It was with a sense of duty that I set off to evening flight on the river on the last day of the season, for just as I like to herald the dawn of the shooting season, so I wish to witness its dying hours. No ancient Druid views the Vernal Equinox with more solemnity than I observe these two important festivals. This particular stretch of Fenland river has often filled the bag for me in happier and rougher winters. It usually floods to about 100 yards, but when it is dry the little washes or water meadows are dense reedbeds growing on treacherous bog and beloved of pheasants, snipe and teal. Here and there a permanently wet patch makes a lagoon of shallow water into which mallard drop and sleep in unruffled dignity, safe from prowling foxes.
By the calendar it was the last day of January, but by every token the mild breeze and blue sky could offer it was mid-May. Partridges were chirruping in pairs as they investigated tussocky corners with an eye to nest making. Pheasants were gathering on the sootblack drills, proud strutting cocks with their attendant harems of demure hens looking pale fawn in the bright sunlight.
It was little wonder that I felt little of the usual zest of the fowler. I had no sheepskin waistcoat, long boots or oilskins; the hand warmer had been left at home. I was wearing the kit I had worn shooting pigeon off peas last June.
The car bucked along the drove, throwing up a cloud of silky dust which settled impartially over every surface. In true fieldsportsman style, I looked through the side windows as much as the windscreen, noting and trying to identify distant specks on the roadside fields. I saw golden plover, partridges, pheasants, gulls, a promising flock of pigeon, hares, rabbits and, at last, on a vast field of short winter corn, a flock of wigeon.
I jabbed on my brakes and scanned the field with the glasses. There were about 400 and even as I watched, another pack, whistling and grunting, their white undersides flashing, came swinging in from the river to join their comrades. My gloom turned to sudden joy. At least there were some fowl about and the chance of a bag grew marginally better.
I made my way cautiously on to the quaking morass by the river, making sure of my retreat and made a rushy couch in the reeds. Stiff teasels and desiccated giant hogweeds jabbed into the mud made an ideal hide. I was still making myself comfortable in my little nest when duck were upon me. Two black missiles, two mallard, homed in from the burning sunset. I scrambled to my feet, took my time and scored an easy right-and-left.
How pleasant it is to be able to write thus after so many misses and muffed chances. Cassius destroyed my delicate filigree hide like a grenade as he hurtled forth to fetch the birds, one on my left, the other over the river in the rushes on the far side.
After this pretty piece of work, I basked in the glow of self-congratulation, only to be brought cruelly to earth by missing two identical shots five minutes later. Time passed and snipe skimmed overhead; moorhens croaked and every pheasant in the parish crowed in unison as a mighty jet opened its engines in the far-off stratosphere. My reverie was broken by a sound akin to the tearing of sheets as six mallard plummeting in from a great height nearly took my hat off and landed in a splash not 15 yards away. I held my breath. Cassius? eyes resembled the proverbial chapel hat-pegs and fierce tremors shook his black flanks. Here was a moral dilemma: what should I do? To shoot a sitting duck is the passport to eternal damnation in my circle, unless it is the result of a legitimate stalk. I was still debating the matter when the decision was made for me as they suddenly sprang up, having no doubt spotted me peering anxiously from behind my screen. Again I leapt up, and again two birds fell, one in the river, the other well up on the far bank. Cassius marked this bird and hurled himself into the water with a resounding splash which set the very echoes rolling. He vanished into the gloom and in response to my hand signals quartered up and down with professional dexterity.
He was too near the edge. ?Get out! Get out!? To do him justice, he got out and crashed about a bit in distant rushes, eventually returning to the margin with lolling tongue to tell me that he could make nothing of it. I had no stone to throw and knew from bitter experience that he was just as likely to fetch the stone as the duck. I scooped a bit of mud, squeezed it into a ball and threw it in line with the fall. Again he set of with zest and hunted long and hard. I walked gingerly to the edge of the river, expecting at any moment to be engulfed and sucked down like Dr Watson in the dreaded Grimstone Mire. ?The nearer you are to the dog, the stronger will be your control,? say the dog-handling books. A party of wigeon fluttered round, keen to land. I fired instinctively and dropped one on the reeds near the hide. One boot sank ominously through the reedy crust. What a mess I was making of things and what chances I was missing with all this mucking about!
Duck were whickering all round when my gloom was transformed to a fierce joy, for I heard the distant rustlings of the dog accelerate and then stop. I heard a wing flailing reed, heard the snort of an out-of-breath dog picking his bird. It was too dark to see, but I heard him enter the water, became aware of his black shape furrowing the water, and then saw the shapeless mass in his jaws. He crept towards me and I stooped and took from him a large, old, and angry cock pheasant. It seemed to be my night for moral decisions.
What had not promised to be a ?likely night? had turned out better than expected. Four mallard (lost one), one wigeon and a cock pheasant. The duck were very fat and when plucked the mallard resembled blocks of yellow fat.
Over the years I have noticed on more than one occasion that it is on the days that seem least propitious, days when the experts leave their guns in the corner and stay at home, that the enthusiast and those who ought to know better can often get a bird or two. Now I could relax with a proper end-of-season feeling. Cassius seemed to enjoy himself too, and it isn?t often that he shows any emotion.