Imagine an area a little bigger than the United Kingdom, full of lakes, wide rivers, wetlands, tidy fields of grain and rugged coastlines. Now imagine that same landscape with the same population as Sydney. That’s New Zealand.
Part of the reason the wildfowling is so diverse is that some of it is new.
Mallards were introduced from Britain and the USA 150 years ago, and Canada geese have been naturalised for more than a century. The black swan was brought in from Australia and multiplied quickly.
Today it is an agricultural pest in some areas, a huge bird that can be made into excellent salami and charcuterie.
New Zealand has no foxes, no snakes, no large birds of prey. Game bird populations are managed by hunting.
That means high bag limits in some places — the Central South Island has a daily limit of 50 Mallards a day for the three month season and many districts run to a dozen or more per day.
Canada geese have been taken off the game list and can be hunted any day of the year without limit. These are nothing like the tame birds you see lounging around park ponds.
They are wary and challenging. If there is a bird that can reduce your careful scouting, immaculate camouflage and sonorous calling to rubble, it’s a wild goose.
In other cases native species that have profited from agriculture. The paradise duck (actually a large shelduck not unlike the Mountain duck) now has access to almost unlimited high-quality pasture and thousands of small waters — reservoirs, dams and ponds — that have been created since settlement.
It’s not unusual in some districts to see several hundred ‘parries’ out in the middle of a cut field of wheat or barley. Beautifully marked — James Cook called them ‘the painted duck’ and they are Tadorna variegata to this day – they commit to a decoy like no other waterfowl.
The male and female are completely different in appearance, though both are striking and elegant.
The black duck of Australia and the grey duck of New Zealand are the same species.
They are of course a relative of the Mallard and crossbreed successfully. Greys can be found across New Zealand, Australia and many of the Pacific Islands, though it has to be said that ‘Mallardisation’ is taking its toll on their gene pool.
Like the brilliant blue of the Mallard their colourful green wing flash isn’t pigment but microscopic structure in the speculum feathers causing light to refract.
The shoveller or ‘spoonie’ enjoys cult status in New Zealand and is a favourite subject for waterfowl taxidermy. There are limits on how many may be taken but any spoonie down, especially a big handsome male, is considered a trophy bird.
Upland game birds are spread unevenly across the country. Pheasant and California quail have naturally sustaining populations on both islands and these wild ringnecks are nothing like dim put-and-take preserve birds.
In recent years some high-end pheasant shoots complete with English gamekeepers have also opened up. There is a small population of introduced brown quail and even a scattering of wild chukar partridge in the high country, but you’ll work hard for them to say the least.
Tradition doesn’t come easy in the youngest country to be settled by humans but those with a keen eye will spot them already forming. For reasons lost to history, bacon and egg pie is the customary snack for downtime between flights.
There are local craftsmen like Alan Hammond turning out excellent hand-made duck and goose calls for local conditions, as well as a small but dedicated group carving and collecting decoys. There’s a splendid wildfowling museum near Taupo.
The early colonial outfitting firm of Tisdall began naming their guns (in the English fashion) after legendary Kiwi wildfowling locations. And so the list goes on — British roots, but with a distinctive local twist.
Some explanation of Kiwi slang is in order. In New Zealand a hide is known as a mai mai. They can range from a simple assembly of cut brush and grass right up to some truly wonderful pieces of swamp architecture.
A mai mai in a good location may be handed down through generations and slowly improved over decades. Some have a well-concealed shooting spot out front and a cabin holding bunks, wood heaters and a galley out back. A few are better than my first house.
There is a lot of public water in New Zealand. Many rivers, lakes and countless estuaries can be hunted by anyone with a licence. In some districts fields of cut grain — wheat, barley or maize — pull in birds for miles around.
This is the natural habitat of the layout blind. To me, it’s a style of hunting that lacks the camaraderie of a good hide but there is no doubting the effectiveness and excitement of this style of shooting.
The practicalities of a wildfowling trip to New Zealand are few. The main season runs from the first weekend in May right through the next few months, finishing at different times in different areas.
Locals are generally keen on rugged semi-auto guns — still legal up to five-shot capacity, despite the recent change in gun laws. Non-toxic shot is required when shooting over water.
It pays to understand how deeply wildfowling runs in the Kiwi sporting psyche. Aussies often call the Melbourne Cup ‘the race that stops a nation’. Well, duck season is like that in New Zealand.
Mai mais are spruced up months beforehand, decoys go out of stores by their thousands, cartridges arrive by the container load. In the past, newsreaders would sign off their broadcast the night before opening day by wishing hunters well for the next morning. Some still do, even today.
There is an old saying that three things mark a great experience — the anticipation, the doing of the thing, and the recollection afterwards. If that’s true (and I believe it is), then there are few things in the shooting world that have exactly the same qualities as the opening day of duck season.
Come the fated day many will rise well before dawn. Wildfowlers make a lifetime of rising before the first rays of light creep over the horizon, long before others have left their warm beds.
It’s no wonder they see, and perhaps understand, what others do not. The pre-dawn rituals of opening morning are like Christmas for tens of thousands of us: the first distant crump at shooting light the signal that begins another season.
That buzz is exciting to be caught up in … but you’ll never know if you never go.