers who first found the pond back in the day; one ended up removing his trousers and climbing a tree to get his bearings and thus the pond was named. I'd have loved to have seen it back then in the days of the grey duck, when waves of the birds would descend, the shooters would then pop up and shoot the birds on the water. How things have changed. The old buggers when I began shooting in 1979 talked about the old buggers of their youth; travelling the river on cabin craft and punts. They'd smash hundreds of ducks; I wonder how many made it to the table? The river then was winding, dank and festooned with willows all around; now the banks are cleared and the river widened. The greys will never return like that.


Dad and I met at the landing Friday 8pm , quickly loaded The Booger and headed off down river. Given that dad had used the hut the night before he'd left the fire set and punt ready for us to roll, so we grabbed a the decoys and went out to set up. At this point there was a breeze rolling; but not the mini gale we were expecting? Were the weather forecasters wrong again? Having set and reset the decoys to our liking it was back to the hut for a few quiets; I wanted to drink myself into a Stone's induced coma to try and get a full night's sleep. Pity I had to get up 3 times in the night for toilet stops... the alarm went off waayyyyy too early so I rattled around making coffee, bacon and eggs and then it was time to get going. At 4 there's been only a breeze, but the breeze was building and by the time shooting time came around the breeze was a full blown wind, the rare northerly of which duck hunting dreams are made in our area!

Swamp light, never seen anywhere else
The wind was steady and ruffled the exposed end of the pond. We had our decoys tucked into the still water except for a group of actives on a jerk string, they'd come into play soon. The first birds were moving, prior to the sun coming up but they were on their way to destinations only they knew and were not to be distracted. The first duck to fall was a grey that sprang in over the trees, ducking into the wind shadow and pulling up to be met with a load of #3 steel. After that the birds came in ones and twos and the wind steadily increased.

Zulu retrieves
The decoys on the jerk string worked a treat, a number of times mallards would zoom in in the wind, curl around and set straight for the group of ducks moving around on the edge of the wind shadow. Shots were varied but with birds decoying we could mostly pick our shots.

Increasing bag

Wind ripples
Rain spattered down from time to time, quite simply as a backdrop to a duck hunt you'd be hard pressed to find better conditions. We chipped away until noon, when it was time to go and see if rain had raised the water in the trees surrounding our area. I waded through slop and crap into a small pond area that was full of teal - or so I thought until a small group of mallards jumped - but my shot was to no avail. As the dog and I moved through another mallard jumped and I waited for a gap in the trees before taking her. We waited at the area for 20 minutes to see if anything returned and I put a shot in on a mallard drake that caught him squarely enough, but not enough to dump him and he limped off... not cool.

Back to the other side of our clearing - still no water there although the wind in the trees gave me the opportunity to approach a dried pond unseen. 3 pukeko took to the air and I dropped them, reloaded and another jumped so I took him before spinning to take yet another that leapt behind me. 5 with 5 shots - not bad! Back through to another dried pond and another pukeko jumped - so close that I missed completely before taking him with the follow up. 6 with 7, job done. Under normal conditions they're impossible to stalk so the wind noise gave perfect cover to clean up some of the pests. Back to the hut to make some lunch and coffee for us - besides which I'd sweated badly on my walk and wind was now cutting through me, chilling me in the process. So a quick change of clothes also.

I arrived back to the pond and soon more ducks arrived. I closed out my limit on a pair of mallards that swung in and pulled up and out. Great stuff, a "late season" limit is pretty pleasing.

Limit. Boom.

Pop, waiting for birds
The wind by now was howling and three times my Splasher Flasher was tipped over and even the sheltered portion of the pond was rippling. Teal flew in mobs, buzzing us and swooping over the ponds - what a great little game bird they'd make.

We continued to hunt, with dad taking birds here and there. I enjoy spending a full day in the maimai, and pop was enjoying himself too but I could see he was getting pretty tired, with his concentration waning a few times while taking shots. We made the call to up sticks at 5.30 as I had to get back to the smoke and he wanted to have time to clean up. Soon the sun was setting and despite the conditions, nothing was flying. From up the river came regular shooting but we figured it was just some bored morons shooting god knows what. (It was). God knows why people would do that on one of the prime hunting days of the year.

Sun set over the swamp
Taking in the decoys was easy enough, and we made good time cleaning up the hut, packing the boat and heading off. Rick and Coch would be arriving to hunt in the morning on the tail of the weather surge.

An amazing day in the swamp, a bit of a Bollocks hunt in name only and a great day with pop.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Finally, duck weather...

In a combination almost too good to be true, we have wind, and a bit of rain coinciding with a weekend. I can't wait; going to arrive at the swamp tonight, set up a set of dekes and be ready for a day's hunting. With the wind strengthening through the day I'm expecting to see flights most of the day and hopefully we can coax a few birds in.

This weather pattern has been so long in coming that I can hardly believe that it's arrived. Bye-bye bluebird days; hello grey windy sleety weather.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Blanket fog

The Waikato River is the longest river in NZ, but not the largest by volume of flow (that distinction belongs to The Clutha). It runs for 420 odd kilometres, if you count the bit that tips into Lake Taupo at the south end before draining at the north end. It then ambles off sort of NNW, before buggering off to the west coast. Due to its river, the Waikato district is well known for generating fog. NZ being a bit of a longish thinnish country is subject normally to winds that just move fog and mist along, but when a settled weather system parks on top of the Waikato…. We’d arrived at the allotted time of 8.30, with me driving Matt’s ute. As we crossed the Bombays I said to Matt “uh-oh, we could be rooted here…” and so we were. Guns, beaters and dog handlers sat for the next few hours shooting the breeze, drinking coffee and tea and eating scones. Now and then a small vesper would disturb the leaves and raise hopes… but nah, we needed at least 100m of visibility to shoot safely. I began to feel like nodding off. Then we decided to fire up the barbecue and cook up a pile of venison sausages and heat up the elevenses. The food went down a treat and newly invigorated, we began to look forward to the shoot. Finally the call was made to proceed. We drew pegs, allocated ourselves into vehicles and said goodbye to the beating team (some of whom we wouldn’t see until day’s end; some not at all). I’d screwed modified and improved/modified chokes in; and like the day before was running 1oz loads.


More fog
The birds flew really well considering the coolish damp air; and both AJ and Coch stood out with their shooting efforts. I was pleased enough with my lot; only 2 big moments for me, once when I had an empty 'hang' in the ejector as 2 birds zoomed at me; Dickie on my right and Rick on my left picked them off; the other when I missed an absolute sitter of a cock bird coming straight over.
This bird hit a tree while flying in the fog :)

Fog watchers

We finished on dark; headed back to base for venison steaks and a beer or two then Matt and I were gone. Matt had put everything into his day's beating and was shagged. He sent a text to say he'd made it home ok - he lives an hour out from mine. Much appreciated dude.

A couple of bonus turkeys in there
As we left the scene, fog was settling.


Across the border

There’s a nominal line in the centre of a road in a back block that marks the boundary of 2 Fish and Game regions. In one region there’s a growing feeling of optimism that at last a true mallard research program is established; and that maybe, just maybe we can begin to understand the dynamics at play that seem to be affecting our mallard population. In this region the season the waterfowl season runs for 4 weeks and 5 weekends; shotguns are limited to being pinned at 3 shots, baiting of ponds being shot over is illegal and the daily limit is 10 grey ducks/mallard/greylards with an allowance of 2 shoveler within the overall 10 bird bag. In the other region, the season runs for 8 weeks, the bag limit is 15 birds, with 3 shoveler allowable in the mix; guns needn’t be pinned and there’s no restriction on feeding/baiting of ponds. I’m not going to expound on the boundary and regulation topic as other’s have done that to death; its just one of those quirks like being able to stand on the border between countries and be in 2 places at once… I sort of like the idea of being able to drive on a road with the border down the middle and because of its windy gravel nature, be able to cross zones whenever I like, or be driving in parallel duck dimensions!

We'd be hunting in the region with the more liberal regs.

The Green Pond was the 2nd choice (first choice dried up in the almost drought) release site of our reared ducks which have now become fully wild birds. We’d wanted to see if we could develop a local population on ponds devoid of ducks and to put down and raise enough birds to allow a sustainable harvest. The time had come to test the theory. We had ideal conditions with a south westerly at our backs. Because this was to be our first hunt we’d not prepared a blind; we first needed to understand flight lines and shooting positions. So we tucked ourselves behind large outcrops clumped grass with a fence line at our backs. We moved fast to set field decoys and get in place. Soon the first birds arrived and we began to learn about the new spot… hiding 4 guys is pretty difficult without a blind, the wind had them swing high and wide at the first shot and we’d expected in-your-face action so had gone to skeet and open chokes with light loads (I had my 20g u/o with cylinder and skeet, pushing a 1oz lead package).

In the greying sky the birds would approach and use the humps and hollows of the land and the wind to their advantage (sometimes seemingly skimming just a few feet over ridges); mostly in pairs and small groups. To our left a clump of trees provided cover for the birds which until the last second were shrouded from our view. The birds could either scream in from over or behind the trees, or peel away at the last second (where in a second a bird could travel 15m with wind beneath its wings).

Taking them early on the pass lead to a few light hits and complete misses as they used the wind and their speed to get up and out in seconds; so a change of plan was called for. We’d decoy them as close to the water as possible and then take them. Our effectiveness improved straight away and the downed bird count increased in increments. At times I felt under gunned – really my choice of load wasn’t the best with good solid hits needed to fold birds, but with the boys there we had the birds covered and worked with each other really well. Amongst the action were some "moments"; such as when I hit a high bird that came down on the roof of the implement shed, or when the arrival of 2 ducks turned into a frenzy when one was identified as "The Priest", a black bird with a white neck flash. (Matt and I doubled on him, a bottle was at stake...)

The Priest
Tony retrieves...
We called it with 60 birds down and then hurried to withdraw so as not to disturb any further incomers. At the shed we checked the bag; it appeared that plenty of greys had come in off the salt, along with the expected mallards. We set to cleaning the birds to go into our next salami/beer stick run, had a celebration beer and pie, some of Chewie’s goose biltong (chilli flavoured, yummm) and some more pie (the pie was stunning), we shot the breeze, ran a hunt autopsy, figured the “who’s gonna be where” part in aid of scheduling the next hunt and then it was time to leave.

As I drove home, my mind drifted back to those screaming incomers….

Monday, May 12, 2014

In a purple patch

Well I reckon that's where this guy was feeding.

Looks like inkweed (Phytolacca octandra) berries for brekkie.

While pheasants love the berries, the leaves are almost never eaten by cattle so its almost a perfect plant for the birds to survive on. Thus, its no secret amongst pheasant hunters that a good inkweed patch is a great place to go and find a big fat rooster.

Variety, the spice of life.

400 pheasants may seem a goodly number of birds to put down in one place, but when that place is a large working farm in rough country they are soon swallowed up. When the birds are not fed after release, they become wild very quickly. Hunting at Craig's is best described as rough shooting (to use the pommie country vernacular); we hunt over dogs and flush birds for the guns. The atmosphere is relaxed and the lads all get on like a house on fire. Its pretty special, and a privilege to be involved in a syndicate like this.

I picked up Andy en-route to Craig's, and we made reasonable time arriving in time to catch up with Mick and Craig and to cook a meal of chops, eaten with salad (have I said how much I crave greens after a week of swamp food?) and rolls. A few beers, wines and single malt followed, along with a couple of nips of vodka. I suddenly realised that I was out on my feet so staggered into my sleeping bag. Next thing I knew it was 06.30, and Andy was getting ready for a pig hunt. Leaping energetically from bed..... crawling from my pit with a head like a piece of lead, I figured that the best way to brighten up would to go get some fresh air. Craig looked like death. Andy (the little bstrd) looked like a box of birds. Mick was up and about as well, so Andy (carrying rifle), Craig (carrying bow) and I (carrying a hangover) set off, with Mick bringing up the rear with Axel, a GWP pup in his care. We made good time considering; Craig's like a mountain goat and following him encourages speedy traverse of the ground. Perhaps a km in towards the pig zone, we spotted 3 fallow on a hillside. Craig eyeballed them and called the rear most animal as a spiker; a good cull animal. Andy got set up, just as they began to jog off. They stopped when Craig grunted and Andy made what looked a solid shot. The animal staggered from view over a brow in his mate's wake; however only 2 re-appeared into view. We moved up to locate the animal; being sure to not move in his tracks as Mick would want Axel to make a track and find on the animal. We found the spiker laid out up the hill and Craig began to process him.

Mick soon appeared so we moved out of sight and directed him to the animal's track - soon Axel picked the scent  and tracked in on the beast. Good stuff for the young dog.

A bit of a carry home and it was breakfast time. Guy showed up at 9, and it was time to go on the pheasants. The morning's hunting was varied and brilliant; the birds were sporting and cunning and we missed as many as we took. Everyone had a great time, especially working the cover crops where birds were able to double back or leap in front of us. As many got out away from the guns as presented shots, and the whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable. Thanks to the guys with dogs (everyone bar me!) for making it work.

By lunch time we had 10 in the bag, along with a hare and several pukekos. We'd worked kale crops, bush margin, river edge - an outstanding variety of territory. Back at base we sat back, ate smoked marlin, carrot soup, croissants and talked the kind of sh*t that blokes do when they get together. I wasn't sure about an afternoon hunt, but again Andy was the catalyst so we decided to work over an area that in the morning had held a large number of birds that simply got away ahead of us. this time, Guy, Mick, Andy, I, and dogs would enter the bush and move around behind the birds; Craig would confront them and drive them towards us. It took a bit of bashing to get in place; we then spread out to cover the escape routes and shortly after we could hear Craig calling "here they come!" .. and suddenly it was like being in a pheasant drive as birds spewed over the ridge. The guys laid into them and I thought  I was out of luck being on the extreme right edge - however a cock bird flew my way and I was able to take him cleanly. The final bird got up, doubled back and then folded as Craig knocked him down. It was a fine finale to the day, except.... on the way to the vehicles more birds were spotted so we set off in vain pursuit.

Finally we were done, drawing the curtain down on another fantastic week of hunting; made all the better for the mates hunted with.

In no particular order I have to thank the boys for a freakin awesome week:

Dazzle the Ocker
Uncle Lick

And dogs:

Zulu I
Zulu II

Good buggers, the lot of you.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mitch, Brutus, Ruby and the tail of the week

Per the previous couple of years, Mitch who also takes a week's annual leave at the start of the season was able to join dad and I at the ponds. We arrived at 1pm on Wednesday, to be greeted by another beautiful still clam and un-ducky feeling day. We pottered around setting our gear up and getting the hut ready before heading out for an afternoon hunt. Things were really quiet so our bag of a single duck was about par for the course.

NZ Grey Duck (Pacific Black Duck)

We caught up on a whole bunch of things, and soon it was 6pm so with nothing doing we pulled the pin. Back at base we cooked up dinner then sat around chatting until hit the hay time. I slept like a baby and all too soon the alarm went and again the routine of tea/coffee/breakfast preps was underway.

We had a little breeze helping us this morning, and the ducks came in dribs and drabs. Definitely warier after almost a week of the season, but enough came within range to make a solid morning's hunting. Mitch and I went back to the hut to prepare a lunch of toasted sandwiches with cheese, bacon, tomato and avocado and brought a foil wrapped package back to dad who guarded the pond while we were gone. We knocked down a couple of birds in the afternoon, and then went for a walk to see how high (in this case low, bone-dry) the water through the swamp was and returned with a duck that Brutus found out in a neighbouring pond area. Returning to our pond we sat and waited in vain for an evening flight; with a waxing moon the ducks just didn't need to fly early so we called it a day with 12 birds in the hutch.

That night Coch and his dad were arriving, so while dad and Mitch prepared the evening meal I upped and moved our decoys to our farthest and most picturesque pond, the Willow Pond. In the dark sky lightning flashed in the distance - here was a chance of duck producing weather if it stayed around... I got back and joined the lads dinner and as we finished cleaning up the rain came, arriving exactly the same time as Coch and his dad. We kicked back, and chewed the fat and before I knew it, it was another late one.

After a breakfast involving (yet more) bacon, bread, coffee and tea we moved off to our pozzies.

There was simply no flight to speak of; despite shots around the area now and again nothing flew. Our bag consisted of a single Grey Duck that flopped in to the pond.

Bru and Zulu

Bru and Ruby
I had a bit of fun taking snaps before we began pulling the dekes. Always a pleasure hunting with Mitch, its good to kick back and take in a bit of peace and quiet with him and his dogs.

Back home, to swap out my duck gear for my pheasant kit, and hit the road once again.....