Monday, June 23, 2014

The shortest day

Tony was telling me about a Water Oak or some other deciduous tree near his house that has finally decided the time is right to drop it's leaves; my Liquid Ambers have only just done the same and now guys are talking of seeing clutches of ducklings around. At home I've burned barely half a metre of firewood when normally at this time of the year I'd be eyeing up the 2nd metre. We've had a couple of chilly snaps, but even Ruapehu hasn't had enough snow to get the ski bunnies that excited. The drive back through the Waikato yesterday afternoon revealed pretty good grass growth. She's warm. Too warm to have gone past the shortest day already - but we have. Tony and I had headed south on Friday evening, with Nera aboard in the back providing the excited dog sounds. The trip was pretty good and we made reasonable time with not too much traffic holding us up, and despite the agonisingly little amount of sleep I'd got the night before I was reasonably amped up and with a V onboard I felt pretty on to it, even enough to take out a few errant possums on the Te Anga road (which resembles a series of switchback corners. Arriving at the Shanks Ranch we found Andy in residence with fire blazing, beer in hand and French WOOFers hiding in their bedroom. We got settled in quickly, talked crap until midnight and then hit the hay. I was surprised to wake up at 7, more surprised that we managed to cook a breakfast, inhale it with coffee and tea and be in the field by 9. As we ate we watched a large cock pheasant sun himself on an east facing face. He fed here and there before disappearing across the boundary fence.. It had rained on and off overnight, with an especially heavy shower just prior to dawn. Even so on the drive in we were stunned to see no fewer than 3 melanistic cock pheasants along the way. They seem to be able to just disappear post release so our return has always been low. As we arrived at the get out spot, a cock bird was seen in the paddock below us on the edge of a puddle - a melanistic cock bird! We quietly got out of the car, grabbed guns and moved to trap him.... he simply ran into a pile of scrub so Tony ran back to the car to let Nera (his lab)and Keira (Andy's spaniel) out. I ran down to cut the bird off from flying back into the bush and then the dogs arrived, Keira hit the scent and smashed into the cover and the bird went up. Up went the Merkel for my first shot with her, boom, and we were on the board! My jubilation was a bit short lived as my shot had gone closer than was safe or comfortable to Andy... pause for thought there as that was an avoidable situation and I've no desire to be involved in a Dick Cheney type incident.

Melanistic bird, first blood for the Merkel

We regrouped and moved down a gully, straight away Nera hit a scent and pushed out a bird which Tony simply smashed. A brilliant start - 10 minutes in and 2 birds to hand. Further down we hunted a large rocky bush covered outcrop which holds birds, and out from under a snug dry log 5 hens in a row popped. The cock would be around somewhere... we decided to move further round while Andy put Keira up and over the outcrop. No sooner had he moved that Nera charged in and pushed a rooster out of a crack in the rocks. Andy was under a tree and tried desperately with his gun not at his shoulder to hit the bird firing twice, I swung out in front instinctively and dropped him just before he reached the safety of the trees. 2 shots, 2 birds with the new gun... I began to rethink the 'need' to put a pad on the little Merkel. We carried on with the the surround strategy and while Tony moved forward, Andy and I moved around behind the outcrop, Andy pushing Keira in while I took a path up a ridge trough the trees to the right of the outcrop. I'd moved well forward when a hell of a kerfuffle of cackling went up from atop the rocks and stones. I was completely unsighted but knew the bird was heading high past me and when he sailed into view I managed to snap a long shot away which blew feathers out and a follow up which took his wingtip. the little 1 oz #5 Clever loads are doing great things on pheasants for me this year, both driven and walked up. The bird sailed down into the middle of a paddock, hit the ground, rolled into a ball then burst out and began to run. I called out to Andy to bring Keira and then we set off in pursuit. The bird had a 60m lead on us as Keira hit the scent... I tried to slow the bird with a long range swatter which served to make the bird duck his head... as Keira raced in he reared up cackling and she took him down perfectly, before delivering the bird to Andy.

She's a cracker wee dog and a reflection of of the time and effort that Andy's put in. By now I was on cloud 9. Barring the swatter shot I'd fired 4 shots with the new gun for 3 birds, a limit. With the breeze rising and skies darkening we continued on and soon Nera had her chance to prove her quality... Andy had fired on a bird high up a ridge opposite Tony and I, while we worked Nera along the river under heavy canopy cover to see if she could push a bird for Tony. We could hear his wing beats long before he arrived (seconds at least). As the bird came over he came crashing down across the river Nera marked him perfectly before launching herself into the swollen waters of the creek. The banks here are steep and muddy. Nera launched herself up the opposite bank, found the bird and launched herself back in. As she came parallel to us she swam past the get out point heading upstream, before swinging back downstream and coming back to us.

Nera with bird 1....
... and bird II

Tony got the bird and Nera leaped up the bank - while we relived the retrieve the lab pushed out another cock bird that was holding tight 15 yards downstream. Tony dropped him within 10 yards of where the previous bird had fallen, and once again Nera launched herself for an almost identical retrieve. Cracker all round! We rejoined Andy and worked a series of gullies and warm looking spots out of the wind that had held birds in the past; the only return being a pukeko for Andy. So then up the rear boundary and down and around to the car and by the time we were ready to head back for lunch we'd put 7 in the bag. There's simply no denying the spectacular beauty of that part of the world, equal parts spooky hollows carved out by water, magnificent native forest, craggy hills and scrub faces.

Just a part of the world to go and lose yourself; I know that all the boys appreciate being able to roam and hunt the property and feel privileged to do so. The weather had played well for us, with approaching rain suddenly pushing away with a change of wind; and the wind was of enough strength to help cover our noise. A simply great morning in the field.

Tony, Andy, Nera, Keira and Jay

Brag board

Mick had said he'd arrive at 2 so we waited until before putting lunch together - as it happened he wasn't hungry and none of us were in a real hurry so it was about 3 before we were back out of the vehicles and on the next hunt. We'd decided to hunt 'the swamp' which is the area close by our second release pen (no longer used) and which holds birds beautifully. It's not super easy to hunt as approaching it from any direction puts you in plain sight of the birds and the escape routes are numerous. With Mick and Heidi we had extra dog talent so we decided to split up and work the area approaching the ridge above the swamp and soon a shot boomed out; the Nera/Tony combo had produced again and he was rapt to have taken his limit bird.

Nera had a bit of a job to find and retrieve this one, but soon appeared up the track with bird in mouth, the original happy lab. We followed the track down to the swamp and Tony and I waited while Any and Mick moved around to the right to work the swamp over. Soon birds began to flush but only hens and it wasn't until Nera pushed in from our side that a cock went up; out of range of all the guns unfortunately. We worked the bush edges away from the swamp and finally Keira pushed a very high bird out that Andy wasn't able to take; soon though Mick and Heidi put a bird down. We walked back to the cars with darkness falling, and said goodbye to Andy who was heading home. My legs felt like dropping off so getting back to find Mitch and Craig in residence and the fire going was like arriving home. The French WOOFers emerged and soon with the fire roaring, beer and wine flowing and a meal had sat around a big table the usual banter began to flow. I increased my foreign dialect by learning new and vile French cuss words; the group talked crap and other stuff until delayed coverage of the rugby test began. By the time that was over and we'd won the day I was shattered and Tony looked the same. Bed never looked or felt so good... lights out.

The shortest day had been dragged out into a bloody big and brilliant day.

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