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Wildfowling with Alan Jarrett

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“Afloat” is an extract from a chapter of the same name from Alan Jarrett’s latest book on wildfowling – “A Wildfowler’s World”. It is available from the author at £17.00 including p & p by ringing 01634 682666, or on email at ajarrettconsult@aol.com. Wildfowling clubs can buy multiple copies @ £10.00 each, postage paid.

Copies of “Wildfowling Ways” are still available at the same terms as above.


Conditions were perfect for an evening flight on a favourite stretch of shore and so long as the wind did come after dark everything ought to be all right. But here is the lesson in judgement, for it always pays to consider what will happen in the event the forecast is wrong. What if the wind came early and the whole shore became a maelstrom in moments, as can sometimes be the case? A westerly wind blows along this stretch of shore, and is one of the least dangerous for a small craft afloat; my judgement was even if the wind did get up early I would be sufficiently safe with a wind at my back, so go – I thought -but remain mindful of the forecast.

In the event it was a delightful afternoon to be afloat on the estuary. The punt nudged into the side creek as soon as there was sufficient depth to allow access, and there was time to paddle through the creek for the few minutes it would take to reach the flighting station and to enjoy this moment that always puts you at one with nature.

The creek is flanked on both sides by wide expanses of cloying brown mud. Down in the depths of the creek the feeding waders that will be ranged all across the mud flats take little or no notice of the passing craft and its camouflaged occupant – that is if they notice at all. On this day there was the usual scattering of redshanks and dunlin; further away was a big stand of golden plover - some 60 or 70 birds strong - that would have come down at the start of the ebb to take up station on the first of the exposed mud. A couple of pairs of shelduck fed energetically in their normal way of sweeping their slightly upturned bill from side top side in order to sift through the soft top layer of mud for the myriad hydrobia snails which were there in profusion.

It is never entirely easy going when you try to get into this creek early. ‘More haste less speed’ is a fine motto unless you want to spend time alternately grounded on some small raised protrusion of mud, or inching forward using a combination of paddling and pushing against the muddy banks. When you run aground it is necessary to wait for the tide to lift you anyway, but logic and wildfowling seldom sit well together!

At length the creek turned north and opened out slightly to form a flat muddy bay into which the duck often came to dibble in the shallows for food, or perhaps to simply loaf out of the wind. The spartina clumps on the mud appeared almost like raised green forestry from the low perspective of the punt, when of course in reality the grass would be little more than three feet high. The muddy banks of the creek soon gave way to steeper sided saltings, and atop the banks dense stands of spartina were mixed with sea aster and sea purslane. It was a green and restful scene, and a sharp contrast to the browns and greys of the mudflats nearby.

With the tide still low it was necessary to clamber out and haul the punt the last few yards from the creek bed to the edge of the salting bank, so that all the hide-building and decoy equipment could be thrown high up onto the bank. A few large plastic decoys – a mixture which I keep in the punt at all times being made up of mallard, pintail and pochard – netting and poles for

the hide, together with gun and ammunition were soon all in place on the top of the bank. Once into the creek the tide comes quickly and by the time the unloading was complete the water was all around the punt, gurgling noisily into the deep footprints left by my passage and nudging at the back of the punt in an attempt to turn it.

With the dogs on the salting top it was the work of a moment to get afloat again and head further into the creek for another 80 yards or so to where a tiny side creek cuts its way into the salting bank. It was a creek that seemed almost made for the punt, and with a mixture of paddling followed by pushing and pulling it was possible to get into the creek and anchor the punt there. It would be virtually out of sight for the duration of the flight, and near at hand when it came to packing up again.

Evening Flight

By the time the hide had been built low down amongst the spartina, and within a few feet of the creek edge, there was a good head of water advancing along the creek. Footprints and drag marks from the bottom of the punt were submerged and out of sight, whilst there was a thick rime of dirty brown froth along the edge of the mud at the bottom of the salting bank; later the creek would be clear and clean once the tide had risen, whilst the froth would as if by magic disappear.

Time to get down into the water, which nudged tamely about the knees, to set the decoy pattern. Sometimes I will set the pattern on the mud in advance of

the flooding tide, but when setting the decoys in the water itself it is easier to get the pattern just so; lifting and replacing any decoys which appear too close together, or those which crowd the carefully positioned landing – or killing - zone which many of us wildfowlers prefer to leave as a target for any incoming birds to aim at.

The mix of plastic decoys was scattered in no particular order or with any supposed logic. All the larger, and therefore heavier and bulkier decoys spend their lives in the punt and as most decoying in the saltings is carried out in the gloomy half-light of evening flight it seems to matter little which species are used. A scattering of mallard, pintail and pochard were soon bobbing sedately in the flood tide.

A single magnum mallard decoy was carried nearer to the mouth of the creek and deposited there like some sort of outcast! The objective being to attract any passing duck – particularly low-flying birds - which might otherwise miss the main decoy pattern altogether. It is pleasant to think that on odd occasions this ruse works, for many duck pass wide along the outer edge of the saltings and remain oblivious to even the most frantic of calling.

It would be high tide a little before dark, which meant that in all probability there would be plenty of time to contemplate the world for few duck could be expected to move before the light began to fade. By then the ebb would be in full swing, and any duck would have a bountiful supply of ideal slushy margins in which to guzzle food as the tide left an array of titbits behind.

Predictably perhaps no duck came to the creek for a long time. The occasional high flying pack of wigeon passed overhead, but paid the offering below them no heed; they were on their way to another roost off somewhere to the east, and had no need of a risky dive to the saltmarsh below to visit a small flock of their kind intent on doing not very much! But as ever on the shore there were other goings on to hold the attention.

This very spot was always a good ambush spot for curlew in the days long ago when they had been legal quarry. It was still a good spot, but now there was time to sit and watch, with never a thought of sending one of their number spinning to a watery end in the creek. They came in good numbers, sweeping low across the saltings to the accompaniment of the occasional chortle; sometimes in ones and twos, or in small groups of up to half a dozen, and a couple of times in great packs of 20 or more.

The curlew is one of the most vocal of shore birds. Although it is renown for its wonderfully evocative burbling sound there are many more sounds in its repertoire: a host of grunts and croaks, and semi-warbles assault the ears, and then of course there is the deep throaty alarm call, rising in a crescendo of abuse if the bird happens to spot the wildfowler’s dog hidden below. The curlew is one of the spirit birds of the open shore.

Much later, when a grand flypast of waders had occurred all along the tideline and out over the estuary waters farther from the salting edge, the light began to fade and the tide stopped its relentless passage. The water was into the

bottom of the hide, but did not rise high enough to force me to move: it had made its predicted height almost to the inch, and had been one of those calm sedate flood tides so reminiscent of a mild autumn on the coast. Soon the decoys turn lazily to face the ebb tide and the water began to flow back the way it had come -–the tide is always moving remorselessly, unstoppably.

Once the tide was a foot or so off the salting top and with the light beginning to fade fast a pair of wigeon passed low along the saltings back towards the seawall. They turned in a long graceful arc at my calling, and were soon flying along the creek approaching the decoys. They came without any hesitation, and although the treble shots should have secured them both there were no complaints with the single cock bird which the dogs brought from the creek.

The netting to the front of the hide flapped lazily a couple of times for the first time that day. I idly wondered whether that storm was coming, but was soon back concentrating on the sky all around. Over the next few minutes three more wigeon succumbed to a mixture of careful calling and the decoys, and soon enough the night had clamped in hard aided by an increasingly gloomy sky to the west.

The Storm

The wind was by now rattling the hide and buffeting the salting all around. Out along the salting edge even in the dark it was possible to see the tide

creaming across the shallows, and to hear the angry roar of the waves on the muddy beach as the weather began to change. The weather forecast had been spot on.

The next few minutes were mayhem. I always collect the decoys using the punt from such deeper water as now lay in the creek, and the exercise is usually easy enough. But now the wind shrieked into the creek so that every time I stopped paddling to wind in a decoy the punt was forced back into the salting edge. Time and again I had to heave the long craft back into the creek to retrieve another decoy and each time the wind took me back again.

Eventually the work was done and all was packed away securely. A real dilemma now lay before me, for the wind was at gale force and raging along the line of the salting from the west. The journey out into deeper water away from the increasingly shallow creek would be fraught as the wind would be from my right-hand side and any sailor at all knows that in a wind you must keep bow or stern to the wind. Once into deeper water I would be able to turn east and have the wind at my back, but the problem was that crosswind leg of the journey that would be over some 200 yards or more.

I decided to go. If the worse came to the worst the punt could always be left on the mud and retrieved the next day, and so long as I kept to the shallows the risk of being capsized was remote. Nevertheless the next few minutes were a desperate struggle against a wind that did its best to push the punt onto the mud flats, and a struggle to keep the southerly bearing that was needed to reach deep water.

In the end the punt held nicely to the line I needed, even though water constantly splashed against the side and washed over into the cockpit. Ahead the tide was a heaving mass of waves where only a hour before it had been placid and oily calm – such is the rapidly changing nature of weather in the estuary.

Some frantic paddling on the left-hand side brought the punt around until the bow was facing east. Then began one of the most exhilarating and at once frightening journeys I have ever undertaken as the punt travelled at amazing speed driven before the wind. The paddle was being pushed away from me by the wind with each stroke, and it was almost as if a giant invisible hand was snatching at the raised blade and attempting to pull it from my grasp. The punt rose and fell from every wave top into the trough on the other side with a series of shuddering thumps that drove water foaming over the narrow bow, but no matter what it held its course and careered on towards the east and home.

The landing at the causeway came up very fast, but it was obviously too dangerous to attempt to turn in - for that really would have run the risk of being capsized. It is doubtful that the turn could have been made anyway. Instead I opted to run in at an oblique angle to hit the mud some 100 yards downwind of the causeway; under those circumstances it was best to drag the punt back through the shallows to the hard, rather than risk the waves again.

Once the punt was lashed onto its trailer and the trailer hooked onto the back of the car there was time to sit and marvel at the complete transformation in the estuary. A timely reminder – if ever one were needed - to never take these waters for granted.

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