Poacher’s Moon

The poachers of yore endowed us with so many gems of wisdom such as, ‘Stolen fruit taste best,’ ‘Little fish are sweet,’ ‘Putting meat on the table’, ‘Feeding the family’, etc. Traditionally the ‘poacher’s moon’ in the UK is the first full moon after the autumn equinox, when poachers could get out and harvest wounded deer left over from the massed autumn hunt. The bright moonlight would enable them to see their quarry and find their way undetected in the dark.

Here in Southern Victoria such a ‘poacher’s moon’ would be a late March, early April full moon. It’s true also that this is usually an ideal time to begin hunting game here, particularly sambar deer. Many creatures (ducks for example) need to be harvested then if they are not to cruelly suffer and starve to death over winter.

The days are cool enough that you can walk all day without getting up a sweat and the nights are just so a fire is a delight without the biting chill we sometimes find in late winter. Mind you I have usually found that you rarely see a deer during the day if the night is to be a full moon. To crepuscular animals moonlight is twilight. It is also very difficult (apart from being illegal) to shoot a deer by moonlight.

Poaching and game management ought properly be antithetical notions, but the explosion of various ‘wildlife reserves’ such as National and State Parks, ‘land for wildlife’ and etc means that exactly the opposite is the case. Here ‘game’ and vermin breed up in an uncontrolled manner alike with no attempt at management at all, and in most cases any idea of a sustainable harvest of animals or other food is banned – save that in some areas of the Alpine National Park in Victoria limited hunting of sambar deer by stalking is permitted.

Such rules are just a ‘red rag’ to poachers to get out their kit and begin their harvest. Who can really blame them, especially if the ‘meat’ so obtained is destined for the family table? This used even to be the ‘traditional’ motive of spotlighters, much as I deplore their unethical behaviour – though I suspect that nowadays their main motive is commercial, ie supplying illicit venison to the restaurant trade.

You will have noticed perhaps (in my recent post) that the 1966 party who walked the Westies Hut to Cromarty section of the South Coast Track, New Zealand (Ah, what a trip to look forward to!) took with them fishing tackle and rifles so that they could supply much of the food they needed on the trail. This used to be the normal behaviour of ‘hikers’ or wilderness folks in general  in the past.

One only has to read that early book Woodcraft to learn that. Do. Too many today are ‘environmentalists’ without any understanding about how the natural systems (such as game) might best be managed. Everything has to be managed. There is no land which does not require work. Reading the works of Aldo Leopold, such as ‘A Sand County Almanac’ might help. You can download it for free here: https://archive.org/details/ASandCountyAlmanacTheAldoLeopoldFoundation It is a gem of true wildlife conservation – such as that ever practiced by hunters and fisherfolk.

In any case, I think it is a good idea to be able to supplement your hiking rations with things hunted, fished for, or otherwise collected on the trail, both animal and vegetable – and don’t forget the tinder! You may call this ‘poaching’ – which pettyfogging rules mean it will be in most places, but mostly it is making good use of things which would otherwise go to waste or be consumed only by vermin. It also makes your pack even more ‘ultralight’.

I have elsewhere suggested a range of different firearms (such as this one or this) which might suit the ultralight lifestyle. If carrying a firearm is either too heavy or not an option, you might consider a shanghai of some sort (This one is a beauty) or a sling. They are light, concealable – and there is plenty of free ammunition!

I think the fishing kit shown in my post The Ultralight Fisherman at less than 30 grams will reward you with many times its weight in fish or crayfish. It has me. You can easily cast it accurately thirty yards! In any case always carry a piece of cordage. It has many uses including to construct shelters or traps and snares.

A fixed blade knife which you should carry anyway for firelighting, is also necessary for safely opening many kinds of shellfish – or prying them off the rocks. (All kinds of shellfish are edible, by the way – indeed pretty much all flesh and fish are – with few exceptions), and of course it is much better and safer for ‘dressing’ game or filleting a fish than a folder.

I recommend the Ka-Bar Johnson Adventure Piggyback at 23 grams – and only US$11.59 (Aug 2018)! I always carry one myself . The Gerber knife sharpener at 17 grams is just the trick for keeping an edge on it. (You need the fixed blade knife for splitting wood to get at the dry stuff inside which you shave to create ‘excelcior’, the acme of firelighting ‘stuff’).

I have spent many, many moonlit nights hunting or fishing. A very fortunate life indeed it has been. When I was a lad it was (still) legal to take and sell the skins of many (native) animals – so not just rabbits, as today. If it was not legal, we might not have known (or cared) anyway. Somehow we eluded gaol anyway.

The skin of the water rat was I recall the most prized. What a fine sleek pelt they have. With the near total dominance of the fox over almost every small beast it would be hard indeed to get enough of them today to make a beautiful handkerchief with, yet when I was young, before Myxomatosis conferred such dominance on the fox, the streams were alive with them. Glorious creatures they were too. So like an otter. We used to take them with a floating rat trap baited as I think with pumpkin seeds – which seems unlikely! I would not do so now. I doubt I see more than one a year!

I remember as a lad shooting possums out of trees with .22 shorts (they are the quietest – and cheapest). The technique we used was to so walk along beneath the tree as to run the full moon along the branches until we spotted one, then it was a simple matter to plink it down. You skin them just like a rabbit, the work of a minute. Good eating they were too. I wonder that folks don’t add a few more brushtails to the pot here (they are in plague proportions in our cities) – as they do in NZ! Some places there ‘Possum Pie’ is on the menu – ‘Straight from the roadside to you’ the signs say!

The .22 Long Rifle round was the most common used in Australia for at least a century. It was so cheap – and was what ordinary folk could afford. Everyone had (at least) one, and they probably still do, despite draconian firearms laws, amnesties and what-not. I know I had mine (a Lithgow bolt action) as my father’s last present to me for my 14th birthday, two weeks after his death. It is my most treasured possession. It had belonged to his sister Emmeline, and had been made by my mother’s brother, Bill who worked at the Lithgow Small Arms factory where they were manufactured.

I doubt there is any game in Australia which has not been taken with a .22. Certainly many sambar have been. You have to be a very good shot, but you get to be when every round counts – and you are shooting for the pot! There are not many creatures which will not fall as if pole-axed if hit squarely between the eyes. The newer .22 magnum is an even better round. It would be my choice for a survival or packable rifle (as above). For one thing it has a better range.

As a youth I killed hundreds of grey kangaroos and thousands of rabbits with mine which otherwise would have eg devastated the wheat fields. I got so I could head shoot a rabbit on the run or even (still shoot one) out at 200 yards. (And you wonder why I still don’t use a telescopic sight?) I have shot wild goats scrambling around precipitous cliffs of the Great Dividing Range (near Quirindi). I have whistled up hundreds of foxes and dispatched them with it. I have dropped a wild bull in its tracks. Once six foxes came to my whistle at once. They must have been very hungry for that quasi coney! I managed to bowl three of them over, which is a pretty good average!

I have sat till midnight in a wheat field counting the vast mobs of grey kangaroos devouring a farmer’s crop. I counted over a thousand of them in the circle of moonlight. I have then helped build the fence where we could drive and massacre them and shot them till the barrel of my Lithgow was too hot to touch. I have lain in a frosted paddock for hours waiting for marauding dogs to come back and kill the sheep. It is hard shooting by moonlight but after hours your eyes become dark adapted.

You have to be careful to kill the dog at the first shot – hard when there is a pack of them. The last ones are obviously taken at the run if you can. Around here every one who escapes will invite a lawsuit for cruelty from some hobby farmer tool who owns it who cares not a jot how many sheep it kills and cannot understand that a dog which tears a pregnant ewe to pieces might the next day do the same to infants playing in their house yard.

That old .22 has fed me when I was cut off by flood waters and survived a week on just whatever I could bring down: rabbits, roos, parrots… all creatures with not enough fat on them. A diet of nothing else fills but does not fatten. You eventually starve to death eating nothing but rabbits. They used to call it the ‘rabbit disease’ during the Depression. You need your daily allowance of fat, or ‘dripping’ as we used to call it. Another time I was cut off by flood waters in the Gippsland mountains and lived on venison roasted on a stick over the fire for a few days while I waited for the waters to subside. I much prefer lamb actually – as did the marauding dogs!

I began my fishing career using a bent pin tied with my mother’s cotton to a whippy stick from a gum tree catching gudgeons in the creek for the cat to eat. Then I graduated to coastal bass for our own table taken in the deeper holes of the same creek, appropriately named ‘Tucker Creek’ (near Paterson). Seasonally ‘Poddy’ mullet used to swarm in the backwater creek behind our house in Fassifern (Lake Macquarie) when I was at High School (at Morriset). They are much tastier than large mullet, as the saying reveals. I have often taken a dozen of them at a time with a two-penny bunger – a large kind of fireworks, banned today – as what is not? It was a risky business as you had to hold the ‘cracker’ until the wick disappeared, then quickly throw it in the creek – otherwise the water would extinguish it.

You held it at the very tip between thumb and forefinger. You had to rid yourself of it in a twinkling or it would explode in your hand and hurt like hell – if it did not put your eye out! You had to make sure you were looking away. There are lots of tricks to this poaching game! If you held it in any other way it would blow fingers off! Young people today are not allowed any risk taking at all – so there is a plague of them taken instead by drug overdoses. The risk of losing the tip of a finger seems like a better idea to me. And the ‘forbidden fruit’ of an illicitly taken mullet is safer and better for them than heroin or crack cocaine.

A (late) friend of mine, Col Francis lost his finger in an interesting way. I only learned about it at his funeral as he was always cagey about it. Actually the funniest funeral I have ever attended. So many great stories about Col. He would have loved it! He was a bit of a chapter of accidents our Col, but a delight of a man – and sorely missed by me at least. I’m afraid most of my friends have gone the same way as Col. Just hope it’s not my turn next. You first. He was cutting up a deer in his garage. Somehow (Col) the knife slipped and off came the first knuckle of his index finger. Of course his Jack Russell had been hanging around snapping up tit-bits, so naturally it quaffed down Col’s finger lickety-split. So, that was the end of his finger as he certainly wasn’t going to harm his beloved mutt to get it back. It was a good dog though. On the day he died (suddenly – heart), it would not let anyone near his body and even bit the policeman. I should train mine to do that! Another important poacher’s trick, no doubt!

Lake Macquarie had many shallow backwaters, nursery areas for small fish, crabs and greasyback prawns, my personal crustacean favourite – and also obviously absolutely crawling with (forbidden – and Oh-so-tasty) water fowl. Our home farm at Dora Creek backed onto just such a backwater (called Muddy Lake) and many fat ducks and water-hens unobtrusively found their way into our cooking pots, let me tell you.

Many a moonlit summer’s night I spent with my father and his brother (my Uncle Ken) trolling prawns with a seine net strung between two tomato stakes. My father was also very partial to the ‘drift’ oysters which frequent the littoral of the lake, No doubt it was then and is now illegal to take them, but I took many from the waist deep water feeling for them with my naked toes. Some were near as large as a bread and butter plate. How he adored them!

He has been gone now (when I was but 13) these 55 years this week, yet I miss him dearly still. Fortunately I have these many recollections eg of him sitting by a moonlit fire, yarning, his face aglow with the hot coals, grabbing a handful of prawns from the 4 gallon drum bubbling over the fire and shelling them as quickly as he could devour them. Perhaps finishing off his meal with a cup of billy tea and a song accompanied by the harmonica – both brothers played ‘by ear’. I wish I had inherited that ability. Ken never bothered to shell his prawns: He ate them whole. You can do this with small greasybacks, much as you can eat sardines whole.

Sometimes when we were dragging the net through the lukewarm waters (of Lake Eraring perhaps) a ‘Fisheries’ boat would come put-putting by, attracted no doubt by the light of our ‘Tilley’ lantern on shore (quickly extinguished). On such occasions we would have to just submerge ourselves in the limpid water and hold our breath until he was far enough away – you could still see his riding lights from underwater. Another old poacher’s trick no doubt. In any case we were never caught, and those undersized prawns certainly did taste sweet. We would also take many small flatfish in the shallows by the light of the lantern on a nail fastened to the end of another tomato stake. They made a pleasant accompaniment.

On days off (there weren’t that many in my father’s short life) he loved to go hunting with his hound, Felix. I have written about him before. No doubt most of what we hunted (save foxes and hares) was and is illegal. Wallabies for example. On such hard-scrabble farms as ours they were a pest which would devour whatever meagre crops my parents managed to grow (with immense effort) for our dairy cows (milked by hand).

The hounds enjoyed the chasing and the eating of them both anyway. We enjoyed the ‘sport’. I notice our old property (between Martin’s Creek and Paterson) is still called ‘The Chase’ on topographic maps, few knowing now that this was in memorial of my father’s passion for hunting – or ‘poaching’ as many would rather call it.

My father, Lawrence Jones died horribly from brain cancer 55 years ago this week when he was only 48 and I was 13. Nonetheless despite the passage of time, that event remains poignant and pivotal for me. If I seem a little more sombre than usual today, I’m sure you will understand. I have no good photographs of him, indeed less than half a dozen in total. I remember this one was taken at Gresford Rd, Paterson NSW in 1960. He was holding my first hound ‘George’, named after my grandfather, George Jones. There are very few alive today who remember him, but I know he was one of the finest of men.

It is strange to me to feel that he is still much older than me, yet when I meet someone today who is a mere 48 I think of them as a boy! I have already lived half as long again as he did. Perhaps I will manage to make up for his short life by making my own long. As long as it is worthwhile at least.

PS: I guess long before that day I came to understand all should, and since that day (I) needs must shift for myself, stand on my own two feet, blame no-one or nothing, but make of the world what I might. So, for example I completed High School at 15 with the aid of scholarships which I earned from just that, then I completed a number of full-time degrees at university whilst also working full-time, the first four years seven day roster shift work in a heavy metal refinery.

I have worked from that day to this (well over 50 years now) probably hardly ever earning today’s ‘minimum wage’, but we have been able to provide for ourselves and our family and set aside savings which we can continue to live on, and never take a cent from the Government – or our fellow men, as we understand it. I only wish the Government had the same attitude to my money – and care with it!

I am wholly against the ‘entitlement’ society. No-one ‘owes’ you anything. You owe it to yourself to work for a living. I also think it is tantamount to a crime against humanity that so many today are growing up without a father – or with the State as their family or husband. At least I had a father, if only for a short, precious time.

People have been posting on Facebook recently about what is the most important thing in life. Wealth, success, love?

Character is all!

PS: When I began this post I was thinking that the title was the same as one of Peter Capstick’s wonderful hunting books. Not so, I’m afraid. Nonetheless it is a good title. However, you should read some of his books eg ‘Death in the Long Grass’ one of my personal favourites. You may find a copy here: https://archive.org/details/deathinlonggrass00caps

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