The pair of paradise ducks cautiously circle our decoys giving the spread a good once over before banking left just out of range. This was the second flight of ducks that flared from our decoys. My guide Jonathan Christian shook his head and began rummaging through his decoy pack and pull out a paradise duck robo decoy. He assembled it, attached the spinning wings and stuck it in the ground in the middle of our decoy spread.
“Get ready, they can’t resist the wing motion,” he said.
The next flight of five paradise ducks zeroed-in on the robo duck and came in with their wings set. I picked out a gaudy colored female and a big dark colored male and dropped them with three shots. Their splashes shattered the reflection of snow-capped mountains on the pond. Towering behind the marsh loom the 10,000-foot snow covered mountains of New Zealand’s North Island. The setting was magnificent and, best of all, the ducks just kept coming.
I was drawn to this New Zealand bird hunt at the SCI Sacramento Chapter Auction. The description of native ducks, goose, swan and turkey hunting on New Zealand’s South Island sounded great. I was already headed to the South Island for a red stag hunt, and a waterfowl hunt would round out the trip. It offered the opportunity to take black swan, paradise ducks, mallards, Canada geese, pukeko and turkey with Wilderness Quest Outfitters.
At Wilderness Quest Ranch I was immediately impressed. Located on South Island’s remote west side, you could look up at the peaks of the New Zealand Alps towering above the landscape from anywhere on the ranch. A small river, two lakes and a marsh on a wide flat made up the rest of the valley. During the trip in, I saw turkeys feeding in the foothills above the pasturelands.
The first day was set aside for seeing the area and hunting pukeko, a native gallinule that looks like an American coot. Since pukekos are slow flying, I figured to get my lead down on the less challenging of the waterfowl.
To my delight, pukekos were harder to hunt than expected. We hunted them along a series of tree-lined sloughs where they fed. The pukekos sensed where our blind was, and stayed out of shotgun range. Being out-smarted by a bird with a brain the size of pea was aggravating so we decided to try jump shooting.
We spotted five pukekos roosting in a low hanging tree on the edge of the marsh and planned a stalk. Each time one flushed, they flew between trees and back into the woods. I had a quick shot as they flew between trees heading for denser cover. We spent the next several hours flushing birds and waiting for open shots. It was a lot like trying to hit grouse dodging through the trees. Several hits and lots of misses later, we headed in for a late breakfast. As we drove in, pukeko seemed to materialize out of every little ditch, inlet and waterway, just standing there looking at us. Some were close enough to hit with a dirt clod.
That afternoon, we visited a local farmer who was carving black swan decoys out of styrofoam and using a wooden base to stabilize them. The decoys were not works of art, but he guaranteed they would lure black swans into shooting range the next morning.
Heavy morning rains put a damper on the swan hunt. The skies cleared around noon and we launched a jet boat in the nearby lake and headed out to the floating blind to set out our two new decoys. Decoying swans was new to my guide, and he set the decoys out at 50 yards just out of shotgun range. Normally, they pass-shoot black swans as they fly from the feeding area in the marsh to the lake.
The first two flocks of swan veered out of their way to fly over the decoys but out of range. We moved the decoys in closer and got back into the blind as the next flight of swans came over. They looked like B-52 bombers. I stared up in wonder. The next flight of swans landed 75 yards out and swam into the decoys. As they were swimming toward us, three big black males glided in over us, their wings whooshing not 10 yards over our heads.
Jonathan was beside himself, “Are you going to shoot or not?” he asked. “You know you can shoot six today. We are hunting swans!”
All I wanted was one big male to mount and some good pictures of these giant birds. I didn’t have to wait long. Ten minutes later, a giant male flew between us and the decoys less than 30 yards away. My magnum load of copper No. 2s dropped it instantly. The splash was titanic, like a washing machine being dropped into the lake. Water flew everywhere. Ripples broke the reflection of the snowcapped Alps in the background.
The next day was paradise duck day. We set up before the first rays of light hit the marsh. Jonathan built a driftwood blind. Until we set out the robo duck decoy, things looked bleak as one group of ducks after another veered off our decoys. Once we clicked the switch on the rotating wings of the robo decoy, pairs and small flocks of ducks came in with their landing gear down. The wing motion of the robo duck worked magic on them.
I stopped shooting when I folded the eighth duck. Jonathan was puzzled since the limit was 20 and he had lined up families to take the ducks. I explained I had all I wanted to shoot and had a great pair for mounting. He was a good sport and suggested we go try jump shooting grey ducks.
Grey ducks look like hen mallards with an eyeliner. Never plentiful in New Zealand, they were a challenge to hunt. Shy and elusive, they remind me of black duck hunting on the East Coast. The afternoon’s stalk along the river and marsh edges produced one bird. I missed several good shots at flushing greys.
Excellent meals were prepared at the chalet each evening and their red deer cutlets were to die for. But one evening I took over and cooked thin strips of swan breast marinated in kiwi, olive oil, sesame seeds, soy sause, lime juice and brown sugar. Quick fried, they remained tender and juicy. Jonathan was amazed since his family’s roasting method produced chewy dry meat from every goose.
I passed up a morning of Canada goose hunting to go look at elk, red stag, fallow deer and aparrware sheep on the ranch. I was stunned at the 500-point SCI class red stag they were keeping a close eye on for a hunter coming in the following week. It truly was massive. Tines curled in all directions off its main beam. Taking a jeep ride up a timberline canyon, we spotted several small herds of red deer but no big bulls. Higher up, the open range area at the top of the valley looked like classic elk hunting country, and I vowed to return to red deer hunt there in the future.
In the afternoon, we scouted for turkeys. Jonathan knew of two flocks of about 20 birds that used the edge of the pastureland each afternoon to feed on bugs. Using a spotting scope, we found the first flock out in the open with no way to approach them. There were a half dozen jakes but only one mature tom and his beard was short. A gust of wind followed by snow chased us and the turkeys back to cover.
The next morning, we set up on a small hillside overlooking two ravines that led out of deep forest into mixed wood and pasture lands below. A large flock of turkeys with two big toms worked downhill toward us. The key was to figure out which side gully afforded enough cover to intercept the flock as it fed our way. Circling downhill, we wedged in behind a series of dead snags that made a natural blind. If things went as planned, the flock would pass below us about 20 yards out.
Everything worked as planned except that both gobblers were tightly mixed in with the hens and jakes. I never got a clear head shot and had to let them pass less than 20 yards away. Somehow they sensed something was wrong and trotted off immediately after passing us and disappeared into the timber. We played tag with that flock for the next two hours, never getting close enough for a shot.
At lunch, one of the ranch hands told us he watched half a dozen turkeys with at least one really big gobbler in the flock feeding along a series of benches above the sheep pens. We hiked above the pens and spotted the turkeys scratching around on the middle bench, moving slowly downhill. We picked out a concealed spot below them and set up.
Luck was on our side. Something spooked a red deer above the turkeys and they quickly moved downhill toward us, looking back over their shoulders. Half a dozen hens appeared in the opening above us less than 20 yards away. Behind them came four jakes and one nice gobbler. When I got a clear shot, I touched off the round and flattened him.
It was a beautiful gobbler weighing close to 20 pounds and with an extremely thick bushy beard. It was a perfect ending for a mixed bag bird hunt. My revelry was broken when my guide said my bird hunt was not over. A local farmer from the next valley over had a real Canada goose problem. The farmer wondered if we could come over and shoot a couple of dozen geese for him and get them out of his crops? There is no limit on Canada geese on the South Island.– Harry Morse