More often than not the billabongs that abound in our area are bone dry, havens for vermin such as rabbits and foxes. Numerous drives are conducted through the heavy ground cover that seems to flourish in these spots. Foxes are usually the main targets and dogs are required to flush them from these thickets, which are an absolute nightmare if you try to work your way through them on your own.
During the dry spells red gum saplings spring up in profusion, making your passage extremely difficult and by the time the adjacent river floods and fills the billabongs with water and that other noxious vermin, the European carp, the saplings have grown to around 5m in height and are thicker than ever. While the carp are happy with the conditions, the foxes aren’t and are driven out by the rising water, forcing them to set up home elsewhere.
It’s about this time that the ducks turn up in droves for they love the security the heavy cover affords them. The thick growth, especially the tree canopy of the saplings, causes no inconvenience at all as they lower their landing gear and drop in. I have stood and watched them in awe as they hover like helicopters and drop out of the air to land with a plop on the water.
The safety offered to the ducks by the thick saplings is only for a while as the red gums, being the greedy guzzlers that they are, keep sucking up the ample supply of water and soon the canopy starts to wither and the stands of saplings die off. Some stay standing, others roll over but the ducks remain with their numbers increased through good seasonal breeding.
During duck season we were keen to give these areas special consideration and, while the duck numbers are extremely high, hunting them is not as easy as it would seem and some special considerations need to be taken into account. Gaps begin to appear in the landscape, due to the breaking off of numerous saplings and so some areas are opened up. Not overly large, but big enough to set out a number of decoys and these work a treat, especially early in the season.
My brother hunts over one such zone with some friends from the city who always join him for duck opening. At times like this when the ducks come into the decoys more readily, smaller numbered shot and more open chokes are a definite advantage. We like having our over-and-under shotguns set up with improved cylinder in the bottom barrel and the modified cylinder in the top barrel. Number 4, 5 or 6s in 1 1/8oz or 32gram loads are ideal for such shooting. With someone who knows what they are doing blowing the call, it doesn’t take long to collect the bag if all goes well.
However, towards the end of the season it’s a vastly different story as the ducks are becoming a bit gun-shy and it takes a good operator to coax them to respond to the duck call and decoy pattern. It is far easier and more successful to push, or drive, the ducks from where they are up along the billabong to a waiting shooter. Nothing new in this method but most times it is productive.
With the new duck shooting laws in place in Victoria, it’s no longer allowable to shoot a number of ducks before retrieving them. All hunters should be aware by now that you can only take one duck at a time and that duck has to be retrieved before you can try for another one. This law makes it extremely difficult for the person putting the ducks up at the beginning of the drive. The driver has to try and put the ducks up in small numbers as he moves along, which is no mean feat.
Ducks, towards the end of the season, tend to be a bit more flighty and will go up en masse, even if only one rises up at first. This tends to have a snowball effect for any flushed duck, flying away from the flusher, which will take others with it as it flies past. Up until this season it wasn’t much of an issue. If a big mob came over you could always try to drop a couple before they were gone, but now such is not the case. So instead of reloading you have to cease shooting and retrieve your single duck. Of course, this can be a pain, especially if the duck lands out away from you. It certainly pays to have a well-trained dog at heel and instead of retrieving the duck yourself you can send the dog. Believe me, an eager dog will rush out there, retrieve the duck and be back at your side in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it.
While hunting ducks using this method, time is definitely of the essence and the sooner that downed duck is retrieved, the sooner you can go back to shooting. There is nothing more frustrating to a duck hunter than standing there with a broken gun and having ducks pour over your position while you wait for your dog to return with your bird.
A couple of weeks before the season ended, my brothers and I attempted a drive on one of the several billabongs that we frequent. This billabong was U-shaped and, naturally, full of dead timber. So, while my brother Greg and I took our spots up on either side of the billabong, my other brother Mick headed overland to the end of the other side. As luck would have it, after hearing Mick fire a couple of shots, a pair of black ducks came around the bend in the billabong and by the time I had the gun to my shoulder, they were almost on me about 35m up.
While I still had my under-and-over shotgun set up with the improved cylinder choke in the bottom barrel and the modified cylinder choke in the top barrel, I had switched to No 3 in steel shot. From past experiences I knew the ducks would be a bit warier and definitely a lot higher. And indeed, they were on both accounts. Swinging the barrels through from behind the back bird I squeezed the trigger when I was about a metre in front of it with my lead.
The duck folded at the shot and I could have easily followed through and taken the second bird. I broke the shotgun, slipped the dog from her lead and sent her on her way. She bolted to retrieve the downed bird. However, I was peeved when the dog was only halfway back with her charge, as a mob of close to 100 black ducks came barrelling around the bend and passed freely over my position. They were well within range, but I could only stand there with a broken gun.
My brother turned up a short time later and when he asked how many I had taken he just shook his head as I told him of my single bird. I doubt this ridiculous law is in force in any other place in the world where duck hunting is practised. Numerous countries still allow licensed hunters to shoot more than one duck at a time ‑ and with self-loaders at that. But not here… The honest Aussie duck hunter is discriminated against for the actions of a few law-breakers who probably aren’t genuine duck hunters in the first place.
Lucky for us, we had quite a few places such as this billabong. So we kept on hunting until we achieved our bag, but such is not the case for others.