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Spark

Doug Baker recalls a time when wandering across someone else's land would get you scones, a cup of tea and a chat, and the labours of a day's shoot were used to feed the family.

Spark came into my life as a four month old puppy. He arrived from Kaikohe, North Auckland. My father had arranged with a Doug Thomas to send down to me by train a dog puppy when he was weaned of his mother. Spark was an English Setter, white with brown patches. His mother was a well bred bitch and she had whelped having six puppies. Four months old and torn away from your mother, put into a box, a pail of water, a little food for the two hundred mile journey and arriving at the Katikati station late at night cold and hungry after hours and left on the station platform, it could be said 'Oh well he is only a dog'. Next morning the station master notified my wife by phone that there was a parcel for her to pick up, When Floss had arranged the children off to school and bundling our third child David into the Vauxhall car that we owned those days and driving to the station to pick up an addition to our family. At this stage in my life we had three children, Peter the eldest, Susan our daughter a twin girl but sadly we lost her twin sister at birth and not forgetting David. You have to own a dog to even imagine the pleasure that the family received from this beautiful little fellow. On his box that he arrived in he was already named Spark. Floss and I both liked the name and did not hesitate in adopting him into our family as Spark. My wife has always been fabulous with animals and started with a meal pattern that Spark thrived on, growing each day and showing signs of being an excellent gun dog. One of the greatest fears is that he would be gun shy and end up of no use to me as a working dog. My part was to train Spark for the life that dogs were bred for. Putting this down on paper makes me wish that I had kept a diary to look back on, however my memory is clear possibly because Spark played such a great part in our lives.
Spark was born early January or late December, this being some four months before the next game shooting season. He should have been my wife's dog with all the love that was poured into him.

I started training him in earnest and some of the ideas to train him that were passd on to me were terribly cruel. Needless to say I did not adopt any of these tactics. To give you an idea, one chap told me that the best way to be sure that the dog would be light mouthed was to put steel spikes through a soft rubber ball and when the dog pounced on it the spikes would hurt its mouth. I would not at any stage get involved in their way of training. I adopted my own way of training of soft mouth. I used a balloon. When a light wind prevailed I would float the balloon out onto the lawn and command Spark to pick it up and bring it back to me. I must add that at this time that I cheated a little here and I think I would be forgiven for doing this. It being out of season it was illegal to kill game, however I did shoot one only Californian quail that terrorised my wife's garden. Spark being a puppy but quite well developed at this stage, quickly learned to retrieve the quail and when I went to the balloon he pounced on it. Of course it went bang and he was very wary of the target now and rolled it around until he could carefully pick it up by the piece that was tied out the blowing end. In other words the dog was extremely brainy and it was evident to me that he could become a champion. I trained him to work in close as a pheasant is extremelt fast on the take off. To explain how I trained him to range not more than 20-25 yards out, I took him onto the local domain every night. Like most dogs he would run out beyond the range that I wished so I started a pattern of slapping my thigh and walking in a diferent direction. Time and time againd I did this until he got sick of being out in front and me walking away from him. The message got through and he would only walk out to the required distance and look around to see where I was. Some weeks of this and soon he was to be able to walk through a mob of sheep without taking any notice of them, he would look around and of course I was slowly changing direction.

If you want to be a sucessful hunter my Dad always said that you had to have confidence in the dog. A good hunter can also help his dog in many different ways. One important way is to work with the wind drift into the dog's face. Watch the movement of small non-shootable game, help your dog wherever possible. Hedge shooting was plentiful in the early years as most farms had up to four miles of hedges. I trained Spark to listen for the slap on my thighs. He knew not to hurry and birds rose on my side of the hedge within range as they considered the dog the major threat.

Shooting as a sport would not have been anything without a good dog. However, shooting was not always fun, some of the time was taken up in hard work. Nearly all hunters prepared a mai mai, or more commonly known as a hide. I had my hide placed on a small island in the Tuapiro estuary. Instead of building the hide with timber, tea tree etc I planted flax in a circle. Yes, I did have to wait a couple of years for it to grow tall enough for me to stand in but now forty years on the mai mai is as good as ever. Plenty of cover, green and natural it has been taken over by younger shooters and perhaps they wonder just why the flax grew in a circle.

Some of the work was tedious and one of these was the plucking and trussing. Pheasants weren't too bad, you managed this dry. The ducks were a different kettle of fish as they needed to be dunked in hot water. We had an old copper down stairs for boiling sheets and clothes of similar nature. By dunking the ducks in just off the boil water the pin feathers would come off easily. Sometimes we put wax into the copper, this stuck on the ducks and made the task a lot easier. Other times we used baking soda which also helped to make the task easier.

In my hunting days land holdings were more like 150 acres to each farm and you were always welcome to hunt sometimes crossing from one boundary to the other covering several farms. On most occasions a cup of tea, scones, cakes and sandwiches were especially made for you. In our Katikati district everyone knew everyone and it was a wonderful close community.

The regulated limit on your licence was six cockpheasants, ten ducks and no limit on quail. With the land always under cultivation there was game in abundance and with some luck but mainly with a good dog a limit was achieved on occasions. Pheasants were a meal fit for kings and they were a help in raising my family that over the years had grown to five children making a family of seven. We were able to give our neighbours a share of my bag and these were really appreciated. The quail were my favourite as Floss stewed these and added bacon into the mix. My thermos had a wide mouth and this kept the meal hot until midday break on workdays. It makes my mouth water to remember these meals.

My brothers and father were also hunters and we joined together in the evening mainly on the weekend to go over the shoot and reload our empty shells. By reloading the price of shot came down to less than half and one could afford to practice. We lived overlooking the railway and open paddock on the edge of town. If you were to carry on in this location today I'm sure the Special Arms Police would be out there smartly.

On many occasions I have been asked what make of gun did I use. Always a 12 guage side by side. First was one that had been left to me by my eldest brother that we lost in 1942. It was a Belgium. Then I managed to buy a Damascus Twist Side by Side. One night when I arrived home from work my wife said that she hoped that she had done the right thing as she had bought from a shooter his gun for 25 Pounds, a gun that looked like a nice gun. It turned out to be a W & W Greener Side by Side with a side lock safety. Believe me, this is a professional choice of gun and my wife had made a choice of a lifetime at a gift price. The first season I used this gun I shot 29 first barrels, two second barrels and missed two birds only. I had the combination of a gentry champion dog, first class gun and homeload cartridges. I was often called a professional hunter.

I had the privilege of shooting over Spark for nine years. I shot an average of 70 cockpheasants a year over him. He retrieved in the water ducks, swan and all were retrieved without a mark on them. Some of the clever things he did I treasure. He was one mate that now forty years on I still carry a photo of him in my wallet along with one of my five children and my wife Floss. I could write pages and pages of wonderful experiences that I was lucky in having with a real champion as a mate.

Spark was put down not long after his tenth birthday. I could not face the vet so my eldest brother Ron stood in for me. I had done the same for him when his dog was old. Spark was buried on a family farm in Katikati.