A kiwi duck hunting classic 50 years on

  • 17/04/2024

A kiwi duck hunting classic 50 years on

Written by - Dale Williams

There are numerous books about deer hunting in New Zealand, yet duck hunting books are rare. I recently purchased Duck Hunting in Australia and New Zealand by Jack Byrne from old acquaintance Kingsley Field, a freelance writer who had been sent the book by AH & AW Reed to review prior to the publication back in May 1974

Coincidentally, this was around the time of my first Opening Weekend in the Waimakariri with my Dad and two older brothers. I read it during my last year at school and for me it built a foundation of knowledge about guns, decoys, duck calling and duck behaviour.

This book provides an excellent snapshot of how things were a half century ago. One change is apparent before you reach the end of the first page: “The Australian Black Duck, or Grey Duck as it is called in New Zealand, is common to both countries, and in most areas it is the cornerstone on which the sport depends. Mallard are also common to both countries to some extent, and in New Zealand at least, are beginning to assume predominance in the duck population.”

Nowadays, in New Zealand mallards are dominant. Where I currently hunt in the Central North Island, we still get one or two pure greys but mostly mallards and mallard/grey hybrids. Despite predictions about extinction of the grey duck, I believe they will continue to hold their own, provided sufficient truly wild places remain undisturbed.

Mallards are comfortable living in highly modified environments close to humans, but their survival is dependent upon being suspicious and observant. As a result, the ducks we hunt are now more cautious, hence the importance of quality decoys and camouflage. Conversely, my Dad claimed greys would decoy on teardrop shaped bits of flat iron painted black and dropped on the gravel in the Waimak’.

What hasn’t changed is the basic biology of ducks, the calls they make and their general behaviour. Byrne lists 20 points to improve your tally. These are all still 100 per cent relevant 50 years on.


  1. Duck are gregarious creatures
    Use decoys to your advantage

  2. Wild duck are talkative
    Learn to use a duck call

  3. Duck have extremely good vision
    Use camouflage and don’t move

  4. Duck are intelligent
    They learn quickly and will avoid things that are out of place

  5. Duck land and take off against the wind
    Place decoys with this in mind and approach ponds with the wind behind you

  6. Duck in boisterous conditions seek shelter
    Hunt sheltered spots

  7. Duck usually overshoot the decoys when landing
    Place most decoys downwind of your stand and leave space for them to land

  8. Most duck usually turn in flight while circling decoys, either downstream or downwind of the decoys
    If duck are not decoying, stand downwind or downstream and enjoy pass shooting

  9. The best shooting is invariably in early morning or late evening
    Arrive early, stay late

  10. Empty air does not necessarily mean an empty bag
    Call and be patient

  11. Duck fly faster than you think
    If in doubt double your lead

  12. Duck are usually further away than you think
    Wait until they come close

  13. Have a session or two on claybirds and do a lot of ‘dry’ shooting before opening day
    Would you expect to play your best golf if you have not handled a club in 12 months?

  14. Provide yourself with a good dog and see that it is properly trained
    Hunting with a good dog will add immeasurably to your enjoyment

  15. Be in the right place at the right time and be adequately prepared
    Preparation pays off

  16. Duck rarely fly within range of large trees, high banks or other obstructions
    Locate your blind with this in mind

  17. Avoid leaving your decoys [unattended]
    If you do leave pay attention when you return, some ‘decoys’ may fly away

  18. If you are jump shooting, treat every pond or bunch of willows as though it is full of fat ducks
    Approach carefully and cover the likely escape route

  19. Put in the time and be attentive
    Groundwork and observation pay off

  20. Become a duck hunter not a duck shooter
    Study your quarry, their behaviour and habitat

One of the things that is obvious from re-reading this book is how spoiled we are nowadays with unlimited choice of high-quality outdoor clothing, camouflage gear, artificial blinds, plastic cartridges (that don’t swell when damp) and realistic decoys, including motion decoys.

The chapter on painting decoys may seem irrelevant, but there’s a couple of points worth noting. If you are starting out, you could buy second hand decoys and recondition them with an appropriate paint job.

Byrne also points out: “All duck species resting on water appear to be black or nearly black when seen from high above.” To that end, a friend of mine ‘bulks out’ his decoys when hunting big water with old decoys that he has painted matt black.

Byrne warns about the perils of over topping thigh waders. We are so lucky to have neoprene waders which provide positive buoyancy even when full of water. A dunking while wearing neoprene waders will be uncomfortable but at least you will live to moan about it to your mates!

Another thing that hasn’t changed are the calls that ducks make (particularly mallards). Byrne would have had a very limited choice of duck calls, and their quality would have been dubious by today’s standards.  I have a couple of ‘Real Tone’ duck calls from the ‘60s. The name is ironic because their tone is far from real. These points aside, Byrne’s advice is still top notch. I particularly like the illustrations in Chapter 7 which show graphically the various mallard calls.

Summarising some of his key points on blowing a duck call:

  • A duck call is not blown... With the cheeks puffed out... reduce the mouth cavity to a minimum and deliver air from the lungs by diaphragm control in short explosive puffs.
  • Only blow loud enough as is required to attract a duck’s attention and retain it. It is better to underdo the loudness of a call rather than overdo it, especially at close range.
  • Once a flight has turned towards you the sound level of the call should be lowered considerably and the calls speeded up in pace.
  • The straight female quack... is useful... before daylight and also as a lead-in note on all other calls.
  • Most calls are in the six to seven note range.
  • With a little practice most shooters will develop the basic skills ... but unless you practice the calls ... leave the call at home. It will do more harm than good.

I have shared wetlands with hunters who are bad at calling. If they were just bad enough to send the ducks my way that would be great, but usually they are so woeful that the ducks give the whole wetland a wide berth.

No offence to the manufactures of the electronic duck calls but they are also terrible. The mallard hen call is not even a real duck but someone blowing a duck call not particularly well. The parrie call is real but sounds like a moulting flock of 500 birds. I just pray for their batteries to die.

I have no doubt that there are lots of videos and YouTube clips offering instruction on how to blow a duck call but be warned the type of calling that may win an American duck calling competition may have little resemblance to a real duck. I walk my dogs along the edge of Lake Rotorua, and I have never heard a call longer than seven notes and to my ear real ducks sound higher pitched than most deep raspy duck calls.

The book also contains lots of advice about safe gun handling. This never changes, but one thing that has changed is the type of guns we are using. Opines Byrne: “By far the most common shotgun in New Zealand is the conventional side-by-side 12 gauge gun... automatics and pump action guns are very popular in Australia. Auto-loading guns and over-and-under guns are not common in New Zealand.”

In 1996 the Australian government banned semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, and launched a buy-back scheme that resulted in the destruction of 600,000 firearms. At that time, duck hunting had already been prohibited in Western Australia (1990) and New South Wales (1995). Queensland banned duck hunting in 2005.

On that note, I believe we are incredibly fortunate in New Zealand to have Fish & Game strongly advocating for game bird hunting and hunters.

In New Zealand, liberalisation of regulations around ‘unpinned’ semi-auto shotguns resulted in a big shift towards this type of gun for duck hunting. The prohibition on lead shot was the final nail in the coffin for most side-by-sides. Limiting semi autos to three shots in some regions may have seen a few double-barrelled guns dusted off, but these will be modern guns capable of safely shooting steel shot.

Byrne puts a lot of emphasis on gun fit, patterning and practice. The art of hitting moving targets with a shotgun is much more ‘instinctive’ that shooting a rifle and it is greatly benefited by having a gun that fits. Put simply, if the length of the stock, the height of the comb and in some cases the cast in the stock suits you, the gun is more likely to point where you are looking.

The choice of choke, the velocity of the cartridge, and the type and size of the shot all influence the width of the pattern and the number of pellets within it. Success comes down to the shooter seeing the target, mounting the gun, swinging it through the target at the right speed and trajectory and pulling the trigger at the right time while maintaining the swing.

That’s a lot of ‘ducks to have in a row’, so to speak, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Byrne advocates ‘dry’ shooting (which is practicing mounting and aiming your unloaded gun at home) and shooting clay targets as often as you can.

I suggest seeking advice before buying a gun. Even better, try as many guns as you can before deciding what to buy. Most gun clubs will have shotguns you can try and plenty of people who will be willing to help. Getting some coaching when you are starting out will help to avoid bad habits but even if you already own a gun and have been shooting for some time coaching will improve your odds. The more practice the better.

Once again, there’s heaps of stuff on YouTube about shooting technique and while this is great for understanding the theory, there’s no substitute for getting out and doing it.

Byrne also touches on a number of topics including season lengths, bag limits, targeting mallard drakes, pond feeding, crippling loss, predation, botulism and lead poisoning all of which indicate he was a man ahead of his times.

In 50 years, plenty has changed, and plenty remains the same. One thing I’m thankful for is the Fish & Game staff who remain passionate about our pursuit, and are dedicated to nurturing the game we hunt, and protecting the habitat that supports game animals and native wildlife.

A concern, though, is complacency amongst the Kiwi waterfowl hunting fraternity. Just look across the ditch to remind yourself that hunting ducks is a privilege, not an entrenched right. Society has changed markedly since Bryne penned his book. We all must work to maintain the ‘social licence’ for our pursuit and encourage the next generation of hunters to see the tradition through the next 50 years.

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