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Driving Pakistani ducks: big game legend takes on tea and mallards with an Indus River prince.

IT WASN'T JUST A BLUEBIRD DAY; IT WAS DOWNRIGHT HOT. THE lake stretched away, shimmering in the afternoon sun, and in that shimmer were the clustered specks of great rafts of ducks. This wasn't surprising; the countryside was dry thornbush, and this was the only open water we'd seen. If there were ducks anywhere in this part of the world they would surely be here, and they were. But on this extraordinary warm February day, I had no idea what we were going to do about it. In time, that would become clear.

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I was in southern Pakistan's Indus River valley, a tropical climate even during winter. The river itself, just 50 miles away, is a fast-moving muddy stream that's the lifeblood of the region. It wasn't the ducks that brought us here. Alain Smith and I had both taken Indian hog deer and blackbuck near the river, and would soon be heading north to the high country. We had a free day, and our host, Akib Jatoi, suggested a duck hunt.

Neither Alain nor I had any idea what that meant, and still didn't know once we arrived at the lake. But in a few short days we'd come to trust Akib, so we jumped at the chance. The Jatoi family business is farming, growing a variety of crops on large acreage in the Indus valley. Pakistan has a strong hunting culture, so it's not unusual they're avid sportsmen. The sprawling farmhouse was filled with trophies, from mounted birds to markhor. Akib, 40-ish with an infectious smile, has been working hard to restore the blackbuck and hog deer populations. His next conservation projects will be axis deer and nilgai, now essentially gone from Pakistan as free-range animals. Akib has hunted big game widely in Pakistan, with experience in Africa, Europe and North America. But when he talks about bird hunting his eyes really light up--quail, partridge, waterfowl ... these were serious pursuits!

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AWAY ALL BOATS

Akib told us that this would be a driven duck shoot, so it wasn't surprising that most of the village was gathered on the lake's shoreline when we pulled up. We had the ritual cup of tea with the headmen, and then Akib passed out the shotguns. I drew a brand new Blaser F3 over/under. This struck me as a pretty sophisticated piece of gear for southern Pakistan--it fit very well. I was issued a bag of shells as well. Those were also a surprise: standard 12-gauge, but loaded in Cyprus. Of all places! They turned out to be pretty good shells!

Drawn up along the shore was a whole flotilla of small flat-bottomed boats, hand-made and sturdy--but perhaps of questionable seaworthiness. No worries--it was obviously a shallow lake and the weather was warm! The "guns" were assigned to the captains and crews, and our little fleet formed up and headed out. Akib's plan was to drive the main portion of the lake first, then move into the heavier cattails where, he assured us, we would "find the mallards."

We slowly poled our way to a series of small islands on the far side. Flocks of ducks lifted as we approached, then circled and settled, obviously reluctant to leave the big water. Closer now, I could tell they were mostly teal. I hadn't yet figured out if we were going to see any ducks in range against the cloudless sky, but there were lots of birds.

My team pushed the boat in hard on a brushy little island, and I scrambled ashore, understanding this was my "blind." Akib went on to a similar island a couple hundred yards away, closer to the far shore, and Alain set up in some reeds behind me. There were three or four other boats scattered out, essentially forming a line across a narrow neck in the lake.

INCOMING!

By now, I understood that the villagers were somehow going to "drive" the lake. From my limited vantage point in the reeds I could see Akib huddled in bushes, and I knew where Alain was. The rest remained a mystery; but it wasn't long before the birds started to fly. There were scattered shots here and there, but most stayed too high against that beautiful blue sky. I was reminded of the early teal seasons we'd had in Kansas as kids. This lake, indeed, was reminiscent of the Cheyenne Bottoms in September.

Some of the birds started to drop down, looking for a safe haven, making me wonder what those Kansas teal hunts might have been like if I could have enlisted a few dozen helpers to drive the marshes! The F3 felt very good, but, like most unfamiliar shotguns, it took a few misses to get on the gun. The teal were small and exceedingly fast, but in a little while I started to scratch down a few, as did Alain.

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When a bird went down my crew eagerly splashed to recover it. As my confidence grew I reached a bit higher, making a few spectacular shots and at least an equal number of forgettable ones. Some of the high birds, passing at full steam, plummeted considerable distances, and then the race was on. My team and I didn't share a word of common language, but I quickly figured out possession was at least nine-tenths of the law, and the scramble for birds was a serious competition. The birds would be shared anyway, and there would be duck dinners for all but the boat with the most birds would be the day's big winner.

I never figured out exactly how they pushed the big rafts in the open water. After awhile, I could hear splashing and hollering behind me, as the drivers made their way through shallow lagoons at the end of the lake. A couple of spoonbills were added to the bag, and in a few minutes the line of drivers appeared, laughing and shouting as they waded through waist-deep water. The drivers retreated to the nearest shore, and our little fleet assembled again.

"Now we will go into the thick marshes where we will find the mallards," Akib said. "Be alert, because they're clever, and some will wait until the very last before they get up."

MAD SCRAMBLE IN THE MARSH

In a tight line, we poled our way along narrow channels into the deep rushes at the end of the lake. Although I'd been skeptical, the first drive had produced pretty good shooting, despite the clear day and open water. This setup seemed even more unlikely with the boat serving as our blind, anchored among tall reeds.

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The reed beds apparently went on for just a couple hundred yards, because this time I could hear the shouting from the very beginning of the drive. Once again, there were a few tall birds, too high for an attempt ... and then nothing for quite awhile as the splashing and hollering drew closer. I figured it was all over, but then mallards started to fly.

Standing on the thwarts, poorly balanced, I missed a couple of easy shots, before getting my feet under me. Like all drives, some areas are better than others, and I was in a pretty good spot. I knocked down several in a row, missed other opportunities while reloading, and the boatmen scrambled, laughing and, I suppose, cursing their competitors as they raced for downed birds. It didn't last long, but it was fast and furious while it did! Our drivers appeared out of the marsh, joking with the boatmen and, apparently, heaping praise on our good shots and equally lamenting the bad ones.

The convoy reassembled and we retreated back along the same channels. Once again, I thought it was over. No, not quite. The sun was still well above the horizon, and we would drive the marshes from several more angles. The number of birds diminished with each drive as expected, but Akib knew his duck shooting. In the thick marshes the birds were almost entirely mallards, identical to our own. Indeed, some of them held tight until the very last instant, coming up when the drivers were already close and the guns were elevated for safety.

In a situation like this, it's tough to be in the right place at the right time. There was at least one drive where I never fired a shot--certainly not a first in my long, but very irregular waterfowling career. My boatmen were fast and nimble, and while we lost a couple of birds to other boatmen who were faster and nimbler, our bow was well weighted with a nice bag ... and my team and I could fondly remember the last drive, just before sunset.

MALLARDS RISING

Not much of the lake remained undisturbed by then, so this was a short drive across a small neck of the lake. We came out of the marshes and anchored along the edges. The drivers merely retreated a short distance, then lined out along this last section of the marsh. I was pretty sure this final attempt was fairly desperate, with nothing likely to happen. Indeed, that seemed the case as the drivers drew near, already visible through channels in the reeds.

Then, with the drivers well within range, splashing and shouting (to move birds and make the guns well aware of their locations), mallards rose from nowhere, raucously quacking in alarm. The driven were clear, and a pair swung right past me. I dropped a clean double, reloaded amidst much applause, and then shot a big drake as he towered up just beyond the bow of our boat.

With the sun starting to set, that truly was the end of the wackiest waterfowl hunt I've ever seen ... except, even then, it wasn't quite over. We still had to cross a vast expanse of open water to get back to our starting point, and it was clear that avid Akib wasn't yet ready to give it up! He took a boat along the far edge of the lake, stirring up some birds for a few last-minute shots. And then, finally, with dusk approaching, we were all back on the levee together, recounting shots while our new friends counted birds. It turns out Akib Jatoi, besides being a farmer, hunter and outfitter is also a Pakistani prince, or nawib. So, we proceeded to the feast--in his honor and ours--at a nearby village. The cultural differences were extreme, but the Pakistanis were always friendly and genuinely curious about us strange Westerners.
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Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Wildfowl
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:May 18, 2012
Words:1758
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