Sunday, August 31, 2014

Casualty of the cold

The goose stars came into alignment yesterday, although they took their time to get lined up. The moon was but a sliver, and wind would be constant, if not howling. As I got half an hour out from home it began drizzling. When Matt & Tony rolled in we moved to the drop off point and began to unload gear - layout blinds, bags of decoys, blind bags and guns (of course). The boys had scouted around 100 geese using the paddock, but with the soft underfoot conditions we knew that lugging any more gear would just lead to a massive slog out later. Even so by the time we'd dumped our gear in a pile in the middle of our paddock we had a sweat on. I'd put on my merino top but under my waterproof trousers only had cotton and later I'd regret that. We had less than 30 decoys out and our blinds set prior to sun-up. The wind rattled periodic drizzle against the backs of our heads as we lay in our blinds and as dawn broke the first birds began to move - mostly swan and ducks off the harbour. It was a couple of hours before the first geese appeared from our left, skimming straight down and across our front they were mowed down. At our shots, a large flock of geese took to the air from 500m away.... not great, but at least we were seeing birds. With geese on the board the cold was forgotten for a while but the drizzle continued... to the point where my binos were useless. It was a while before the next birds, 4 geese which skirted the decoys just out of range before flaring on something and heading away. A quick review and we concluded that our muddy tracks were an issue, nothing we could do there. Soon after we took another pair and then a single, then it was a long cold wait. Geese began to lift off the harbour but the majority headed into a paddock a km NW of us.. so often our hopes would be raised and then dashed. It was after 10 before we scored again, and by now I was really feeling the cold; I wish I'd worn my insulated bibs. Just a reminder that it's not quite summer yet.
Not summer yet

Matt went for a wander to see if he could put the competitor birds in the NW paddock up, and while he was away a flock of 6 beat towards us into the wind. They skirted us, swept behind and then headed away downwind - but when they were at least a km away they turned and began to return and as they neared they began to hit the wiffle button, skidding half barrel rolls as they came in. We hit them and peeled birds out and as they swung out and away on the wind Matt popped up and dropped another. He soon returned.
Mud bath
Between 10.30 and 11.30 things took a turn - a large swathe of heavy rain rolled in and the geese began to lift off the paddock to the NW and head our way. Our bag doubled and then tripled rapidly as waves of birds approached and decoyed. It was classic goosing action... but the cold was unrelenting and then we witnessed one of the saddest things I've seen in the field. Matts dog Zulu began to noticeably tick and act like he'd been whipped. The tick became more pronounced so Matt took him into his blind to warm him up. We decided to pack up soon after as nothing was flying and as Matt led Zulu away we heard him cry "No NO!! No!" and turned to see Zulu in full seizure on the ground. We cleared his tongue as he fought for breath, and wrapped a coat around him...foam covered his lips. Finally he seemed to recover enough and Matt got him to the car. As we cleared the paddock Matt called Gina and she drove to meet us. Calls were put to the vet; all the while Zulu was behaving strangely. Finally we were able to head back to Matt's to put the dog to bed and clean up. I can only guess that the cold had made him slightly hypothermic, but that's just a guess....

We got the birds cleaned and meat on ice, had a quiet beer and then I headed for home. I felt whacked from the cold and the early start, so was surprised to still be awake after 10pm, thinking of poor old Zulu.

getting the gear out

Got a text this morning that Matt's old mate was acting like his old self. Good to hear - it had been a worrying end to a neat hunt.

The old back of the ute shot!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The game bird season ends

The lead up was messy for a bunch of reasons; but I’m glad I made a late call to go down to The Shanks [Craig’s] Ranch for the closing of the game bird season. A few flurried texts to Andy and we arranged to meet at Whatawhata where he and Keira would jump aboard and we’d be off. This isn’t exactly the pointy end of the season, so finding birds can be difficult...but you gotta go to know.

We arrived at Craig’s place late in the evening on a night that was still, clear and moonless; consequently the constellations shone overhead. It was truly stunning; and cold at just above freezing. We were greeted by Craig, Mick & Mitch and began the usual smack talk like we’d never left Craig’s lounge since last time, and were just continuing a perpetual conversation about each other’s shortcomings. We had a few beers and soon it was near midnight. I need as much sleep as I can get so was first to head bed-wards. Andy and I were bunking together and soon he came in, hit the hay and passed out… little $hit, I wish I could do that.

The crew were up and about early enough to get a solid breakfast into Craig before he had to head out to feed the calves; on his return we figured out our morning hunting plans. We decided to start with a pincer move on a bushy knoll that held birds that knew what was what… Mitch, Andy and I were placed to cover escape routes while Craig and Mick pushed towards us. I was in the hot spot and put shots on three birds, taking one and plucking tail feathers from another that glided on, landed and ran strongly. We regrouped and moved to the next drop off. Andy, Mitch and I would hunt the river with Keira, Brutus and Ruby.

We worked our way covering the patches of black berry and coarse grass as we went. The day was so stunning that it was an absolute pleasure to be outside; I felt positively drowsy from the warm sun. It’s been a long time since we’ve had such settled weather, with just enough breeze to cover our noise. I wandered a bit ahead of the lads to take photos of some rock formations in the stream when Mitch’s dogs pushed a bird. I swung and took him as he passed me; but damn I felt guilty as it really should’ve been Mitch’s bird.

River formation, gotta be a brownie in there..

Andy peeled off to cover a large oxbow while Mitch and I waited and soon his gun boomed out twice, and he returned with a drenched birds that he’d dropped into the river. Keira had given chase and the bird had duck dived! Swimming pheasants – what next? In the distance we could hear the occasional boom as Mick and Craig took shots, it sounded as though they were having a great time.

We worked on and arrived at a spot that had held birds in the past. I crossed the river to team with Andy while Mitch covered off the other bank. He’d move up to a grove of trees while Andy and I swung around a dammed area and came back to Mitch. Andy and my plan was foiled by cattle which really unsettle pheasants; but Mitch came up trumps taking a going away bird. We moved downstream, crossed over to Mitch and the he departed to swap old Ruby out for Pip, his young up-comer.

Nesting swan

Mitch & Ruby score

The Merkel :)
The lads swap notes

He’d hunt downstream from where we started while Andy and I would work up. Keira was her very good self, working hard and covering every patch. We got up to a rocky outcrop and I moved around to the right while Andy went up and over. I was in a patch of tall trees with light cover underfoot and was trying to be as quiet as possible when a bird burst from above me and to my left, one of those birds that heads straight up like a springing teal target. I swung and snap shot as he went through the canopy and then fired again as he made a gap on the tree tops. I felt positive of a clean hit as it felt right; and the bird was struggling to make progress – despite the rapid wing beats he was helicoptering across the sky rather than rocketing as he disappeared from view. Andy arrived soon and I explained that I’d last seen the bird moving ‘that way’ [sweep of the hand in general direction] and we set off in pursuit – deep down I wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic of finding the bird. We moved around each side of a bushed gully and I heard Andy pushing Keira through the undergrowth. After several minutes I walked around to him and there was my bird! Keira had found and returned it, dead as a dodo. We’ve noticed the rapid but uncoordinated flapping after a hit indicates a lung shot bird, and so it was this time.

Happiness is a retrieved bird

God I love this country

 Moving further Keira bumped yet another bird who escaped unmolested. From a high point I could see Mick on a ridge in the distance and then shots boomed out and I could hear Craig calling to me to ask if I’d seen a bird fly out. We soon met up to compare notes and they’d taken a pheasant and a turkey each to add to the tally.

Turkey time

Pre lunch photo spread
What a great morning! We drove back through the farm, stopping to collect Mitch who had shot a fantastic black-neck. Lunch was a merry affair of smoked swordfish, camembert, pumpkin soup and rolls. Andy and I spent the next hour and a half sniping at magpies while we waited for Hendrik and AJ to arrive; they’d round out our crew. The plan was to conduct a pukeko drive as they were in plague proportions in some areas of the farm. AJ & Hendrik rolled in and we got saddled up for our hunt. On arrival, Craig got AJ set up to hunt the river downstream while the rest of us moved up through the bush abutting the long finger of swamp where the pooks were living. The plan was that Craig would give us drop off points at which we’d quietly sneak down to the bush edge while he circled the swamp. He’s then fire a shot and drive the birds towards us. On his shot all hell broke loose as pooks went everywhere. Down the line guns boomed out. I managed a couple of birds and we soon had a reasonable pile of the wily buggers in front of us.

We moved back to the cars and while mick and I moved the vehicles, the other guys hunted a knoll towards AJ while Andy grabbed my Merkel and hunted the bank towards the guys. Sure enough Keira pushed a bird that provided a challenging target and earned his escape. Back at base I was pretty content with my day; a limit of pheasants and a couple of pooks rates pretty highly in my books as a great day in the field! As I cleared my gear from the car I saw the boys were standing in a cluster looking through binos – sure enough high on the hills overlooking Craig’s house, a mob of fallow fed. A scrubby cull stag was identified and soon Craig was pushing his .280 Ackley into my hands and I was off. I hadn’t stopped for a drink or camera or even my knife, so wasn’t feeling super prepared. As I pressed onwards in the lee of a steep ridge I looked over my shoulder and Craig was on his way – with his gait he soon caught me up and I was trotting along behind him panting away. 15 minutes hard uphill walking (damn my office job!) and we were ready to crest the ridge.
Craig and I on our way

I stopped Craig for a quick breather to recover my composure and let the heart rate come back a bit, then we crawled up and over – damn, nothing there. Perhaps they were further down? We got behind the ridge and sidled downwards to our next vantage point. Again, nothing there… then we saw them, they’d fed towards the bush edge and were tucked in the lee of tall pines. We settled and I ran the scope over the animals. They were clumped together and whilst Craig was easily able to pick out a stag, I just saw animals. He’d say ‘see the one looking downhill’ and all I could see were animals looking uphill! Then ‘now he’s looking uphill’ and all I could see were animals looking… downhill. Finally we got on the same wavelength and I asked Craig for the range, about 280m. The stag was standing angled away, so I needed to hit him back from the shoulder to put the bullet into his vitals. Remembering to breathe out [I don’t shoot rifles often] I squeezed and the rifle boomed. Craig said ‘yep you’ve hit him… but I think you’ve shot another also’. He explained that at the shot another animal had dived. Given that we were there to take out a scrubby stag I wasn’t happy at the thought of smacking a breeding doe. It took a few minutes to get to where they were standing and we found no evidence of anything other than the target animal having been hit. We found him dead as a door nail at the bottom of the slope. My shot was a tad further back than I’d aimed for but had raked through his chest and taken his heart out. Craig was stoked and remarked that it was a pretty good shot… I felt that I’d had a bit of divine help. As we removed his guts the other guys drove past high up the ridge on their way out to find pigs for the freezer. We made my animal into a backpack and set off for Craig’s, a pretty simple carry in the scheme of things. On the way Craig talked about his thrill of putting guys onto animals and how his vision and dream is to create a hunters paradise on his land…. A great vision and his sincerity and generosity are a tribute to his and his family’s ethos.

Yeah that was a sweaty carry

Back at his we hung the animal and got cleaned up. Mick & Mitch had earlier in the day prepared a pheasant confit, so along with a fresh salad and roast potatoes we had the makings of an epic dinner before the rugby test later in the evening. I got the fire going and then we sat and had a beer while waiting for the others to re-appear. Mick was first back; he’d hunted a back ridge for no joy. Then AJ and Mitch were back, followed by Andy and Hendrik. Hendrik had taken a young 50lb pig with his AR. AJ left soon after; he was taking a 20km training run in the morning before heading out after pheasants later in the day! Dinner was quite an event, and the superlative rugby that followed simply rounded out an outstanding day. I felt like pinching myself to see if I was dreaming! No problems nodding off that night… I wasn’t first up on Sunday morning so when Mick pushed a coffee into my hands it was gratefully received. Craig got busy doing his farm chores while we got fed and watered and then gathered to plan our morning’s movements. One heavily scrubbed ridge had held birds all season so the plan was to drop guns at nominated spots that pheasants had used as escape routes all season, and for Craig to then pressure the birds into flying. We trouped up to the drop off spot and while Mick and Mitch who’d form the block at the bottom of the ridge waited, Craig, Andy, Hendrik and I moved across swampy flats towards the bush edge. I decided to load and work the scrub we were walking through just because it looked birdy and a cock erupted in front of me. Both shots saw clumps of feathers fly and Craig tapped him as well but he made it to the bush before dropping in. Keira tracked in and delivered the bird to Andy - a sweet start to the day.

Off to a good start

In the bush we tracked up a gully and Craig dropped me at a spot with a small window through the scrub and trees above me. He said that nothing would happen for the next 20 minutes and took the other guys with him .. not 2 minutes later a gun boomed and feathers came wafting down towards me on the very slight breeze [Craig later explained that he'd taken a melanistic bird that jumped above the boys]. To kill time I set about composing photos of bird and gun, using the small window of sunlight that I had to display the bird. Then a very small fantail kept me occupied.. then finally I heard Craig shout in the distance “BIRD”.. I unslung the gun just as a pheasant sailed over 35m up, swung and fired and he folded. I whooped, because without a shadow of doubt that was my shot of the season.
My shooting window...
For the next 40 minutes as I held station, cries of “BIRD” followed by shots rang out periodically. Finally I heard Craig at the bottom of my gully and led him to where I’d shot from. He put Max into the scrub on the ridge behind me and soon came back to deliver a fat bird. We were pretty relaxed as we left the bush to work over a swamp to drive out and pukekos; only one came my way and as I walked over to where he’d landed a hare got up and ran for it. The 1 oz #5’s cleaned him up. Andy joined us soon after and we sat on the river bank waiting for the others. All 3 of the lads were sporting pheasants when they returned.

Hendrik, styling it

We stood taking in the sun and reviewing the action; it had been a great morning. We decided that our final action would take place against pukekos in 2 more locations, the first would be a quick ambush over a hill before driving to a swamp that we’d not touched all season. It proved fruitless; we charged over the brow only to see that the cunning pooks had taken warning cues from the local paradise ducks we’d disturbed and were vacating rapidly out of range.


For the next drive, the plan was for Andy and Craig to hunt a ridge and gully down to a finger of swamp where the rest of us would position ourselves to pinch off the escape route for any pooks living there. As we began to position ourselves, 3 pheasants departed; I couldn’t see if they were hens or cocks from where I was. Soon the pooks began to look for escape routes and we picked them off one by one. Only one escaped, a cunning bird that squeezed between Craig and Andy in a position that made a shot unsafe to take. That was our final action for the day and we returned to Craig’s for a season debrief, sitting in the sun with beers in hand.

It had been a great season and in no way had any of us thought that we’d take 15 pheasants at this time of year; let alone the rest of the game harvested. With all that game to clean we got busy skinning the deer and pig, quartering the hares and because the local Maori ladies wanted pheasant feathers for their cloak making, skinning the pheasants. With the deer wrapped in a blanket in the back of the truck and with our gear aboard Andy and I finally made tracks in a convoy with Hendrik. So has ended one of the finest game bird seasons that I’ve had the privilege to experience. As I put my bloodied clothing on a heavy wash cycle that night, all I could do was smile…...

Enjoying the quiet

Last Saturday (just over a week ago) was a classic end-of-winter-it's-nearly-spring day - sunny with a chilling wind; crisp, clear and a stunner. It was Tui Ridge Beater's Day; the day where the guys and gals who have pushed birds around for us get to have their turn on the pegs. In turn, we get to bash the bushes to put birds up and over them. We had the full Guns complement turn out; which in turn is a compliment to the beaters without whom we wouldn't have driven shooting. Rick had sorted a pig on the spit... a humungous hog for which we needed an industrial sized spit. The day was brilliant; even if the shooting was quiet, as I think it was the quiet that I really enjoyed. There's a lot to be said for escaping from the city to clear your head, and this was one of those days that did a lot for my mental health. No photos as I'd not taken my camera; rather I just enjoyed the activity, scenery and company. Cheers folks, Tui Ridge has been great again this year.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A quietish driven day

As the season's end approaches, the pheasants become more and more scarce. Predation, poaching and pressure all add up, so we're now shooting birds that know what's what. As we gathered for our guns briefing, the expectation was set that if we bagged 30 birds, it would be a good day. I drew Peg 1 for the first time this season; and for the second shoot in a row Dickie drew the peg next to me. We give each other endless crap and (respectfully) poach each other's birds so it works out ok as long as we're both in the game. As we approached "The Gums" which would be our first drive, we moved dozens of pigions from the cutover maize poaddock we walked across. They'll need sorting out at some stage. As the dogs and beaters approached the copse of gums for which the drive is named, a zillion sparrows and finchs in the trees silenced their calling and took to the air, but not a single pheasant did. The birds that were in residence pushed forward into the scrub and then took off in singles. Not many took to the air, but Dickie uncharacteristically pricked and donated me a nice big cock bird on the first drive which I cleaned up overhead. I pricked a hen bird after waiting for her to clear the pickers behind me and that was my lot. I think only a couple of birds were taken, and that set the tone for the day. We moved through the steep drives and with the wind that we had the birds that did fly on the whole were absolute whoppers, high and magnificent and hard earned. In one particular drive the birds that came used the breeze to curl over the guns or simply got higher and higher. One cock bird flew down the line with guns popping below and not a feather was touched such was his high trajectory. Those ones live with you after standard birds are forgotten. We all managed a few misses along with the hits and all in all had a great time.

The bag was 19 pheasants and a pigeon. But the best part is seeing all the folks who work their dogs out and enjoying themselves, and I'm really pleased to see how dad's getting around now he's off the chemotherapy. He and his mates seem to have a blimmin good time and that's what it's all about in my book. 5 drives were done and dusted by 2pm, which to me seems a good time to call it and have a barbecue and a few beers.

Next shoot will be Beater's Day; I'm looking forward to thrashing bushes and pushing birds for the guys who have done so well for us all year.

Fran getting it done