Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pheasants in the rain

Prior to the season, Craig reached out to our crew to let us know that he'd be away from the farm for the second weekend of the duck season, which is the traditional opening of our pheasant hunting season. Rather, we'd begin on the Friday preceding the third weekend; for me that meant missing the first day as my leave is taken between now and next year! Hendrik, Brad, Mick, Mitch and Craig, with Craig's guest Florian would all be in the field. Andy, Jethro and I would be the late comers.

Upon arrival at Craig's, a glance in the killing shed revealed a deer, 3 pigs and a string of pheasants on the wall; Day 1 looked to have been a hell of a success! I'd arrived last and after getting the gear inside sat down to a drink and catch-up with the boys. Florian and Craig had returned from a successful Thar hunt in the Southern Alps with some nice heads. Mitch regaled us with tales of his duck opening with 'Crazy Lance' that had us in stitches. We talked smack until 11 pm and I was at that stage fit to drop... so the lads all trooped off and I fell asleep in front of the fire, stretched out on the floor with cushions for a mattress.

Jethro was first up and put the kettle on, outside the forecast rain had arrived. Clouds hugged the hills and mist rolled down the valleys and the drain drizzled in and on. I enjoy hunting pheasants in the rain; they tend to either be in the open or tucked up somewhere very dry; there's no in-between. We ate, got wet weather gear on and set off. With 9 guns we'd need a bit of organisation; I'd go with Mick and Andy and dogs Heidi and Keira and hunt the true right edge of the river. Mitch, Brad and Jethro would push the other side. our party waited for our opposite bank companions to walk to the bridge and come back down to meet us and then we moved slowly ahead with the dogs pushing the cover. The first birds broke well ahead of us but as we approached their hang-out, another broke. He was up and away from us all but I had the safe line to shoot and promptly missed! Florian plucked some feathers with his shot but the bird sailed away. The guys spent some time searching for the bird and as they did so Keira nudged another bird for Andy which he hit as it crossed the river before landing in a paddock on the far side and running. Keira crossed the river and seemed to hit the scent but quickly lost it.

Andy walked back around to the bridge and looped around while the rest of the party continued downstream. The next bird flew my way and was an easy shot - first pheasant of the season! The next bird that was pushed Mitch called as my bird and I got him with a long crosser [which I only realised later; Mitch had fired also but had missed]. The birds were holding well and we were only seeing cock birds; had they pushed the hens out? Next up came my big 'DOH!' moment. A bird ran well ahead of us and took to the paddock from the bank. He ran and looked to fly so I stepped back; he then ran ahead to my right so I turned hard right and walked and he stopped... then turned and ran to the only cover which was a stunted tree in the paddock. Clumps of longer grass afforded him some cover and he ducked in. I chuckled at my sheep dog act and walked quietly over to within 5m before kicking an irrigation pod to get him into the air. BOOM! BOOM! ... not a feather flew from the bird... an easy going away at an angle shot.... I did a little frustration boogie, then had a giggle. Andy returned and I hung back as I'd had enough shots.

Hendrik, a man with style

We arrived at a kale paddock, the scene of the majority of the previous day's carnage apparently; and we spread out and began to push through the soggy cover. Keira pushed a bird up between Andy and I put him down slightly before Andy's shot. Another bird was taken further down the paddock. We moved slowly to cover the last 5m of cover and a bird got up which Andy took smoothly.

That proved to be a nice melanistic cock bird. The crop extended onto a peninsula, although at that point it seemed to have been ravaged by cattle or simply not taken so was patchy. The group moved through and Keira hit a scent, moved across the line and bumped 2 cocks which took to the air and dropped as the guys on the right flank took them down.

That signaled the end of the morning's hunt... the rain still fell so we looked like bedraggled rats as we wandered back to the vehicles. Lunch was well received, cheeses, rolls, salami, coffee.. then we were out to the shed to clean our kills. 3 pigs and 35 odd pheasants were dealt to in quick time and the meat put on ice.

Then a good solid energy-returning lunch and a change of clothes. Hendrik, Mick & Mitch had to leave at that point so it was a smaller party that set out in the afternoon. We'd cover ground untouched over the past day and a half. As we parked near our chosen spot, a bunch of birds popped up out of a bowl, and while we waited they made their way to cover, a heavy gorse patch. While Andy and Craig waited, Jethro, Florian and I moved into a gully to cover their escape and soon the guys with dogs [Craig was working his new bitch Sika] pushed through. Birds popped out one by one, all hens barring one cock bird which took a hit as he passed down the line. We regathered and split up to cover the ground and soon shots began to pop. I covered a higher plateau but apparently a number of birds were bumped out by Sika, out of my view, as she ran a bit wild. We moved to the southern edge of the farm in a sweeping group but all we could find was hens. Finally Andy gave a signal that a cock bird was spotted in a deep depression. Florian and Jet covered the far end and Andy put Keira down the guts... I get a bit mesmirised watching her work and soon she pushed into a small fern patch and out came Mr. Rooster. He flew my way and I had to let him pass to ensure a safe shot, and I promptly missed him with the first shot before regathering and cleaning him up. My shooting was akin to muppetry, perhaps the fit of the little Merkel after the big waterfowl gun was throwing me. Darkness began to drop and we returned with 4 birds in the bag. We hung the birds and got into dry clothing. Jet made a move home at that point. Andy and I got a big meal of duck sausages, salad and mashed spuds on the go and Craig's brother Mike joined us for dinner. Then we had a call to make.... go out in the wet to find a pig up the hill, or stay in the nice dry warm house. On top of the rain a cold southerly had sprung up, but despite that we decided to take a spot light and go up the hill.

Issue #1: Andy's truck has town tires
Issue #2: The only rifle available was a lever action Browning

Issue number 1 exhibited itself less than a quarter of the way to our get put point, as Andy's truck slid into a small ditch [way better than sliding into the abyss on the other side of the track] and stuck fast. So we'd walk from there. There's something highly refreshing about being out in the rain on a stormy night and we made good time up the hill, soon I was steaming hot from my merino layer under Goretex wet weather gear. As we went, Craig lit up the valleys and bush patches with the spotlight and we saw numerous fallow hinds with fawns on our way. We'd only take scrubby stags if we found them. At the tip paddock we made out a grey grizzled pig by a big rock, so moved uphill to close the gap. Nearing the rock Craig switched on the light and Mr Pig came trotting straight towards us, fast. Andy brought the rifle up but was clearly having trouble with the unfamiliar configuration of the lever action, as the pig drew closer.. soon he was 5m out and Craig hissed 'shoot him NOW' and began to ready his backup plan - he'd brought along his shotgun and buckshot - when BOOM Andy touched off and the pig dropped on the spot.

He was a good fat bugger too, and Craig quickly field dressed him for the carry back. Lacking twine to make a pack of the animal, Andy was forced to carry him by the back legs - the true 'piggy back'. We trudged into the darkness, down hill thankfully, and soon were taking turns at carrying the animal. Finally we arrived at Andy's truck, so we stashed the pig in the back and continued our walk back to the house. Back home we had a beer or 2 and soon Craig began to nod off... I felt the same and hit the hay.

I awoke as the sky lightened and got breakfast on the go; Craig was up and about also but Andy stayed in his bed for a while longer. We ate and then Andy and I set off to retrieve his truck while Craig did some work. With a bit of digging and to-ing and fro-ing I pulled Andy's truck out easily enough, and we got back to base to ready for a morning hunt. The 3 of us set out to cover the farm area closest to the road. The first birds encountered were quail which Craig asked us not to shoot, as the population base is small. We walked for a number of kms during which a melanistic cock bird eluded us, Craig's gun's extractor slipped over the rim of a cartridge which took some fixing, and no other birds were seen. We walked areas that in the past had been kind to us, but perhaps the southerly wind had kept the bird holed up? We made the call to return home, but as we walked a steep muddy track I glanced ahead and 200m away saw 2 cock birds on a rise. At this stage they hadn't seen us, unsurprisingly as they went intent on fighting each other. Around and around they'd circle, heads close to the ground before rearing up and jumping together with claws outstretched and wings beating. It was quite some spectacle!

After a few minutes Craig suggested that we use their state of distraction to close in, hopefully unobserved, but of course with our high viz gear they spotted us quickly, broke off their engagement and one took to the air while the other ran. Andy and i split off to find the runner, while Craig took Max around to the other side of the gully to find the flier. Our mini hunt was interesting; we popped up where we thought the bird had run to but Keira was not interested, so after sweeping back and forth Andy took here back to the fight scene and started from there. He and Keira moved away from me and I slowly followed. The wee girl hit the scent and pushed out the cock from his hiding place, which Andy took with his second barrel. on the board!

We walked around to where Craig was sitting, his hunt for the flier had been unsuccessful. As we wandered down the track though, Max's head popped up and he darted off the track into the scrub. Out clattered the missing cock bird which flew straight down the track and departed stage right with having avoided 3 shots from the boys... being behind them I had the best seat in the house but wasn't doing any ribbing after my misses the day before. Suddenly birds began to take to the air down in the bush - we;d found them, but all eluded us. We saw where a couple had landed so sauntered the several hundred metres over to an old swamp below a heavily wooded rock outcrop. Max bumped a cock bird in front of me which I managed to fold while another burst away far to our left. We retrieved the bird and began our wander back to the cars.

Always a good weekend at the ranch, and this was another ripper.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mud, stubble and lots of trouble [for the ducks!]

This time of year seems to fly by in a haze induced by lack of sleep, road trips, varied hunting and plenty of ammo usage. Add in work and its no wonder that it’s hard to remember exactly what happened where…. Rolling into the second week of the game bird season, I had a pretty clean slate. I’d planned a visit to the ponds initially but when Tony called with a plan… and not just any plan, but a great one, well things just changed on the spot.

It went like this.

Our mate Richard had discovered a maize crop that due to unfortunate circumstances had been harvested both late [when the crop was man near flattened by weather] and with ancient equipment. Whole heads of maize were everywhere. Ducks were attacking in droves. It sounded just a wee bit too good to be true… but then came the kicker. Following the maize hunt we’d head off up north, grab Tony’s boat and head to his and Chewy’s maimai on the Kaipara Harbour, spend the evening in there and have a good tide for the Sunday morning hunt.

Now that, in my books, sounded like a ripper of a plan with the added bonus that I could spend Saturday morning at home with the family.

Saturday rolled around and after a leisurely morning I began to put my gear together for the hunt. 30 field decoys. A wing spinner. Layout blind. Lead ammo [there’s a novelty, we’d be hunting well away from water and I had half a case of lead #4 to get through].  Into the truck and off to the meeting point. Richard arrived first and we had a catch up in the sun. It was warm and a very late season cicada chirped away. A SW wind was forecast and we hoped that it would arrive; with 5 shooters in layout blinds we needed to be able to get the birds to set properly. Matt, Chewy and tony rolled in and we got on our way. The drive out along the peninsula is always pleasant and soon we were passing through beautiful territory. I saw a couple of cock pheasants along the way, shining in the afternoon sun. We arrived at our entry point, got the quad off the trailer, gear onto trailer and then we all clambered aboard. We met 3 hunters who were leaving the property; their bag was a single magpie. The paddock we were to hunt in was indeed a harvesting disaster – whole ears of maize lay everywhere. Feathers and footprints. Paradise ducks lifted off and wheeled around. The wind was now blowing nicely and we walked the paddock surveying our options. We settled on hunting from the side of a small rise overlooking a depression, which would allow us to set 5 blinds bringing guns to bear on birds drifting left to right. 

A wing spinner finished the spread and we settled back. We didn’t have to wait long for the first parries to arrive and each took a couple. About 4pm the first ducks appeared. They were flying up the valley behind us but keeping their distance as they eyed the spread. That was the signal to stop shooting parries. We hadn’t gone overboard with our camo efforts, but had jammed as many stalks and stubble leaves in to the loops on our blinds as we could reasonably manage.  But the sun was our real enemy, as it dropped behind us our blinds threw long [albeit narrow] shadows. The first real duck in was a grey that took us all by surprised, swooped in over the ridge to our left and came straight in. Tony or Matt took the bird and we sat back in anticipation. More and more birds were in the air but staying out of range. Flocks of grey ducks interspersed with the occasional mallard buzzed around. I am unused to seeing greys in such numbers; in the swamp I haunt they usually fly in singles or pairs. Finally the sun dipped below the peak behind us and the duck switch was thrown. Ducks came in in pairs, singles and small groups and not much got away. I’d only brought a single packet of lead shells and was soon through that and the other guys were getting through their ammo supplies fast as well. Ducks cupped up and swung in on the breeze and as the sky darkened the shooting became more and more exciting.
Between 5.30 and 6.15 the most insane hunting was had and by the time the flight began to button off we had 5 duck limits on the ground, along with 10 parries. The dogs got to work rounding up the birds and we deconstructed the decoy spread, took down the blinds and got things stacked onto the trailer. That hunt was memorable for the perfect conditions allowing us all to get stuck in, and as usual the great company.

We said goodbye to Richard and then convoyed north to pick up the guys’ trucks. At Warkworth we said goodbye to Matt; Tony, Chewy and I were headed to Wellsford to collect the boat and headed out onto the Kaipara Harbour for the second part of our weekend.

At Tony’s we loaded our gear onto the boat, jumped into Chewy’s truck and set off along the backroads, arriving at the landing. Boat launched, we set off by the light of headlamps and within 10 minutes arrived at the lads’ island. Their maimai was set on poles with a shooting platform atop the living area which consisted of 4 bunks, a kitchenette and a deck surrounding 2 sides of the structure. Chewy cranked up the cooktop and got duck sausages on the go, while Tony and I drove around setting decoys in the darkness. A quick meal of sausages on bread, and a few coldies on the shooting deck and I for one was ready to hit the hay.

The alarm went at 6 and we got a brew on, climbed into cool weather gear and got set up for our morning’s shoot. It was clam and still and less than ideal for harbour shooting. Behind us, parries moved around over the farmland but not many ducks were getting going. Then a small breeze sprang up and soon strengthened. Behind us, 2 ducks zoomed in over the mangroves and I called to the boys – they set and came in on Tony’s side and we laid into them – 2 down!

The next birds to arrive were a small group and a pair, after some coaxing they set and came in but pulled up 30m out. We each ditched a bird but the survivors got out faster than our follow up shots. More birds turned up now again but the major flurry was when Chewy went to retrieve the boat which was tied up in a creek several hundred metres away and covered by shade cloth. While he was away, 2 mobs appeared and Tony and I put several birds on the deck including one which flew 200m before dropping stone dead. Nera, Tony’s black lab, retrieved the close birds before Chewy arrived and collected the long bird. He then took off to drive up some nearby creeks to see if he could push any birds out – he did, but nothing came to Tony and I.

On Chewy’s return we had a cuppa, then all piled into the boat to retrieve the decoys. Like a well-oiled machine we grabbed dekes and then would the 5m cords in…. this made pond shooting look easy. We still had the tide on our side so were able to make a couple of trips back to the ramp to unload our gear and decoys. Back at Tony’s, we ate a barbecued breakfast before Matt arrived with the previous day’s bag and we made short work of breasting out our birds.

That concluded a couple of great – and unexpected – hunts. With only 2 weeks of our season to go, it all seems to have gone by so fast….

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A week in pictures

The opening week of our game bird hunting season has come and gone. Despite my camera playing up, between myself and friends we got some great photos which hopefully depict the week nicely. We had some great hunts, and the birds have been in great condition.

Let the good times roll!

Some photos courtesy Tony Dobbs and Darryl Snowdon.