Bay of Plenty duck hunters are hiding on platforms, inside boats and under makeshift huts this weekend in search of birds to stock the family freezer. May 7 marks the start of game bird season in the Eastern Region, where officials predict more ducks for the taking than in years past. 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken spoke with hunters who say their quest is as much about connecting with friends and family as it is about bagging birds.

Anna Wallis is a weekday office administrator and weekend hunter. The 33-year-old Welcome Bay resident says she started clay bird shooting at TECT Park around four years ago. She soon joined the Western Bay Fish and Game Club, where she met Beth Lecky, who brought her to the opening of duck hunting season two years ago.

"She's the one who took me under her wing. We've been shooting together four years." Anna loves catching up with other shooters and being outside. "It's beautiful, serene. It's a world of its own when I'm out there in the estuary. You get to leave life behind." Anna says she always eats what she kills, and prefers her duck slowly baked with skin on. This weekend, she'll await her meal under a maimai (hunters' hut) in Katikati sitting atop poles above the water.

Her usual hunting companion, Beth, will skip this season due to health issues. The 76-year-old from Katikati says she first fired a shotgun with her hunting husband 14 or 15 years ago. She's been hooked since.

"I used to go watch him... I thought it was a thing that a woman didn't really do...my job ended up being carrying the birds. I didn't think about it, I suppose. There's a lot more women shooting now than what there used to be and I encourage them all to have a go [if they] are interested." Beth says her husband plans to hunt game birds this season and will also spend opening weekend in Katikati.

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Hunters say a dog is invaluable for retrieving birds. Veterinarian Sarah Healey says her 4-year-old Labrador, Ruby, is a companion and an asset. "It's enjoyable seeing her swim out there and bringing the birds back. And she loves it - she'll swim and chase things in the water all day long."

The 30-year-old will stake out her usual spot on public land at Lake Aniwhenua, near Galatea, in the Whakatane District. "My friends have got a maimai there. It's a two-storey little building erected in the middle of the lake. We pull a dinghy into the bottom part and there's a little ladder, you walk to the top. It's all covered...it looks like a big chunk of bush and grass in the middle of the lake."

Like other game bird hunters, Sarah uses duck callers and decoys to try to attract birds. "There's plenty of modern technology, like robo ducks that have wings that spin around. It looks like ducks coming in to land. They think it's a duck and will come and join you."

Michael Darling from Katikati plans to join the hunt, but in Southland, in Gore. The 55-year-old avocado contractor says his brothers and father have a long-standing tradition of joining the opening for duck season. But this is the first year in 70 his 84-year-old father will miss the hunt.

Beth Lecky and Anna Wallis pose with pheasants. Photo/supplied
Beth Lecky and Anna Wallis pose with pheasants. Photo/supplied

"He's sick. I know he dearly wants to go because he keeps talking to me about it." Michael says duck hunting's been so bad the past couple of years, he and fellow hunters have pooled money to buy ducks for release: 400 over the past couple years and 700 for this year.

"They've been bred in captivity and banded, so if anyone shoots them, Fish & Game have a record and can say where it was released and age. Whether it helps the population, it's way too early to tell."

Eastern Region Senior Fish & Game officer Matt McDougall says mallard numbers are finally on the rise after a few years with lower populations, which he says is due to factors including climactic events, predators and urban development. The organisation bands ducks, uses transmitters and aerial counts to estimate population.

"Numbers are looking pretty promising," Matt says. "All the information is pointing towards the population starting to return to healthy levels." Though conservation groups say more than 90 per cent of New Zealand wetlands have been drained, Matt says ducks are using drainage systems to breed and nest.

Duck calling pro Paul Thomas demonstrates his expertise at the Bay of Plenty regional round of the NZ Duck Calling Championship at Loaded NZ.

"It's pretty hard work if you're a duck out there to raise a young brood, but this year, we've been reasonably successful compared to the previous two years." The game officer says about 3500 game bird licences are sold each year in the Eastern Region (encompassing Tauranga, the East Coast, Taupo, the Rangitaiki Plains and Rotorua lakes).

The Lower Kaituna Wildlife Management Reserve is the last "decent-sized" wetland in the Bay of Plenty and money from licence fees helps fund wetlands such as Kaituna.

"Most of the remaining wetlands in Bay of Plenty were purchased for hunters by hunters." Safety is a major concern. New Zealanders die each year in hunting accidents; last Mother's Day, a 15-year-old duck hunter died near Matata after authorities say his gun discharged accidentally. It's something Anna Wallis says she's mindful of.

"Our rule is being able to identify the target properly and know where your team is...have the safety on and an empty chamber until you see a duck. That's when you start loading up."

Those rules are more important than ever. Anna's hunting for two: "I'm 18 weeks pregnant and still a keen shooter."

HUNTING BUDDY: Sarah Healey says her 4-year-old Labrador retriever loves splashing in the water to retrieve ducks. Photo/supplied
HUNTING BUDDY: Sarah Healey says her 4-year-old Labrador retriever loves splashing in the water to retrieve ducks. Photo/supplied