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.
|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.
|Pre lunch photo spread|
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...|
|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…...