Horace (Horrie) Sinclair is a rotund little man with innocent white hair and hard gray eyes. His face is ruddy from a life spent outdoors and from good Scotch whisky. Scotsmen settled the south of New Zealand, and the burr in his voice reveals that heritage.
"I caught these two blokes trespassing and told them to give me their shotguns," he said to me one day. "One of them said he was a justice of the peace and knew the law—that I couldn't legally take their guns. I grabbed it out of his hands and gave him the butt the way I learned to do it in the war. The other bloke handed his over nice like."
He reflected for a moment, then added, "I'd die for my property."
His property is 779 acres of freshwater swamp near Dunedin, New Zealand. Much of it is dense with native flax bush and mushroomlike hummocks of "cutty grass," interspersed with open ponds and lagoons. Twenty-two years ago, Horrie bought it for $4,000, which he had borrowed and which was equal to his annual income. He turned down $250,000 for it two years ago, and he has fought legal battles to forestall drainage projects that would lower the water level, making it even more valuable to developers, but not to him.
Horrie is a duck hunter. He likes his swamp just the way he has made it, using nothing but good management and grit, turning it into a waterfowling paradise.
As with most paradises, there is always the threat of encroachment. Horrie has done his share of poaching and now knows how to deal with it. He once camped on an island in the swamp for 28 consecutive days, firing occasional shots toward the sound of intruders in the night. Hard feelings from those days still linger. Mentioning his name in a local pub produces a very dense silence. The poachers eventually got the idea, however, and nowadays no one enters the swamp without an invitation.
Because he limits hunting to three weekends of the season, which starts in April or May and varies in length according to the duck population, and the number of hunters to a maximum of 40, invitations are hard to come by. They're unsullied by monetary considerations; it's illegal to charge for hunting in New Zealand. Besides, the shooting is too precious to be given a mere price tag.
The hunters assembled in the foggy darkness of an opening morning last year are mostly close relatives, old friends and their children. They range in age from puberty to the mid-70s. Camouflage clothing is rare, and one of them inspects the camouflage coveralls of a special guest, a Yank, with a flashlight.
"My God!" he says. "What is it? A mallard-domestic cross?"
Outsiders, sifted from the some 300 requests Horrie receives annually, are occasionally invited to shoot. The year before, the honored guest was an Italian who'd won an Olympic gold medal in skeet.
"He was a capital shot," Horrie says, "but me and my mate are better on live game."
Horrie and his mate make their living as rabbit exterminators. They shoot shotguns every day of their working lives, often while standing in the back of a moving Land Rover. Their skill is legendary, and the Yank, a mediocre shot, is apprehensive about how he'll measure up.
The conversation turns to the weather (the consensus is that the fog will hurt the shooting) and the duck population. Estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 birds seen on the swamp the day before from a distant hill.
Nobody enters the swamp for one month before the season or between shooting weekends. As the season nears, more and more people thresh around in the adjacent public shooting reserves and private wetlands—scouting, building blinds or camouflaging old ones. By the tens of thousands, the ducks quit these areas and pour into the restful quiet of Horrie's swamp, joining the thousands of others that breed there.
Horrie assembles a fleet of 27 boats, one for each of the blinds he has allowed the regulars to build to his specifications. Wearing waders, he brings a boat from the cache area to an earth bank beside the parking lot. Holding the boat until the hunters are aboard, he shoves it into the darkness, then goes for another. Finally he embarks the Yank and rows him into the quiet darkness, finding his way through the channels with an ease born of long practice.
"I don't allow outboard motors," he explains in answer to a question. "Besides the noise, they get oil in the water. The ducks don't like it."
Our blind is located in dense vegetation surrounding 20 acres of open water. It's magnificent, a beautifully designed structure on piles with a roof over the back part, and equipped with stools, ammunition boxes and a camouflaged mooring for the boat, with a dock. In some ways, it's more imposing than Horrie's home in a nearby village, a somewhat cluttered and dilapidated bachelor's residence with an outdoor toilet. The Yank remarks on the contrast.
"A man has to keep his priorities straight," Horrie says.
There's a small spread of decoys before the blind. Horrie provides the decoys for all the blinds, limiting each to exactly 10. A native gray duck swings in over the outer edge of the spread, just visible in the misty light.
"Take him," Horrie says.
The Yank misses with the top barrel, increases his lead and connects with the second. Horrie removes a nail from a plastic cup and inserts it into a cribbage-board-like counter.
"Twenty-four to go now," he says. "Whoops! Shoot!"
A pair of mallards have appeared out of the fog. The Yank drops one among the decoys, but holds his fire on the other. It's still well within range but would fall among the flax-bush and cutty-grass stools and be lost.
Pleased with himself, the Yank lights a cigarette to celebrate. Before he can take more than a couple of puffs, Horrie uses his duck call. It produces a sound unlike any other on the planet. The ducks like it, however. They come in bunches. The Yank can't reload fast enough.
A rare cripple starts swimming for cover. Horrie bounds atop the blind's roof to get a steeper angle and stops it with a shot. A wedge of huge black swans, which are protected, wing by so close that their eyes, looking at Horrie atop the blind, are clearly visible. More ducks, a mixture of spoonbills, mallards and grays, arrive all at once.
After an hour, the Yank is aware that the fog has burned off. He can see the decoys marking the three other blinds around the pond and ducks falling when the other hunters shoot. There are 15 nails in his end of the counter and only three in Horrie's. The host has been shooting only when ducks appeared while his guest was reloading.
Horrie takes the boat and begins retrieving ducks before the slight breeze can blow them into the cover. A mallard comes over too high for the Yank's open-choked gun. Horrie stands up in the boat and drops it with the fully choked barrel of his side-by-side double. Hoots, catcalls and cries of "Show-off' come from the other blinds.
An hour later, the Yank has 22 nails in his end of the counter and is only shooting at the fast, twisting spoonbills to avoid limiting out too soon. A small duck rockets in toward the decoys, and he drops it just as Horrie yells, "Teal!"
Gray teal are protected, and Horrie is a volunteer ranger, legally empowered to enforce game laws. Horrie is also deeply involved in the gray teal propagation efforts of Ducks Unlimited New Zealand, of which he's the only honorary board member. The Yank worries that permanent banishment, instead of another day's shooting, seems likely.
Now filled with fear, the Yank finishes out his bag with mallard drakes, telling himself that even he can't confuse a gray teal with that big, gaudy duck. Horrie finally starts taking every shot at legal game presented. It rains ducks.
There are 50 nails in the counter by midmorning, and Horrie goes retrieving behind the blind. He rejects the Yank's offer to help, insisting that it's an art. Hopping from one hummock to another, he avoids falling into the waist-deep water and muck between them. He returns with one of the three ducks dropped in the thick cover.
"A dog couldn't get through, and its feet would be slashed to ribbons by the cutty grass," he says, explaining the scarcity of canine retrievers.
Back at the parking lot, the other hunters straggle in, obedient to Horrie's rule that everyone must be out of the swamp by noon when there's shooting the next day. Flights of ducks are already winging into the now silent swamp from all directions, hastened by the sound of continued shooting in the surrounding areas. There's no need for Horrie's hunters to stay. They have all bagged the limit.
An improvised bar is set up on the trailer of Horrie's Land Rover to lubricate the old legends being recounted and the new ones created.
Some wives stop by to see how the shooting has gone. When he talks to them, Horrie's manner has a touch of the old-fashioned courtliness sometimes seen in lifelong bachelors. When he talks with his nephews and the other youngsters, there's an unmistakable gentleness in his voice.
Despite these hints of compassion, the Yank is despondent. The slain gray teal weighs heavily on his spirit. After three hours of suspense, Horrie departs with a cheerful, "See you tomorrow."
Pardon—or at least probation.
The next day is a duplicate of the previous one with two differences—there isn't any fog, and the Yank avoids shooting anything he shouldn't. He delays his departure until he can't wait any longer without risk of missing his plane. Finally, he shakes hands with his host and gives his heartfelt thanks.
Eyes twinkling, Horrie says, "If you're in New Zealand next year, come shoot here again. You're welcome anytime."
"Jeezus!" the Yank says. "I thought you'd never ask."
What the hell, he thinks. The car ought to make it for another year, and the house doesn't need a new roof all that much. As Horrie says, a man has to keep his priorities straight.