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.

KEVIN COUTTS says game bird hunting is a lifestyle, a family tradition and a way to source food. The 62-year- Ngongotaha resident says he's been hunting game birds about 24 years.

This weekend will see him inside a maimai (hunters' hut) in wetlands at Kapenga.

"I'm cautiously optimistic I'll get a few birds. My favourite is mallard duck ... I don't consider it a sport, because once you kill something, it's not a sport. I shoot ducks because I like eating ducks."

It's an ethic Kevin is passing along to his 10-year old grandson, Cody Brunner.


"He sticks like glue to me through shooting season. He doesn't shoot, he just likes coming with me. It'll be a couple of years before I teach him to shoot. He's not physically big enough to handle a shotgun. And you've got to learn to respect what we're hunting."

Kevin will bring his 3-yearold Labrador retriever-cross, Lucy, as well. He says not every duck shot goes down dead; some are injured and must be found.

"You don't leave injured or wounded birds lying around, and without a dog, you're not going to get it. You've gotta dispatch an animal as quickly and humanely as possible, and having a dog allows you to do that."

Veterinarian Sarah Healey agrees. 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, in the Whakatane District. "My friends have gotamaimai 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 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.

"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 years, he and fellow hunters have pooled their money to buy ducks for release: 400 over the past couple years and 700 planned for this year.

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

Eastern Region Senior Fish and 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 department bands ducks, uses transmitters and aerial counts to estimate population.

Georgia Williamson at a wetland near Te Puke. Game bird hunters use decoys to try to lure ducks. PHOTO/FISH&GAME
Georgia Williamson at a wetland near Te Puke. Game bird hunters use decoys to try to lure ducks. PHOTO/FISH&GAME

Matt says, "Numbers are looking pretty promising ... All the information is pointing towards the population starting to return to healthy levels."

Though conservation groups say more than 90 per cent of wetlands have been drained, Matt says ducks are using drainage systems to breed and nest.

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 around 3500 game bird licenses are sold each year in the Eastern Region (encompassing Tauranga, the East Coast, Taupo, the Rangitaki Plains and Rotorua lakes district). He calls the Lower Kaituna Wildlife Management Reserve the last "decent sized" wetland in the Bay of Plenty and says money from game bird licence fees help fund wetlands such as Kaituna.

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.

Kevin Coutts says each firearm owner is responsible for safety. He says he doesn't load until he sees his target, nor does he mix alcohol with guns.

"That's using common sense."

Department of Fish&Game officials say land owners who shoot on their own property don't need a license (but still must obey rules), while other hunters need a license. Government or state-owned lands are fair game for hunting, but shooters must still adhere to season length and bag limits.

Hunters can bag two more mallard and grey ducks per day (total eight). Paradise, swan and pukeko regulations are similar to last year. While duck season in the Eastern Region ends June 19, upland games birds such as pheasant and quail can be hunted until August 28. Duck dumping is illegal, punishable by up to a $5000 fine.
- Source: Fish&Game Eastern Region

Duck hunting safety:
?strong>- Eastern Region Senior Fish and Game officer Matt McDougall says game bird hunting differs greatly from deer hunting because identifying the target is much less of an issue. Hunters in a maimai normally have a clear field of vision in front of them-and they're firing upwards at ducks. But he says, "being safe in the maimai means ... making sure your mates are well clear before firing."
Other safety tips:
- Never leave a loaded gun propped up against anything
- Treat every firearm as loaded
- Don't load until ready to fire at a target
- Never mix hunting and drinking
- Hunters using boats must wear life jackets (camouflage-style jackets are available).