Usually, I start my articles with a scene-setting scenario – mostly because I like the creative side of a story and the way it brings back the memory of hunts long past, the smell of the grass and the bite of a cool winter morning … or the sound of quacks and whistling wings as mallards low pass the hunting spot. This time, I’m just going to try to get down to business …
For some of us, pre-season prep work starts at the end of the last season, and for others, it’s two days before Opening Weekend. I’m one of the sick individuals that’s prepping the whole year for the next season and find it difficult to even think about not being ready to hunt at the drop of a hat. I’m going to lay out some of my prep work and try and condense it down enough so that hopefully I don’t sound crazy and it helps out a hunter – new or old. We’ll cover dogs, blinds, the all-important gun, decoys and what I take with me in my hunting bag.
Most waterfowl hunters who own a dog quickly realise, when they have to hunt without them, just how important they are in their hunting arsenal. Not only are they that non-judgemental mate who doesn’t sledge you for missing that easy shot, but they’re also that quadrupedal collection device that jumps in the water (saving you from getting wet jocks) or brings a bird out of bushes that you’d never find in an hour of looking … only to finally give up and discover you’ve ripped your waders in the process.
Not to be unkind, but the majority of waterfowl dogs spend most of the year doing bugger all except getting fat. Getting that hairy wee mate ready for Opening is just as important as bacon and egg pie. Make sure they’re fit, get them out swimming and run them as much as you can; strip them down to a good well-muscled weight.
I’m lucky with my Labrador; being a farmer, my boy runs every day, so he stays fairly trim for most of the year and reasonably fit. I increase the feed intake before the season starts just to put some fat back on him – a little insulation doesn’t hurt to help keep them warm for those cold retrieves. If you can’t get that weight back on, make sure they’re warm – a neoprene dog vest is a good investment.
The most overlooked thing with dogs is their feet; if they haven’t had a lot of work, their feet soften – this means any hard-ground hunting quickly damages the paws, and then that’s time off from hunting. It’s much easier to condition their paws with short runs on hard ground; take it easy for a week or two and the feet will toughen up.
Don’t forget that retrieve training – make it part of the run and swim. When a dog’s on form, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching them find that bird lost in the reeds or swim right out and collect a bird you thought would need a boat to get.
When it comes to blinds, more is better, but less is perfect. I know that statement looks like Swahili, but here’s the explanation. You can never have too much camouflage, and the less of a profile your blind makes, the better it is for hunting. Take the layout blind as an example – you can hide in the middle of a grass paddock and birds will nearly land on your head.
Down south, where I live, duck mansions are everywhere, which is great – at least everyone’s having fun and keeping up tradition; but hard-hunted birds are wary, and not every blind will hunt hard all season. My advice for a new build: keep it low, think about 360° shooting and scrub it well – you won’t regret it.
When you do build or add new additions, don’t leave it till two weeks before Opening – same with the camouflage renewal. Get in there months before; if you do this, the grass will grow back around the blind where you’ve been working, and the wood will weather. Everything will look more natural, and most of all, the resident birds will get used to whatever work you’ve done. It’s easy to green things up by cutting a fresh bag of grass the day before and chucking a bit around the roof or poking it in some spots. This is where the little blind excels; it’s not that hard to add some finishing touches when you’re dropping gear off.
Without a gun, you’re not going to harvest too many birds, and that’s fact. It’s probably our most used item, and for many people, it’s also the most neglected. I shouldn’t really bang on about cleaning, but in my years of hunting, I’ve seen some rough, dirty shooting irons. Don’t be shy to give it a spruce-up after a hunt, especially if it’s been wet. A shotgun in a wet bag takes no time to rust; I shoot on the coast quite often, and that salt air and water is a real killer. If you’re capable, learn how to strip your shotgun right down; not only does it give your gun a thorough clean, but it’ll also give you a complete understanding of how your gun works and where the problems are if they should pop up. If you can’t, take it in to a gunsmith and have them give it a complete strip down and service.
When I give my gun a ‘between-hunts’ clean, I give it a flush out with CRC Brakleen, then a light oil with a couple of drops of oil to the action. I find the Brakleen washes out any of the carbon fouling and removes water. Gunsmiths would probably wince at this, but it does a good job removing fouling and hasn’t affected my guns over the years. Just a note: keep it away from the Beretta shock absorbers – they really don’t like solvents.
If you’ve had any problems occurring with how your firearm has been functioning, get it in to the gunsmith as early as you can. Taking it in to the shop a week before Opening and finding you need parts to fix the problem may result in you not having a gun for Opening.
Here’s a biggie for me … if you haven’t picked up your shotgun since last season, it’s a good idea to go to a clay shoot and bust some clays; it’ll help get the eye in, but most importantly, you’ll be able to familiarise yourself with your gun again. I hunt with a lot of different hunters, and it’s a big no for me if the person I’m hunting with has no idea how their gun operates; to me, it’s a safety issue, and I’d rather sit out the hunt.
Most people seem to think their decoys have no need of maintenance; they believe it’s simply a case of pull them out of the bag, where they’ve sat since last season, and away you trot to the hunting hole. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’ve paid top dollar for some pro-grade decoys, it’s good practice to look after them. Getting them out, giving them a wash or a flick of paint may help get that bird commitment to a more satisfying level on Opening Weekend.
Every year I go through my decoys as part of my pre-season prep; I get out with a bucket of warm water mixed with sports wash and give them a light scrub. The main reason I use the sports wash is because it contains no UV brightener; any wash that contains UV brightener is your enemy – it’ll scare game faster than an oil slick on the pond and you won’t know why.
When you wash your decoys, it gives you a chance to check the strings and weights; strings can rot or come loose, and if the weights are too light, it’s time to stick some heavier weights on. Any river or big-water hunter will know that a loose decoy can cost an unexpected boat ride or trip downriver on a decoy rescue at the most inconvenient time – usually when you’ve got mallards dropping in at prime-time hunting hour.
Taking the big step into painting decoys can be a scary prospect. I’ve been flocking decoys for a few years now, so I’m relatively used to giving them a spruce-up every year or adding more to my spread. When painting flocked decoys, the most efficient way to paint is to airbrush detail in – that method will work on your straight plastic decoys, but you don’t have to get too specialised. A brush and a few tins of waterproof flat-colour paints can get you well on the way. I’m not going to get into detail, but just say this, “Google and YouTube are your friends”.
Cleaning calls can be one of those wee things easily forgotten. It’s also one of those things that can quickly go bad if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve never had experience tuning calls, never ever pull one apart – something custom-tuned like a Hammond is incredibly hard to get back in tune unless you know what you’re doing, and if you do attempt it, make sure you mark or take pictures of what it looks like before you do. Best practice is simply to flush a call out with water and let it dry.
There are some good call tuners about in New Zealand, so get on social media – there’s always someone out there to give a hand if you need it. Alan Hammond will also retune his calls if you send them to him; but do it at the end of the last season, not a week before the new or you risk not having them back in time. I have to reiterate this: if you can’t retune a call, don’t pull it apart – just wash it with water.
This is one subject I certainly like to see on the Facebook page I’m admin for: NZ Waterfowler. Nothing pleases me more than families out hunting together; the future of our sport is bringing a new generation into the fold of hunting obsession. Planning for kids to hunt with you on Opening Day, or any day for that matter, is a must.
Make an elevated spot for them to stand on to watch or shoot; doing this will provide a nice firm platform – a safe place for them to stand. It’ll also give them their own spot and make them feel included. Give them jobs to do like shake a scotch caller, look after the dog or work the robot duck controller – anything to keep their interest up.
It’s not hard to download some stuff for them to colour in for a bit of a break in the standing and watching; there are some good pictures of ducks on the net you can print out. Make sure there are plenty of treats to eat; you know how grumpy an adult gets when they’re hungry – it’s worse for a little one.
Then there’s the exit plan. Not every little kid can last all day hunting, so if it’s possible, have an option for a pickup; a rest for a bit after lunch might have them wanting to come back for the evening hunt – if that happens, I think you’ve hooked them.
After the hunt, show them the meat processing and give them a wee burst at plucking – it’ll give a good foundation of what bird hunting is all about.
Last, but not least, keep your phone and camera charged to take plenty of photos of them hunting and out with the other hunters. You’ll be able to share them with family, friends and social media – and the little critter will get to see them when they’re older and remember that experience forever.
WHAT’S IN MY BLIND BAG
One task in my pre-season prep work is to restock my blind bag and check that everything I’ll need for my hunting over the season is in there. Mostly, I carry the usual stuff: ammo, calls and some different chokes. But there are other little bits and pieces I’ve also found handy over the years.
I’m always using zip ties. Whether you’re building a makeshift blind, holding something down on the duck boat or even fixing a broken layout, zip ties are the thing that may save a hunt. Super strong, all-weather yet easy to remove and take home in your rubbish – the possibilities of their uses are endless. They’ll always have a place in my bag.
I’ve carried a set of these around for years. They’ve always been handy for clearing brush out so I can shoot, cutting off wings and feet, and I’ve even dug out dirt edges with them to level a blind (probably not best practice, but it worked).
There’ll always be a place for these in my bag – if I ever need to hang something up, they’re the thing I use. Strong enough to hang your bag or gun up out of the way or even the day’s duck harvest – the only tool required to set them in place is a big rock.
This thing speaks for itself. It’s got screwdrivers, a knife, can opener and a set of pliers – just the things you might need for running repairs.
No hunter should be without a good folding knife; there’s always a use for them – especially if I get bored … I’ll dress out my birds.
I’ve never had a problem with my gun cycling, but I’ve helped many other people by having oil in my bag. It’s one of those wee things that if you need it and you don’t have it, it can be the end of a great hunt.
I know some people think face paint’s a waste of time, but I’ve got mates who make snow look brown – some of them could scare a bird off the spot from 5km. Smear a bit of black face paint on their ugly mugs and you won’t have to strangle them every time they flare a bird.
At the end of the day, it’s never too early to get prepared for the upcoming season. Getting familiar with your firearm is good practice, and using it often helps you be a better, safer hunter. All the other stuff helps you have fewer headache problems when the birds are circling your hunting hole ready to drop into range.
Hopefully, everyone has a great season without the stall of COVID. And don’t forget to get those kids out hunting with you – they’re the future of our sport.