Twenty minutes had passed since the boys had declared official shooting time. A black duck trio was spotted beating it down the far side of our hole in the middle of a sprawling cattail marsh. Instinctively grabbing the call lanyard, I hit them with a loud series of descending Mallard notes.
Two were apparently deaf but the rear bird looked like a hit tetherball when it broke ranks and banked steeply towards us. Quack-quack-quack-quack-quack, it talked itself all the way into the decoys, right off the end of an awaiting gun barrel. It folded like a greeting card at the shot.
A shaking-wet black lab, Larney, soon delivered the first of many Pacific black ducks the week would render. “Yes, mate, those blackies can be quite vocal at times,” said host Glenn Falla, “Welcome to Australia, mate.”
That first black duck would be one of many pleasant surprises during the week.
Getting there had been a chore. The initial flight had been cancelled so instead of 6.30 am, the flight landed 18 hours later, just after midnight. My host had just gone to bed an hour-and-a-half from the airport when I called to tell him the great news. After wheeling up to the curb on two wheels only an hour later, he had asked if I wanted to rest or go hunting.
“We’ll sleep plenty in the grave, and after three days of Airport Hell incarceration I really need to air out,” was my quick response.
After a refreshingly ice-cold shower at Trent Leen’s shop and a double bacon cheeseburger topped with fried egg and grilled pineapple from an all-night café, we were soon backing down a boat ramp.
We’d kicked out plenty of birds during the loud ride in.
“They’ve buggered out for the time and will trickle back throughout the morning. They were fogging this spot yesterday morning,” explained Larney’s owner, Trent, while pitching a couple-dozen over-sized black duck decoys from the boat.
Sure enough, after that talkative single icebreaker, ducks began working the area, mostly small flocks of black ducks. A breeze picked up mid-morning and they started working beautifully.
Taking turns picking over singles and pairs, we worked together like parts of a well-oiled machine on larger flocks. Having spent a few days together previously in an Arkansas duck blind, catching up between volleys came as naturally as chatting with your barber.
I felt almost doubly at home when hearing the daily limit was 10 ducks.
Thinking we’d missed our chance on a 12-pack of black ducks that had caught us deep into a forgettable discussion, we coaxed them nearer with a blind full of comebacks, soft quacks and pleas. On the third swing, they dumped abruptly into the pocket — the lead birds splashing paddles-down into the decoys, enticing the rearward bunch into crossing the magical 20-yard mark. We made them pay rent.
Still suffering whiplash from trying to swing through a pair of maroonish-coloured, low-flying blurs called hardheads that had streaked like lightning bolts through the decoys, the delusion that sleep depravity deep in the South Pacific had somehow greatly enhanced my shooting prowess was shattered when a flock of chestnut teal butterfly-fluttered over the decoys and I punched two holes worth of miss in their direction. We pulled decoys with about a half-dozen birds apiece.
Show me a group of duck hunters anywhere in the world and, not bragging or anything, I’ll show you folks that can put away a 14-day diet before lunchtime. After loading the boat and shucking waders, we visited with a few other local hunters, hatched plans for the following morning and fuelled our ambitions on hearty Anzac biscuits and deliciously sweet capsicum muffins that Glenn’s wife had prepared.
We scouted a few properties and finished the day working over a few more black ducks in a shallow-flooded pasture. The divine smell of crockpot-barbecued lamb shanks greeted us at the door, they proved to be a definitive southern hemisphere comfort food. Deep sleep came easily.
“I want you to experience everything Australia has to offer in the short time you’re here, mate,” yelled Glenn over the bellowing engine as the boat cut through the slick, blood red surface of a reed-lined river at dawn.
The plan was simple: we’d split into two groups and bounce birds between a couple of ponds. The one pond limited particularly quickly and Plan-B was decisively executed; I walked across another flooded field mid-morning and slid into a strip of sparse, head high-cover. The grab-your-ankles-mud and trip-you-up vegetation felt like home.
Not yet having even caught my breath I loaded the Browning two-shooter, an Australian shelduck’s clown-nosed honk directly overhead had me scrambling. With time to only load the top barrel and swing quickly behind my left shoulder, I somehow managed to connect with my first “Mountain duck” prize. And then things got serious.
Mobs of blackies and Grey teal, seasoned with singles and pairs for good measure, intermittently swarmed the field. Coming off the river and flying headlong into enough wind to predictably steer, they worked low over an irregularly strewn line of decoys. Singles and occasional doubles began filling the strap, but it’s difficult to trip with an over-under and my trigger finger grew weary pumping for that third shot when flocks were floating on the deck! A 10-duck limit came quickly enough; the leather-strapped heft swaying across my shoulder felt especially gratifying while sloshing towards the boat.
We moved north several hours to Glenn’s hometown in central Victoria, hoping that a particular “turkey dam”, would produce opportunities for a couple of new species in addition to ubiquitous black ducks for which I’d developed a serious crush.
“Those pinkies are tiny little buggers,” Glenn reminded me as he dropped me off where the reservoir tapered to an end. Peering over the levee, there were piles of ducks, including Pink-eared ducks and maned geese. Hoping the machine-gun chatter of the camera drive didn’t spook them, I entertained myself while waiting for the signal.
The pond erupted into a plume of waterfowl at the thunderous clap of Glenn’s first shot. That was the signal. Sliding into a tall clump of cover, I waited for the inevitable rally.
Picked from a pair, a fine, rusty-headed drake maned goose soon cartwheeled to the water with a splash. A low flying Grey teal flying couldn’t be resisted. Yet another tightly bound knot of tiny little shorebirds had been given a pass before the light hit them just right and I realised they were pink-ears. Properly tuned, I dialled in on the next couple of flocks and picked up three beauties before the music stopped.
Zebra-striped with raccoon-like eye patches, a spatula-shaped bill that has specialised, mandibular flaps for feeding on plankton, and distinctive carotenoid pigmentation that renders the unexpectedly conspicuous pink ear patch, they are exactly like what you’d expect in the land of platypuses, kangaroos and koalas!
Swamps are among the most-hunted features throughout Victoria. These low-lying depressions were formed pursuant to prehistoric volcanic activity that over long periods transform through extended wet-dry cycles. We’d driven by plenty that appeared to be nothing more than giant, dead-tree stick ponds, but I’d not yet pieced it all together the morning we sledded decoys into a several thousand-acre water body. That understanding came during the final hunts of the trip. We found ample natural cover a few hundred metres from shore in a swath of scattered young trees about twice as tall as ourselves. Beyond us were open water and a vast stand of dead, gnarled trees.
Ducks were conspicuously absent for the first half-hour. Then, like a magic spout had opened they began to trickle in from all directions — left, right, behind, front — “no, mate, your other right” — quacking black ducks, barking Grey teal, meowing maned geese. From separate cover, we communicated with soft whispers, whistles, and sometimes-abrupt shots and flip-flopped ducks to alert each other to inbound fowl.
The spout opened wider, more ducks flew. Glenn clobbered one from a pair of blackies, and I caught the other as it evacuated overhead. A single black duck from his side, a single one from mine; a pair tumbled in a flurry of flapping wings from low flying trio of Grey teal sweeping break-neck behind me, and a high-flying “Wood duck” that had tried sneaking past Glenn wadded up like a spitball.
From the direction of the ancient sticks came a flock of 40 some-odd Grey teal that passed high and wide on the first turn. A rapid-fire staccato of barks turned them and they passed low and out of range. Feeling red-faced and breathless, I stood on the call and again turned them. We punched four from the flock as they made a third pass and with that, the spout clamped shut and the flight ended.
At times it feels like countless miles traipsed through six continents’ worth of wetlands have divinely culminated at a specific location without which the entire journey would have been for naught; the penultimate afternoon’s scouting foray into an enchanting flooded green-timber stand was one such time.
Massive river red gums with diameters spanning the length of a truck’s long-bed towered overhead, their canopies seething with thousands of raucous, sulphur-crested cockatoos, as bright as freshly laundered white linen.
Small flocks of black ducks flushed ahead, their retreat strobed through intervals of sunbeams and shadows. We’d walked a few hundred yards through shin-deep, iced coffee-coloured water when the sound of startled deer crashing through water — except that it was kangaroos, dozens of them — temporarily disrupted my spellbound reverie. We knew exactly where we’d be the next morning.
After driving as slowly as an uphill race on crutches to avoid colliding into the ‘roos that bounced across the Land Cruiser’s yellow low beams, we parked quietly and assembled our gear.
With two black duck decoys, a mojo decoy, shotguns, ammo-filled pockets, we skirted silently and lightless along the woodland edge. Quacks reverberating within the dark forest beckoned us through the murky, knee-deep water to an elongated opening, ducks jumped from pockets as we approached. First placing the mojo 30 yards to the front so that it could be seen from all angles except from the downwind approach, we then placed the pair of decoys in the hole and retired under a couple leviathan red gums. Our brief wait lasted until the first sunbeam hit the decoys.
The morning’s first customers were a pair of tree-top high black ducks that sulked in silently on outstretched wings. Glenn’s bounced on a few limbs before splashing down, but my shots did little more than whittle a couple of overhead branches. Redemption came with the next pair that responded to a few soft quacks and sailed in to the decoys at can’t-miss distance, eye-ball-high off the water. The morning progressed at that perfect pace, neither so furiously that you can’t visit between volleys, nor so slowly that you can drop your guard for a single moment. Other than a stray Mountain duck and a few teal, the strap slowly but surely filled with fattened black ducks. For two days we’d enjoyed a thousand-acre public-use swamp entirely to ourselves. Asked how many other hunters would have used the property back home, I truthfully answered, “We’d have had to spend the night here to share it with several groups that had travelled from as far as 500-plus miles away.”
With too much ground to cover in too little time, we came up short on cape teal and hardheads. The lost day due to cancelled flights didn’t help, neither did punching holes in the sky that first morning. Despite the prettier faces, the blackies stole my heart. Home or abroad, isn’t it usually just the hard-boiled basics of interacting with responsive ducks that makes one’s heart beat most? Pacific black ducks made me feel perfectly at home.
The story of duck hunting repeats itself worldwide. Put a group of duck hunters from just about anywhere together in a duck blind, and for that brief span of time differences cease; they are above all else, simply duck hunters. Scenery, species, local protocols and tools of the trade may vary among locales, but the basic rules of the game remain unchanged. With friendly, English-speaking people and a long-standing tradition of duck hunting, Australia is surprisingly more similar to duck hunting in the US than most other foreign destinations. And yet so wonderfully different.