Ducks, Unlimited

CHRIS BATHA

The waterfowling season is fast approaching, and thoughts of it have stirred up fond memories of duck hunts past. I was extremely lucky to have been able to combine work with hunting trips while filming the television series Wingshooting the World with Chris Batha. In making the 26 episodes of the show, we shot more than 14 species of gamebirds on three continents. It was a tough job, as they say, but I was lucky enough to do it.

Of course, ducks, regardless of species and region, are ducks. A mallard flies and behaves much the same in Sweden as it does in Louisiana, Arkansas or Montana. But the hunting methods used in different locations can be as unique and diverse as the weather and habitats.

Sweden

Possibly the most testing duck shooting I have ever participated in was on the Claestorp Estate, just outside of Katrineholm. The estate has been the home of the Lewenhaupt family since 1446, but the family has been in the “new” castle since 1776.

The shooting party I joined was comprised of several counts, princes and viscounts from several European countries. Curiosity compelled me to ask how it happened that they had formed such a diverse syndicate. The answer was simple: All had known each other from school and college. I did not see one piece of camouflage during the two days of duck shooting. Traditional European clothing was the dress of the day: tweed jackets, breeks and, of course, collars and ties.

The Claestorp Estate originally had several natural lakes, and over time these have been added to and expanded. Most of the lakes are several acres in size, but some are larger. The larger lakes have been developed and cultivated to offer outstanding habitat for ducks and other species of wildfowl. At each end of each lake is a half-acre to a full acre of rough cover consisting of rushes, reeds and coarse grasses that is referred to as “the sanctuary.”

The Estate is on one of the finest migratory-waterfowl routes in Europe, but to encourage and supplement the birds, more than 10,000 ducks are bred and liberated here annually. The ducks are hatched from eggs in an incubator, and then released into flight pens. They then are allowed to find the sanctuaries in the lakes, making them live decoys for the migratory ducks as well as fair game themselves.

All of us who had ever sat cold and wet waiting for ducks to be fooled by calls and/or decoys had a jaw-dropping moment on the first drive at Claestorp. Eight floating rafts were equally spaced across the middle of the largest lake. The Guns and their loaders were ferried by small craft to their specified rafts. When all of the Guns were in place, the gamekeeper, positioned at the sanctuary, blew a hunting horn to announce the start of the drive. He then sent a pair of flushing dogs into the cover to put the ducks to flight. The rising ducks dispersed in several directions, but a large majority flew the length of the lake toward the sanctuary at the opposite end.

The ducks passed over the floating line of Guns very high and at full speed. The team of schoolmates proved to be excellent shots, folding ducks at extreme ranges. The fallen birds were retrieved by Labs, which were ferried out to the middle of the lake by boat. This was the first—and only—time I have ever seen “motorized retrieving.”

There were four drives during the day, and straight shooting was matched with good sportsmanship—with only the highest and most testing birds shot. At the end of the shoot, in the European tradition, the ducks were laid out in formation on the front lawn of the estate, a bugler played an ode to the fallen quarry, and a salute was made for the sport provided.

 

Scotland

I have no idea why, but significant numbers of both ducks and geese migrate to Scotland in the winter—which is traditionally cold and wet. As a result, during the late season there often can be a duck drive included on a day’s driven pheasant shooting. Most of this duck shooting takes place around flight ponds, which can be little more than shallow areas of water sheltered from the prevailing winds.

Scottish ducks, many of which are seed and grass eaters, typically travel inland at dusk to feed and spend the night on flight ponds, where gamekeepers keep them fed with grain. The size of the pond will determine the number of shooting butts placed around it.

Just before dusk the Guns are placed in the butts to await the ducks leaving the mudflats and large lochs to feed and roost. Guns typically face west as the sun begins to dip beneath the horizon and the birds start to “flight in.” Often the whistle of wings and silhouettes against the evening sky are the first clues to the birds’ arrival. It is truly a wonderful sporting experience!

As often is the case, the secret is to hold fire and not shoot too early. The ducks come from every direction, so a Gun must pick one and let the bird commit before shooting. As dusk turns to dark, the gamekeeper helps gather the downed ducks with dogs and leads the Guns safely back to the transport.

One evening while we were filming on an estate near Port Patrick, the duck flight started in textbook style. All of the Guns were in place, the camera was set up and the incoming ducks were picturesquely framed against the setting sun. The conditions quickly changed, however, as a thick fog rolled in, but the gamekeeper, who must have had X-ray vision, continued calling the shots for whichever Gun had the best opportunity.

Now, none of the Guns could actually see the ducks, but they could hear the plop, plop of the birds landing on the water. At this point we decided to call it a day. We prepared to leave, only to find that, between the sun dipping over the horizon and the dense fog, we could not see our hands in front of our faces. The only visible point was the Corsewall Lighthouse, near Stranraer, whose light would illuminate the area for a few seconds before continuing its revolutions. So like a field full of blind mice, we inched our way back to the Land Rover and eventually to the warmth of the lodge and a hot toddy (or two). We definitely did not display our ducks on the lawn that night!

Africa

In Africa we shot wildfowl in three locations: Bloemfontein, in the Free State of South Africa; and Durban and Dundee, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. In Bloemfontein we were up at dark o’clock to get into place close to the dam-made lakes for a dawn flight. Once in position, we were cautioned to remain quiet and still.

The sunrise was spectacular, with the first rays looking like “marmalade fingers” creeping over the edge of the world. It was not long before the ducks and geese began to take flight. The numbers in the air were simply staggering. As they approached the line, you could feel the anticipation amongst the Guns.

All of us were holding fire to let the flight get closer when one Gun’s nerves broke and he jumped up and fired both barrels at a duck at “optimistic” range. Thank you, we thought, as we saluted the departing flock.

You can imagine the cameraman’s language, having lugged all of his equipment into the field, set up and waited the better part of an hour to get nothing but a spectacular African sunrise.

In Durban we shot mainly pigeons and doves, but we did have a morning on Egyptian and spur-winged geese taken from trenches dug by hand in a field between feeding areas. It was very early morning and challenging pass-shooting, with the silhouettes of the large geese seeming to float over the line of Guns.

The guide lay flat behind the trenches and called the incoming shots. We had to keep our heads down and remain still to avoid spooking the geese. The first time the guide yelled, “Now!” we rose . . . but the group did not shoot, because the silhouettes of the spurwings passing overhead looked like jumbo jets. Once the birds were gone, our guide asked why we had held our fire. We explained that we had never seen geese so large. After getting the thumbs-up, we proceeded to shoot our limits.

At the end of the flight I lifted a downed spurwing and held its beak to my chin. Its feet practically touched the ground! It was the largest goose I had ever shot, and it was a hunt I will never forget.             

In Dundee we hunted guinea fowl and francolin during the day, and every evening we shot ducks from blinds on the edges of ponds along the Blood River. The ducks were spending the day along the river and coming in to roost on the ponds.

It was unique, as we didn’t use decoys, and our Zulu guides would lay a good distance behind us and call out when the ducks had committed to come to the ponds. All of the guides had great eyesight, spotting ducks long before any of the Guns could make them out. They would call that a duck was approaching, and it would seem like minutes before any of us would pick it out.

It took a lot of self-control and patience to allow enough ducks to land before finally rising to take the shot.

Argentina

Today there are so many more outfitters in Argentina than when I first visited in the late ’80s, but the increased competition offers significant benefits to the traveling hunter. Every aspect of the Argentina experience has improved, including the service, the accommodations, the food and wine, and the competitive prices. This is genteel and superlative waterfowling, with no long wades to the blinds and excellent numbers of birds.

Argentina offers a large variety of ducks, including teal, pintails, wigeon, whistling ducks, shovelers and rosy-billed pochards. So many birds present the opportunity to shoot a smorgasbord of species and a generous limit. In addition, many outfitters offer mixed-bag packages that include doves, pigeons and/or perdiz.

The typical duck hunt begins with an early rise, a light breakfast, and then a ride to the marsh. Depending on the location, blinds may have hard wooden floors, and if the blinds are in water, you may be taken to them by boat.

When the hunt is over, it’s back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast and perhaps a change of clothes for a late-morning perdiz hunt over dogs. Lunch and a siesta usually are followed by a late-afternoon dove shoot. It is little wonder that this is the package of choice for so many.

If I Had to Choose . . .

Driven days in the UK and Scandinavia are incredible experiences and will test the best of shots, but for me, there is something not quite right about shooting hundreds of ducks a day.

In the UK and Scotland duck hunts (as opposed to “shoots”) are considered rough shooting and are usually add-ons to driven shoots, with no guarantees. But you can be lucky and have fantastic gunning on any given day (or night).

Africa is like Argentina without the frills: great shooting and an incredible experience in a country well worth the visit. You also can do a combination hunt for ducks, geese, francolin, guinea fowl and perhaps the large variety of doves and pigeons in similar numbers as there are in Argentina.

In a perfect world, we should be able to shoot them all. But if forced to choose, I probably would go with Argentina. The lodges are superbly comfortable, the service first class and the shooting virtually guaranteed, with a generous limit.

Chris Batha’s latest book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting www.chrisbatha.com. Video-clip shooting tips are available at www.claycoachonline.com.


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