New Zealand is not short of duck hunters, including many with a life long passion. And there are also those who just need to be there, to help and encourage the life they love.
New Zealand has its share of duck hunters. It even has its share of mad keen duck hunters. But it also has those who have moved into another space, the one to do with just Being There, helping the life they love move forward. You might find them putting the final touches to a blind, or down on their knees photographing a string of Mallards in the crisp, pale light of a June frost. And you will probably take a while to figure out who they are because they wear their achievements lightly.
Geoff Irvine is one of them. By rights he should have been a big-game hunter, growing up on a farm with deer on the doorstep. But it didn’t click, and it might have died there if not for some hunting magazines and the odd book. This waterfowling business was intriguing and Geoff set out to teach himself duck hunting.
It’s hard to grasp what the world was like pre-internet, how difficult it was to find things out. He went through the usual stages, making mistakes, then looking for bigger tallies. Weekend after weekend spent figuring out what works. Half a lifetime later, the goalposts have moved. He’s more selective about getting the best experience rather than the biggest numbers.
Over the decades, you’d think there would be some knowledge built up, and you’d be right.
“I like labs as all-rounders,” he told me once. “My current bitch Maddie is a classic. Like a lot of field dogs, she’s a bit of a pocket model, can curl up in the seat well of a car, but she’s the hungriest worker I’ve come across. Being a bit smaller she can get in under low cover too.”
The memories keep coming.
“We strike some odd mai-mais (blinds) from time to time. There are the pimped out ones, but the best was about twenty years ago. We were there for the Molesworth shoot, the most iconic waterfowling event in New Zealand. They were about halfway along the Acheron. Two of them, thick stone walls, a lot like a grouse butt actually. Must have been a huge amount of work, but the river took them eventually.”
I tell him about a mate who has a dose of duck fever — garage stuffed full of decoys, falls out the car window going past a swamp, can’t sleep a wink the night before opening. Teasing a bit, I ask if he knows many like that and the answer is just a chuckle.
“Mate, you just described all of us, nothing unusual there,” he said. “Happened to us on a hunt in Ikamatua. Everyone was so excited we couldn’t sleep, just stood up all night trying to stay warm and telling yarns. I know a guy who is going to dip his new four-wheel drive in camo. We’re committed, you might say.”
There must be somewhere to go next?
“I’d love to get to Cheapeake Bay one day, chase some sea ducks. They have canvasbacks and eider, both on my bucket list. Then there’s southern Illinois for geese. Holly (his 12-year-old daughter, one of the top duck-callers in NZ) deserves a go out in the wider world too.”
On the future, his thoughts are mixed.
“Well, the North Island is going backwards a bit on Mallards, but the reasons I’m hearing are guesswork,” he said.
“The flyover census is a bit superficial and can’t be treated as gospel. We need good science, not guesses. Going the other way, goose hunting is on the up, despite the downgrade of canadas to unprotected status.”
Then there’s the killer question — what should the waterfowling community not be doing?
“Well, there is a bit of a groundswell against it of late, the situation is moving. The usual answer is to just get some statistics and win it with science. But science is unemotional, and with so many commissioned studies turning out dodgy, it looks like science can be bought. It won’t swing public opinion.
“Bird dumping, even though it’s not widespread, is a worry. We take a lot of birds each season and when people taste the kranskies and bier sticks they go into they’re impressed. If you’re ever in a group and someone is dragging the chain on cleaning birds, step up. In the long game, the way to keep this lifestyle is to give something back. Start groups that encourage kids and build wetland habitat. It’s good for them, and people see that we’re serious and give a damn.’
I finish writing up our chat, wondering how you can sum up that passion in a few words. The truth is you can’t, but later that day I’m sorting through my library of images when one pops up. It’s the entrance to a huge piece of wetland habitat in the USA, paid for and maintained by hunting revenue. The tin sign is covered in frost, the first thing you see going in and the last thing going out.
We wake while everyone is asleep, walk through mud and water carrying our gear, sit in the freezing rain for hours … all for a few moments of madness.
We are waterfowlers.