|Today would be a day of firsts in many ways. My first trip first away goose shooting, the first time I'd been to Scotland and the first occasion I would see Pinks and Greys. Whatever happened this would be a day that would remain vivid in my memory.
It was only my second season as a wildfowler and I knew I was very much a novice so I had spent many hours preparing myself. A video of British wildfowl was studied thoroughly and I sat listening to a tape of estuarine birdcalls until I was familiar with the more common species. I had even gone to the lengths of preparing a life-size cardboard silhouette of a Grey goose and practiced range judging in the fields behind my house. Whether or not I would have a chance to use this knowledge only time would tell, but I felt that I had done all I reasonably could to prepare myself. If nothing else, the time spent on these activities helped to mask the excitement that gripped me.
It all started at 5.30 a.m. on a cold, grey January morning and the flight of geese which came off the sandbanks of that Solway marsh just after
8.00 was a thrilling and awe inspiring experience. Sadly nothing came my way accept an incautious Cormorant that approached me low and head on. No matter what anybody else says, they really do look a little goosey and I have to say I was very nearly caught out. Ultimately the flight would be blank but my disappointment at not having a chance was countered by the wealth of new sights and sounds that form such an important part of wildfowling for me. There was still a chance at evening flight, especially as the bulk of the skeins had obviously not traveled far inland and we had easily marked their destination.
The plan for the evening would be to go to the head of the estuary and station ourselves near a wide bend in the channel in the hope that we could catch the geese as the came back to roost. Everything I had read on the subject said that evening flight is often a one-chance affair but after driving 450 miles it seemed worth taking. Especially as the geese seemed to be using the river for navigation on and off of the marsh.
So, a little over seven hours later, myself and my three colleagues were stretched across a 300
yards frontage of saltmarsh with me nearest the sea wall waiting the return of the geese and hoping, though not expecting, they would be in range. I settled into a very comfortable gully and watched the sun sinking into the West while scanning tirelessly for any sign of approaching geese. I can't remember how long I had waited but I suddenly became aware of calling off to my left behind the sea wall and it was unmistakably that of geese. The light was still good and I looked across to my right and attempted to attract the attention of my nearest colleague. Which was easier said than done as I didn't dare stand up or shout for fear of incurring the wrath of my friends. However, after some head bobbing and arm waving I did manage to gain some attention but my attempt at hand and body signals to denote
"geese, over the sea wall" failed utterly. All I could do was indicate that I was going to move up to the top of the wall and have a look-see.
By the time I had reached the bank by crawling on all fours the sun had set and I was sweaty profusely. Cautiously I peered through a twiggy bush on top of the wall and tried to pick out where the calls were coming from. From this vantage point the sounds were very much clearer but there was no way I could see much beyond a few hundred yards as the ground inland of the sea wall rose in a gentle slope before dropping back down towards a road further in. Still, there were geese about and that was a good start.
Looking back down river it became obvious that when the geese rose, the most direct route back to the roost would not be anywhere near where we were. The only course of action would be to move back along the sea wall and try to guess the point at which they would cross the bank. There was no chance of passing this information back to the others so I decided to set off alone and meet up with them later back at the vehicles. I moved as quickly as I could in heavy thigh boots until I judged that the roost was on a line directly behind me and the goose noise was straight in front, somewhere in the near distance. By now things were getting really quite 'duckish' as we say on the South coast and I knew that the geese would have to move soon. It must be said that I fidgeted about something awful, adjusting my position, checking my gun was loaded and even trying a few practice swings to boot. It was a good job nobody could see me I must have looked a right prat.
Then, from out of a rapidly darkening western sky came two birds, well in range and certainly not Cormorants. Still what were they? They came on silently and although I was sure they were geese I began to sweat a little about whether to take a shot. They were almost upon me when to my relief one of the pair gave out a low croak and the time spent listening to the tape proved its worth -
greylags. Up went the gun, off went 1 ¼ oz of No 3 through Improved Cylinder quickly followed by 1 ½ oz BB through Modified Choke and off into the distance flew two
greylags without so much as a care in the world. I had picked the right spot but now I was worried that the shots would put up the rest of the geese and I fumbled about trying to make sure I put the 3's in the bottom barrel and the BB's in the top.
As it turned out I needn't have rushed, as the noise had no effect on the birds inland. Perhaps the sea wall screened most of the sound or maybe they were used to it. Would they still choose to come across this way that was my next concern and I went back up the bank to see what was happening. The geese were certainly calling more now but the sky was darkening fast and I really wasn't sure if I would see them approaching. Then there was a tremendous crescendo of calling and I knew they were up and coming my way. I peered into the gloom and heading straight for me was a mob of geese just cresting a low hill. They looked as if they were hugging the ground but in reality they were climbing steadily, Strangely enough I didn't stay on top of the bank but ran back down to the bottom. I don't think it was a conscious decision at the time but I suppose I wanted to be on the foreshore when I took my shot. The first birds raced over me in an untidy melee and it was quite impossible to pick a shot. They were definitely just in range but without a decent target I resisted the temptation to brown into them. In just a few short seconds the bulk of the birds were over and my heart raced as I attempted to pick out a bird. Just as it seemed all was lost the geese began to move into formation and as if by magic there, at the back of the skein appeared a lone bird.
At the first shot the goose seemed to grow bigger, almost as if it was suddenly 30
yards overhead instead of 40. Yet it powered on and I followed through with the second barrel pointing way past the vertical. I turned and watched as the bulk of the birds vanished into the inky black eastern sky and tried hard to follow the bird I'd picked. But it was no use, in a matter of seconds the skein disappeared and with it my hope of a goose. I collected my gear and walked back in the near dark towards the place where I had left my colleagues with my heart somewhere down in the bottom of my waders.
I hadn't gone far when I met Molly, a black Labrador bitch, followed by my friend Murray. 'Did you pick it?' he asked.
'Pick what? They all flew on, didn't they?'.
'No, one of them dropped out of the skein dead as a nail. We weren't sure if it was you doing the
shooting. I'm off to pick it'.
It seemed that from their vantage point a little further back, they were able to follow the skein silhouetted against the sky for just a few moments longer than I could. Just long enough to see a bird falter at the first shot, lose height and then collapse in the air.
Had I really bagged one? I hadn't seen it fall and there was only a short distance across the saltings before the channel. Surely if it had fallen it would be into the water. We half trotted half ran back along the shore until I thought we were near to the spot where the geese must have crossed and Murray sent Molly off to search the area. Moments later we were joined by Bryn and his spaniel Kate and soon we were all steadily scouring the area. I felt sure that it must have reached the waters edge so the dogs were cast down over the bank and disappeared in to the gloom while I continued to desperately peer at every shadow and bump.
'Here, what have they got, shouted Bryn' and as I swung around I could see first Kate and then Molly appearing over the river bank, both of them holding the same goose. Fantastic, a moment of high elation followed by complete sensory overload and numbness. Bryn took the bird from Kate and handed it to me. It was a
pinkfoot, my first, I could hardly believe my luck. We made our way back to our starting point and together with our last member, Kern, toasted the goose with a tot of
Later that week, I prepared an impromptu goose stew, which we all shared with a few bottles of red wine, even the dogs had some of the gravy with their feed. Now, after nearly four years, I still feel as though that first goose is a part of me. Even if all I have left are a couple of empty cases and a rather grainy photograph.
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