The saying goes that a ‘wise man learns by his mistakes’, but I’ve always preferred to say that a ‘wise man learns by the mistakes of others’. So, in writing this account of a day’s wildfowling during which I believe mistakes were made, I hope that you may spot and avoid making the same errors.
Once again, it was the week of my annual pilgrimage north of the border chasing geese accompanied by two of my wildfowling companions. Earlier in the season, I’d spent a frustrating week on the Wash, during which I ‘d seen less than twenty pinks where you might have expected a hundred times that number and hadn’t even raised my gun. This was even more disappointing as I’d spent the summer months receiving tuition from an expert goose caller on how to use your own voice, rather than a call, to attract Pinkfeet and I’d no opportunity to test myself ‘in the field’. Fortunately, Scotland hadn’t let me down and there were geese spread throughout the area I was staying in. While the numbers were not particularly high, I hoped there were enough to at least give me a chance at calling and maybe even dirtying the barrels. Such is the optimism that every wildfowler must have or else turn to busting clays.
The weather for the first two days had been foggy and overcast, ideal for calling you might think, but alas the marsh was positively heaving with guns, more than I’d ever seen there and regrettably birds over 100 yds were not immune to fusillades of shots. Needless to say, the geese didn’t tarry around the marsh and were in no mood to be lured no matter how good my calling was. We should have guessed that this would be the way of things as on the very first morning we had seen a party of five making there way out onto the marsh en masse (and not a dog among them). In line astern they ambled along, each one waving a torch like a searchlight, though the distance from first to last could have been no more than 20 feet. Such are the difficulties in choosing to go fowling on an ‘open’ marsh. Fortunately, the lodging that we stay at has private access to the foreshore, which enables us to move to the more distant parts of the saltings. These areas are difficult to reach from the public access points and so we planned to stay as far away as possible from the crowds.
On this particular marsh while the Pinkfeet tend to roost towards the mouth of the estuary, Greylags prefer an area of sand and mud located nearer the middle. At morning flight, in true Greylag fashion, while the main bunch might move up river just a mile or so, there were almost always some geese that just flopped off of the roost onto the saltings nearby. It was these birds which we hoped to get into and our plan was to try putting out some decoy onto the fine lawns of grass that they preferred to graze upon. In contrast, the Pinks would up sticks and head well inland returning at last light and seldom fed on the marsh itself.
So it was, at 0600 on yet another windless morning, that myself and my two companions descended the sea wall and moved onto the marsh. Our usual route involved following a wire fence line until we reached a galvanised gate, then turning 90 degrees and walking straight out onto the marsh. It was a sure-fire way of finding the spot, even in the thickest fog or darkest morning, but it was quite a walk. Unlike the previous days however, the mist and fog had lifted and for the first time we could see the distant lights of the villages across the bay. It was this change in conditions that prompted Kern to suggest we take a more direct route out to our chosen spot and save ourselves some time and leg work, to which we agreed.
Progress was easy, though we did have to negotiate numerous small flashes and ankle snapping gullies, arriving on the foreshore faster than normal. Yet by the texture of the marsh we could tell we were a little south of our desired location. Which was no bad thing as we had time to sit down, have a cup of tea and a chin wag and wait for time to pass rather than bimbling about in the dark, disturbing the marsh. By 0700 I was anxious to get set up so elected to move off and locate the exact gully we were looking for. Taking a bearing back to the others I set off and within a short distance I could see that I was right on course and strode purposefully towards our chosen gully.
‘Hold on mate your standing in my decoys’, came a challenge from the dark, and sure enough, looking around I could dimly glimpse the outline of shell decoys. Bugger!
I went over and had a chat with the fellow in question and explained that we were out in front of him and had been sat there for about forty minutes waiting for the light to improve. We could of course have stayed put, as there was no way of knowing who had arrived first. But that would have put us in an area unsuitable for our decoys and left the chap behind us non-too pleased. As it was, he was set up in the spot we had hopped for and as he rightly pointed out it’s ‘first come first served’ on the foreshore. Arguing the facts would have been pointless, the only decent thing for us to do was for to move off and try another spot. So we had a very quick and amicable discussion during which it was agreed that I’d set up inside of him and that we’d both try our best not to interfere with each other’s shooting. The only trouble was that as far as I knew the gully became increasingly shallow as it led inland so the prospects for finding another good spot on the inside didn’t look good.
I reversed my course and set off back across the marsh to the spot I’d left my mates, dully arriving bang on target. ‘Did you find it’ asked Bryn? ‘Yes, walked straight to it, only trouble is there’s somebody there already’ (The English language is often at its most colourful when bad news such as this is given and this moment was no exception). I could see that Kern felt rather guilty at persuading us to take the direct route, but it was not his fault, we had all agreed to it. If only we’d gone our usual way there was every chance it would have been us who had arrived first. Still, there was nothing else to be done except to try and find somewhere to set up and to do it quickly, because the first pale streaks of dawn were appearing in the East.
As we feared, by the time we were sufficient distance away, the gully had petered out to little more than a rut and was wholly unsuitable. The only other options were to head back to either the fence line or sea wall and perhaps use posts or bushes for concealment.
Dawn was coming on apace, the light was increasing rapidly and the tension between us was tangible as we scattered about trying to find somewhere. Fortunately, just inland of our preferred location, was a small field on which about 200 pinks had been feeding the day before and from which we had successfully ambushed them as they went to roost the previous evening. Though there was little chance that they would return today, it gave us some hope that others might pass over the saltmarsh and head for this field. Whether or not we could get under them or attract some our way was debatable. Though I prefer to catch geese coming off a field at evening flight after a full days undisturbed grazing, it did give us another option of trying a drive should a party land there.
On reaching the fenceline we turned right and followed it towards its end where at last fortune smiled upon us as there appeared a small ditch which gradually deepened as it headed north. Some 50 yards further on it joined a large burn, which at high tide served as an effective barrier preventing fowlers using the public access from reaching the area. Unfortunately, while the tides had been well in for the previous days, high water was now not until after 0900 and as such the burn was now fordable. It was for this reason that we had found ourselves in competition for the best spot that morning.
Though the ditch was some way from the area in which the geese had been feeding on the merse and a little to one side of the field, it was deep enough to conceal three anxious fowlers, all there gear and dogs. We scrambled to place out the twenty shell decoys we carried onto what was a rather rough looking piece of saltmarsh, nothing like the fine and closely cropped areas on which the geese liked to feed farther out, and settled down to await the flight.
Despite the improved visibility that morning, the Greylags out on the roost stayed put much longer than we expected. Content to tease us with the occasional outbreak of cackling and stretching of wings. On the previous murky mornings, geese had come off as late as 1000, but I was surprised that they had remained so long on what by comparison was a clear day. Indeed it was a party of fifty Pinks that appeared first at around 0830, coming off of the land heading out towards the roost. Which in itself was a little odd as it’s usually the Greylags that set out first. Perhaps these birds had been disturbed further upriver or maybe they had been feeding inland all night, though the fog had made the nights very dark. They showed no signs of wiffling onto the roost and as they passed high over it the Greylags lifted and followed them away across the bay. Things really were looking bleak. Still, a little of the fowlers optimism remained and we decided to stay put and wait and see if any small parties might make an appearance.
Across the marsh, individuals and groups of folwers sprouted up just about everywhere and started their long walks back to the access points. Clearly a number of fowlers had crossed the burn that morning and a party of four slowly approached with their two dogs running free ahead of them. Unfortunately for both them and us, the burn, which had been easy to ford before dawn, had become swollen by the incoming tide and was now impassable. Even in our ditch, the water had risen to about a foot deep (thank heaven for chest waders). The only option they had was to follow the bank in the hope of finding a shallower point and this inevitably led them right onto us. Their dogs found us first, and careered about in our decoys before sniffing us out lurking in the bottom of the gully, alerting their owners of our presence. We unloaded and had a forced tea break, muttering into our cups, as they each crossed the far end of the gully. To be fair, they did apologise for disturbing us and we smiled back through gritted teeth but I was in black humour. Of course this was the exact time at which the first of several individual pinks chose to fly over our position. A fact that they kindly pointed out to us by shouting ‘geese over’ and trudged off to try and ford the burn further inland.
But the arrival of these few singletons marked the start of an exciting half-hour as small groups and individual Pinks began coming back down river, passing between the foreshore and us. This prompted our lone fowler to try some calling, but the one he was using had the unmistakably tone of Greylags (clearly he had the same idea as us) and he failed to elicit any reaction. The hardest part that I’ve found when learning to call is finding the confidence to ‘have a go’, particularly when others are listening and calling themselves. There’s always the fear of making an idiot of yourself and even worse, ruining the chances of others by spooking the geese. So while part of me was keen to try my mouthcalling, I was also kind of hoping I wouldn’t need to. Still, all of the birds at the moment seem to have a very definite idea of where they were going and to my eye didn’t look like good candidates to call, so I held off.
You get to see many different wildfowl and waders on an estuary and with time you instinctively recognise the flight characteristics of each one. So it was that shortly afterwards I spotted a thin smudge flying back across the bay towards the shoreline. Even though they formed little more than a faint scratch of darkness against the sky I knew they were a skein of geese, and as the distance between us decreased they resolved into about a dozen pinks, quartering to my right and heading inland. As they crossed over the edge of the merse the fowler in front hailed them, but as before, with no discernible effect and they flew by his spread of decoys. The skein was about 200 yards away and I waited until they were just about passing on my right before taking a deep breath and giving my first call. Instantaneously, the outermost goose changed direction almost as if I’d tugged at in on a piece of string and the skein turned to follow. They began contact calling and I gave a few returning answers, keeping them on track as they curled slightly inland, turning to head the breeze while at the same time cautiously approaching. They were flying quite slowly, clearly having a good look at the decoys, yet not committing to the pattern. We all crouched in the muddy bottom of the ditch, rigid save for our eyes. I rolled mine upwards till they started to hurt, straining to follow the skein until the lead birds disappeared behind the edge of my rolled up balaclava. It was clear that they weren’t going to drop in on this pass, and its debatable whether they would have come round again in classic fashion and dropped down, but that was immaterial as they were in range and at the end of the day that’s all that is necessary.
The advantage of shooting with friends, willing to behave altruistically rather than with their own self interest now played its part. Bryn held back, hoping that they would pass over the middle while Kern, who had bagged a pink on the previous evening’s ambush, had resolved not to shoot until we had. So, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was up to me to pick the moment to shoot. I’d already thumbed the safety off when the first bird had turned to my call so I simply had to raise my head slightly and pick a target before swinging onto it and firing. The goose fell straight out and I swung through and took a second even before the skein had time to react. In almost the same instance, the others had fired. Bryn had the most difficult shot as the birds were behind him and he had to swing around while squatting down, but he neatly dropped a bird as the skein leapt away. Kern, whose ten bore had proved its advantage at range the night before, failed to connect with the departing skein. Yet he wasn’t despondent, everyone had opened their account and having held back from celebrating the night before, could at last feel comfortable with his success. The dogs raced out to recover the geese, glad of some action after the inactivity of previous days and it was time for grins all round. After all the problems we’d faced, this was the sort of moment that defines the very essence of wildfowling.
This tale might have ended here had it not been for the fact that as we sat together chatting we heard the now familiar Greylag call croak into action from across the saltings. We scrambled back to our positions and saw that a pair of geese was heading our way, following an identical flightpath as the previous skein. Their approach was completely silent, again ignoring the calling and decoys of our distant fellow sportsmen and this time also failing to respond to my shouts as they passed inland. Unlike the very first geese that morning, this pair was clearly looking for company, so I continued to call and my persistence was rewarded as they turned and headed back. At first they looked certain to drop onto the inland field as they cupped their wings and began to descend. But whether it was because of the absence of any other geese on the pasture or my persistent hailing, they checked their decent and powered towards us. Despite my best efforts though, this pair of Pinks refused to give voice so I stopped calling and listened instead to the rising phrrp phrrp beat of their pinions as they closed upon us. Moving as slowly as possible I rolled my head back and watched as they passed directly overhead and could clearly see them twisting their own necks from left to right as they viewed our spread. Unlike our earlier chance though, they passed by just out of range and we all held our fire, content just to watch and capture the moment. They began a very gentle turn to starboard and I though about calling again but seeing that they would be heading in the direction of the other fowler I held off. Sure enough they caught site of his pattern, cupped their wings, and started to lose height. Now, whether or not he had lost confidence in his call, or was certain that the geese were committed to his spread, the chap across the marsh remained completely silent. Perhaps the fact that they were silent put him off but I think he should have given a few notes of encouragement. We each of us crept up to the top of the bank to watch the action as the geese descended, heading it seemed, right on track for his decoys. However, as I peered over the top of the bank, I could at last regain my bearings as to where the gully actually was. In this moment I realised that the geese were going to land short and instead of sharing the joy of witnessing another’s success had to feel his disappointment as the pair landed briskly about 100 yards short. There they waited, occasionally grazing in turn, but mostly standing alert for the next 10 minutes. I sat watching them through my binoculars, enjoying the spectacle, until they sprang silently away and headed out to the roost. Turning my attention across the saltings I could see the reason for their departure. The lone fowler had called it a day and was out collecting his decoys.
I am glad I left that final pair, we’d had our moment, but I couldn’t help feeling just a little regret at having passed up a half chance. Still, he didn’t seem to mind and although he never came across to us, he gave a cheery wave as he headed back towards the burn. Clearly he knew the tide was ebbing fast, in fact our gully was almost dry again, and both he and his spaniel easily crossed it. Following his lead, we gathered our gear and made our way off the marsh. It was just after 1030, time to leave the marsh undisturbed and have a few wets down the pub in celebration.
Anyone who only gets one or two chances a season to hunt the grey battalions know just how much self imposed pressure there can be to succeed. So, the combination of excited relief at each bagging a goose, coupled to a hearty lunch and couple of pints, wrought an air of quiet contentment amongst out little group. So much so that we even contemplated missing evening flight, well, for just a few seconds at least. Now was a perfect opportunity to try somewhere else, and in particular to try and have a crack at the Greylags, which had outwitted us that morning. Clearly they must be feeding across the estuary and so towards the middle of the afternoon we set out, following the coast road, for a recce. This turned out to be very simple affair as we found them (about 300 strong) feeding with Whooper swans on a field alongside the carriageway, conveniently next to a lay-by from which to view them. Now all we had to do was decide which way they would head back to the roost.
The most direct route would be for them to head south west, overland for about a mile, and then across the estuary to the sandbanks. Yet, during our four previous visits to this marsh, the geese always seemed to prefer to follow the river rather than taking short cuts. In this case, the shortest route from the field they were feeding on to the river, would entail the geese flying almost due west. Then they could turn southwards and navigate its course to the head of the estuary. Our plan therefore was simple. We’d go back and position ourselves along the riverbank just south of the point at which we thought they would first reach the river. If nothing else, now that we each had a goose, any duck that might come our way were now back on the menu.
Generally speaking, the river that leads into the estuary has little or no cover on its banks until several miles upstream. Here, the occasional narrow stand of reed offers some protection and it was along just such as stretch that we settled down for evening flight. Before setting out, we’d debated the prospects of encountering duck upriver. It seemed unlikely given the scant few we’d seen but it was agreed that although it was the geese we were after, duck were fair game, so I put half a dozen 36g No5 into my belt. To mark their position, I put them on the far right, straddled each side by a pair of 3-inch No1. Once in position I trusted to luck that I’d hear geese approaching, and loaded up with the duck shot.
The late afternoon was windless and slightly overcast and the tide was well out such that a large proportion of the gently sloping mud that led to the riverbanks was visible. The river itself was mirror calm with hardly any discernible flow. The only activity came from occasional parties of gulls meandering by and from a flock of Lapwings seemingly intent on aerobatics games as they repeatedly swept up and down at water level. During the halcyon days of summer you often see birds engaged in energetic play, but it seemed unusual to see such activity during the depths of winter. The only explanation I could come up with was that the flock was ‘chasing’ its own reflection in the water. One moment they would be beating steadily upriver and the next they would dash sideways or upwards in unison, almost as if chased by a falcon, before resuming their course only to return and repeat their antic minutes later. There always seems to be something to hold a fowler’s attention and this merry dance kept me enthralled.
I’d been standing alert among the reeds for over an hour before I heard the distance, and unmistakable call of a Greylag heading upstream. Quickly unloading, I replaced the 5’s into my belt and took the adjacent pair of 3-inch No1. The lone goose was calling incessantly, yet despite this obvious marker I couldn’t make it out against the sky. Then, remembering the antics of the Lapwings, I shifted my gaze and was able to catch its reflection on the surface of the river. Flushed with my success of the morning I called out in the hope that I could drag it away from the middle and draw it into range. As it was, it passed by around 100yds away and some 30 yds high disappearing into the North and maintaining its lone chorus. Around five minutes later, it returned, again following the river but this time now more than ten feet off the surface of the water. I tried once again to tempt the bird off of its course, with no success, and it continued downriver another 300 yds where it unexpectedly turned and landed onto a mud bank. In the deepening gloom I could just make it out as it stood motionless and silent. Clearly this bird was lost and looking for company. I think if I had been calling from one of the adjacent field and had some decoys out, this bird would have dropped straight in. As it was, it was no doubt trying to figure out just where on earth the pied piper was who even now that still shouting a merry tune.
I tried calling for a few more minutes but it’s hard on the lungs and throat this mouth calling. However, having seen this bird pass so low over the water a new plan of action presented itself. Along this particular stretch of river there are a number of groynes made of loose stone boulders that stretch down from the bank and across the mud. At high tide these are completely covered, but they were now clearly visible and pushed out a further 25 yds into the river. What their function is I cannot say, but in the failing light they now provided a perfect spot on which to lye down in the hope that other geese would pass. If they repeated the lone bird’s route, either up or down, they would present a perfect chance. So, breaking open my gun, I moved out of the reeds and taking careful steps along the smooth mud made my way towards the nearest one. Bryn, who was positioned slightly further down, heard my approach and stepped out to see what was happening. I explained my plan and he wished me luck. He’d been toying with the idea himself, yet decided against it as he felt his liver and white spaniel, Kate, would be too conspicuous against the dark background of the stones.
Progress was a little awkward as I had to step onto the sand between the stones but I made it safely to the end of the groyne and laid down facing upriver. Looking to my left, the top of the bank must have been 20 feet above me, reminding me just how deep the river became at high tide. Lying as I was, just a few inches above the water, I felt a degree of uncertainty about my choice of position. Would the level rise quick enough to cut me off? I didn’t think so, but I kept a close watch on the stones right at the end just in case. Though I don’t profess to taking risks, there’s undoubtedly a degree of nervous pleasure to be had from crossing a tricky patch of sticky mud, wading a dyke or retreating back from a making tide. Lying down, almost mid river, with only a slippery path of stones to lead me back to safety waiting for a flight, certainly made me feel both anxious and excited.
As it was, I hadn’t long to wait before the noisy cacophony of a large mob of Greylags sent my pulse racing. Heading downstream, just as predicted, flew the geese. In the sepia gloom of last light I strained to detect their approach, hoping they’d be in range. With condition being so still, the noise as they bore down upon us was tremendous, seeming to reverberate all around me. The geese loomed overhead, split into two skeins, with the majority passing on my right while a smaller group passed directly overhead. My hope that they would be 10 feet up was sadly misplaced, but I judged they were in range for my magnum No1’s. Kneeling up, I swung onto the leading goose of the smaller skein as it passed overhead. My first shot checked its flight, and it began to tower upwards as the rest of the skein flashed past. Firing again, it faltered and veered off to the right, still gaining height, and to my despair drew off eastwards quickly vanishing into the dark. The flight was over.
Realistically there was no way of searching for that goose. We had no boat to cross the river, and although the dogs could have easily swum it, there was no mark to cast them to and no hope of controlling them in the dark. Besides, sheep were grazing the fields and banks opposite and with Foot and Mouth restrictions only just having been lifted, it had been impressed upon us that dogs must be under control at all times. If we’d had the landowners permission and it had been dawn instead of dusk, we might have seen the bird pitch, driven around and carried out a search (though it may have taken an hour to reach the area). But we hadn’t, and no one was going to take kindly to being roused in the dark by a fowler looking for a lost goose.
I stood up, angry with myself for failing to give enough thought about how I would make a retrieve across the river and ejected the spent shells into my hand. As I did so, even in the darkness, I could both see and feel that something wasn’t right about these cases. The 3-inch No1 are coloured the standard Eley red with a deep brass head and under the conditions should have looked dark and felt ‘heavy’. These cases were pale and oddly light. Reaching into the depths of my inside pocket I pulled out a pen torch, which is only really their in case of emergency, and closing my master eye quickly flashed one of the empties.
There, in my hand, instead of a Magnum No1 was a 36g No5. Quickly flashing the other case confirmed what I now dreaded. Somehow, when I swapped cartridges, I’d managed to change one set of No5 for an identical pair. Using the tiny beam I twisted round the cartridge belt, and sure enough, the pair of No1 I had used to mark the end of the belt were still in position.
What can I say? After having taking care to segregate the different size shot on my belt I’d still made such a fundamental and inexcusable mistake. I was absolutely livid with myself and cursed my stupidity. Closing the gun and plunging the empties and torch into a bellow pocket, I stormed back to the bank in a turmoil of emotions. How often do well-laid plans actually come to fruition on the foreshore? Not often in my experience and here, after we’d been spot on, I’d mucked it up and let down not only myself but also my mates with such a foolish error. But worst of all, and something which still haunts me, was the image of a stricken, yet unretrievable goose disappearing into the darkness.
Seeing my return and hearing my curses, Bryn emerged from the reeds and asked what was up. I could have said nothing, and hidden my shame, but my conscience would never had allowed it and I explained what I’d done firstly to Bryn and then to Kern when he strolled up. Their reaction was identical; one of disbelief followed my stunned silence as they took in the full consequences of my actions. Their silence spoke volumes.
We made our way back to the vehicle in a very subdued mood, with none of the usual banter and very little to say about the rest of the flight. Arriving back at our cottage, having committed the sin, I now had to face the punishment, and was subjected to a concerted p*ss take by the pair of them in which the number five seemed to figure prominently. Eventually, sensing that my mood of depression could reach no lower, they changed tack and began talking about the many mistakes they had each made over the years. It was an obvious attempt to try and make me feel better, and bless them for it, but there was no escaping the fact that the euphoria of the morning’s success could never be relived without the tarnish of the evening.
As it was, no more chances came our way during the remaining few days of our stay, and we headed back on our 480 mile journey with four Pinkfooted geese carefully wrapped and stowed in the trailer. A most satisfactory tally as it meant one each plus one for the lad from whom we’d borrowed the trailer. It really was a shame though that we didn’t have a Greylag goose to bring our tally to five, leaving us one spare. I could have sent it to the Procurator Fiscal in lieu of the speeding ticket one of his constables kindly gave us.