The usual mid-February heat was thankfully absent for the opening of the 2017 Duck Season in South Australia but fortunately the game birds were ever present and hunters across the state enjoyed a bright start.
The Tolderol Game Reserve is a thing of beauty and standing in the waist-deep water amid a network of channels and holes created by the thick cover, you feel a world away from anywhere.
Actually, you are a fair way from anywhere and the protected area of 428 ha on the north-western side of Lake Alexandrina is a haven for waterfowl, without an overabundance of hunters.
A series of fabricated open and shallow basins with connecting channels and levee banks enable the manipulation of water levels to create rich foraging habitat for migratory wader birds.
A shallow sanctuary for waders is teeming but hunters are heading further away from camp to the area reserved for hunting.
From the camping area, a boat ride will get you there but others take the alternative route, driving a track cut along the levee bank and wading out.
On opening morning, Ben Richards is one of the Victorian visitors but he’s not focused on his own hunt. Alongside him is 13-year-old daughter Cassidy, who is following family tradition and joining in, hoping to bag her first duck.
The clock ticks past opening time and the pair are nestled together in the reeds looking over the decoy spread, which is in a circle of calm water between the rushes.
They didn’t have to wait for long.
“My stated goal for the trip was that Cass got a duck and Daryl Snowdon’s young labrador Luna got her first retrieve,” Ben said.
“The first to come into the decoys was a hardhead, which presented itself perfectly at 10 m and she could have got it blindfolded; to get a hardhead as her first bird would have been incredible but they were excluded from the bag in South Australia so she had to let it pass.”
Soon after, Cass got onto a Grey teal passing right to left and folded it. The bird fell in the reeds across the decoy spread and Luna enthusiastically retrieved it — mission accomplished.
Cass would bag three ducks over the opening weekend.
“Her second duck was far more emphatic and emotional; she swung onto a crossing black duck and dropped the second back in the pair with her second barrel,” Ben said. “I was very impressed with the composure she showed and how efficiently she managed the job.
“When you are hunting with a new hunter you are not looking to get a bag, you are looking to get experience, that’s far more valuable.”
The surprise of the weekend, even for experienced hunters, was the behaviour of protected Freckled duck at Tolderol.
“I hadn’t had much experience with Freckled duck, I’d only ever had one come under the bead of my shotgun at Reedy Swamp. I certainly never expected them to come in and swim around playfully in the decoys,” Ben said.
“We were shooting over the top of them at times because they were sleeping in the decoys. We even gave them names: Terry, Sharon and Barry, they just hung around.”
Elsewhere in the vast area available to hunters at Tolderol, brothers Grant and Jason Pattulo were having a similar experience.
For a while, it was guns down and video camera out as a pair of Freckled duck argued over a little patch of territory.
“I had a pair fighting over a log; they were going on for a couple of hours and were not bothered with us at all,” Grant said.
“A few years ago would have been the first time we encountered them at Tolderol but they weren’t sitting in the decoys like they did opening weekend.”
Grant is based in Melbourne and Jason farms in the Adelaide hills, they meet halfway to ride motorbikes in the Mallee country, but Tolderol is their go-to place for the South Australian opening.
“There are so many areas you can sneak into but it does need a few hunters to keep the birds moving around,” Grant said.
“You can spread out a bit, you are in the middle of nowhere, and it is awesome. It reminds me of the swamps around Geelong; you have the big tall reeds you can get into, it is just on a much bigger scale.”
After an above-average opening Grant and Jason will be back before season’s end and given the lack of hunter pressure, they expect the hunting to be just as consistent.
“There were not as many teal as normal on opening weekend but I got a pinky, which is the first time I’ve got one there,” Grant said.
“Every other time I’ve been there other than opening I’ve pretty much been the only one there. I’m surprised more hunters don’t go there, it is one of my favourite spots to go hunting.”
David Rehn ventured into the Cortina Lakes complex near Keith for opening morning where 400 hunters averaged eight birds.
“Duck hunting has been going really well; when the season was declared in South Australia there were concerns from some quarters that the numbers wouldn’t be around but they came in as the locals expected,” he said.
“We’ve had four or five shoots now and they have all been a seven- or eight-bird average and many hunters have bagged out.”
In the Riverland the opening was a bit “hit and miss” according to Jim Godden from Barmera Moorook Field & Game.
“Reports from the Game Reserves indicated a lack of bird numbers and hence bag numbers but private property seemed to shoot better, especially on any wetland that had experienced a drying and wetting phase in the past few years — these wetlands kept a resident bird population,” Jim said.
“The general consensus was an average bag of six to seven birds and the main species varied across different areas with Wood duck in the Pike system and pink-ear and teal at Loveday and Moorook.”
Jim said that since opening, bird numbers had been maintained throughout the region but some of the migratory species had moved on.
“What is very pleasing is the significant sightings of Freckled duck, hardhead and blue-wing shoveler. Hunters are reporting seeing more of these species than ever before, which is worth a note of caution if you are coming to the Riverland to hunt.”