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Zane Mirfin Articles 2016

Wildside is a bi-weekly column that features in The Nelson Mail, the Nelson region's major newspaper.  Since July 2008, the column has showcased all things outdoor and celebrated the diversity of outdoor opportunity within the northern South Island.  Every column is on a different outdoor topic or theme so you can regularly check out Zane Mirfin's outdoor adventures.

Read Zane's latest article below (and below that his very first Wildside, July 2008) or click on red above for latest fishing, hunting & general outdoors articles.


Hunting for ducks and secret places

Zane Mirfin, Wildside, Nelson Mail, 6 August 2016
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Jake Mirfin, left and his grandfather Stuart Mirfin in a maimai. Jake Mirfin, warm and dry in the Maimai.
Another duck hunting season is over, and alas, as always I never got to go as much as I would have liked. May, June, and July always pass so fast, with so much to do, and the clock and calendar keep marching with the relentless passage of time.

In years past, I was fortunate to enjoy huge amounts of waterfowling, particularly while at university studying for bachelor and post graduate degrees. The ducks, geese and black swan of the huge coastal lagoon, Lake Ellesmere, were much more interesting and engaging than lectures ever were.

It was epic hunting, particularly in howling southerly storms with pounding polar whitecaps, bouncing decoys, and loud non-stop use of duck calls to lure fat wily mallards over the guns. 

In later years, before and after marriage, my great friend and mentor Dave Heine of Greymouth taught me more about waterfowling than any other hunter. We spent weeks every winter hunting the West Coast between Westport and the glaciers, harvesting big numbers of birds, with daily bag limits day after day. One winter I did six trips down the West Coast, and they were great days.

Dave taught me the need to understand the habits and behaviour of gamebirds, and to undertake adequate homework on where birds were feeding and resting before a single shot was ever fired.

We'd be set up in ambush position well before daylight, with ice around the pond edges, or in frosty white fields, waiting for the first incoming ducks to be silhouetted against lightening skies.

Of recent years, the waterfowl hunting on the West Coast hasn't been so good. For some reason duck numbers have plummeted, but this has happened around the country too, and it's not because of over-hunting.

Many theories abound, but no-one really knows why. In many areas like Nelson / Marlborough serious duck hunters have always had to hunt out of district because of lesser opportunity, lesser habitat, and less reliable waterfowl food sources. In general, many other species of birds appear to be declining too, and this appears to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Many hunters believe toxins, chemicals, and poisons, in the environment are causing havoc with bird numbers and it's a well-known secret that the use of agricultural chemicals to control pasture grubs with the active ingredient diazinon have wrought a great toll on New Zealand gamebird populations.

Whether by deliberate application or unintentional consequence, it matters little to the birds that ingest the poisoned grass grubs which come to the surface to die.  This winter has been a real shocker on the West Coast, being extremely wet, with rainfall like few locals can ever remember. Waiting for a July gap in the rain, I took father Stuart, and eldest son Jake, 15, down the Coast hunting on the last few days of the recent school holidays.

It was a flying visit, and we threw gear in the truck, hooked on the boat, and started driving. There was no hunting that first day, just homework, as we searched for waterfowl without much luck.

Duck numbers were way down on the past but we were there to hunt regardless, so we gambled on a difficult-to-access location and left base well before daylight. We weren't well organised, Jake misplaced his cap, Stuart had to find ammunition buried in the back of the Hilux, and I had to load decoys into the boat.

By the time we were in position with decoys set, the ducks were already flying. I left Stuart to supervise Jake, while I motored off elsewhere to hide the boat and hunt another area. Hardly out of shotgun range, I watched an incoming parrie duck plummet from the sky as Jake claimed his first duck of the day. Periodic shooting told me that Jake was having a great time and several hours later I motored back, to pick up and pack up the grinning grandfather and his grandson.

The West Coast is a mysterious and beautiful place, and my favourite morning was hunting a wild remote wetland with Jake as native grey ducks and mallards flew in to hide for the day. Jake shot well with accurate shots on high birds, as tall mountains surrounded us, and native forest was reflected on the mirror-like surface.  

Big numbers of birds to harvest like in the past just weren't there, but it was still a quality experience, and Jake shot new waterfowl species such as shoveler, grey duck, and black swan, to complete a NZ waterfowl grand slam. Not bad for 15 years old.

The best part of the duck hunting though, was the time we spent together. Three generations of hunters enjoying the West Coast experience together as a family. When I was a boy of Jake's age, my parents used to buy books to encourage an average student to read more often. Norman Marsh's seminal 1983 tome Trout Stream Insects of New Zealand – How to Imitate and Use Them became like a bible and I could quote chapter and verse.

The final chapters of Norman fishing Fiordland with his son Norm Jr. and their adventures together were always my favourite, particularly the need to have special secretive places to escape others.  In later years I got to know my elderly boyhood hero, first presenting evidence to the Motueka Water Conservation Order Tribunal, and then fishing with him on his beloved Motueka river at Ngatimoti.

On our last night of our West Coast hunt, Jake and I lay hidden, side by side in our respective lay-out blinds with decoys all about. My senses went into overdrive in the evening gloom, with silhouetted mountains and kahikatea swamp our only vista. Over the silence, a pukeko squawked, paradise ducks shrieked, and the haunting cry of wild geese flying high and free, let us know what it was like to be alive.

I thought about how special it was to be sharing this experience with my son, when the words and logic of my old friend Norman came into my head, the last words of his magical book. "In this new world of plastic, bionics, and science fiction come true, keeping our secret seems little price to pay. Perhaps mine is the last retreat".

The Value of Being Well Prepared


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Injury proves lesson in the value of being well prepared, Nelson Mail, 5 July 2008

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Zane Mirfin and family July 2008

This column was the Nelson Mail's introduction to a new regular outdoors column, by Nelson fishing and hunting guide Zane Mirfin.  Wild Side appears fortnightly in the Weekend section.

At the moment I’m stuck at home in Nelson with a broken ankle obtained on a recent hunting trip in the mountains of Marlborough so the topic of safety is at the top of my mind.

After getting mentioned in the Nelson Mail recently for winning the charity Limelight ‘‘Local Legend’’ Award, I unwittingly had my rescue exposed to the public of the Nelson region. After thousands of days in the field on my own and guiding others, I was finally part of a medical evacuation from the great outdoors.

Safety is mostly commonsense decision-making, and not taking undue risks. Most fatalities in the bush could have been prevented with a little forward planning, attention to detail and having the right equipment. I’ve always believed in planning for the worst and hoping for the best when heading outdoors. At a minimum, someone should always know where you are going and when you will be back, you should always be properly equipped, and you should always have your brain in gear.

But risk has always been a part of the outdoor experience and is often part of the attraction.

When I slipped on ice and broke my ankle in several places, I was taken by surprise. A fall, a pop, and my foot stuck at right angles to the normal position was not a good look. I struggled to my one good foot with a walking stick and hobbled with a wobbly, floppy, bone-grindingly useless left leg to a grassy snow-covered bank where I could safely position myself out of the wind and weather.

Fortunately I had only separated from my companions, my father Stuart and brother Scott, about half an hour before, but we had a plan to rendezvous later before returning to camp together in the dark. I fired two well-spaced volleys of three  shots to alert my family and immediately got into my wet weather pants, full rain gear, balaclava, gloves, then my big blue weatherproof safety bag, while the wind blew and rain showers settled in.

I wedged my walking stick into the ground and tied a yellow plastic bag to it as a marker for the guys to find me should I go into shock or unconsciousness. I fired two more volleys into the bluffs above, saving enough ammo to do two sets of signals at dark should they be needed. I then lay back hoping the guys had heard me.

When Scott appeared on a rocky ridge downstream and I could see him looking at me through binoculars I knew it was going to be all right. My father wasn’t far behind him. We were all a bit shaken but having good gear and protocols made me feel a lot better.  Stuart stayed with me while Scott walked back to the hut to raise the alarm. Fortunately I had a personal locator beacon and satellite phone back at the hut.  Maybe we should have been carrying these devices on us but at least they weren’t far away.

My belief has always been that today’s outdoor recreationalist should embrace modern technology and be able to direct their own rescue should it be required.  Our safety gear made everything right and I was capably removed by helicopter before ambulance transport by road to hospital.  Everyone involved in the rescue and subsequent medical patch-up was fantastic and our public health system is something to be proud of.

Even with all the communication equipment we had, I was still on the ground about three hours before making it to the ambulance, so if someone had to walk out to raise the alarm, it would have been a very long, cold night for me.

It would have been much better if the accident hadn’t happened and that I hadn’t put a lot of people to a lot of trouble, but
believe me when I advise you to invest in or hire safety communication devices on any extended wilderness adventure.  The policeman involved said it was the easiest rescue he had ever been involved in – they knew who was injured and exactly where, how, why and when, which made coming straight to us very easy.

The good news was that Stuart and Scott shot two stags on the long walk out.

Satellite phones are costly to run but the new 406mhz personal locator beacons are within economic reach of everyone and could easily save your life.

Interestingly my 121mHz emergency locator beacon didn’t seem to have been picked up by satellites overhead and the chopper only located the signal within about 300m of my position. These little beasties are being phased out by January 2009 so it’s time to hand any old models into your local police station to avoid false signals coming out of landfills, etc.

I fully intend to purchase a new 406mHz emergency beacon with GPS capability soon. The beacon will be registered in my name and once manually activated can be picked up by satellite within minutes and lead searchers to within 10m of my position.I hope I never need to use it but why take the risk?