“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
firstname.lastname@example.org. Wildfowling clubs can buy multiple copies @
£10.00 each, postage paid.
Copies of “Wildfowling Ways” are still available at the same terms
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.
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
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 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
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.