It is about this time of the year – around May’s duck shooting season – when duck shooters undergo a change of character.
During this time, you will rarely find them at home. They will be in all sorts of places: on small creeks or ponds erecting their maimais, pre-season looking over some likely backwaters on rivers, down near the city’s Avon River looking at ducks, yarning in sports shops, telling tall tales in the office or lurking at the local cosmopolitan club with a fellow duck shooter or two and yakking about the coming duck season’s prospects.
Mothers are patient with them, young girls think they are demented because of the glazed expressions, and during the duck shooting season avoid them because they can be wet and smelly when they return home.
But the boss probably envies their youthful enthusiasm around May. When there is work to be done, a duck shooter wants to stand around discussing duck decoys, Labrador retrievers, the latest in shotguns, or the duck season rules.
Around duck season, the shooter ramps up breakfasts insisting of eggs, bacon, sausages, and tomatoes. For the rest of the year, breakfasts are a hurried slice of toast and coffee.
Rising from bed undergoes a startling change. From snoozing and reluctantly arising from the warmth of bed to leaping enthusiastically out of bed in May. They are never late for a duck shoot at first light, but for the rest of the year, are not infrequently late to work.
I doubt anyone except a duck hunter would rise before first light and get home tired, cold but happy and then repeat the same routine on successive days for a month.
Who else has a hobby that features squeaky duck calls, frozen wet feet, mud and slush, a thermos of hot coffee or soup, and a leaky left gumboot? While most like sunny, warm days leading into winter, a duck shooter is delighted at a wet, cold morning that makes ducks fly low and within range.
Who else could cram a duck call, a dog leash, a soggy packet of sandwiches, a packet of matches, possibly a packet of cigarettes, a handful of shotgun shells, and a dirty, grubby handkerchief into one pocket?
A typical duck shooter likes marshy, boggy ponds, dark overcast days with high winds, even rain and fishing-shooting shops. They are enigmatical, oblivious to others except their dog and hunting buddies, but somehow, you cannot help but like them. There’s a ‘child-like enthusiasm about them in the months leading up to the duck season, quite like youngsters unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning.
Handy duck shooting tips
Safety with firearms should be paramount in a duck shooter’s mind. Watch the direction of your shotgun. Never point it near a fellow hunter. Never carry it loaded especially in a vehicle. If talking to another hunter or a farmer or anyone, ‘break’ the gun open; it is reassuring to the other person.
Get the okay
Never trespass. You give the sport and the duck shooting fraternity a bad name if you do. An argument with a landowner puts a blot on duck shooters. Seek permission before the season by scouting around for river backwaters, ponds, etc., and make arrangements for the season beforehand. At the end of the season, thank the farmer and perhaps give him a token of appreciation: a bottle of whisky or wine, a cinema voucher, or some other gift.
Know your limit
Never shoot at out-of-range ducks. You are not only ruining your own shooting but also spoiling the sport for other nearby maimais with shooters.
When a number of birds come in, it is tempting to shoot among them. The reality is there is more air space than birds. A good shooter selects one bird and stays on it for the shot. Be a good shooting companion if you are with your mates. Share the ducks irrespective of individual tallies; remember, you are in a team. You don’t have to shoot the limit bag either. Just take enough for your immediate needs.
Left and right
If you shoot with a companion, the shooter on the left takes the left-hand bird, and the shooter on the right the right-hand bird. Make sure you both understand the rule before you get settled to wait for ducks.
Build your maimai among some existing vegetation if you can. In constructing one, do not cut the scrub. Clear an area just for the base and while you build your main, hold the scrub back with ropes. Once your hide is built, release the ropes to let the live greenery assume its original position and camouflage your maimai. Then all you need to do is to prune the greenery with pruning shears to ease of shooting and you have the best natural concealment possible.
Decoys should always be downwind of your maimai. The reason is that ducks tend to head into the wind to land and that will bring them in towards you. In addition, that placement downwind means they will not pass over your maimai and spot you. Your first shot probably will be at a bird coming straight in. If you get a chance for a second one, it will be as the ducks rise up into the wind above you.
A face looking up is easily spotted by birds. Wear a camouflage face mask with an opening for eyes. A wide brimmed hat helps too.
Decoys that look real naturally stand the best chance of fooling ducks. Use a nylon fishing line to twitch one or two decoys to make them appear alive. Undisturbed feeding birds are constantly moving. It is little tricks like these that top duck shooters use.
It has been estimated that several ducks are lost through shooters’ inability to retrieve them. Some reckon more than 20% of ducks are not retrieved because wounded, they escape into the raupo or under willows to die and be wasted. A good retriever dog helps immeasurably. One chap who abhors wasted game, shoots early morning on his pond, then about midday goes to the local river and hunts the crippled ducks out with his dog. It is not greed on his part for he donates these crippled ducks to non-duck shooter pensioners in his area. Like any top sportsman, he intensely dislikes wasted and crippled game.
Leave the booze at home when duck shooting. The old adage ‘gunpowder and alcohol don’t mix’ is true. Save the drink till you’ve got home and the gun is safely stored away. Alcohol impairs judgement and induces carelessness. Drink driving is unlawful; so is drink shooting.
Given the current COVID-19 situation, the verdict is not out yet on whether this year’s game season will go ahead as planned. Before you head out, make sure to check the current regulations on fishandgame.org.nz and covid19.govt.nz.
Words by Fred Hemi