Waterfowling Africa Style- Size Matters
In the big-game hunting world there’s a loose conglomeration of species collectively referred to as “charismatic megafauna.” These are the animals with special appeal, typically because of their physical size, their glamorous appearance or, in some instances, because of their unpredictable disposition and a willingness to demonstrate their displeasure. This list includes all of the Big Five, of course, as well as crocodiles, giraffes and the hippopotamus. It also includes those game animals revered for their regal beauty, including the kudu and sable. For the sportsman, hunting any of the charismatic megafauna has a unique way of inducing a racing heart, shortness of breath and sweating palms; in short, an excitement that underscores the very reason we choose to hunt them. We thrive on that adrenaline rush.
Wingshooters, by and large, don’t have a list of similarly compelling species to pursue. But if there’s one bird that can stir the emotions, at least for me, it’s the spur-winged goose, the largest goose on the planet. As a self-professed hardcore waterfowler, the prospect of dropping one of these oversized geese, with the namesake unusual protuberance on each wing, is something I’d lusted for since I saw my first spurwing some 30 years ago. So when the invitation came to help out a farmer whose crops were being decimated by geese, including spurwings, my pulse immediately kicked up a notch or two.
We’d be hunting near Baynesfield in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province. My partners were Mark Haldane, a larger-than-life PH renowned for his Mozambique safaris, particularly for Cape buffalo, and Dylan Holmes, a PH who guides for Mark. Both enjoy bird hunting when the opportunity presents itself, and have been hosting wingshooting safaris for many years. While Dylan is quiet and measured, Mark is all personality and an eager and captivating story-teller.
We arrived at the farm after a seven-hour drive from the Eastern Cape where we’d enjoyed two days of hunting grey-winged spurfowl. Though the drive was tiresome, the anticipation of hunting spurwings had me alert and focused as we pulled in. After meeting the landowner, we surveyed the situation. His oat crop was just sprouting and being ravaged at its most sensitive stage by marauding geese staging on a large wetland less than a mile away. The waterfowl season wouldn’t officially open here for a couple weeks, but he’d received a damage control permit as a way of protecting his crop. If he waited until the opener to do something about the depredation, these geese would have his entire oat crop grazed to the nubs.
The geese’s route was a quick, direct path in from the lake. We could watch them as they lifted off the water, circle a couple of times, then fly arrow-straight to the field. Given the relatively short flight they weren’t gaining much altitude, so pass shooting them as they approached the field was the most obvious strategy.
Mark, Dylan, the landowner and I spread out along the fenceline bordering the oat field, 100 yards or so apart, each of us hiding behind a large straw bale. It was late afternoon and the geese were already flying as we scrambled into position. They were a mix of spurwings and smaller Egyptian geese that were easily identified by their brown and grey bodies and distinctive dark eye patches. As I watched flight after flight of geese rise from the wetland, it was obvious that Egyptian geese were the more numerous of the two species here.
The first birds that flew towards the field after we were in position were a pair of noisy Egyptian geese that glided 100 yards to my left, near where our farmer host was hiding. As the birds crossed the fenceline he rose and, with two practiced shots, folded both cleanly. Very impressive shooting, I recall thinking, though it put pressure on the rest of us to shoot as well. I didn’t have long to wait before it was my turn, as an incoming bird’s flight path would put it right in line with where I crouched behind the bale. From its dark colouration and massive proportions I knew immediately it was a spur-winged goose. It crossed the fenceline to my left, about 40 yards up, hell bent on the waiting oat seedlings. Mounting and swinging my gun in one smooth motion, I pushed my barrel in front of the crossing bird and hit the switch. The goose never so much as rustled a feather. A rapid follow-up shot had the same effect, or lack thereof – I’d missed cleanly! I shrugged it off, putting it down to getting the kinks out, and prepared for my next opportunity.
A few minutes later another spurwing flew over on a near-identical trajectory. Unfortunately, my results were identical, too. From down the way I heard the farmer yell, “Get out in front of them further,” or words to that effect in a not especially friendly manner. That was understandable as he was trying to save his crops while I was hunting recreationally; he clearly had more at stake than I did. As I was to learn later, missing is not an uncommon experience when hunting spur-winged geese for the first time. Their enormous body size and deliberate wingbeats make them appear to be much closer and flying much more slowly than they really are. As a consequence, shooting behind them is a frequent mistake for newcomers to the game. I swallowed my pride after the reprimand and vowed I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
A short while later a flock of six Egyptians winged towards my position and, remembering the admonition, I forced myself to significantly increase my lead before pulling the trigger. Two shots and two geese crumpled to the earth! I smiled with newfound confidence and watched contentedly as Mark’s lab raced into the field to retrieve them. I had the sight picture now.
Shortly after, a lone spurwing flew towards my position. I was fully prepared this time, and dumped it cleanly with one shot. It landed about 20 yards from where I stood, and I swear I could feel the earth tremble when it thudded to the ground. I ambled out to retrieve it, eager to hold the massive bird. It was even bigger in the hand than I had imagined, probably nearing 20 pounds, substantially heavier than even the largest Canada geese I hunt at home. I stood marvelling at its heft, its jet-black plumage, and the strange and dangerous-looking protrusion on its wings, before being jolted back to reality by Mark, who hollered down the line that another flight of birds was on final approach.
Over the next hour or so we enjoyed steady action. When we finished up we had two dozen geese on the ground, about a third of them spur-winged. After my initial misses I held my own in the shooting department, and the farmer appeared to sincerely appreciate what the three of us had done to help with his goose problem. As we packed up our gear, I took a moment to reflect on the hunt: you are too caught up in the moment to always fully appreciate it when the event is unfolding. I’d fulfilled a long-standing dream to shoot the world’s largest goose, and had done so with a great group of people in a glorious setting. All in all, it had been a helluva day.
My African waterfowling wasn’t confined to that one afternoon of goose hunting, however. Before we’d left the Eastern Cape the previous evening, I’d hunted ducks with local rancher and PH Robbie Stretton and a couple friends from Alberta, T.J. Schwanky and Vanessa Harrop. After a morning hunting grey-winged spurfowl, Robbie put the three of us in a series of one-person reed blinds spaced out evenly along a dammed section of a 10-mile long watercourse. A dozen and a half floating decoys rested in the shallow water along the shoreline. As we were getting our gear squared away and settled into our respective blinds, a pair of shelducks, a handful of red-billed teal and a dozen or so yellow-billed ducks sprang from the pond. They would be harbingers of what was to come, as over the course of the next couple hours we were treated to some wonderful duck hunting.
The teal and the shelducks never did return, but yellow-billed ducks spiralled into our decoys on a regular basis. Most often they came in twos, threes or fours, which is perfect. If they arrived in large groups there’s a risk of flock shooting rather than picking out a single bird; more often than not that results in a clean miss. T.J. and Vanessa took turns shooting and operating a video camera as they filmed a sequence for their popular Outdoor Quest television show, while I was free to shoot away. So I did. When we decided to call it a halt, we’d managed to drop about 18 birds.
Yellow-billed ducks are very similar in size and build to a mallard, the most popular duck in North America. In fact, they greatly resemble a hen mallard with a brilliant yellow bill.
In the days following our goose hunt we travelled north to Dundee, where we focused on hunting pigeons and doves. I did, however, spend one evening there in a duck blind. The season was not yet open in Kwazulu-Natal, so I carried a camera rather than a shotgun, and had a close-up look at several southern African duck species. These included white-faced ducks, southern pochards and Cape shovelers, along with the more common red-billed teal, shelducks and yellow-billed ducks. I would have loved to have been shooting that evening, but I know full well that a man should never have everything he craves, no matter how hard he wishes for it. It’s that unsatisfied itch, however, that ensures I’ll be back, and soon, to further explore southern South Africa’s underutilized waterfowl hunting opportunities.