It was all a little different. Launching the boat in the darkness was the same, as was unwrapping and throwing out the decoys, pushing the boat into the reeds, and blowing a few short notes to make sure the duck call was clear. Then waiting for the first hint of daylight with great anticipation was nothing new. I?ve done that countless times over the years.
What was a little different was that on the way to the boat ramp, my friend John Byers watched for kangaroos, which could bolt across the road at any moment. Or worse, a wombat, which is short and thick, and if you hit it would be similar to running into a granite boulder. Then there was the matter of the temperature. Even though it was May, the first month of winter, it was almost balmy, certainly not what I am accustomed to while duck hunting.
Or the fact that when we pushed the boat into the reeds John?s subconscious ? and my very active conscious ? alerted us for possible snakes. If one was present, it would likely be the tiger snake or perhaps a brown (even worse), or black snake. Take your pick, all three are remarkably poisonous, there are many of them and they are something to fear. A strike from one would make the North American rattlesnake bite seem like a bee sting in comparison. And did I mention being careful when first handling the decoy bags? A white-tailed or red-back spider might have moved in since the last hunt. Take my word for it, you really don?t want to be bitten by either of those.
Aside from all that, I haven?t yet got used to the bird life that awakes at dawn. Flocks of incredibly noisy sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs and bands of swift-flying rainbow lorikeets, or western rosellas, brilliant in plumage of reds, blues, greens and yellows, appearing more like flying jewels than birds. But what was exactly the same was John reaching over quickly to grab my coat sleeve and whisper, ?Three black duck coming in on your left, mate.?
Be it in my home state of Oregon, or the Australian State of Victoria, it is the same wonderful moment when duck heed one?s calls, like the decoys, and lock those wings in a heart-warming cup to glide in. And still better when I am shooting well and cleanly fold the lead bird.
It was all very good; I was extremely fortunate. While I had lived in Sydney for five months in 1973, I was wholly engaged in working full-time in order to earn enough money to return to the US after a year in New Zealand. I never got beyond the city limits the entire time. In 2002, Kevin Warshaw, who had read a few of my books, wrote and invited me down for stubble quail hunting. I gladly jumped at the chance and spent nearly two weeks there. We travelled from Kevin?s home, in Canberra, down to the State of Victoria in order to hunt. On that trip I was able to meet a score of avid Australian bird hunters, such as Colin Grime, Joe Ellis, Rod Drew (director of Field & Game Australia, the progressive hunters? organisation), and colourful Graham Eames, known to most as Dr Duck, and editor of Feathers & Fur, the leading magazine for Australia?s wing shooters.
Kevin Warshaw is known for his German shorthaired pointers, and is Australia?s premier field trial judge. So a majority of my time in 2002 was spent with pointing dogs and stubble quail. Good stuff, that. However, I also saw waterfowl areas that appeared excellent, and proved to be the case when I shot them. In 2005, I returned for three weeks, and in doing so met and hunted with several of Australia?s most avid duck hunters: John Byers, a noted carver of cork decoys; Pud Howard, sporting goods dealer; and Don Rhodes, who spends nearly every waking hour engaged in a wide range of fieldsports.
In May 2006, I returned, this time staying for six weeks. Prior to going down I had crated up one of my duck boats and had it shipped to John. I sold one of my old BSA motorcycles and used the money to buy a pickup truck in Melbourne. John carved me a wonderful rig of decoys. And perhaps best of all, I acquired a 1908 Charles Boswell pigeon gun to shoot with ? Boswell is by far my favourite British maker.
A local gunsmith opened the full/full chokes to modified/modified, and the result was that the gun patterned the excellent Winchester Dry Lock steel 3s superbly.Anyone who has used these steel loads laughs at the thought of going back to lead. They kill large duck cleanly at 50 yards ? and geese with the BB size. And that is fact, whether you want to believe it or not. Those who still whine about not being able to use lead in the US are now treated as a joke. I either went out with John, Pud or Don, or hunted on my own with my boat. Six weeks of nearly continuous duck hunting is a lot. At times it was tempting to slam off that alarm clock ringing at 5am, but in the end I was always glad I didn?t. There weren?t as many duck in the region I hunted as there had been in 2005. Australia?s duck can nest in any month of the year.
The urge to breed is largely triggered by floods. In March of 2006, the State of Queensland experienced several large floods, and as a result many duck from Victoria flew north to the high waters. However, more than enough remained to ensure we did well on nearly every morning we shot. The daily limit for duck in the State of Victoria in 2006 was seven. I got my full bag on several days, and could have on more days had I been shooting well. Unfortunately, waterfowling in Australia is somewhat difficult for those who are residents. In order to hunt, a waterfowl identification test is required prior to being issued a licence. The test is passed by viewing a video of flying duck, then correctly naming the species. After sitting the exam, it can take up to two bureaucratic weeks for the test to be graded.
The test itself requires one to know the various Australian species very well. Also one needs to make the identification quickly, as though in an actual hunting situation. I was told that some Australians have had to sit the test several times before passing. Therefore, a person travelling to Australia for waterfowling needs to do serious homework ahead of time.
The gun laws are equally strict. A permit is required to use a gun, with lengthy and involved paperwork necessary before bringing a gun into the country. To compound the situation, each state requires a separate permit for firearms. For example, if flying into Sydney with a gun, one needs a permit from New South Wales. Then if actually hunting in the State of Victoria, a separate permit is needed. When not in use, all guns need to be kept under lock and key. For someone from the western US, as I am, we think nothing about keeping a pistol in our car, so the Australian gun laws are a nightmare of the worst kind. Also, as a wake up call to us all, much of the best bird hunting in Australia has been outlawed.
Powerful animal rights groups have been successful in banning hunting in New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland, and Australian Capital Territory. Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory are still open to hunting, but antis are hard at it to gain closure there too. Rod Drew?s solid Field & Game Australia is at the front line to blunt the antis attempts, especially in Victoria and South Australia. If it weren?t for the organisation?s efforts, hunting would be a thing of the past in the remaining open states.
On a happier note, once all the hurdles surrounding Australian waterfowling are met, the dark skies of problems clear, and can be replaced with strong flocks of duck. The premier species is the black duck, a close cousin to the mallard and similar to the North American black duck. In much of Victoria, where I hunted, both the grey and chestnut teal are common. Drakes of both these species can be nearly wigeon size. The white-eyed duck, commonly called a hardhead, is similar to a pochard. The small, goose-like wood duck is extremely common. It is encountered almost entirely in open pastures around stock ponds, as is the large mountain duck.
Then there is the highly prized and beautiful blue-winged shoveller, and the odd, but striking, pink-eared duck. Almost all my hunting was based around three species: the black duck and the grey and chestnut teal. For a North American waterfowler, who bases hunting around decoys and calling, the Australian experiences were indeed great. And the fact that it all took place in May and June was even better. I would have been reduced to meaningless tasks at home such as mowing lawns and other timewasters.
Both in 2005 and 2006, it would be impossible to select a best day. There were many that would qualify. A day when John Byers and I secured our limits of hardheads within an hour from flocks upward of 30 racing into the decoys; or several days when my limit was comprised solely of the large, impressive black duck; or a day when the chestnut teal were so numerous over the decoys I was able to select just the beautifully plumaged drakes.
Be assured the die has been cast. For this aging fowler a yearly visit to the marshes and lakes of Victoria will be paramount. Maybe in time I will become accustomed to the vehicle- hazard kangaroos; maybe even less nervous about those snakes, though on my last day hunting in 2006, Colin Grime came very close to stepping on a tiger snake, so I have my doubts in that regard.