Three generations of Hunters
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Tradition of the hunt, Nelson Mail, 7 September 2013
Zane Mirfin goes hunting on the West Coast with his son and father.
Stuart and Jake mirfin share a grandfatehr-grandson moment on the banks of the rough river, West Coast
Hunting isn't getting any easier. And training a growing lad to hunt and appreciate the outdoors isn't getting any easier either. My oldest son Jake is 13 this month, almost a teenager, but fortunately mad keen to go hunting with his father and grandfather.
This past weekend, Grandad Stuart decided it was time to show Jake the fallow deer of the Rough River, on the West Coast near the town of Ikamatua. Stuart grew up there, and has a rich association and a deep love of the area, with every hunt being a sentimental journey down memory lane.
As we drove over Hope Saddle, I felt the worries of the world being left behind, as the anticipation of three generations hunting together took hold. Every road trip with Stuart is a history lesson, and as we travelled we discussed George Fairweather Moonlight (1832-1884), an early pioneer, and acquaintance of my great, great grandfather William Craven Mirfin Senior.
Talk soon turned to WC Mirfin himself, whom my mother Sherry is researching via the internet, uncovering some wonderful elements of his very colourful life. Explorer, traveller, engineer, lighthouse supervisor, publican, contractor, divorcee, building inspector, public overseer of works, and farmer, WC Mirfin Sr travelled freely between Australia and New Zealand. He was even present at the 1860 farewell party of explorers Burke and Wills, who died trying to cross the Australian interior between Melbourne and the Gulf of Carpenteria.
Exploration was clearly in the blood as with his son, WC Mirfin Jr, who married Sarah Walker, daughter of Nelson maritime pioneer and explorer, Captain John Walker.
Family folklore has it, that on the advice of his friend, famed explorer Thomas Brunner (1821-1874), WC Mirfin Snr took up 600 acres of land in the late 1860s between the Little Grey and Rough Rivers, naming it "Oulton" after his birthplace in the UK.
It's amazing what you can discover online and one particular gem amused me greatly. In 1872, the Nelson Provincial Government hired William Craven Mirfin Sr to supervise the contract of the building of the Nelson Gas Works in Haven Rd, and then as manager of the Nelson City Gas and Waterworks. In October 1874 the mayor, without authority of the council, "caused a letter to be sent to Mr Mirfin informing him that his services would not be required".
On December 28, 1874, at the city council meeting, the mayor read a letter purporting to be from the Provincial Engineer stating Mr Mirfin had not given correct information. It then transpired that the mayor had written the letter himself. "At this Mirfin became very excited and heaped opprobrious epithets on the head of the mayor. It was a most unseemly affair altogether" (The Colonist December 31, 1874).
The Nelson Evening Mail of January 9, 1875, demanded an apology from Mirfin and received a reply on January 23, 1875, where Mirfin regretted the language he had addressed the mayor with, but declined to apologise. Mirfin had lost his job, but perhaps had the last laugh when The Colonist reported on February 6, 1875, "that the manufacture of gas in this city has come to a standstill".
It's possible not much has changed today, but it was wonderful family history we'd only just discovered and it set the scene for hunting on the land first acquired by WC Mirfin Snr, Jake's great-great-great-grandfather. Driving up a rugged and rutted track, alongside the Rough River, we set up camp on a grassy clearing below a commanding bluff above. After pitching tents and enjoying a leisurely lunch, we split up and went for a hunt.
Fallow deer are a small, dainty, and graceful animal that can show up at any time of day and particularly like the fringes of manuka, lowland forest, gorse islands, riverbed, and pasture land. In earlier generations, fallow deer were plentiful in the Rough River catchment, the epicentre of the Paparoa Range fallow herd.
My grandfather's generation, immediately after World War II, had excellent sport chasing deer with dogs. Grassy flats had been cleared by axe, saw, and fire by my great grandfather, grandfather Ash, and his brothers Bryce and George, and the best hunting location has always been affectionately known as "the Slaughterhouse".
Fallow deer reached their peak numbers in the area during the 1950s and 60s. They have a habit of circling back on the dogs and Stuart always talks of a huge log at the top of the Rough river flats that had mounds of spent .303 brass cases strewn around it. Shooters would position themselves on top of the log and set the dogs loose. It was considered a poor afternoon if at least a dozen deer were not shot from this position.
Things have certainly changed these days, and while I enjoyed my stalk upstream along old bush logging roads, across gorse islands, and among the white boulders of the Rough River, there was no evidence of any fallow deer. Years of incessant 1080 poisoning have decimated the valued and vulnerable herd to the point of oblivion, so I focused on boyhood memories.
When I was first learning to hunt, fallow deer were still common and Stuart used to take my brother Scott and I hunting along the Rough River regularly. It was here that I really got into trout fishing, first with live bullies for bait, then spinners, and finally fly fishing. The Rough River is an internationally acclaimed wilderness brown trout fishery and I've flown into the headwaters uncountable times as a professional fishing guide across four decades, but I will always remember the first time Stuart took me to fly fish the hallowed waters above the Mirfin Creek confluence. In the clear pristine waters, I landed 6 beautiful golden, leopard-spotted trout and my life as a spotty 15-year-old changed forever.
It is an era passed, and maybe the Rough River isn't what it once was, but it is still a special fishery. Stuart has always told me stories of the Rough, but now he tells his grandkids too. Like when the first scientists went up the river in the late 1950s searching for kakapo and came back with tales of broken rods and strong fish. Or my grandfather Ash, shooting trout with friends during spawning season, and where one leviathan weighed 16lb beheaded and gutted. Or when Stuart caught (and released) what may have been the last orange-wattled South Island kokako (now considered extinct) in a possum trap in the Rough River bush as a boy.
The stories are the stuff of Mirfin family folklore and I took great pleasure being part of the special bond between grandfather and grandson, watching Jake caught up in the magic of Stuart's memories. I realised that you can take a man out of the West Coast but you can never take the West Coaster out of a man. Everywhere we went there was a story about a deer here, or a fallow stag there.
One place we stopped, Stuart pointed out where he had clean missed one deer and shot another behind it with the same bullet. Several times he shot two deer with the same shot, and on the bluff above camp he described a chamois buck that brother Rob and he had shot that made the local newspaper in boyhood days.
When I got back to camp after dark, Jake and Stuart were back huddled around a gas lantern. They had seen one small fallow spiker that was too fast for Jake, but observed a depressing lack of deer sign on their hunt.
After dinner, we suited back up with wet socks, boots, and warm gear and headed out spotlighting on private farmland across the easily crossed Rough River which was low and clear. Being in a high rainfall area, the surrounding bush is almost rainforest, with thick jungle, and when the Rough floods, the raging flows can be frightening.
Often as kids visiting our cousins on the Coast, we could hear the boulders grinding in the river from the farmhouse.
Out spotlighting, the conditions were perfect with sprouting grass and a gentle breeze in our faces. We walked, shone the light, and walked some more. Stuart at nearly 71 years old is in great shape and there wouldn't be too many men of his age who could walk for four hours, climbing over gates, logs, and swamps in the black of night.
Then, nearly to the "Slaughterhouse", a fallow deer stepped into view, with black back, brown belly, and flashing eyes. The deer was nervous, moving about, and not an easy shot even for an experienced hunter. Jake had two shots, but was unsuccessful. It didn't matter, we were moving closer to getting Jake his first deer, and none of us were too disappointed.
Next day on our way home, we explored the Rough some more, stopped to visit Mirfin relatives, drove down Mirfin's Rd, crossing Mirfin's Bridge. Deerstalking is much more than just hunting deer and Jake had been initiated in family history, family folklore, and visited a family's very own turangawaewae (place to stand).
His first deer is still a milestone to achieve, but hopefully Jake has already learnt that you don't need to kill to become a hunter.
Ⓒ Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, In hot pursuit of 'flying rats', Nelson Mail, 1 June 2013
Jake Mirfin with a Marlborough pigeon.
Cancer is a terrible disease. A scourge that one in three of us will experience personally in our own short lifetimes. Lately the Mirfin family has spent a lot of time in Blenheim spending time with valued family members, and watching a valued mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother struggle against the spectre of cancer.
Getting out for a quick hunt now and again has been difficult with family responsibilities taking priority, but fortunately Marlborough has some great shooting close at hand, especially if you're flexible in your approach and open to any opportunities available.
Feral pigeons may not be everyone's cup of tea but they are a fun wingshooting resource close to civilisation, and available to all. Importantly, pigeons can be hunted all year round, with no closed season, no limits, and no rules regulating how they can be hunted. In an increasingly over-regulated world this is actually a good thing and makes pigeons an increasingly valuable resource.
Out duck hunting in Tasman recently with an Australian shooter, we talked about how excessive regulation was taking away much of the fun associated with hunting and fishing sports in both countries. In my opinion, two of the worst decisions of recent years were by Fish & Game, which banned felt-soled wading boots for fishing, and also banned the use of lead shot in 12-gauge shotguns for gamebird hunting nationwide.
Non-toxic shot substitutes like steel shot have replaced lead but sometimes it feels like we scored an own goal when I'm slipping and sliding on rocks out in the river fishing in inadequate legal rubber-soled boots or futilely blasting away at ducks with steel shot.
Noel, my Australian hunter, was keen to shoot New Zealand ducks and managed to harvest mallard, grey and paradise ducks, plus pukeko for the day. Bird numbers weren't great but he did get his chances.
Noel, aged in his 70s, had never shot with steel shot before and was appalled at the poor ballistic performance of steel, not killing ducks cleanly, often requiring multiple finishing shots on the water to deliver the coup de grace.
At times, he questioned whether there was any shot in the shotgun shells he had purchased from a local store, and even wondered aloud if he'd have more success if he threw the shells at the ducks rather than firing them from his gun.
Fortunately many other birds can still be hunted over water with lead shot, and these can be hunted year round with no argument from bureaucrats.Ad FeedbackSchedule 5 of the Wildlife Act specifies many unprotected bird species that can be hunted at will (and with lead shot) including species such as canada geese, starlings, magpies, spur-winged plovers, even black-back seagulls. Don't shoot the messenger here, but some of these so called "pest" birds can offer fine wing-shooting opportunities, especially as traditional opportunities continue to dry up.
Starlings are a small, fast target, and the body skins from winter cock-birds make fine hackles for traditional soft-hackled wetflies for trout fishing. Likewise, magpies are a sharp-eyed hunting challenge best hunted with a fighting magpie tape and portable "ghetto blaster" sound system to draw the wily and highly territorial birds within shooting range.
Pigeons, though, are my favourite, being sharp-eyed and swift of flight. They are plentiful too, exploding in numbers when food is in bountiful supply. Allegedly they can breed year round with as many as six broods per annum in ideal circumstances.
Seen as an agricultural pest by many, they are also commonplace in urban environments making for plentiful hunting opportunities throughout New Zealand. Actor and movie producer Woody Allen even called pigeons "rats with wings" in one of his 1980s movies.
Feral pigeons are tasty to eat though, with the breast meat making fine pigeon pies. Sometimes they are so full of food when shot that peas literally spill from their mouths.
Descended from domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild, feral rock pigeons (Columba livia spp.) have been transferred all over the world and are present in a multitude of colours - grey, brown, and white etc. I've even shot ginger pigeons. Researchers say pigeons are generally very healthy birds, with strong immune systems, and are unable to transmit bird flu to humans.
Interestingly, poisoning pigeons has been found to be an ineffective way of controlling pigeon numbers overseas because it kills pigeon predators and also leaves more food for the remaining pigeons which stimulates breeding, and ultimately results in even more pigeons.
Pigeons have been valued by humankind for thousands of years, with domestication dating back 6000 years to the Middle East. Valued for their flesh, their rich guano fertiliser, and especially for their homing abilities over long distances.
People still raise and race pigeons, and even now it's not uncommon to shoot pigeons with bands attached.
Pigeons can be hunted many ways but the best way is with a shotgun over decoys. Lead shot in number #6-8 in open chokes and at close range makes for exciting shooting and we've shot pigeons over silage pits, pea crops, stubble-fields, farm sheds, silos, under abandoned rural bridges, estuarine flyways, rocky clefts, bluffs, and riverside gravel spits.
Pigeons are where you find them and with good decoys and camouflage equipment you can be very successful on both private and public lands.
Lately, after yet another weekend in Marlborough, son Jake and I had an attack of cabin fever and managed to get out for a few hours on the hill with good mate Clayton Nichol of Blenheim. A favoured spot for paradise ducks was devoid of ducks so we elected to try for a few pigeons instead.
Looking out over the golden vineyards of Marlborough from on high was a visual treat, with row upon row of grapes, from valley to ocean, as far as the eye could see. Marlborough is New Zealand's largest wine growing region and internationally recognised as one of the premium wine regions of the world.
With a unique climate, topography, and stony soils, Marlborough also produces a prime harvest of pigeons. After walking up and down farm tracks, we sidled downhill into position above a favoured fold in the land, complete with a narrow, deep and rocky cleft several hundred metres long.
"Pigeon Gully" as we know it, is an ideal resting and roosting site for feral pigeons that come and go throughout the day but shoots particularly well in late afternoon when groups of pigeons return for the night. Sometimes they can literally pour into the gully with waves of incoming birds arriving as long as the ammunition lasts.
Sometimes the shooting can be stellar with fast-flying birds plummeting out of the sky in a halo of exploding feathers. On this occasion, although we saw plenty of pigeons flying, they stayed high in the sky, and the pigeons roosting below in the impenetrable dark cleft sat tight, cooing softly and teasing us. We shot a few pigeons and missed many more ("air pigeons" as Clayton calls them) but it was a fun trip outdoors and valuable shotgun training for a young man like Jake.
Sadly, this past week there was no pigeon shooting while in Marlborough, but we did spend some time watching pigeon hunting videos and checking out pigeon decoys on the internet inside while Granny's cancer took a turn for the worse.
I even bought a sheet of plywood to make some pigeon silhouette decoys with my father-in-law's jigsaw, hoping to keep the kids and their cousins amused at the same time. We will all miss Norma dearly, but she will always be remembered - even when we're out pigeon shooting.