While the postscript of the Victorian Duck Season opening became about a minority of hunters doing the wrong thing, even on the busiest wetlands in the state, most hunters had a successful and respectful start to the season.
Graham Dalton was one of the many hunters who had to contend with activists on the marshes near Kerang. They whistled, waved their fluorescent flags and often came too close for comfort, and definitely too close to get a shot off.
“The protesters really mucked up the hunt for a while but otherwise it turned out great,” he said.
“I got a few but well short of a bag; I’ll stick to the golden rule of the camp, who cleans them, keeps them.”
If any of the anti-hunting mob had bothered to ask, Graham would have told them he’d started duck hunting aged 12 and hadn’t missed a year in decades, how he respects the game birds and the environment.
“I reckon it means everything just to get away and being in the environment, being out here and doing all the right things and going home with a few birds — I love duck,” he said.
“We go all over the place, I don’t think there’s a swamp we haven’t been in over the time.”
Harrison Westcott also had a good opening.
“Early in the morning there were a lot of ducks coming over, we had a good shoot before it quietened down later on,” he said.
“We got 11 in the end between Dad and I; there were a lot of teal and a few pinkies around, a few blackies as well.”
Harrison and his party were busy plucking their birds on the shoreline while hordes of protesters continued their ‘rescue’ mission on the marshes.
“I came here in 2011 when there was nobody here and I bagged out. I like the wading because a lot of the hunting I’ve done in the past has been from banks. I like being out in the water, which you can do easily here.”
The Koorangie State Game Reserve, which encompasses Lake Bael Bael and First, Second and Third Marshes, was closed a few days after the opening weekend, a consequence of the illegal and unethical conduct of a minority and the continued presence of protected species.
Adam Popple, a member of Bendigo Field & Game for just six months, spent opening weekend on Lake Bael Bael.
A hunter of pest animals all his life, the 28-year-old was experiencing duck hunting for the first time and sensibly, he took a cautious approach.
“Being my first season I lacked a bit of confidence on the opening morning; I just watched other hunters for a bit and let a few birds go,” he said.
“I waited until I was picking them, I’d done my WIT test but it is different in the field. It was more about gaining some confidence, I didn’t want to do the wrong thing.
“I could have shot a bag but I decided to take my time; there were a lot of birds I didn’t attempt.”
Adam said the closure, and the behaviour of a small number of hunters on the same wetland, was frustrating.
“I am disappointed, I can understand why they had to close it,” he said.
Daniel Burns was alongside Adam lending a hand with strategy and identification. The pair met on a hunting forum and, not for the first time, Daniel offered to play the role of mentor.
He’s been hunting for six years but remembers well how difficult it was to get started when you come from a family where it isn’t part of growing up.
Daniel said his introduction to firearms was through an Australian Deer Association come and try day. He joined ADA and participated in their mentoring program, but when he decided to branch out into duck hunting, he was on his own.
“My first duck season I got all the gear, got a shotgun and stood out in the middle of a swamp where I was told there would be ducks. I didn’t get a shot off,” he said.
The next year Daniel decided to go to the Bendigo Field & Game Duck Fever night and as luck would have it, he spotted a workmate who he didn’t know was a hunter.
He accepted an invitation to join their crew and received the help he needed to hunt successfully. Given his experience and the help he’s offered two other new hunters, Daniel is keen on the development of a mentoring program within FGA.
“I think it would be hugely beneficial because it is daunting coming into it, just to have someone there to turn to if you’re not sure about something.”
As for opening weekend, Daniel said if not for the early shooting he could have bagged out quickly.
“We waited until opening time and it was a bit quiet by then,” he said.
“I left room in the bag for an afternoon hunt, it wasn’t for the lack of birds though — we had a couple of new hunters with us and I decided to be very selective about my birds this year.
“We passed up a lot of ducks because we knew there were a lot of Freckled ducks about and we weren’t certain.”
Michael Bullock also spent time talking to early shooters before he started his own season on time.
“It was good, there were plenty of ducks and everybody bagged out that morning,” he said.
“We waited and there were nice mobs of teal, Wood ducks and hardhead.”
Michael went to Kerang based on his father’s recommendation and the party of 14 has made plans to return during the season.
“It is one of the best hunts I’ve ever had,” he said.
Away from the iconic wetlands of Northern Victoria, west of the state, and particularly the Grampians region, proved both popular and productive.
Trent Leen was one of many who made the trek.
“We scouted a few swamps in the Edenhope area on the Thursday morning and after much deliberation we settled on Leah Swamp,” he said.
“The temptation of hunting flooded red gums was too much to resist and we were lucky enough to get there before others had arrived, so we could see where the birds wanted to sit and also where they went when pressured.”
The boat (temporarily disabled) was left at home in favour of a Beavertail Stealth 2000, which suited the very shallow (just the way the ducks like it) water.
On opening morning, Trent poled out to his spot, set up the new wonder ducks, tweaked the decoy spread, and waited.
“The minutes leading up to opening time seem to take an eternity but it would have to be my favourite time; seeing birds flying in all directions and pitching into your decoys moments before legal time is great.” he said.
“We had hunters come in from all directions but all left sufficient room for all to enjoy. As time counted down we heard some shots in the distance but most did the right thing and held off until legal time.”
Soon the swamp echoed with gunfire and the birds were flying left and right.
“I shot back-to-back with Steven Reed, who was off to a great start and kept me busy handling the dog to retrieve his birds; it was great to see Larney roaring through the shallow water and back with the birds.
“No low finishing shots could be taken because of others hunters nearby, so the dog really earned her keep.”
Trent picked out a few birds of his own and soon Larney was doubly busy and the pairs bag limit within sight.
“We took our time and picked our last shots, we sent the dog to retrieve and then reset until we reached our bag,” Trent said.
“Then we just sat there and enjoyed the moment.”