Hunting for ducks and secret places
Zane Mirfin, Wildside, Nelson Mail, 6 August 2016
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.
|Jake Mirfin, left and his grandfather Stuart Mirfin in a maimai.
|Jake Mirfin, warm and dry in the Maimai.
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".
On the tail of mighty tahr in Shangri-La
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 28 May 2016
Shangri-La was a fictional place first described in the 1933 novel "Lost Horizon" by British author James Hilton. Over time the term Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia – isolated from the outside world.
|Baxter from San Francisco with his first tahr in Shangri-La after a hunt in South Westland.
The mountains and rivers of South Westland are such a place, secreted in swirling fog, heavy rainfall, rugged terrain, boulder-fields and glaciers. Best of all, South Westland is home to the majestic bull tahr (Hemitragus Jemlahicus), a Himalayan mountain goat sought by hunters from around the world.
Native to the central Himalayan ranges of India and Nepal, tahr were first released near Aoraki / Mt Cook in 1904, and are now the only legally available tahr hunting resource on public wildlands in the world. Big shaggy bull tahr with thick horns and flowing manes are truly one of the world's great alpine game animals and it is a national tragedy (and disgrace) that they are not managed like the taonga (treasure) and economic resource that they really are.
Baxter of San Francisco and I were en route to the utopia of South Westland via Reefton from previous hunting adventures. Catching up with helicopter legend James Scott, of Alpine Adventures, based at Karangarua, was awesome and he was keen to talk tahr hunting with us. His knowledge of South Westland and the animals that live there is probably unmatched by any other individual alive.
James advised that the real big almost-black bulls were all low in the scrub, only out and about feeding in the first and last hour or so of light each day due to the heavy hunting pressure they sustained. There was no heli-access inside the National Park and wilderness area, the tahr rut ballot blocks were all locked up, and the only access he could provide was to several huts which I'd already visited on previous trips.
With a first class weather forecast, my idea was to camp out high with the tent, in amongst the tahr themselves, so James suggested the Scone Basin, in the upper Perth River, a tributary of the Whataroa river.
Driving north, we soon caught up with James' pilot Hamish and were away among the clouds and crags of the Scone Basin. Landing on a rock pile, Baxter and I soon found a campsite in amongst a jumble of giant rocks. It was pretty rough but we had all the gear to set up a stellar camp and soon we were away hunting. Climbing high, we came upon a family group of tahr with several young bulls in residence but they were too small in the horn department to consider. Close to dark, tahr started to pop up out of the woodwork like meerkats, parading on giant boulders and feeding in amongst the gaps.
One bull was worth a look but at 700 metres too far to shoot. We charged across a heavily vegetated face and through a rocky gulch to close the distance to close to 300 metres. The light was fading fast but the tahr had miraculously disappeared.
Scanning a bank above us I spied another bull leap off a boulder. A frantic heart-stopping climb put us to within 250 metres of the now feeding bull who had been joined by another. Urging Baxter to shoot before darkness beat us, we did the old one-two trick again and both bulls dropped with two fine shots from the 7mm Remington Magnum.
Locating both bulls in torchlight, Baxter was ecstatic with his success and after gutting the animals we headed for camp. It was tough gnarly going in the dark in such rough terrain, requiring extreme concentration with each and every step. At one point I told Baxter that this place was the "devil's anus" and that we were just passing through. Cooking under a giant boulder overhang, our dinner of tortellini pasta and white sauce, chorizo sausages, bacon butties, and washed down with red wine, went down a treat before we thankfully crawled into the tent for the night.
Daylight came quickly, and as I made coffee, we searched for game from camp. We'd just started breakfast when I saw a big black bull tahr appear from nowhere above us. The bull was agitated and the rangefinder instructed 197 metres true ballistic range (TBR). At the shot, the big bull collapsed and slumped off a rock, taken cleanly with a neck shot. In the thick South Westland scrub finding a wounded tahr is virtually impossible and knowing the animal was down for good was a comforting thought.
We fought through big boulders, fast water, giant spear-tipped Spaniard grass, and thick head-high scrub, with both Baxter and I agreeing that it was the longest and hardest 197 metres we'd ever been physically subjected to.
That afternoon we climbed high to recover the other two bulls. We could have shot another fine bull but decided to leave it for another time or another hunter. "You don't have to kill to be a hunter" I told Baxter. The next morning was glorious and sunny when I called the chopper up via my satellite phone, and it was time to head for home.As the chopper headed down valley, the high mountains towered above us as the Perth River snaked through gorges, rainforest and verdant river flats. Over the whine of the turbine engines I could smell the perfume of wild bull tahr on my clothing and was already anticipating our next encounter with the big scrub bulls of Shangri-La.
High country hunting a blast
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 14 May 2016
The Marlborough High Country is marvellous hunting country. Dry, wide, and vast, it is truly big sky country. With old friend Baxter of San Francisco and another old mate pilot Wille Sage, we flew in for an April hunt. Landing spots were a bit tight so Willie dropped me on a high ridge to wait while he dropped Baxter and some of the gear off first
|Baxter's last chance red stag during a West Coast hunt.
We elected to walk downstream from camp on the true left of the valley, glassing with binoculars as we went. It was steep and hard going but fortunately there was no bush bashing in the open country of Marlborough, looking back into the thicker cover on the other side of the valley.
It didn't take us long to come across goats. Black, white, brown, and grey, they came in all shapes and sizes. Two billy goats sported good length horns and were in a deep gully. We didn't want to stir our hunting country up too much by shooting as our primary target was red stags but the biggest billy goat was a tempting target and less than 100 metres away. At the shot, Baxter had his first New Zealand trophy, and having used my 7x57 Mauser equipped with sound suppressor we'd kept the country relatively quiet.
As afternoon progressed we'd seen good numbers of goats, some pigs, and just a few deer which were mostly at long distance. Climbing around one steep rocky gut, we disturbed a mob of goats with a billy goat of massive proportions. 'Old Greybeard' as we later called him sported a massive set of wide curling horns, long and thick. We decided not to shoot but it was a decision we regretted later. It's old advice, but the opportunity of a lifetime should always be taken within the lifetime of the opportunity, and we never saw Greybeard again.
Next day we hunted hard downstream again, seeing heaps of animals but few deer, and no stags. It was grand country but Baxter's desire to shoot a red stag was now being tempered by the harsh reality of hunting on public lands. On our last morning we heard a stag roar before daylight from our tent but despite hunting hard we failed to locate it.
Heading upstream into open country we had a stellar day with Baxter shooting a chamois and a dozen or so billy goats. After one big barrage with his 7mm Remington Magnum, Baxter noted that he'd shot more animals in 5 minutes than in a lifetime of hunting back home in the US.
Pulling out of Marlborough, we headed for the West Coast town of Reefton to fly onto the Victoria Ranges with Alan Rossanowski of Air West Helicopters. Our alpine tent was a blessing that first evening as strong wind and cold icy sleet sent us to bed early having only seen two red hinds.
Next morning drew clear and bright as we climbed the high ridges of the Victoria ranges and glassed the vast basins and rocky knobs below. We found chamois, although the nanny groups had no bucks in attendance, as it was too early for the rut. Old game trails made walking access easy and at lunch we surveyed fine chamois country. Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement and a chamois buck came into full view at 268 metres. Baxter was up to the job and the buck crumpled at the shot. Now all we needed was a red stag trophy to complete the double.
Our last day was a cracker with epic weather on what seemed to be the roof of the world. With 360 degree views from on high, we found more chamois (alas no bucks) and even a few goats (which we shot). We'd been glassing one big basin with no joy, and were standing to leave when a red stag walked into view with my naked eye. Stalking closer wasn't really an option as the big red glossy stag was on the move back to the bush below. It was a long shot but Baxter was confident. Ten shots later, the big stag ran into the bush unharmed, accompanied by my laughter. Maybe we'd get another chance at a stag but time was running out.
Further along the ridge, fate smiled upon us as I spied another stag below us in the flax. Dropping to the ground, we slithered downhill closing the range to discover two stags and two hinds. At 250 metres, they were in big trouble but the best stag was now bedded down and giving the occasional roar and grunt. Ad Feedback
The smaller stag was a prime target and I instructed Baxter to do the old one-two trick where you shoot the first stag standing and then shoot the other as it leaps up to see what is going on. Two shots and two stags went down. "Shoot the others too" I told an incredulous Baxter "They're my winter meat supply". In America where game animals are managed and valued as a resource you'd go to jail for shooting more than one deer, but here in New Zealand Baxter loved it. Best of all he had his last chance stag (or two of them) and only an hour before the helicopter was due to pick us up.