Cape Barren Geese
In the pre-dawn darkness John Byers and I made the long run across the large Australia reservoir. The weather was overcast and a little cool, as May "down under" corresponds to our November. John turned the boat off of the main lake, and we worked our way into a reed-bound back-water bay. Here we threw out a spread of John's hand-carved cork decoys, for which he is gaining fame throughout his home state of Victoria and in other Australian waterfowling regions. We pushed the boat behind a shore blind, spread a camo net and prepared for a morning that I hoped would be as excellent as most of the others during my six-week stay.With still a few minutes remaining before legal time, John blew several notes on his call-which he'd also made. I uncased the old Charles Boswell 12-bore pigeon gun I'd purchased from McDonald's Gunshop, in Melbourne, the year before and left with John. He took out his Beretta over/under. Ducks were working the spread stead-ily as we loaded up with Winchester steel No. 3s, and from that point things accelerated quickly. We both had our limits of seven ducks within an hour and had missed half again as many. Our bag was comprised of Australian black ducks, which are very similar to our own black ducks; gray and chestnut teal (drake chestnuts being about the size of hen wigeon); blue-winged shovelers; and Australia's premier ducks (at least for me): white-eyeds, or hardheads as they commonly are called. The previous year, when I'd spent a month hunting with John, hardheads had been thick around the lake. In fact, one shore blind had become known as "The Hardhead Hole," as we'd shot limits of just these ducks there. The hardhead is one of Australia's three divers, the other two being blue-billed and musk ducks, both of which are protected. The hardhead is a pochard and best thought of as being like our redhead. Hardheads frequently travel in large flocks, and their approach to the decoys is as classic as that of any duck that flies. They are also superb on the table. That morning last May we were well into filling our limits when John suddenly hissed, "Hardheads, mate!" Coming directly in, wings cupped, was a flock of about 25. As always, once the birds were into the decoys and we'd jumped up to shoot, the flock blew out to all points of the compass. We both made doubles. Of the four John brought back, there were both drakes and hens, all in prime plumage. About a half-mile down the backwater were two other waterfowlers: Pud Howard, the owner of a sporting-goods shop and a major player in Australia's progressive sportsmen's organization Field & Game, and Dr. Stephan Ottathycal, a surgeon from Italy. The doctor has spent the past 25 years building a collection of waterfowl specimens, and he later told me that he thinks his collection is the most complete outside the British Museum. Pud was acting as his guide for collecting the Australian species. While we picked up the decoys, John commented on the lack of shooting we'd heard from our friends' end of the bay. We motored down to check. Aside from a drake blue-winged shoveler, the doctor hadn't bagged any of the ducks he was looking for. Because Pud had told me beforehand that it made no difference to the doctor who actually shot the birds he sought, I offered him the hardheads, which he accepted without hesitation. I was staying at what loosely could be called a fisherman's camp along the lake. For $9 a night, I had a bunk for my sleeping bag, a shower and a stove on which to cook ducks, rabbits and kangaroo backstraps, the latter turning out to be not bad. I also had been given some mutton birds to try. Mutton birds are the young of sooty and short-tailed shearwaters, both of which are found in great numbers on offshore islands in New Zealand and Australia. They are popular fare among the native Maoris of New Zealand and the Aborigines of Australia; however, others have markedly different opinions of them. There is a legal market-gathering season for these burrow-nesting birds, although they are basically pure grease. I am nearly certain that if one held a match to them, they would explode into flame. When I told the lodge owner that I had been given some to try, I got a steely warning not to cook them in the kitchen, so I prepared my samples on a grill outside. It tasted like I was gargling with fish oil, and I'm sure that my breath could have been cut into chunks and used as bait. Several months prior to arriving, I had shipped down from Oregon an old Barne-gat sneakbox, which I kept on the bank across from the lodge. I also bought a very used pickup to get around in. On the days I didn't shoot with John or Pud, I used my sneakbox with hand-carved decoys that John had made for me. It was all very good. A couple of days after giving away the hardheads, I returned to the lodge following the morning's hunt and learned that I'd had a phone call from Pud. When I returned the call, he had some startling news: The next morning Dr. Ottathycal and he were going to Flinders Island for Cape Barren geese. The doctor wanted me and another hunter, Don Rhodes, to join them. (Don had been involved in helping the doctor collect a pink-eared duck.) Most of the Australian waterfowlers I knew had made the trip to the island for geese. But it wasn't cheap, and they typically formed a group to split the cost of the chartered plane and the guide's fee. While talking with Pud, I did a quick nervous mental account of my budget and guardedly asked what my share of the expenses would be. "Nothing, mate," he said. "Dr. Ottathycal is footing the entire bill." Talk about being in the right place at the right time! As for the Cape Barren goose, one would be hard-pressed to find a goose more different or in a more obscure place. The large bird became known to science in 1792. It was collected in the Recherche Archipelago, off of Western Australia, by French botanist Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière, who thought it to be a new species of swan. Later ornithologists ruled it a shelduck and then subsequently decided that it had both goose and shelduck traits. It finally ended up classified as a goose, but it is considered by some to be closer to a swan. The Cape Barren goose nests on islands off of Australia's mainland. Principal areas are the Furneaux Group in Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania; Wilson's Promontory in Victoria; the islands of Spencer Gulf in the state of South Australia; and the Recherche Archipelago. To a large degree, the geese stay offshore on the islands, but in both South Australia and Victoria some birds spend time on the mainland. They are protected in all areas except Flinders Island. The birds on the islands in Bass Strait were subjected to "great destruction of geese and their eggs from an early date," as noted by H.J. Frith in his book, Waterfowl in Australia. In the early 1800s a sealing industry was formed on the islands, and geese were killed in vast numbers along with the seals. After the sealing ceased for lack of animals, descendants of the original sealers and their Aboriginal wives settled several of the larger islands of the Bass Straits. Further inroads were made into the remaining goose population. In 1959 a closed season was enacted, but due to the remoteness of the islands, enforcement was virtually impossible. In the 1960s the total population likely numbered about 1,000 birds, although one source placed it at only 500. Thankfully, the number of geese has been slowly rebuilding. Today the total population is around 20,000, with the bulk found in the Fur-neaux Group of Bass Strait. For those who want to bag one of the world's most striking geese, Flinders Island is the place to go. Be assured that a Cape Barren goose in the hand is a bird that commands appreciation. It is about as large as a big race of Canada goose. Overall coloration is soft ash gray, with black oval spots on the wings. The cere of the bill is a bright greenish-yellow. Although there were early settlers on Flinders Island from the sealing days, up until the years following World War II much of the island was scrub. A government plan allowed homesteading there by war veterans, and much of the area was cleared for farms. The result was vast pastures, which greatly benefited the geese. By the 1980s farmers' complaints about geese increased as the numbers grew. Today management revolves around the fact that the geese don't breed on Flinders Island, as all breeding islands are protected. In addition studies have shown that the flocks on Flinders are comprised of non-breeding birds. The older breeding pairs stay on their nesting islands along with the young juvenile birds. Goose hunting is administered by the state of Tasmania's game managers, whose objective is to keep the number of geese at 5,000 birds. Quotas are set to harvest excess birds, which in most years means about 2,000. If the quota is reached, no further permits are issued-although because of what is involved in reaching Flinders Island, the quota is seldom reached. Greg Hocking, who sets the quotas each year, wrote me that his major problem is getting enough hunters to harvest the number of birds he wants removed. I have no great love for small planes. Much of this antipathy dates back to the early '70s, when I lived in New Zealand for a year. When the trout fishing was slow, I would join up with professional venison hunters in the Kaimanawa Moun-tains behind Lake Taupo. Getting in required a small plane landing on a gravel bar, and the adventures nearly left my knuckles permanently white with each landing and takeoff. Although there are commercial flights to Flinders Island from Melbourne and Hobart, Dr. Ottathycal elected to charter a small plane closer by. When we arrived at the airport, we helped the pilot push the plane out of a shed beside a sheep pasture. The sky was dark, and a strong wind was blowing. The pilot inventoried our stuff and remarked several times about there being too much weight. His casual comment, "We should be OK," didn't help my uneasiness. "Should" had too many variables for my taste. But once above the cloud cover, my worries evaporated. The hour-long flight over Bass Strait was made in deep-blue skies, and I was able to look down on the many small islands that make up the Furneaux Group. Flinders Island was a surprise, as it was much larger than I'd imagined. Rising up were the mountains of the Darling Range, with Mount Strzelecki the most evident. Chris "Rockjaw" Rhodes-as pure an Aussie as has ever lived-was waiting for us at the airport. His nickname comes from a square block jaw the likes of which I've never seen on another human. He is the chief hunting and fishing guide on Flinders Island. We piled into his Land Rover, complete with a flashing-red engine temperature warning light, and sped toward the vast pastures that cover most of the island. Chris guides for not only geese but also the native brown quail (another excellent gamebird) with a good-looking English setter. If requested, he will take out hunters for turkeys and peacock as well. (If I ever return to Flinders Island, I may just have to try the latter. My guess is that setting up in a blind, using a hen decoy, and having a male peacock come in with his tail fully extended likely would upstage any tom turkey that ever lived.) I had to ask Chris about tiger snakes, which are about as deadly as any on earth. Flinders Island has an especially large race of tiger snake, but Chris smilingly assured me that all would be in hibernation. That was good. Our actual hunting method was to drive the birds. I asked Chris about decoys, but he said that no one uses them because there are a lot of fields and the geese are widely spread out and don't fly much. Each of our permits allowed the taking of 10 to 15 geese, although I forget exactly how many because I planned to stop after taking four or five, which I did. In total there were four drives for the day. We spent a fair amount of time looking for fields holding what Chris felt were enough geese. A lot of fields had only 10 to 20 birds in them. In each field we hunted Chris would spread us out along a fenceline or drainage ditch, leave, and then work his way to the opposite side of the field to put the birds into flight-hopefully over us. It typically took about 30 minutes from the time he left for the first birds to appear. During that time there'd be a steady stream of mountain ducks trading back and forth. These are the Australian shelducks, very similar to New Zealand's paradise ducks. We didn't shoot at them for fear of putting off the geese. Chris said we were the next-to-last group that he had booked for the year. I soon saw that I didn't have to worry about shooting too many birds. The geese had been hunted hard by the time we'd arrived, and they were wary. Owing to the fact that the pastures were large, the four of us were able to cover only small sections. And as Chris put up the birds, only the slightest movement would cause them to flare. Most of the larger flocks would pass to either side of us. On our first drive there was some amusement around spooking geese. The first flock came between Dr. Ottathycal and me, and we each killed a bird. With other flocks still heading in our direction, the doctor ran out to admire his first Cape Barren goose. Then he pulled out a camera and started taking pictures, all the while turning flock after flock. Our calls for him to get back into hiding were in vain. But considering the sizeable amount of money he had forked out for that goose, his excitement was justified. In the three other fields he regained his composure. By the end of the afternoon our total bag was 16. Simply put, it had been a very good day in a remarkable place. I was replaying the images of those big impressive geese in my mind as our plane returned to the mainland in fading light. Several days later I still was rewinding the events as Pud and I were throwing out black-duck decoys. Pud casually remarked, "What do you think the odds are of falling into a free Cape Barren goose hunt, mate?" All I could do was shake my head and smile. Indeed, I was one lucky man. Author's Note: Pump and autoloading shot-guns are illegal in Australia. Side-by-sides and over/unders are allowed. A rather involved gun permit is needed to take a gun into the country, and it should be applied for several months ahead of time. For more information on hunting Cape Barren geese and help with the gun-importation permit, contact Chris Rhodes, Rockjaw Tours, 01161-363596506; http://focus onflinders.com.au/rockjawtours.htm. Worth Mathewson is a freelance writer and publisher in Amity, Oregon. He is also a Field Editor for Delta Waterfowl.
- By: Worth Mathewson