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Zane Mirfin HUNTING Articles 2008 - 2012

Hunting in Marlborough

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, A weekend's sport in the shadow of Tappy, The Nelson Mail, 16 June 2012
16 jun R
Getting his goat: Hunting in the Marlborough hills within sight of Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku (with snow), is Clayton Nicholl of Blenheim.

Queen’s Birthday Weekend is always a great time to head for Blenheim to stay with family, but it was inevitable that fishing and shooting gear was packed along as well – just in case.

Marlborough is a wonderful province, made up of many unique and distinct areas, including the flat Wairau Plains, Marlborough Sounds, and mountainous areas to the west and south.  One mountain that totally dominates the landscape is Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku (or Tappy as it is affectionately known to locals).

The perennially snow-capped peak of Tapuae-o-Uenuku (2885m) dominates Marlborough scenery almost like Africa’s Mt Kilimanjaro over the Serengeti. In Maori legend the mountain is sacred while the first written reference to the mountain was made in February 1770 by Captain James Cook as he sailed through Cook Strait and noted ‘‘over this land appeared a prodigious high mountain, the summit of which was covered with snow’’.

Cook later nicknamed the mountain ‘‘The Watcher’’ as his ship seemed to be visible from it at so many points along the coast. It’s the same today and wherever you travel, fish, or hunt in Marlborough it seems as though Tappy is always watching.

Iconic Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary also highly valued it after climbing his first ‘‘decent mountain’’ during a solo ascent while in air force training camp in 1944.

Port Underwood is a sheltered harbour which forms an extension of Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay. With a narrow entrance, it is sheltered from most wind directions but has a long, hilly and tortuous drive. Brother-in-law Guy Mullon, from Melbourne, and I thought we could squeak in a quick fishing excursion by leaving early on the Saturday before a big family gathering at lunchtime.

There was ice on the road at the Rarangi turnoff and high on the hills above, the weak winter sun shone brightly, giving us impressive coastal vistas and impressive views back toward the ever-reliable Mt Tappy.

Winter fishing for flounder is always a brass monkey adventure. Years ago I used to wade wet when dragging the net but with advancing age and increased brain-power find it more sensible to wear full-body waders, at least outside summer months. The net is attached to a manuka pole at each end then dragged parallel to the beach by one or two people per end over sandy or silty bottoms – the flounder being caught in the belly of the net. I’d had some success in late May with my new and very short commercially made 20 metre net and was keen to do an exploratory trip to Port Underwood, especially as dragging a net by hand is still legal in the East Coast set net ban area, which extends the length of the island and extends outwards to 4 nautical miles.

On the first drag, we had some excitement when two flounder started splashing high in the belly of the net. Guy was on the deep end and swung his end for shore to collect our prize but somehow they escaped due to a combination of small mesh size and technical design issues with the net. I resolved to make a new net myself, to revised specifications, as a winter project on those cold dark nights yet to come.

The highlight of the catching was a big grey mullet – the largest I’d ever seen. Grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) have a worldwide distribution and New Zealand is at the southern limit of their range.

Most commonly found in the northern North Island harbours, a few make it as far south as Cook Strait and Tasman Bay, where I’ve caught them occasionally in the Rabbit Island channels and Golden Bay.

Well regarded as a food fish, they have rich, oily flesh and are particularly tasty when hot smoked. Interestingly Forest & Bird rates grey mullet, or kanae, as a ‘‘D’’ choice in their best fish guide, claiming the New Zealand commercial grey mullet fishery is overexploited and nonsustainable.  We didn’t know this at the time but the fish was very tasty, cooked in batter.

Sunday afternoon I got a call from loyal friend Clayton Nicholl of Blenheim. ‘‘Wanna go shooting? he asked, ‘‘I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes.’’ Who could refuse an invitation like that and soon I was on the road with Clayton and Blenheim builder Ben Grady.  The block we were hunting was cutover pine forest on steep terrain with Tappy views. As we traversed the steep track in 4WD we could see a herd of feral goats feeding in amongst the pine slash on a far ridge.

Leaving the goats for later, we went to look for wild pigs. The guys had shot a mob of goats on a previous visit and they suspected pigs may have been attracted by the smell of offal. No such luck, but we did see a truck turn up way below on the neighbouring property, with two pig hunters and a pack of dogs. Watching them through binoculars, we then heard the sound of an approaching ATV on the other boundary as a solo rider went up the boundary fence behind us. He stopped and turned to look with binoculars and sheepishly waved to me when we locked eyeballs. It was getting busy up there, and we couldn’t believe it when down below yet another vehicle turned up with pig dogs on our same block.

We thought we’d best retreat and find our goats. Dropping down the hill, Ben first spied a big billy goat feeding in a gully. With a perfect stalk and two experienced shooters resting across a fallen log, the mob of goats had no show.

Goats are great eating too, and it’s tough to beat a goat roast or curry. My latest technique is to bone out a back leg, roll-up with a savoury stuffing inside, and then secure with butcher’s twine. Mate Pete Walsh from Richmond gets his goats processed locally into sausages, meat patties and salamis and advises me that billy goat hindquarters and back-steaks make fine eating.

Clayton had another plan for the next day and 6am couldn’t come fast enough for a hunt on private land in the Awatere Valley  It was a beautiful sunny Marlborough day. We traversed high ridges and lush gullies, and later on as the wind intensified we struggled to stand upright in exposed places. It was a magic day to be on the hill with a valued friend exploring new country.

We saw one red stag that was too fast for us, charging across a hillside and out of range. There was fresh pig rooting, but alas no pigs were sighted. Finally late in the day, we spotted a big mob of goats and began a long stalk. At close range it was exciting in the strong wind as we crawled the last few yards into shooting position. Goats ran and goats rolled, and when the shooting stopped the work began harvesting our wild meat.

As we worked, under the shadow of Tapuae-o-Uenuku, I thought about the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and about Sir Edmund. He may have got his knighthood immediately after the coronation for climbing Everest and the glory it bought the British Empire, but it is what he achieved after climbing that made him loved and revered by all. Best of all I thought was his personal connection with "Tappy".

Mid-winter Red Deer Hunt.

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Red Stags and the Senior, The Nelson Mail, 2 June 2012
2 jun R
Magnificent trophy: Stuart Mirfin, almost 70, is still a keen deer hunter.

Deerstalking is a wonderful sport, writes Zane Mirfin.

Red deer were once the preserve of royalty and kings, so we are fortunate our ancestors had the vision and foresight to introduce them into the new colony of New Zealand.

It was an unmitigated egalitarian success, and the acclimatisation of game animals, birds and fish, such as trout and salmon, available to the common man on public lands and waterways, may well be the greatest enduring legacy put in place by our forebears.

The fishing and hunting experiences available here today because of this utopian vision are many and varied, but deerstalking is definitely one of my favourites. Hunting the majestic red deer on the alpine tops is as good as it gets and the hunting today is probably the best it has been in decades.

Commercial venison recovery, aerial helicopter shooting and 1080 poison all took their toll on the public game herds of New Zealand, but times change and the deer are resilient. With global economic recession, increasing fuel prices, changing markets, and timely funding cuts to bloated bureaucratic budgets, the deer are making a comeback.

Apart from healthy sport and recreation, it’s great to have access to fresh, mountain-harvested, organic venison, close to home and on public lands. My family enjoy eating tasty wild venison, which is far removed from the chain-sold cuts of arguably expensive, and often imported meat. Wild meat has more flavour and less fat, with no chemicals, antibiotics, or meat glue in sight.

A recent hunt with father Stuart and brother Scott was a great tonic for all. Stuart is amazing in his enthusiasm and lifelong passion for hunting the wily red deer. At a few months off 70 years old, it is impressive that a senior citizen would still crave the opportunity to roam the hills in search of deer. When you add in the effect of altitude, steep slopes and cold winter temperatures freezing tents and boots solid overnight, it’s even more impressive.

Stuart may not be as fast on the hill as he once was but he can still get there with a pack on his back and rifle over his shoulder, proving that most limitations in life are probably in your own mind. In fact, age may well mellow and mature the man within us all, allowing greater enjoyment of other parts of the hunting experience, such as camaraderie and comradeship.

Walking in, right behind a cold front, meant the air was cold and the ground often frozen, but the weather was glorious with blue skies, short sunny days, light winds and clear night vistas. At night we sat on the ground, eating our dehydrated meals from tinfoil packets, surrounded by a dark ring of mountains and a sky ablaze with glowing stars. Everything would start to freeze and the cold would force us inside our tents, where we would don gloves and balaclavas and pull the drawstring of our ‘‘mummy-style’’ sleeping bags snug.

Stuart was always up first at 6am, making porridge in the dark and sub-zero temperatures before the hunting day began. He has been telling Scott and me that ‘‘porridge sticks to you all day’’ ever since we first went hunting together as small boys.

The days on the hill were awesome, with excellent visibility, making searching for animals with binoculars a joy. One day we watched a chamois buck patrolling his territory, rubbing the scent glands present between his horns on prominent shrubs and rocks. Another day Scott and I hunted on our own, climbing high and hunting hard while Stuart had an easier day around camp and hunting some nearby gullies.

We didn’t find a lot of animals but the sight of wild deer on the skyline is always exciting. Red deer are such beautiful and graceful animals that you never tire of observing them in wild and scenic places.

There wasn’t a lot of shooting on this trip but plenty of special father-son moments. Perhaps the highlight was a stag sighted by Scott and stalked by Stuart. High on the hill above us, as he sidled around a rocky ridge in pursuit of the stag, Stuart couldn’t see the beast. Luckily, Stuart looked back at us through binoculars as Scott and I feverishly made downward motions with our arms.

Stuart realised what was happening, and not too late, as the stag was about to bolt for safety. It was a long downhill shot and at the second shot we heard the thump of a solid bullet strike. The stag lurched forward and another shot made sure the deer wasn’t going anywhere. Scott and I climbed uphill to congratulate the senior citizen on another successful stalk together. The stag was big and healthy, with eight point antlers, something to take home as a memento of the trip and to show the grandkids.

The day before our deerstalking trip, accountant Stu Wehner and I had joked that I probably could have achieved moderate financial success if I hadn’t done so much fishing and hunting over the years.

But as we staggered off the hill back to the truck, father and brother at my side, I figured that my only regret about a lifetime of hunting together was that we couldn't go more often.

Possum Hunting

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Cute critters make sport (and cash), The Nelson Mail, 11 February 2012
I have to admit to having a soft spot for possums. In fact, hunting possums is a lot of fun.
28 jan VR
Lining her pockets: Rosie Mirfin, 8, plucks possum fur.

It’s a tough life being a possum. Being trapped, shot, poisoned, or ending up as roadkill can’t be a lot of fun for New Zealand’s public enemy No 1.

Introduced in 1837 to establish a fur industry, the Australian brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) is a cat-sized marsupial and one of New Zealand’s bestknown introduced pest species.  Soft, fluffy and lovable, they have
wreaked havoc on native ecosystems.

By contrast, in their native Australia, the possum is up against dingoes, bush fires and less palatable vegetation. Believe it or not, they are even a protected native animal in Australia.

Weighing between two and five kilograms, the possum is a nocturnal tree dweller that is particularly prolific in the North Island but present throughout the South Island as well as Stewart Island.

Possums have soft, luxurious fur and are either brown/black or silver/grey. Habitat preferences vary but lower-altitude scrub, gullies and forest bordering farmland hold the most possums while South Island beech forests and alpine grasslands do not support dense populations.

The fur is in big demand for a range of products including merino wool/possum fibre blends.

Possums can compete with native birds for habitat and food such as insects and berries, but also eat bark, fungi, ferns, flowers and leaves. They can also disturb nesting birds, sometimes eating eggs and chicks.

Possums are also known to be a vector of bovine tuberculosis (Bovine TB). The Animal Health Board’s primary aim is to eradicate the disease in at-risk areas by 2026 under the Biosecurity Act 1993, in an attempt to meet international standards and to ensure New Zealand is a supplier of safe, high-quality meat and dairy products.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for possums. In fact, hunting possums is a lot of fun. My kids too, love going possuming, especially with Granddad. Just recently we enjoyed possuming success together in the Marlborough Sounds using humane leg-hold traps.

My daughter, Rosie, is the keenest possumer, and woke us all up in the morning so we could go and check the traps together.

A quick .22 shot behind the ear, and the possum is plucked into a plastic bag while still warm before we head on to check the next trap.

It’s great for the kids because we’re outdoors, and it’s healthy too because they learn about the concepts of life and death, hard work and persistence. It’s also healthy for their bank balances because they’ve amassed a tidy sum of pocket money with Granddad’s assistance. At current prices, each possum is worth about $15. They pluck easily, even with small hands, and Rosie is a champion possum plucker.

In years gone by, chasing possums was something of a national pastime as people all over the country pursued the furry little critters on a recreational and commercial basis. Much of my early outdoor gear was purchased with money I earned chasing possums. We used to spotlight and shoot them, but mostly we caught them in gin traps set along likely
runs and trails overnight.

As kids we loved it and made excellent money. Once we got our driver’s licences, no possum was safe during school holidays and weekends in the Wairoa, Wai-iti and Nelson Lakes areas.

In the heyday, skins were fetching as much as $25 for topgrade hides and fulltime possumers made fortunes, many
buying farms from the proceeds.

One time on a family holiday, I insisted Mum stop by the side of the road by the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland so I could skin a possum that was a fresh roadkill. Mum may have objected but the $20 I got for the skin became family folklore.

No wonder it was difficult to find a possum years ago and helicopter pilots have told me of flying possumers out of remote wilderness valleys because there were no more possums left to catch.

All this changed in the modern era when conservation imperatives changed, bureaucracy became involved, and the spectre of TB became important internationally.

Commercial fur harvesting came under pressure with a shortage of possums for the commercial fur trade due to the extent and scale of government poisoning campaigns.

Add to this the banning of gin traps, no night shooting on public lands, and restrictions on individuals able to hold and use private cyanide licences and the result was inevitable – bureaucrats had managed to turn an asset like possums into a liability at the expense of the taxpayer.

Perhaps the biggest change in the ongoing New Zealand possum saga was the advent of aerial
1080 poison use, distributed by helicopter.

It’s a powerful and emotive topic and continued widespread use of 1080 has polarised and divided rural and
urban communities around the country, with concerns over potential water supply contamination and the targeted
kill of valued recreational species such as deer.

To proponents it is a wonder cure-all used to ‘‘treat’’ affected areas. To detractors 1080 is an evil poison that is used against them and their legitimate recreational interests.

Personally I’ve tried hard to be objective and balanced. But the more involved I’ve become, the more convinced I am that it’s all about money, budgets, egos and political agendas, and that current ‘‘management’’ practices are inherently flawed and may not be the best use of taxpayer and ratepayer money.

In the end though, possums will always be with us. I’ve always believed in market-driven solutions to problems and hope that the Mirfin family will be out harvesting our fair share of possums in the bush together in the years ahead.

A Boy's First Goose Shoot

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, A first Taste of the Hunt, The Nelson Mail, 5 November 2011
An old-fashioned goose hunt proves a great way to develop the next generation of hunters, and to test the limits of Kiwi ingenuity.
5 nov R
Into the wild: Jake Mirfin amidst the grandeur of the Molesworth, during a hunt for Canada geese, and rabbits.

The opportunity for Jake to experience the haunting cry of wild geese silhouetted against mountain skies was  priceless, and he got to witness some classic goose hunting over decoys.

Molesworth Station is wild, remote, even desolate country.  During the last two decades, it has been my privilege to experience its moods and seasons as a recreational user, and as a commercial permit holder since 1995.

Labour Weekend was a great opportunity to introduce my boy, Jake, to the wonders of Molesworth, accompanied by his grandfather, Stuart, and uncle, Scott.

Three generations of Mirfins goose shooting in Molesworth was a special event, something to be savoured and enjoyed, and we were fortunate to be part of master hunter Geoff Irvine’s team that had drawn the Tarndale Block by ballot.

The annual spring hunt is a major ritual of gamebird hunting in Nelson-Marlborough, but this year it almost didn’t happen.

Fish and Game abandoned organisation of the shoot when Canada geese were taken off the game shooting licence by the Minister of Conservation and declared pests after intense lobbying by Federated Farmers.

Nelson and Marlborough hunters were fortunate that Christchurch hunter Tom Lanauze made an organised hunt possible through vision, hard work and fine negotiation skills. Full marks, too, to the Department of Conservation, which saw the value of continuing the hunt for the culling of geese and as a legitimate recreational use of public land. It was ‘‘a win-win scenario’’, according to Dave Hayes, of South Marlborough DOC.

Jake, 11, didn’t know the background of ‘‘the last wild goose chase’’, as we called it, but loved every minute. It was a great convoy of vehicles that headed up the Rainbow Valley en route to their respective blocks, and as we reached
Hell’s Gate, I recalled the words of Frederick Weld as he contemplated the unexplored route from the upper Wairau River into Molesworth country in 1855: ‘‘Rivers flowed out of a formidable barrier of mountains in our front, whose rocky peaks rose darkly above us, patched here and there, in spite of the long, continued summer’s heat, with dazzling dots of

A gravel road and four-wheel drive vehicles made travel easy compared with the ordeals of Weld, but hazards still existed when all the springs in our boat trailer, towed behind Dad’s Hilux, broke at Coldwater Stream. I thought we would have to abandon the boat and trailer, but fortunately, brothers Tom and Jim Payne, of Payne Logging, were in the convoy, and we were treated to a remarkable display of Kiwi No 8 wire innovation. The boat was lifted off the trailer, axes were swung and tree branches inserted under the trailer to substitute for springs and lashed firmly in place.

It was an amazing display of talent and a tribute to the skill of the Payne brothers that the trailer made it to
the centre of Molesworth and back again to suburban Richmond intact.

Tarndale is the geographic heart of Molesworth and an icon of highcountry farming with its cob buildings and rich human history.

We had to pitch tents and use an old tin shed as a cooking area, but the camaraderie within the group was awesome, with many laughs and much male bonding.

We had a large block, but were allowed to hunt only at Island Lake, which was disappointing, having come so far. Despite the limitations placed on us by Landcorp, we shot 82 geese between us.

The opportunity for Jake to experience the haunting cry of wild geese silhouetted against mountain skies was priceless, and he got to witness some classic goose hunting over decoys, with great calling by tune-smiths Geoff Irvine and Steve

One time, when I shot a high goose that plummeted out of the sky at speed and thumped onto the ground just four metres behind our layout blinds, Jake said: ‘‘It was lucky you missed the first two shots, Dad, otherwise that goose would have cleaned us up’’.

Jake was using his single-barrel .410 gauge, a light shotgun with small shells and a limited number of
pellets that wasn’t suitable for bringing down the big honkers that can weigh six to nine kilograms.

Shooting from the confined conditions of a layout blind also complicated matters, especially for a junior shooter.

His shotgun was suitable for rabbits, though, of which there were plenty. Most afternoons and when driving back from the lake, we would let Jake shoot. He had a lot of shots, and a lot of misses, but he also got his share of rabbits.

Rabbits are a great sporting animal, being fast, furry and very edible. Molesworth is dry, rocky and ideal habitat for them and it’s easy to see how they got out of control in the first half of the 20th century when the historical pastoral leases of
Molesworth, Tarndale, St Helens and Dillon were abandoned to the Crown because of rabbit infestation, overgrazing by sheep, stock losses in heavy snowfalls and recession.

For a young hunter, rabbits are an exciting quarry to stalk and shoot, and can teach a lot of the skills directly applicable to hunting bigger and more exciting game later in life.

It was fun sneaking through the matagouri and rosehip bushes with Jake, looking for unattentive bunnies that would sit long enough to give a young boy the chance of a shot.

Stalking one rabbit in the evening light, while Uncle Scotty looked on, was especially memorable when  Jake moved downhill, crouched on bended knee, pulled back the hammer of his gun and took the unsuspecting rabbit cleanly. Jake was beaming at his success, but I think his dad was even prouder.

In years to come, Jake will hunt in many more exciting places, but I would like to think that his first few Molesworth rabbits and the skills he learnt with his father, grandfather, uncle and other outdoor men of Tasman will stay with him for a liftime.

Late Season Duck Hunting


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nature saves her best for late-season hunters, Nelson Mail, 30 July 2011
Ducks down:
Gerald Beattie of Richmond with a bag of late-season ducks shot on local rivers this month.

In life, I guess I’ve always been a late starter, but when it comes to hunting and fishing there’s nothing better than leaving the best for last.

Many anglers and hunters lust for opening day and early season with easy birds and hungry fish but I’ve always enjoyed the tailend of the seasons, preferring quality experiences over quantity.

Early season sees a multitude of trout fishermen and duck hunters out there doing it, but by mid season interest for most has waned. By late season many sportsmen have given up and packed their rods and guns away, looking forward to the start of another season.

Not me – I go right till the end.  Late season is a great time to hunt and fish, to enjoy and cherish the resource and best of all there’s likely to be no-one else out there.

There is something special fishing for late-season trout before winter spawning comes around, to fish that have survived a multitude of anglers and that are big, fat and cunning. Some of the biggest trout are always caught late season, and the trout caught at the end of the 2010 season were crackers, many over the magic 10lb (4.5kg) mark.

Autumn trout fishing is great with short sunny days, golden willows, and voracious trout that are bright and plump from a summer of bounty. The sun is low in the sky and although the spotting light isn’t what it was in mid-summer, the river takes on a special feel, with fish feeding hard, knowing spawning and winter are
not far away.

April on the lower Wairau was a special experience with my brother-in-law, Guy Mullon of Melbourne. Our wives had allowed us only two hours to fish and we literally ran to the river on the outskirts of Blenheim. Guy threw a lure while I swam a few flies deep through the silver riffles. The fish were invisible but willing, thudding on to my flies while Guy had some big shadows follow his lure.

Before we knew it, our time was up but the magic weather, time together and a few fish in the bag heralded the end of another epic fishing season and we headed home happy men.

Likewise, duck hunting in public waters in late winter is another special experience, where the cunning mallard is fast, shrewd and evasive right till the end of the shooting season.

This past week Gerald Beattie of Richmond and I had a ball rafting the rivers of Marlborough and Tasman for ducks.

The weather was cold and almost perfect for rafting with high river flows and clear days.

One early morning, leaving the family asleep at St Arnaud, I even had trouble getting my truck out of the garage and down the ice and snow-covered driveway – a perfect day to hunt ducks.

We have some great rivers to raft in the northern South Island, but sadly many are being loved to death and inevitably shooting opportunities will lessen over time as housing and other development encroach upon the wild river spaces we now currently enjoy.

When I used to spend a lot of time in the United States, I was always impressed how the Americans were able to take a long-term view and protect their river corridors for everyone, minimising short-term development and domination by individuals.

Rivers belong to the public but even this week one landowner appeared unhappy with us shooting on the river, standing on the bank like Elmer Fudd guarding his carrot patch.

On-stream though, the company was awesome and we shared rowing, shooting and many laughs. Sneaking along tight to riverside willows, we navigated downstream, flushing ducks at close range that were hiding away under riverside vegetation.

There’s nothing more exciting than a big mallard drake, resplendent in silver plumage and shining green head, bursting forth from the water, quacking stridently, orange legs dangling, while clawing for height up through leafless willows.

A few quick shots, the excitement of the chase, and a fine duck dinner plummeting on to the water’s surface are all part of a great day out.

Spectacular sunrises, waves of flying birds, and the smell of gunpowder are all primal experiences that help us find meaning in a crazy, crazy world.

A girl's first duck hunt

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Five Ducks Down, Nelson Mail, 21 May 2011

A small girl offers a fresh take on the rituals of the first day of the duck-hunting season.

Bang bang: Rosie Mirfin gets wet on her first duck shoot.

May might mark the onset of winter, but it’s always a great time to get outdoors before the days get really cold and short.

The first day of May this year was a Sunday, and we decided to go beach seining at Delaware Bay. It was a real
family affair, and a tribe of Mirfin kids, adults, and grandparents spent the afternoon on the isolated beach.

Brother Scott and I set the net by oar, and we had a team on each end to haul the warp ropes and net ashore.

We’d had two drags with only a few flounder and sole, when things got more exciting on the third retrieve further
along the beach. As the net came close to shore, the kids started to scream with excitement. Fish splashed the water, the net shuddered and shook with the impact of big objects hitting the net, and we struggled to pull the sheer weight ashore.

The kids loved every minute and didn’t care that we had a net full of stingrays – 16, according to my seven year- old daughter Rosie, and one especially large specimen that was the granddaddy of Tasman Bay.

It was fun as we struggled to release all the rays unharmed and the kids will be talking about it for months to come.

Heading home for a feed of fresh flounder capped off a great day out.

Getting children into the outdoors is always fun, and I especially enjoy encouraging my daughters to participate.

The first Saturday in May is almost a holy day in New Zealand, such is the fervour and excitement generated with the opening of the duck shooting season.

For this year’s opening on May 7, I stayed close to home with good mate John Stewart of Brightwater, although
most serious Nelson duck hunters shoot outside the region on opening where better bags are usually taken.

Our shooting possie was about 10 kilometres from suburban Richmond and a great place to take along a few
kids. John wanted to introduce his grandson Elliot, five, to the sport of duck hunting, and I was keen to take daughter Rosie on her first duck hunt.

Boy did it rain, and we got soaked lying on the ground among the decoys in our layout blinds. The birdlife was amazing, with oystercatchers in their hundreds flying within metres of our face. There were also pied stilts, egrets, plovers and even a few godwits that must have decided to winter over in the estuary, but alas, the ducks weren’t exactly blackening the sky.

Really wet days have never been great duck-shooting days in my experience, as the ducks either sit tight, disappear, or spread out across flooded fields and puddles where you can’t get at them.

Eventually, we packed it in as the rain poured. There would be other and better days.

The rain didn’t stop the children’s regular winter sport, though, and Rosie got wet, cold and muddy three times on Saturday – duck shooting, scoring six goals at soccer, and running a crazy cross-country race which included fording a flooded stream. She had a great time and I was proud of her.

On the Sunday, Rosie wrote a story to take to school on Monday. I’ve typed it up to share because she said it way better than I ever could – and you should never compete with animals or children.

‘‘On Saturday the 7th of May, Dad woke me up at 5am. We got dressed in our duck shooting clothes and hats. Then we had beckfest (breakfast) and Milos and kissed Mum goodbye.

We loaded up and then we were off. Bump, bump, bump, along the bumpy road. It was dark it was cold it was very very quiet then we parked the car and walked the rest of the way.

Luckily, we had headlights so we could see. Dad and I sceshed (squelched) across the felid (field) and dad went back two times with me staying with the stuff.

A little while later, dad’s friend, John, arrived. "Sorry I’m late,"he said. "I had a late night last night." "It’s just started," I said, and I was in my layout blind. It was nice and cozy in it.

Bang went a gun. Bang, bang, bang and then a few more went bang and ducks went flying down. Fillery (finally), it was our turn. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! Five ducks. Cool.  I had earmuffs, so I didn’t have to
listen to the guns.

Dad rang Mum up for me to go home. Dad brang me up to the car park. I was holding two of the biggest
ducks. Then we went to soccer, but that’s another story. I would like to go shooting another day with Dad"


Molesworth Goose Shoot


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Special weekend together, Nelson Mail, 6 November 2010

Ten-year-old Jake accompanies his father on his first big hunt to continue a Mirfin family tradition.
Adventure: Jake, left, and Zane Mirfin in the mountains of Marlborough.

The annual Fish & Game spring goose shoot is an eagerly anticipated event on the Nelson- Marlborough sporting calendar.

For over two decades, keen local waterfowlers have hunted Canada geese in the mountains of Marlborough on organised group hunts. Hunting blocks are drawn by ballot and teams allocated areas covering St James, Rainbow and Molesworth stations.

The spring shoot is always oversubscribed and while some hunters miss out through the ballot system, there is always the autumn and winter hunts for those who are really keen.

The spring shoot or cull is the most popular because it is a pleasant time of year and the goose tallies tend to be higher due to an influx of nesting birds into the areas hunted.

These hunts are a win/win scenario all around because hunters benefit through organised access, goose populations are controlled, and the Fish & Game organisation gains kudos in a region where superior waterfowling opportunities are few and far between for local hunters.

Over the years, the Mirfin clan has been fortunate to have had some truly epic hunts into the blocks of Molesworth Station with some fabulous tallies of geese shot.

This Labour Day weekend just gone was a perfect opportunity to take my boy Jake (10) on his first big hunt, much like my father did with me when I was a boy.

Jake was very excited the week before the trip. On Friday morning, with gear loaded to the max, we headed off. At the rendezvous point at Rainbow Skifield entrance, we caught up with a large group of fellow local outdoorsmen. From there on in, it was a convoy of vehicles heading up the Rainbow Valley for Molesworth and St James. We joined a great team of brothers Bill and Ken Ringrose, father and son Malcolm and Geoff Irvine, friends Steve Holmes and John Stewart. The men were all great with Jake, making a fuss of him, and going out of their way to be helpful in teaching and explaining outdoor things to him. Jake gathered firewood, opened and closed gates, cooked sausages, washed dishes, learned bushcraft skills, and a dozen other camp routines.

We set up plastic milk bottles outside camp for target practice, where he got to shoot his single barrel .410 shotgun that grandad had bought some time ago for the grandkids to learn hunting and gun safety with.

Under the tutelage of our group, Jake’s firearms skills went from strength to strength. We all agreed that the best time to drum in gun safety is when boys are young and they will still listen and take instruction well.

Jake loved it when we got two vehicles bogged in deep mud and had to use our third vehicle and a long recovery strop to salvage them. He walked all day long enjoying the views, crossing rivers, and climbing steep banks despite the lack of geese.

That first night Jake and I slept in the same tent that my parents had bought me for my 21st birthday, half a lifetime before.

On the second day Jake spent most of his time with Grandad walking riverbeds and stalking hares. That evening after dinner, Jake wanted to go fishing. It was a biting easterly wind but he threw good casts with his spinning rod right across the river to within a whisker of the far bank.

At my insistence, Jake took his last unsuccessful cast before getting into dry footwear after about 12 hours of wet feet. Like I told him: ‘‘When the wind blows from the east – the fishing is least.’’

On the last day we split up into groups to hunt two valleys. Our party stalked the valley, seeing a few more geese although most took to the sky well out of shotgun range.

Jake thought the highlight of the day was seeing four chamois – three high on the hill above, and one which ran through the river in front of us.

It was a long day but one to be cherished because son, father and grandfather days in the mountains are not going to last forever.

Our final group tally of 10 geese was pitiful when put in the context of 2000 geese shot that weekend, but it didn’t matter.

Maybe it was fatherly overimagination, but Jake seemed to stand a little taller after that special weekend together.

Christmas Venison

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Food on the Table, Nelson Mail, 18 December 2010

On the quest for some Christmas venison.
Dinner provided
: Blenheim GP Steve Young with Christmas venison. Photo: ZANE MIRFIN

In this modern world, life can get so busy. One thing I regret is never having enough time to do the really important things in life – like go deerstalking as often as I’d like.

To many people, deerstalking is perceived as barbaric but to those in the know, the chance to refresh your soul, challenge yourself against nature and put food on the family table is a wonderful Kiwi experience.

Late spring and early summer are always prime times to hunt red deer, venturing onto riverflats and slips. Last light and early mornings are the best times to score, when the deer are away from the sanctuary of the forest in search of food.

There’s nothing else like stalking around a dew-clad flat in the fuzzy morning light, with the dawn chorus in full throat, searching for that heart-pumping moment when a velvet stag or young hind steps into view.

My freezer was looking pretty empty with a real shortage of game meat and fish and the dismal prospect of a venison-less Christmas was looking like a very real possibility. The chance for a quick overnight trip midweek
offered hope when Blenheim GP Steve Young and I headed off for an evening stalk and fish.

The river was in great shape, low and clear, offering great hope for fishing the next day, and grass growth on the river flats was prolific with lush green growth promising to be a magnet to hungry deer. Best of all, there were a few deer prints along the way to our camp.

We were running a little late, so we abandoned our packs at a chosen campsite, grabbed rod and rifle, and headed to a great trout pool. In the dwindling light, Steve stayed to fish while I ducked through the bush to a clearing I knew.

Stalking quietly through lush grass and intermittent scrub and trees, the wind was in my favour, and I was sure tonight was the night.

I heard a clatter of hooves in a creek bed and an old hind chided me from the forest with loud staccato barks. Knowing that the game was up, I headed to another swampy creek that offered hope but alas no deer were in residence.

Heading back to the river in the gloom, I was just in time to see two deer on the other bank, out of range and heading pronto for the bush. Mirfin the blunder hunter had failed yet again.

Steve hadn’t had any luck either, with not a single rising fish showing itself, so we headed back to camp to pitch the tent in the dark and cook up some dinner while the river gurgled beside us.

Knowing we’d be hunting in the morning we didn’t light a camp fire. When you’re after venison, a fire is always the best way to scare every animal out of a valley, as my father wisely taught me as a boy.

Steve joined me for a morning hunt and it wasn’t long before we spied two red spikers in a scrubby clearing. Sneaking closer, the deer became agitated and it was now or never. Shooting freehand without a rest is never my favourite shot but the rifle was firm and the scope crosshairs steady. At the shot, one deer bolted for cover, but it didn’t matter as our Christmas venison supply was assured.

The American pioneers had a hunting saying that went something like ‘‘one shot meat, two shots maybe, three shots beans again for dinner’’. So it was satisfying to obtain our deer with one humane shot as the venison is
more tender, with no adrenalin laced through the meat.

Our animal was young and healthy and Steve was fascinated watching his first deer being field dressed and propping open the carcass to allow air to circulate and cool the meat. We left the deer in a shady spot to butcher later after fishing.

Fishing was fun and Steve caught some fine trout around 2.8kg but by late afternoon we figured we’d better get our gear, cut up our deer and head for home. Steve helped and we quickly removed two backsteaks, two forelegs, two back legs and two eyesteaks in that order. Deer are wonderful animals to cut up
with a distinctive, clean and pleasant scent.

As a single man I liked to salvage as much usable protein as I could from any shot deer taking heart, liver and kidneys, but these days you’d be a brave man to eat these as our public wild lands are heavily poisoned and these organs filter and concentrate toxins.

Soon we were on our way and Steve, 55, insisted on carrying all our meat in his pack while I carried most of the other gear plus rifle. It was a good walk out and by the time we got back to the truck for a cold fizzy drink we were both knackered. We had our Christmas venison but maybe it was a good thing we only got one deer.


Paradise Duck Hunting in the South Island, New Zealand

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Columns, Waves of feathered paradise, Nelson Mail, 5 June 2010
The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire – it’s paradise for duck shooting.
Decoys aplenty: Blenheim’s Clayton Nicholl awaits incoming paradise ducks.

THE Mirfin family was in Blenheim recently to watch the musical The Sound of Music. The production was awesome and the whole family had a great theatre experience, complete with icecreams at halftime.

The Marlborough Civic Theatre is a wonderful community facility and I found myself chuckling during the musical, thinking about the curmudgeonly naysayers we read about in The Nelson Mail most weeks and their vehement opposition to a performing arts and conference centre. The thought did cross my mind that I do actually like having to travel two hours to Blenheim to watch performances and stay with the in-laws for the weekend – at least that way I’ve managed to squeeze in a lot of duck shooting over the years as well.

My Blenheim-based mate, Clayton Nicholl, is a great bloke, a real outdoor enthusiast with a heart of gold, and what better thing to do than go bird hunting with Clayton on a wet Sunday while the rest of the family was off to church.

Clayton had previously sussed out paradise ducks that had been frequenting a farmer friend’s irrigated green feed paddocks, so I’d towed my shuttle trailer over the hill, full of bulky layout blinds, decoys, wet-weather gear, guns and ammo. We spent late morning sitting out the storm at Clayton’s drinking coffee, while the rain poured down and we listened to radio reports of savage flooding to the west in the upper Motueka Catchment. When the sky brightened we were off over Weld Pass to the lower Awatere valley in search of parrie ducks.

Wet days are always difficult days to shoot ducks as the birds tend to spread out all over the countryside, with feeding opportunities – grubs and worms – everywhere due to flooded pasture. Our anticipated large number of parries was nowhere to be seen but about a dozen birds were spread about the green feed area.

Throwing our gear over electric fences, we set up in the middle of the irrigated area in a recently grazed-off pasture. Layout blinds out, full-body and silhouette decoys around the hides and we were ready to go.

The first birds took half an hour to announce their arrival with the loud, shrill ‘‘zee zee’’ call of the white-headed
female parrie duck and the quieter ‘‘zonk zonk’’ call of the male. As they swung over the blinds, both Clayton and I threw our blinds open, sat up as the parries flared, fired, and watched both birds plummet from the sky. Clayton did his best Julie Andrews impression calling out from his blind ‘‘the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire’’, and I knew it was going to be a great shoot.

Paradise ducks (Ttadorna variegate), putangitangi, or ‘‘painted ducks’’ as Captain Cook named them in Dusky
Sound in 1773, are a common sight around New Zealand these days. They are one of a few species of native
birds, like pukeko, that have done very well with the development of agricultural land.

Paradise ducks are actually a Fish & Game conservation success story with special paradise duck hunting seasons sometimes necessary to stop large mobs damaging farm paddocks and crops with their grazing.

So for any local landowners out there, I’m in the phone book, and if you have any parries, pooks or feral pigeons that need a life-changing experience, my mates and I will be only too glad to oblige.

Truly New Zealand’s birds of paradise, parries are a very colourful and beautiful bird with the female having the rare distinction among bird species of being the brighter coloured bird with a white head and chestnut body. The drake is larger with a black head and barred black body, with both male and female having striking white wing patches and bright green speculum on the wings.

Parries are a shelduck or goose-like duck, and although they are claimed as endemic to New Zealand, we’ve shot their very close cousin, the Australian mountain duck, on the West Coast’s Lake Brunner and in South Westland.

The piercing cry of the ducks is one of the great sounds of the New Zealand countryside and they are wonderful birds to hunt with their bright colours and obliging ways. Layout blinds have revolutionised hunting in open fields and birds are able to be lured close to waiting hunters.

Much hunting takes place on pastures well away from water, where lead shot is able to be used, so most birds can be harvested in good condition. Steel shot tends to rip birds apart due to the larger pellet sizes required to reach terminal velocity but must be legally used when shooting over lakes, riverbeds and ponds.

Decoys can be very simple. There are now high-priced full body decoys available but effective silhouette decoys can be fashioned from corflute real estate signs and painted three colours – white, black, and chestnut.

Ducks can be hunted all day and with all methods, but the best tallies are always over decoys set up are in feeding locations such as pasture or crops, or resting areas such as riverbed duck camps well in advance of incoming birds.

Fish & Game has managed paradise duck numbers well. As recently as two decades ago they were not common in waterfowlers’ bags. The current daily bag limit in Nelson-Marlborough is a generous 10 birds per hunter and the ducks are very tasty to eat in casseroles, stir fries, minced in lasagne, or legs and thighs baked in the oven.

Years ago I used to shoot South Westland regularly and I can still picture some of those epic mornings where big numbers of paradise, geese, swans and dabbling ducks would pour into our decoy spreads set up on pre-scouted duckcamps out in the middle of big braided riverbeds.

On those halcyon mornings where everything goes right, packing up decoys and cleaning downed birds with ringing eardrums never seems like work as the highlights are relived again and again.

Canada Geese Hunting

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Picking off the big northern visitors, Nelson Mail, April 24, 2010
Goose hunter: Stuart Mirfin stands among his goose decoys, layout blind and morning bag of Canada geese at Easter.

Recreational hunting helps control the migrations of pesky canada geese.

‘‘HA-HONK, hahonk-honk,’’ the incoming canada geese cried, with their unmistakably haunting and melodic calls, as they headed directly for the crop and our waiting decoy spread.

Hunkered down in our camouflaged layout blinds, I shivered with excitement as the birds came ever closer and swung low over the hides.

Hearing the loud wing-beats and watching the phalanx of large, dark birds highlighted against the morning sky above, as they set their wings, dangled their legs, and dropped from the sky, it was all too much and I threw open the flaps of my hide.

All around, the deafening clamour of geese clawing for height and safety overwhelmed me as my gun barrel swept past the head of the lead bird.

Two shots rang out and two geese folded in mid-air, before my gun jammed and the geese made good their escape.

It didn’t matter, Easter had already been a great success and another indelible outdoor moment had been forever imprinted on my brain.

In the distance, I could hear more geese coming and maybe my father, Stuart, would get his chance.

Canada geese are like that. They get into your head, and the act of hunting these magnificent birds is something indescribably magic and special.

Their legendary cunning, wild call, large size and the locations they inhabit make them the kings of New Zealand’s gamebirds. Bob McDowall, in his 1994 book Gamekeepers For The Nation, even termed them the ‘‘finest gamebird in the world’’.

Google them and you will quickly see the respect and status these birds are accorded in North America during their annual migrations southwards to warmer climes. Sadly, the canada goose is not always welcomed so warmly in New Zealand.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) have acclimatised well here after a number of introductions in the early 1900s, and continue to expand their range to this day, now being present through both islands.

I have been fortunate to hunt geese near Lake Wairarapa and throughout the South Island in Marlborough, South Canterbury, South Westland, Southland and Lake Ellesmere, New Zealand’s celebrated goose-hunting mecca.

Wherever I have hunted them, I have loved every minute, despite the frustration, uncertainty and unpredictability.

Hunters thrive on challenge, and the wily canada goose is a waterfowling icon for good reason.

Legally, geese must be shot by shotgun, and most birds are shot at ranges under 50 metres with a mixture of steel and lead shot, depending on whether they are hunted over water or land. The preferred shotgun for geese is a 12-gauge auto-loader, with a five-shot magazine and magnum 3’’ shells to make the most of often sporadic opportunities. Geese can be stalked on foot, but have fine eyesight, so alert geese are most commonly
hunted over decoys on feeding or loafing areas.

On a prime location, when everything is going right, geese can be harvested in large numbers, but more often than not,
the geese win and the result is a big goose-egg zero.

Geese can be hunted over crops, pasture, ponds, tarns, lakes, lagoons and riverbeds on both public and private land and are truly hardy birds adapted to harsh mountain conditions and cold temperatures.

Hunters must also be hardy, and modern waterfowlers now have the equipment available to successfully hunt the wily geese on their own terms.

Every waterfowl licence-holder, it seems, wants a share of the goose action, as duck numbers lessen through habitat
loss and changes to traditional agriculture that have ironically often suited the adaptable goose.

Geese often get a bad rap from environmentalists and landowners for damage to high-country wetlands, crops and
pasture, but this problem is often overstated, in my opinion.

To some people, one goose is too many. Recreational hunting is the most viable and cost-effective control mechanism
available and properties that are hunted regularly have few problems with geese.

Nelson Marlborough Fish & Game leads the way in involving their hunters in organised canada goose shots that help keep geese numbers in balance with the environment, while also providing outstanding hunting opportunity and
camaraderie for goose hunters.

These organised spring, summer and winter goose hunts in Molesworth, Rainbow and St James stations are always oversubscribed, and blocks and parties are chosen by ballot.

The hunts have evolved over decades and have been enjoyed by generations of hunters who come from all over New Zealand. According to Richmond’s Geoff Irvine, one of the region’s most enthusiastic and successful goose hunters, the Molesworth goose hunts should be a ‘‘blueprint’’ for the rest of New Zealand goose management. These hunts, which the Mirfin clan have enjoyed immensely over the years, stand as proud testimony to the skill and imagination of local Fish & Game staff, councillors and licence holders, and could be successfully expanded throughout New Zealand.

Unfortunately a black cloud hangs over the status of geese in New Zealand and the Minister of Conservation has yet to rule whether they will be removed from the game shooting licence and open slather declared. Fish & Game already spends considerable amounts of money on managing geese to agreed levels and is understandably concerned about the impacts on recreational licence holders and ultimately its income through licence sales.

Killing geese in moult culls, by poison, or with expensive helicopter gunships has never seemed like a long term solution. Better organisation of recreational hunter effort and access is more likely to produce socially acceptable and cost effective results. Fish & Game argue that government agencies like the Department of Conservation do not have the expertise or ability to manage geese. Like many things in life, the fate of geese in New Zealand is all about politics, and bureaucratic bungling is only ever going to turn a valued outdoor asset like geese into a liability at the expense of the taxpayer.

Ringneck Pheasant Hunting


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Pheasant Surprise, Nelson Mail, 1 August 2009
Pheasant hunting is rewarding on many levels – starting with the adrenaline.
Pheasants make wonderful eating – roast wild pheasant is just divine washed down with a Nelson wine.
Prized: To most hunters, the Chinese ringneck is the quintessential game bird.

‘‘Kok, ko-kok, kokok’’ came the deafening call as the big cock pheasant burst without warning
from thick cover with a clatter of wings.

Time stood still as the brightly coloured bird with the long tail clawed for height and the safety of a nearby gorge thicket. My mate, Geoff Irvine, had positioned the shooters well and had expertly guided his gun dog along the edge of the eucalyptus trees from where the bird had erupted, and now it was all up to me.

The barrel of my shotgun swung past the beak of the rapidly departing bird and the gun thumped against my cheek three times. With the last shot I saw a cloud of feathers and the pheasant plummeting out of the sky. ‘‘Bird down, bird down,’’ I called out, my voice squeaky with emotion. At that moment, I realised I was shaking with excitement – pheasant fever had taken hold.

The Chinese ringneck cock pheasant (Phasianus colchicus torquatus) is a strikingly beautiful bird, with the brightly coloured plumage being instantly recognisable. With an iridescent head, red face wattles, white collar, copper-coloured body, glossy greenish rump and long barred tail, the male pheasant is the quintessential gamebird to most bird hunters. The hen pheasant, by contrast, is a master (or mistress) of camouflage, being a mottled brown and very difficult to see most of the time.

Actually, three pheasant breeds have been introduced into New Zealand since 1842 – the blackneck, mongolian and Chinese ringneck. Current populations are a mixture of these three, with most birds resembling the Chinese ringneck.

Pheasants are common throughout New Zealand. South Island strongholds are Nelson, Marlborough and parts of Canterbury and Otago. Many birds are still released by pheasant enthusiasts, so small populations of birds throughout the country come and go.

Pheasants evolved as forest birds and use their long tails for steering and braking among trees, but they have adapted well to man-modified environments such as farmland and riverbeds. They like scrub, weeds, long grass and also windbreak trees in which to roost.

They are general eaters, liking plants such as inkweed and nightshade berries but also eating acorns, lizards, insects, grain, seeds and, in winter, green leafy material such as grasses, clover and other plants. They are ground birds that prefer to run when threatened but, when pushed, are strong and powerful flyers.

Nelson and Marlborough populations have fluctuated, with habitat being a major issue as land use intensifies. Housing, grapes, agriculture, roads, walkways and the like have pushed them into more marginal habitats, meaning fewer breeding and feeding opportunities. As numbers dwindle, hunting opportunities often follow suit as many previously accessible locations are closed to public hunting for safety and other reasons.

Only wild cock birds may be shot and the hunting season in Nelson- Marlborough is brief: only three weekends in mid winter, with only one bird per shooter per day.

If you are able to travel, there are a number of Fish and Game-sanctioned game farms throughout the country offering British-style ‘‘driven pheasant’’ shoots, where you can shoot stocked pheasant of either sex to whatever level your bank balance allows. I’ve never been fortunate enough to be invited on such a shoot but it sure looks like a wonderful experience.

Well-trained scenting dogs are the way to be really successful on wild pheasants.  Good dogs will findpheasants that you might walk past, track running birds and go on point, and, very importantly, assist in safely retrieving downed birds. If a hunter with a good bird dog invites you on a hunt, never pass up the opportunity.

Safety is especially important because hunting is often social, with groups of hunters hunting the fringes of thick cover. Good communication and bright clothing are essential. Hunters must take careful note of other hunters, livestock and property within their possible firing zone.

Lead shot can be used for upland game birds but I tend to use steel shot so I can legally harvest other game birds that may be surprised at the same time, such as ducks, parries and pukeko. Some pheasant hunts can be a real mixed bag when you add in bonus small game such as rabbits and hares, which live in similar habitat.

Overseas research suggests that hunting cock pheasants is beneficial for pheasant populations. Because the cock pheasant is so aggressive, fewer cock birds means more mating and less fighting, higher nesting productivity and more birds for future harvest.

Pheasants make wonderful eating – roast wild pheasant is just divine washed down with a Nelson wine. Mounted birds add a colourful touch to relive the moment in any den, lounge or man-cave (but not in our lounge, says my wife, Aimee, alas!). Pheasant feathers are also prized by trout anglers and fly-tyers, in famous trout fly patterns such as the pheasant tailnymph (tied from the long barred tail feathers) or the Mrs Simpson and other killer-style lures, fashioned from various pheasant body feathers.

This shooting season, I took my two boys on a pheasant hunt. My father, Stuart, walked ahead when a beautiful cock pheasant exploded from behind him, flying straight at the boys and me, in among the pine trees.

The pheasant was fair screaming at us, its eyes flashing and the colourful white ring around the neck plainly visible as it flared upward through the trees. We were in Stuart’s line of fire, so the shot was all mine, and time stood still as I snapped off two quick reflex shots up through the pine branches, folding the big rooster in a puff of feathers.

We heard the thump as the bird hit the forest floor and two excited little boys recovered the pheasant and carried it back to the vehicle. It had been another great training adventure for the boys and they were excited about the feathers they would have and the fowl we would eat.

For me, though, the main reason to hunt pheasants is the excitement, unpredictability and sheer speed of the wily bird. It is a lot of work and a lot more luck, but when that special moment comes and a large cackling ring-neck erupts from under your feet, it becomes truly addictive.

Maybe pheasant hunters like myself are just adrenaline junkies, forever craving that magic moment when time stands still.

Thar Hunting in New Zealand's South Island High Country

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column-Taking on the Thar, Nelson Mail, June 20, 2009


Flying into the back blocks with thar hunting legend Laurie Prouting of Mesopotamia Station . . .
Thar are an endangered species from northern Kashmir to China.  New Zealand has the only huntable wild population in the world and hunters come from all over  to hunt them.

My return to Thar Country a few weeks ago was just magic.  Ever since breaking my
ankle in a hunting accident in June last year, returning to the backbone of the Southern Alps had been a much anticipated event.

Picking my Aussie mates up from Christchurch Airport, I swung the truck south in search of thar hunting shangri-la.

Flying into the back blocks with thar hunting legend Laurie Prouting of Mesopotamia Station was a real treat. The day was miserable, a mixture of heavy rain and strong winds, an omen of the bad weather we were to experience throughout the week. When Laurie’s helicopter departed, the silence was deafening, as we became hut-bound for
the day when the weather closed in further.

My mates were stunned by the environment, as I had been with them, when we hunted sambar deer together in the Victorian Highlands. They were keen to harvest a bull thar trophy each but also appreciated the challenge and danger posed by the snow, ice, rock-falls and huge bluff systems of this mountainous region.

 When the weather
cleared, we wandered up a side creek, stopping to glass with binoculars along the way. It wasn't’t long before Daryl spotted the first thar. Through the binoculars we saw a group of half a dozen feeding around the base of a bluff. An hour’s climb later and we were in position. It was Browny’s shot and at 250 metres the best animal crumpled and Browny had his first bull thar. Daryl and I continued on while Browny took the head and meat back to the hut. Thar meat is excellent eating and we cooked up some great feeds throughout the week.

The weather began deteriorating again with snow and strong winds as we continued
sidling around the steep, rocky and brush infested face, but I was aiming for a high point I suspected would allow us to look into another prominent side creek.  As we neared the top in steep, snow-covered conditions, I saw two thar out of the corner of my
eye. One was a good bull. Daryl’s shot was spot-on and the bull rolled into the snow. Hurriedly pushing on the last few yards to the top, we looked over into the steep, inhospitable creek that had become thar city. Animals were climbing right at our rocky
crag and some were within metres of us. It was an amazing sight, especially with the big shaggy bulls within easy shooting range. Daryl knocked down a biggie, I took a nice bull that catapulted off a bluff into the swollen creek below and then with Daryl’s .300 Winchester Magnum I shot a big animal that hung up on a ledge high in the bluffs above.
It was to be the start of a very special week.

To the uninitiated, Himalayan thar (Hemitragus jemlahicus) are large goat-like animals, introduced to the Mt Cook region in 1904 and 1909, and are superbly adapted to the alpine environment.  Thar occupy most of the central Southern Alps, extending south of the Haast Pass area, and are present in parts of Westland, Canterbury and Otago, over an area of about 1.7 million hectares.

Thar have small heads, large eyes, and small pointed ears. Their hooves have a flexible,
rubbery core that allows them to grip rocky terrain. Big bulls can weigh in at 135 to
180kg and trophy horns are generally considered anything over 27cm. The thick hides and shaggy nature of the thar is an indication of their ability to withstand an extremely hostile environment.

Native to the central Himalayan ranges, thar are an endangered species from northern
Kashmir to China. In New Zealand, we have the only huntable wild population in the
world and hunters come from all over to hunt them.

The official line from bureaucrats is that thar affect the biological diversity of sensitive
native alpine plant ecosystems, but if you’re a hunter, they are one of the most amazing
animals available in New Zealand to hunt on public lands.  It’s difficult to describe the magnificence of bull thar on the hill or the elation experienced
after a trophy animal is bagged.

 Currently, under the Himalayan Thar Control Plan, thar are kept to low numbers
through a combination of recreational and commercial hunting plus bureaucratic intervention from the Conservation Department with the use of poison, helicopter shooting and ‘‘judas’’ thar equipped with radio tracking devices.  It has always amazed me how bureaucrats have managed to turn yet another asset like thar into a liability at the expense of the taxpayer.

Our week of thar hunting went surprisingly well. When the weather deteriorated we just retreated to the tiny hut, caught the flu and choked on coal dust.
 included the day I spotted a real whopper and sent Browny up to a perfect shooting
position, where the bull wandered around for 20 minutes within easy rifle range, but
Browny was unable to see it.  Browny was looking down at me through his binoculars as I jumped up and down, made shooting gestures and whacked myself on top of
the head, to no avail. It was actually pretty funny a day or two later.

One of my favourite days was a solo hunt on public land where I retraced the steps of the late Rex Forrester, one of New Zealand’s earliest professional fishing and hunting guides, and also the first hunting and fishing officer for the New Zealand Tourism

It was a big climb through a lot of snow and I nearly abandoned the hunt several times throughout the day. Finally, high above me, I saw a bull thar looking down from a rocky crag.  I was over my waist in snow, but climbed upward figuring that if I could get to the next mound above me I would try a shot.

At 350 metres through my rangefinder, the bull was a very long uphill shot but my first
attempt with my 7mm Mauser rifle folded the bull and he peeled off the bluff in dramatic airborne fashion, tumbling end over end, before sliding down the hill into a fearsome gut about 150 metres above. It was a horrific climb up through chest deep snow with icicles hanging off the rock wall.

The weather was closing in fast, and I cut off the horns and some meat before watching the head-less carcass plummet down a steep snow chute far below me. I carefully retraced my steps to get out of the ‘‘deathzone’’. At dark I was back on the valley floor after one of the most physically demanding hunts I can ever remember.

One day we watched half a dozen bulls high above in full mating routine with puffed up
manes, parading around in the snow and displaying their tongues (a mating ritual known
as ‘‘flehmen’’). At 250 metres, they were shootable but the weather was abysmal, we
already had a head each, and we were so in awe of the animals that we all shook hands in the snow and watched the animals some more before retreating downhill to safety. Truly one of hunting’s great moments.

We all got thar trophies with Daryl scoring the biggest set of
horns, although he did cut his forehead badly when shooting directly uphill and the rifle scope whacked him between the eyes. We all agreed it was a great trip and I can’t wait to return to thar country again.

California Quail Hunting in New Zealand

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Several cunning birds in the bush, Nelson Mail, 23 May 2009
Anyone who thinks you can’t miss with a shotgun hasn’t tried quail shooting.

Bagged: A male quail, with it's bright markings, is a fine prize for the hunter, especially considering its wily nature.

These mighty little feathered cannonballs are cunning, fast and elusive and if you don’t like a lot of walking and climbing in a day, quail hunting is not for you.

The thing I like about winter is getting more recreation time.  During summer I tend to be running all over South Island being responsible for other people’s fishing, but in winter I look forward to more time in the field for myself, and – especially, as we head into midwinter – hunting California quail in the Marlborough high country.

These mighty little feathered cannonballs are cunning, fast and elusive and if you don’t like a lot of walking and climbing in a day, quail hunting is not for you. The country quail habitat is the first attraction, to my mind, being picturesque and stunning, with dry hills, rocky ridges, matagouri covered slopes and, more than often, with a snow-covered, mountain backdrop
The weather in the eastern rain-shadow mountains can be magic, too, with many dry sunny afternoons following bone-chilling morning frosts that regularly get down into double digits below zero.  As I get older, the hills seem to get steeper, but there is always something special about spending a big day out with friends in pursuit of the sporty quail. California quail (Lophortyx californica) is a native of California and was introduced into New Zealand between about 1860 and 1880. We have two other species of quail in New Zealand – the bobwhite and
brown quail – but these are of limited distribution and in the North Island only.

California quail are a relatively hardy bird living between sea level and 1800 metres and they thrive around the fringes of rough marginal farmland that contains plenty of manuka, matagouri, fern and scrub.  Mainly seed-eaters, quail also eat green material such as grasses, clovers, broom and even insects.

In Marlborough, quail can occur in large numbers around tussock grassland areas, retreating into scrub-covered gullies to roost or escape danger.  Quail are very sociable and can gather together in large flocks of many dozens. From a hunting point of view, if you can find one quail, others will not be far away.

The male, or cock, is strikingly beautiful with a short black plume curving forward from the forehead, and large black patches on the face and throat surrounded by white. The breast is blue-grey with the underside a mix of buff, chestnut, black and white, all forming a wonderful, scale-like patterning.

The hen is a bit more nondescript, more brown and smaller in size – but she flies just as fast and is every bit as cunning.

Quail make fantastic eating and a meal of quail breasts wrapped in bacon and lightly broiled is a gastronomic delight. Quail can also be cooked whole and are best skinned like a banana to remove all the feathers.  They’re pretty tasty cooked in a slow cooker, but those strong little legs that make them such great runners can be stringy eating.

Quail will usually attempt to escape danger by running, but if they can’t outrun you, they will commonly hide and hold tight.  Well-trained bird dogs come into their own with their ability to find, flush and retrieve fallen quail.  Not having a dog, I normally hunt with friends that do (have a dog), but we often have pretty good shoots without dogs, just walking around stalking coveys, kicking bushes where we know quail are hiding, or throwing rocks into tight cover and watching the quail erupt into the air.

Nothing can really prepare you for when quail burst forth from cover. There is a loud explosion of wings as a feathered buzz-bomb hurtles forth with a frantic beating of wings.  Adrenalin surges in the hunter, as you know you have seconds to react before the bird flies around a bush, ducks over a ridge, hurtles down a gully, or escapes out of range.

It’s all great fun, and watching a bird implode in a puff of feathers after a successful shot is highly satisfying.
 Quail shooting, or should I say quail hunting, can either be fullon, with multiple birds flushing everywhere, or become a
mundane task with miles of walking and nothing to show for it but blisters.

Successful hunters often hunt in groups to block quail escape routes and fully cover both sides of a gully. Most of us wear blazeorange caps, vests or belt packs so we are readily visible to other shooters.

Safety is everything and responsible hunters will always turn down a shot if they are unsure of the angle and proximity
of other members of the hunting party  Luckily, we can still shoot lead shot on upland birds such as quail, which is more effective than steel and, most importantly, doesn’t disintegrate the bird on impact or rip it apart as steel shot is prone to do.
Light loads of small shot sizes, such as #7-9 shot, make for large dense patterns, but you need to be close and shots from more than 30 metres are really getting out there.

Anyone who thinks you can’t miss with a shotgun hasn’t tried quail shooting. All hell breaks loose when a covey is chased into cover and individual birds first flush.  Shots ring out and more birds explode from nowhere in a bid for safety. Most of them make it and it’s a rare day to score the limit of 10 birds per shooter.

We’ll all be yelling instructions to each other and you can hear the excitement in everyone’s voices as we wait for the next birds to show themselves.  It is always fun watching someone else powder a high bird with a great shot or watching a good dog retrieve a difficult downed bird.

At lunchtime, stories are shared and snippets of male wisdom are passed to younger members.  Then, when it is time to head for home, the highlights of the day are relived in great detail, often with much laughter.

As you pull up your driveway, late at night, you wonder why on earth you aren’t going quail hunting again tomorrow.


Duck Shooting Opening Weekend

© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, A duck and stormy morn, Nelson Mail, 9 May 2009
On the first Saturday in May, thousands of hunters lined ponds, swamps, rivers, lakes and estuaries in the hopeful expectation of encountering the wily mallard duck.

Being our most common and revered dabbling duck, the mallard is the quintessential gamebird, capturing the imagination of all New Zealand waterfowlers.

The male mallard, or drake, is a beautiful bird with an iridescent green head, bright-yellow bill, white neck collar, chestnut breast, barred silver flanks, dazzling green and blue patches on the wing and bright-orange feet.

Mallards are coveted by hunters for their speed on the wing, availability, taste and, most importantly, their legendary cunning.

Mallards can easily evade even experienced hunters. They respond well to decoys and calling, but good camouflage and attention to detail are other important elements for success.

In recent years, the sporting market has been flooded with American duck-hunting gear, and the array of shotguns, decoys, layout blinds and other equipment on offer is truly amazing, in many cases revolutionising and reenergising New Zealand duckhunting.

The mallard was introduced from wild American birds in the 1930s and it has been an overwhelming success story, acclimatising into all manner of habitats, such as coastal lagoons, farm ponds, swamps, riverbeds and agricultural land.

A prodigious coloniser of rural and urban areas, the mallard has even been busy interbreeding with the native grey duck, which has been reduced to pockets of birds in more remote, less fertile areas, with the birds of mixed heritage sometimes called ‘‘grallards’’.

Opening day of the 2009 gamebird shooting season has been and gone and, unfortunately, I wasn’t out there. I had opening weekend invites to shoot a variety of ponds out of the district last weekend, but the closest I got to ducks was feeding them at Washbourn Gardens with the kids while Aimee was away at a kindergarten conference in Wellington.

It didn’t matter – the kids and I had a great time together and there are still another three months of duck hunting ahead of us.

Friends and acquaintances did well throughout the country, with my father, Stuart, and friend Malcolm Irvine both taking limit bags of mallards and paradise ducks on opening day. Not bad for a couple of retired guys and just an hour’s drive out of Richmond .

Some of my greatest memories of epic mallard hunts haven’t happened in the Nelson-Marlborough area, where generally bird numbers are pretty low. Major agricultural areas elsewhere are where the big numbers of mallards occur, and getting to hunt large concentrations of birds can make for a wonderful waterfowling experience.

Knowing hunters who have access to great locations is usually the key to success and I’ve been fortunate to have had kind friends throughout the country who have been willing to share their favourite haunts with me.

Many people have specially dedicated wildlife ponds and have an extensive feeding regime before the season begins. One connection feeds tonnes of peas annually into his network of ponds.

Greenhead memories flood back – of orange and pink sunrises and sunsets, huge mobs of mallards, and great experiences shared with special friends in hides, rafts and boats.

Southland’s Mataura river was amazing as hundreds of mallards could be seen in the air at any one time. Shooting a limit bag of greenheads was never going to be a problem because my mates, who were expert callers, were able to cajole plentiful birds over our waiting guns.

Otago hunts saw waves of birds pouring into stubble-fields of wheat and barley, while the lagoon waters of the North Island’s Wairarapa were a magnet for huge numbers of ducks and very successful social hunting.

With four shooters confined within a Wairarapa maimai, it was the closest I’ve ever been to having shell-shock. I was just glad the ducks couldn’t shoot back.

Westland has turned on some remarkable hunting over the years with a huge number of secret and secluded places to hunt and explore.

I’ll never forget the time I found a duck-infested flax and swamp hell-hole that we have shot successfully many times since. When I first stumbled into it, more than 1000 ducks left the swamp, minus a few of their buddies.

On our first proper shoot at the swamp, getting in and out was a logistical nightmare, considering we had only about 20 minutes of actual hunting before all taking our limit of fat greenheads.

 But my waterfowling heart probably belongs to North Canterbury. As a university student I lived for hunting Lake Ellesmere, a huge coastal lagoon near Christchurch. My stationwagon was always packed and ready to head for the lake at a moment’s notice of any impending storm that would keep the ducks flying low.

The duck life at Ellesmere is phenomenal and hunting in a howling southerly with pounding seas is as good as it gets.

Four years ago, my semiautomatic shotgun broke during a busy shooting session and I had to wade ashore to the Fish and Game hut to collect my spare gun. On the way, I encountered about 20 protesters dressed in yellow coats, hoping to disrupt shooters and "save’’ the ducks.

Greeting the protesters warmly, and holding the gate open for them, they celebrated the breakdown of my gun. ‘‘Don’t get too excited,’’ I told them, ‘‘I’ll be hunting again soon.’’

Many people think duck hunting is just about killing birds, but waterfowlers are some of the world’s greatest conservationists. Sure, there are a few idiots out there, but most hunters are responsible stewards of our sport and we were horrified to see it portrayed in a bad light on TV’s Close Up recently because of irresponsible firearms owners.

Recently, I tagged along to watch my father take my oldest son on his first duck hunt. It was with great pride that I watched grandfather and grandson interact with mutual affection, discussing safety and strategy.

At eight years old, Jake has a lot to learn, but he conducted himself well with the youth model, singlebarrel .410 shotgun he carried.

When a rabbit hopped past our hide, Jake fired once to claim his second rabbit.

When the mallards came, my heart beat fast as the ducks swung low over the pond, their wings whistling as the birds chattered excitedly. Jake raised his gun several times, but was never offered the easy opportunity he needed.

We staged a tactical retreat to leave the pond for another night, without actually firing at any ducks, but Jake was hooked.

My boy had become a greenhead hunter.

Goat Hunting in the South Island, New Zealand


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Underrated prey great fun for keen hunters, Nelson Mail, 28 February 2009

Rugged terrain: Clayton Nicholl and goat, in the Marlborough high country. Photo: ZANE MIRFIN

Summer’s always a busy time of year, as I race all over the South Island wilderness in pursuit of the wily brown trout.

Human nature is a funny thing though, and I always find myself on the lookout for wild animals to come back and hunt at some later stage when fishing guiding is done.

This summer I have seen a few red and fallow deer, both from ground level and from zooming around in a helicopter, but by far the most common introduced animal I have seen is the humble feral goat (Capra hircus).

Introduced by early mariners, sealers, whalers and miners, the wild goat is a great resource close at hand for most recreational hunters. What the goat lacks in status in most hunters’ eyes is more than made up for by the relative abundance of animals, ease of access, and enjoyable stalking in mind-popping terrain.

Goats were first liberated by Captain Cook in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1773, and many breeds were liberated throughout the country, so there is great regional variation in size, weight, colour and horn growth.

Angora goats are especially prized, as they generally grow the largest horns. The New Zealand record, from North Auckland, is for horns more than 120cm wide.

Goats are good foragers on low-grade food and are highly adaptable animals that thrive in often sterile environments that don’t suit other animals well.

You can find goats anywhere – riverbeds, bush country, open tops, hill country pasture, slips, rocky terrain and pine forests. I’ve shot goats from the rainforests of Westland to the dry barren country of the inland Kaikoura ranges, from vehicles, rafts, jetboats and on foot.

Indeed, they range throughout New Zealand from the coastline to alpine areas.

Goats are always fun animals to stalk and observe.

All individuals, they range in colour from black, brown and white to all shades in between. The males, or billies, are bigger, shaggier and with more impressive headgear than the female nannies.

Being inquisitive animals, they can be very comical in their behaviour and mannerisms, but once the bullets start flying, they can beat a hasty retreat pretty fast.

Billy goats have a reputation for being smelly due to a scent gland under their tail and the habit of urinating on their underbelly but smaller, younger and female animals are usually  very clean.

Collecting sets of billy goat horns used to be a boyhood hobby but now I’m more likely to shoot young animals, especially when I’m near the truck and can recover the meat. Back legs and forelegs are great as roasts, stews, curries and stir fries. In Asia, goat meat is preferred to lamb or mutton, being lean and tasty.

I can even remember harvesting some young tender goats for my great-uncle, Garry Livick, who developed a fondness for goat meat after years of living in Fiji, and then being asked whether I could shoot some tough old animals next time so the meat would hold together better in his vindaloo curry.

The New Zealand Deerstalkers Association in a submission to the Wild Food Review 2005 (Food Safety Authority) was very concerned about the potential for large numbers of wild animals being contaminated with the aerial poison 1080. How safe goat meat from Crown land is to eat is up to you and may depend on how much you believe the bureaucrats operating the poison drops.

Goats are widely seen as an ecological pest of scourge proportions, but I like them and the act of hunting them, although I sympathise with the owners of large pine plantations with vulnerable young trees.

Interestingly, if you google ‘‘wild goats’’, they are mostly seen as a resource, but if you type in ‘‘feral goats’’, they are widely seen as an unmitigated pest.

I’m not here to peddle propaganda – you’ll have to make up your own mind. All I know is that, as a young man growing up hunting in the 1970s and 80s, there were very low numbers of game animals like deer, chamois or thar present in huntable numbers on public lands. Goats offered an opportunity to stalk groups of wild animals during the day, often with binoculars, on huge areas of Crown land. Private landowners were also willing, in most cases, to allow goathunting access because the animals had no real cash value. Numerous early goat-hunting adventures with my father Stuart and brother Scott on private land up the Wakamarina Valley in Marlborough created hunting successes that catapulted us onwards and upwards to bigger and better hunting opportunities in later years.

Of recent years, I’ve had some magnificent hunting adventures with fellow fishing guide Clayton Nicholl, of Blenheim. Escaping our families and in-laws for numerous day trips, Clayton and I have explored many valleys and creeks of inland Marlborough in quest of the shaggy goat.

Some days we are highly successful and sometimes not, but the rocky high-country terrain explored and camaraderie shared have a special place in my heart and mind. Taking turns sharing a single shot .223 complete with sound moderator and stalking in close on small bands of wild goats is highly exciting, enjoyable and even addictive.

Over the next year or two, I hope to introduce my children to the fine art of stalking goats and the traditions of hunting with Clayton. I sure hope my kids experience as much wonder and excitement as I did on early goathunting adventures with my dad.


Deer stalking in the South Island of New Zealand


© Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Deer Stalking brings out roar emotions, Nelson Mail, 2 August 2008

Nothing quite compares to the hunt for the red deer.

Stuart Mirfin - Stag Hunter: Red deer are a highly regarded species for recreation and farming and as a local food source.

The Nelson province is brimming with opportunities to hunt red deer on both private and public lands. Dick Sowman’s local history of the Nelson Acclimatisation Society, Meadow, Mountain, Field and Stream, details the establishment of New Zealand’s first red deer herd in the Maitai Valley in 1861 with the release of a stag and two hinds.

This was the start of something very special for generations of New Zealand big game hunters.

Red deer have been an overwhelming success story. "In Victorian times and earlier, with a disregard for other fish and animal species that would be appalling in today’s enlightened society, British military men, commercial travellers and fortune-seekers – those who spent long periods of time away from their homeland – transplanted ‘‘their’’ trout and salmon, gamebirds and red deer and so on all over the planet.

While assuring ourselves that we would never be so ecologically insensitive, we may heave a sigh of relief that they were, and proceed to enjoy the fruits of their labours." ( Silvio Calabi - Game Fish of North America )

Red deer are a highly regarded species for recreation and farming and as a local food source, and Nelson hunters have always been at the forefront of the red deer story.

The major period of activity for red deer is in late March/April during the roar, when stags gather harems of females in a territorial frenzy and mating occurs.

Hunters dream of stalking roaring wild stags in thick vegetation and, at close range, it is exciting and addictive.

Fawns are born in early December, while the stags re-grow their velvet antlers and lead a solitary life in male groups.

Spring hunting is often good, when young animals venture forth on to new grass on valley floors and slips as their metabolism increases to take advantage of seasonal plant growth. Most females will be about 60kg, with stags about 80-100kg, depending on location, age and breeding line.

Wild venison is a delightful meat to eat, being low in fat, and is prized throughout New Zealand rural and urban communities.  Some of the best meat can be harvested in late summer and autumn, when the animals are often
high on the alpine tops and in prime condition.

Unfortunately, Nelson deer don’t grow great antlers, with the best trophies always coming out of Otago, which was populated with the classic Scottish highland stags of Invermark.

These were the same animals that inspired Sir Edwin Landseer’s classic painting Monarch of the Glen. The other great New Zealand red stags came from the Rakaia herd of Stoke Park blood.

Nelson hunters made history by targeting the westward expansion of the Rakaia stags into the Westland valleys of the Hokitika and Whitcombe in the 1930s and ’40s. Classic books were written by Nelson stalkers such as Gordon Atkinson (Red Stags Calling), Jack and Charlie Shuttleworth (Stalking the Wild Red Deer), Alec and Newton McConochie (You’ll Learn No Harm From the Hills) and Max Curtis (Around the Rivers Bend).

Other well-known Nelson hunters of the era included Don Cummings, Tracy Stratford, Gordon Max, Bert Spiers, and plenty more I’ve missed.

I consider myself fortunate to have met many of these pioneers of red deer hunting.

In later years, the game changed and culling became the norm, followed by commercial venison recovery, then the helicopter era of animal recovery.

In the year of my birth, in 1967, wild animal recovery peaked at 110,000 red deer carcases exported overseas.

Many Nelsonians were involved in these phases, which eventually led to live capture for farming purposes. Names such as John and Bill Reid, Noel Boyd, Dick and Syd Deaker, Bill Wallace, Alan Cauldwell, Phil Melzer and many others are still warmly regarded and have legend status.

If you want to see some really exciting helicopter footage of deer recovery, get hold of the DVD The Last Great Adventure, a visual history of an exciting time in the history of the red deer.

It’s safe to say that the current bureaucrats in the Department of Conservation and Animal Health Board, dispensing huge amounts of aerial 1080 poison, will not be so warmly remembered.

The current bureaucratic fixation on all things native has led to a sad situation where an outstanding asset like red deer has been turned into a liability at the expense of the taxpayer.

The current bright spot is that red deer hunting is on the rebound, with many areas having the best hunting success in decades.

I shot my first deer in the Cobb Valley in 1981 when I was 13 years old. Red deer were scarce back then but recent hunts have been the best that I can remember.

I’ve had to wait almost 30 years to hunt the wild red deer on the open alpine tops and it’s just magic.

In 2004, I was fortunate to win the SPARC Award for Adventure, Recreation and Lifestyle Reporting at the Sir TP McLean Sports Journalism Awards for a portfolio of outdoor stories, one of those articles called A Century of Hunting featuring Tracy Stratford (100 years old) and his buddy Gordon Max (still going strong at 85).

They were Nelson deerstalkers in the golden age of hunting long before the advent of helicopter gunships and 1080 poison.

I’d like to leave the last word here to Gordon, who summed up the dreams and aspirations of the true
deerstalker when he mused: ‘‘To me, deerstalking was the hard yakka, cutting the tracks up, and finally breaking out above the alpine scrub and the mist drifting around, letting out a hopeful roar and sitting down with the glasses. ‘‘You’d hear a stag roar or a bull bugle . . . there’s just nothing else like it.’’



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

mirfin family 0017-482
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?