Victorian duck hunters faced a challenging opening weekend with hunting commencing in broad daylight on the first two days and new regulations covering the retrieval of game birds and the retention of at least the breast meat.
Enforcement was present at 38 wetlands, with the main concentration of effort in the Kerang region where protesters also massed.
It was a very different opening, but hunters are nothing if not adaptable.
“I’ve never felt more regulated at a duck opening,” Melbourne Field & Game member Steve Tucker said.
Steve was with a crew at Lake Elizabeth that didn’t fire a shot and didn’t get a duck, courtesy of a lone protester who stood in front of the decoy spread waving a flag on a pole.
The protester claimed to have a firearms licence, a WIT and a hunting permit but in Steve’s view he should not have been in the water. Even if the paperwork was in order, it was acquired not with the intention of hunting but with a clear intent to interfere with the hunting of similarly accredited people.
“The way I see it, it isn’t in the spirit of the legislation,” Steve said.
A short distance away at Lake Cullen, hunters were also dealing with protesters and with the number of guns limited (most, it seems, decided to avoid the circus and hunt somewhere else), there was not a lot of opportunity.
What little shooting there was started on time and the hunts passed without incident leaving the anti-hunting fraternity with little to do and nothing to complain about.
While the hunt was a disappointment to those who ventured out, the outcome in reputational terms was more than worth the effort.
A little to the southwest, at Sandhill Lake, several groups of hunters had the place to themselves apart from the compliance team watching from the surrounding hills on the second morning.
While many Field & Game Australia branches organise hunting trips during the season, this was less formal.
The hunters were in two main camping area and together they all agreed on the way they would hunt, which started with nobody even entering the water until the official start time.
Nobody shot early and everyone enjoyed a productive weekend.
“This would have to be one of the best duck openings I’ve had,” Darren Stendt from Geelong Field & Game said.
“It is a 50 ha wetland and we organised with all the other camps that we would all walk out at 9 am; the cooperation between the individual hunters and the different camps was fantastic, and that is what made the hunt for me.”
Darren said the 9 am and 8 am start times for the first two days were not really an issue.
“If you can stay off the wetland for as long as possible, everyone gets a good crack,” he said.
“The way I see it, no matter what the start time is, we are all hunting at the same time and the birds are still in that same state where they are moving around creating opportunities.”
Steve Pask has been duck hunting in the region for 47 years and he’d been keeping an eye on Sandhill.
“I’d been watching this wetland for three weeks and as hunters started to come in I went and spoke to them and the message was simple: if we all work together, we will have a magnificent hunt,” he said.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better result; it isn’t hard to achieve with good communication and cooperation between hunters. It would be one of the best hunts I’ve experienced in 47 years, but it isn’t rocket science.”
Darren and Steve set the tone for opening weekend, but stick of compliance wasn’t the driver, instead it was the carrot of better hunting.
“I picked it up on a private shoot in South Australia where the rules were don’t enter the water; it worked for the hunt, it worked for keeping the birds in the area and it is certainly preferable to people trudging through your decoys and shining lights around as they head out,” Darren said.
Port Phillip member Tass Mouzakis was already very familiar with Sandhill and wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hunt there.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years camping and just enjoying the area when it has been dry but to have water and experience an opening here has been brilliant,” he said.
There are only two camping areas and the main one, 150 m off the access point, is a tight circle surrounded by bush. The close proximity made organisation easier, but most thought the same collaboration and cooperation would work at much larger wetlands if hunters put in the effort.
“On a big wetland such as the Marshes when in flood, visiting every camp would be more difficult but this should be the approach to hunting, with everyone cooperating to make sure everyone gets a fair go,” Darren said.
“Nobody deliberately wants to go out there and break the law, nobody wants to be a ratbag.”
As a local, Steve Pask was upset and frustrated by what occurred at Koorangie State Game Reserve a year earlier and he was worried about the rocky road duck hunting seemed to be headed down.
He was also initially angry with changes imposed on all hunters because of the actions of a few.
His response was to control what he could by making hunters accountable, not to the authorities or the legislators, but to fellow hunters.
“I wasn’t happy about the start time, I was angry about it, but the way the weekend went I might have been swayed, it was all right and it took the steam out of the opening weekend, which was probably not a bad thing,” Steve said.
“They (enforcement staff) watched every move this morning but there was nothing there to pick on, we were all responsible.”
Both mornings, even in broad daylight, the Sandhill hunters enjoyed a spectacular sight and good hunting.
“The first flight was phenomenal; I didn’t know whether to grab a shell or my phone, to see the birds lift up like that,” Darren said.
Tass agreed that the spectacle and the hunting on offer took the sting out of the enforced late start time.
“We started hunting after 9 am and hunted for 90 minutes on opening morning; around 4000 birds got up in the first flight, it just went black and if people didn’t bag out they were up around seven or eight birds,” he said.
“As for the late start times, if it had been a 7.20 am start I think hunters would have bagged out 20 minutes earlier, which was the main difference, the sun was up, so it was bright, it was hard, and the birds got up quicker, so it does have good and bad points.
“For a few of my crew it was their first time at Sandhill and with the camps so close together we’ve all shared food and drinks and enjoyed the time together, so combined with the hunt, it has been a great experience.”