By Steve Dunn – First Published Rod&Rifle Mar/Apr 1995.
With half a day to go until the 1994 opening morning, the three hunters sat in the small cosy crib grasping their callers. Chris had been teaching young Jim the calls he would need to challenge some of the 20 shooters on the oval lake.
Dale, Chris’s wife, listened enthusiastically as a drake in the canal answered the boy’s calls. They retired, all hoping to catch enough shut-eye to be fresh for the next day.
The alarm sounded at 4am, waking Dale and Jim abruptly. Chris, already dressed in his camo gear, swilled a hot tea as he stormed out the door. “See you at the boat in 30 minutes”, he said heading to get the dinghy, loaded.
Shooters were gathering on the bank of the channel. Some talked for a few minutes, while others eagerly pushed their boats into the murky stream. By now Chris, Dale and Jim were near the end of the pukeko ridden channel and onto the foggy lake. Chris worked the 15 horse Yamaha slowly as he made his way through the thick mist. He was towing Jim’s camouflaged canoe, trying not to tangle it on protruding branches. Pulling up at the first mai-mai the crew counted the decoys. None had been lost.
“Quiet,” Chris snapped, as the fog filled with wing beats. Seconds later more mobs passed overhead, the odd invisible mallard giving a loud quack. Accelerating, Chris and Dale raced off to their own stand, leaving Jim to berth his canoe in the scrub boat ramp. Having the fastest boat on the Waipori had its advantages and so did knowing the lake blindfolded.
The fog was lifting as the sun rose. Chris and Dale, ensconced in their mai-mai, spotted two shadows coming towards them. Chris, loading the S K B, let the spoonies fly into range. Before they realised it, another four speed demons joined the group. Sinking deep, the hunters started calling, but the birds were right over them. Chris pulled his trigger twice, taking two with one barrel and another one with the second. Dale fired both of her barrels, dropping two more birds. The sound of these first shots of the season soon multiplied as World War III broke out over the lake.
Flashes streaked out of most mai-mais as the duck invasion increased. The sound of birds crashing on the still water was all that drowned the noise of repeating gun-shots. Jim was startled when this happened, but came to his senses as he saw his own targets flying towards him. Lifting his Remington auto, he squeezed the trigger twice “Missed”, he cursed, as he watched birds fly into fatal gunshots at the next mai-mai. After an hour, the non-stop shooting slowly died down. Jim realised just how tough the calling competition could get.
The sun sat bright as the lake filled with dogs and boats to collect the fallen. Jim’s watch read 9.45am. There was no fog, just a cool, gentle breeze blowing into his painted face. Busy looking at everyone else, he didn’t see a mob flying over until callers started from every direction. A battle of the lungs developed, as two mai-mais duelled for the high birds’ attention. Finally the 12 mallards looked at Jim’s decoys. Turning smooth and low, they came for another look. Kneeling, with one hand resting on the shotgun, Jim gave a long, feeding chuckle to entice the birds, then waited. Circling, with their flapping decreasing, the ducks looked for a place to settle. They came, fanning their wings as they stopped. Springing like a Jack ‘n the Box, Jim blasted four with one shot. The auto spat again, hitting another drake. “Yes! ! ” bellowed the boy, looking around for any spectators. Wasting not a second, he jumped into his canoe to retrieve his undreamed of kill.
Over the next few hours the shooters took time out for a hot drink and lunch. Still keeping an eye open, Chris munched on a piece of chicken, while Dale sat quietly sipping a brew. He threw the clean bone over the dead lupin into clear water. Grabbing the S K B and lighting a smoke, he stumbled out of the shelter into his dinghy. Thorny bracken scratched his head as he fought to free the vessel. Chris saw a couple of green and brown faces poking through some raupo, but nosing around he noticed most shooters had vanished. “Back soon!” he shouted to Dale, leaving her to stare patiently at the heavens for more game. Zooming to Jim’s fortress 150 yards away, Chris chased a dozen swans into flight. All cunningly flew to a deserted mai-mai on the far side. Climbing into the mai-mai, he was confronted by a highly excited teenager.
“One shot, four ducks”, stammered Jim, unable to control himself. Just as he was about to go into more detail, a lone honking noise came from above. Not even checking the fake ducks, the paradise bird landed gracefully on the water in front of the two hunters. “You take it, I’ll scare it up,” said Chris, jumping without warning. Lifting only a metre, the duck was sprayed completely, dropping like a lead sinker. Saturday afternoon went by fast. Jim took another duck bringing his tally to seven for opening day. Chris returned to his mai-mai soon after and shot his first limit bag for the season. Dale wasn’t lagging far behind her husband, getting nine fat birds for her troubles.
Dusk crept upon Lake Waipori bringing with it the start of a good frost. Packing everything up apart from the decoys, the hunters headed for home. As they reached the channel entrance, the boat’s keel began to drag on the mud floor. Stepping from the comfort of his seat into thigh-deep muck, Chris lifted the 15 horse engine and set up the oars. “We’ll have to walk it until we get into more water,” he said. Squelching to the bow, he grabbed the rope to tie around his waist. Dale and Jim pushed from the stern, with the canoe knocking them both as they tried to make ground. A pukeko followed them from the side of the swamp making an ear-piercing sound that echoed to the clear stars. Ten minutes later they were able to row, reaching the boatshed at 8.05pm.
More tired shooters arrived boasting what a great day it hadbeen. Considering the cloudless Saturday, it was good to see that many hunters had scored their limit bag. Sunday proved to be as good. Most hunters returned with full dinghies. But it was Monday, the day everyone returned to work, that Chris eagerly awaited.
This was Chris’s favourite time of the season, mainly because he had the whole lake to himself. Also the ducks wouldn’t be gun shy yet. The one problem about the lack of hunters meant the three of them would have to spread far and wide over the lake to keep the ducks covered and on the move. Mist hovered lower than the previous mornings, giving hunters little light to play with until sunrise. Only one group of other hunters joined Chris and partners, all four positioned in the same raupo mai-mai. Dropping Dale and Jim off at their stands, Chris chose an empty mai-mai close to Dale. Between them he could retrieve both their birds using his black lab. The dog had worked hard the previous days, but today it was going to be even tougher.
Mobs started weaving up the lake early, with the four shooters in the raupo cleaning up the first wave of mallards. Calling a mob of eight, Dale let them circle once before hitting two. Fleeing in a panic, the other six flew in Chris’s direction. He led them by a foot, taking two more. Jim watched as the escaping ducks headed his way. Positioned the way the shooters were, these birds were doomed whichever way they flew. Firing his auto twice Jim sent the drake and hen crashing into the reeds behind him. Hearing one wounded duck flapping, he got into the canoe for a look. Meanwhile Chris’s tally grew as he called mob after mob into his trap, missing nothing.
By 10am Chris had a limit bag and reluctantly loaded the boat. Dale, happy with the half-dozen she had accumulated, also decided to call it a day. They had birds to pluck and the dog was dead on its feet. Racing over to pick up his wife, Chris listened as more shots came from the mai-mai on the lake’s edge. As they talked the couple noticed all was quiet over Jim’s way. Plenty of birds still passed overhead, but there was not a sound to be heard. Starting to worry, Chris and Dale went to investigate. The moment they saw his beaming face, the two knew things were alright. Jim had got his first limit bag. Despite the big smile, he stood shivering in his soaking wet clothes. He had fallen head-over heels into the lake. “The canoe tipped, and my waders filled up,” he exclaimed laughing, but obviously shaken. Making their way home they met up with the four other shooters. Their boat was just as full of ducks. Luckily this time no one had to walk in knee-deep mud, which made the day’s end perfect.
Tuesday was Jim’s last day of shooting before he headed home to Dunedin. Chris went without Dale and stopped shooting at noon. Wednesday finally brought rain, sleet and some snow down to low levels, breaking the week’s warm dry spell. Chris’s dog had been in the water so many times it was on tablets to get back into condition. I think Chris must have needed a rest too because he didn’t make it out onto Lake Waipori that freezing miserable wet day.