Quail hunting in New Zealand’s Awatere Valley
Quail hunting in New Zealand’s Awatere Valley is not for the faint-hearted, but it is an incredible challenge, says Daryl Crimp
It’s big country. Huge. The High Country station stretching ahead of us covers 50,000 acres on the map. Throw in the guts, gullies, creek beds and river catchments, and the number scales up — dramatically. Fortunately, we were mainly interested in the front lowland area. Still more country than I could cover with a good horse and a few fine days up my sleeve, but huntable.
The high ridges, burnished like steel in the dawn, towered over hoary gullies with a crackling of frost covering the grassy patches. The thorny bushes known as Matagouri were charcoal smudges on the hillside, while tall pines on an opposite terrace stood stiff like palace guards. A creek burbled politely as it shouldered through the crowded vegetation, and three red deer looked quizzically at the intruding four-wheel drives.
“Easy Crimpy, take your finger off the trigger,” my guide Fizz muttered to me. I released my grip on the .308. Spoilsport. “We’re here to shoot dicky birds — keep your focus,” he added.
Fast and furious
Not a serious gamebird shooter, more a dabbler, I don’t shoot waterfowl any more, but I cannot resist an opportunity for a spot of upland hunting, and Californian quail in particular. They thrive in the semi-arid Marlborough hill country of the Awatere Valley in New Zealand, where coveys of 10 to 40 birds are common, but they are immensely challenging to shoot. The action is always fast and furious.
Fizz and his mate Rayza (Kiwis love weird nicknames) are old hands — knowledgeable and very proficient — but they also put in the groundwork, scouting trips pre-season to locate coveys and acting as a constant roving eye when out hunting deer, pigs or goats. Good local knowledge equals birds in the hand, but you also need quick reflexes and a sharp eye. Fizz is flash, having once competed in the World English Sporting Clays Championship, and Rayza is as close to a poet with a gun that I’ve seen. Me? I’m more of a ‘happiness is a warm barrel’ kind of guy.
Rayza’s son Marty, another good shot, joined us as we stretched out in a loose line and inched up the creek. It’s a common upland strategy, walking abreast some distance apart and driving a covey ahead of you. We wear bright-orange vests and caps for safety. When quail break you have to react quickly, so you need to know precisely where your mates are. You rely heavily on your peripheral vision, and orange is an instant marker. The vests also have plenty of room for ammunition and retrieved birds. Utility.
Open-choked shotguns are recommended in conjunction with No 7 or No 8 lead shot. Over-and-under, pump-action or unpinned semi-autos that allow a maximum of five shots are popular, but I’m a traditionalist and incurred a few sniggers and slurs when I pulled out my ancient Simson side-by-side. It’s a beautiful gun and has served me admirably over time, before the rust set in. In me — not the gun.
Quail are talkative when resting or feeding, which helps pinpoint the covey, but they can be difficult to flush when quail hunting. Worse, they can be bloody near impossible to find in dense scrub when shot, hence the need for a well-trained, fit and disciplined gundog. Once flushed, they explode into flight with a rapid whirring of wings. It’s pointless shooting blindly into a fleeing covey, though — ‘happiness is a warm barrel’ is not a good strategy. It’s important to pick out individual birds and, as Fizz puts it so succinctly, “Swing and lead them plenty, you useless coot.”
It’s worse when they break downhill. Generally they detonate close, frightening the tripe out of you, and scream past in a staccato blast of wingbeats. Then they set their wings and accelerate, hugging the contours while riding an invisible slide to the bottom. Fizz calls these ‘mountain missiles’, and good luck drawing a bead on one.
I overheard him sometime after the shoot describing to a mate how I fared on the downhill run. “It was a hoot watching Crimpy tackle the mountain missiles with his historical old ‘shotty’,” he said. “The bloody shots were historical too, arriving where the birds were years after Elvis had left the building.”
On the first beat of the morning’s quail hunting we put up a covey of 30 birds, which dodged in and out and around the Matagouri, fleeing the flak before seeking cover just up ahead. At this time of year, early in the season, quail don’t fly long distances when flushed, but quickly return to ground where they regroup and sit tight.
Later, after a bit of hunting pressure, they wise up and break downhill past the Guns. They will often scatter and vanish in the distance, so you only get one crack at them. Right now, though, they were behaving, so we quietly drove them upstream, picking off the occasional bird as the terrain closed in.
It was perfect habitat for quail: tall trees to roost in, scrub for cover and short grass to fossick and feed in. Quail are predated on by feral cats, stoats and weasels, so they never stray far from cover, and they were soon lost to us in the vegetation-choked gully ahead. We’d only plucked five from 30, but that was more indicative of how challenging upland quail hunting is than an indictment of our hunting ability.
Part of the intrigue of quail hunting is the unpredictability of them. This next covey produced runners. Inexplicably, they would not flush and ran at 100mph from bush to bush. While comical-looking, it is frustrating and exhausting hunting. You burn a lot of calories chasing the little birds, and just when you are folded over gasping for breath, they explode like fireworks, popping all around.
The right dog for quail hunting
This big country is private land, so you need permission to hunt there. Given the rugged nature of the terrain and heavy vegetation, it suits flushing and retrieving dogs like labs and spaniels. You can hunt public land, such as the big-braided Wairau riverbed, but that’s different again. Flat. Stoney. Wide. Sparsely covered with tufts of grass, gorse and broom, and fringed with tall willows. You cover a heap of ground when quail flush and scatter, so you don’t want a dog that spooks them too far out. Setters and pointers are good in this country.
This season, the local fish and game council struck a deal with a private forestry company to open their blocks to bird shooters on a permit system. It made thousands of acres of previously inaccessible land available, which took pressure off the limited public resource. The season in the Nelson Marlborough region runs from late autumn through winter.
As the morning progressed, we hunted half a dozen or so separate coveys, and the tally slowly climbed to respectable dimensions, which is probably more than can be said of the volume of shots fired. Rayza made an interesting observation that “90% of the dicky birds we shot were cocks”. He pointed out that the females are cunning, sitting tight and letting the blokes head to the party first, where they get all shot up — fascinating.
And they are. Introduced to Nelson in 1865 before the introduction of stoats, ferrets and weasels for rabbit control, quail expanded so prodigiously that within 25 years, they were being canned and exported in the thousands to London. We had a native quail, but it didn’t sit well with European settlement and was extinct by 1870. Two other species were introduced here, the brown and the bobwhite, but they struggled and only exist in isolated populations in the North Island. No, it’s the small, fast-flying Californian quail that captured the hearts of Kiwi gamebirders. They require quick and accurate shooting.
We finished the day with 30 between us. I didn’t disgrace myself; I got one. Happiness is a warm barrel. Happiness is also a warm belly — and what better way to finish a day of quail hunting than with a dram of Highland single malt?