As the afterglow submerged slowly beneath the distant sea, the high, snow-white clouds changed through pastel shades of violet to a deep cornflower blue. The dog and I sat expectantly among thick clumps of rushes that were a lush, waxy green from their summer’s growth. It was the first evening flight of the season, and I had arrived earlier than planned.
Though the spaniel and I were both old hands at the sport, the years hadn’t put the slightest dent into our enthusiasm for wildfowling. Earlier on, when Kara had spied the waders, rucksack and decoys coming out of the garage she hadn’t let me out of her sight for a single second. I had tried to harvest the last of the carrots and onions from the vegetable garden before setting out, but had become totally demented with the dog getting under my feet. To her great delight, I had taken the gun out of the cabinet, put her in the car and set off.
The spot where I was hiding had already been fruitful an hour or so previously, and a plump mallard, with a chestnut sheen on his breast and a sprinkling of metallic green feathers on his head, lay on top of the gunslip. On my arrival, the big drake had rocketed skywards out of the rushes and after a single shot it had returned to earth just as swiftly. Curiously though wildfowlers are a strange breed it felt a bit of an anti-climax to get a duck so quickly after so little effort.
The dusk was accompanied by a slight wind that tickled against my cheeks and made the reeds and longer grasses around the ragged edge of the muddy inlet flutter. The tide was well on the ebb, and the narrow burn on my left trickled down into a small, ever-shrinking, brackish pool where four duck decoys rocked listlessly. High, wavering flocks of gulls had already flown, noiselessly, out to roost and, apart from the soft hum of traffic on the distant road, the marsh was quiet.
Beneath the shiny dot of Jupiter in the sky to the south west, a distant teal flickered by and my right hand automatically tightened on the pistol grip of the gun. I relaxed again it was only a pipistrelle bat diving and twisting as it dined on the invading hordes of midges swarming above the marsh. The miniscule pests had already had several free meals at my expense and were queuing up for seconds.
The next nocturnal hunter to appear in the darkening sky was a foraging barn owl. It flitted silently and buoyantly over the sea wall to quarter over the rough grass on the upper marsh. I was totally mesmerised by the bird’s meticulous hunt when a low group of six mallard shot by from right to left five yards in front of me. My reactions were rusty and there was nothing to show for the two empty shell cases thrown into my rucksack.
I forced myself to buck up my ideas, and when the next group of eight or nine duck powered past, some 40 yards up, I sprang to my feet. The 10-bore was given a hearty swing and, when it was well past the nearest bird, it thumped once against my shoulder. The bunch flared like an exploding firework, then blurred and disappeared quickly from sight, as a dark bundle fell like a rock on to the short sward at the far side of the pool.
While the dog was out, things heated up. Half a dozen, again over to my right, but slightly lower, gave the game away by their chattering. Another solitary shot I was too slow to take a second one brought a female mallard down more or less at my feet. As I lifted that bird I heard the springer snort, then her shadowy outline rose over a slight hump on the merse. When she drew closer I saw that it was another hen mallard that dangled from her mouth.
By then it was dark enough for me to go out and kneel on the side of the pool where the spaniel had picked up her duck. As well as being a bit closer to the flightline, I was directly facing the last rays of light. This gave me the slight edge of being able to spot incoming duck a split second sooner. Next to come by was a mallard that was identified from its gentle call as a drake. He swung round sharply, cupped his wings, lowered his landing gear and came down into the flash.
I stood up to take the shot, and the mallard propelled himself off the water. One of the few drawbacks of wildfowling is that there is seldom anyone around to witness a spectacular piece of shooting. There was a major benefit on that occasion, though, as thankfully only the dog witnessed me fluff that easy target completely. The frightened but otherwise unharmed drake made a very sharp exit, leaving behind an embarrassed gunner.
Five minutes later, after a hen mallard had swooped over from behind, honour was restored and Kara dolphined out into the water for the retrieve. The right barrel was reloaded and the duck was placed on the grass at my side.
In a pale chink of sky, yet another singleton appeared past the far side of the pool, and I fired instinctively before it vanished into darkness. Had I heard a bump or was it just wishful thinking? The spaniel seemed very confident that something had come down and was sent out to investigate. She splashed and splattered her way over, and after a bit of toing and froing on the saltings, she came back in with the second drake mallard of the evening.
Though teal also pass through that fleet from time to time, not a single hint of one, apart from the false alarm, was seen or heard that evening. This was an observation, not a complaint, for I had just experienced the best mallard flight I had ever had on those saltings. There was enough duck for several tasty meals, so after everything was stowed away, I used the cover of the stream bed to head towards the back of the merse. As I probed the water carefully with my wading stick, the whistle of swiftly beating pinions drifted down from shadowy wine bottle shapes that swept overhead. Stuttering quacks and sometimes a splash or two echoed out, as duck pitched down in the flashes nearer the tideway.
On approaching the floodbank, I stopped to take a breather and pondered over who had enjoyed that productive evening the most. A glance down at Kara gave the answer her hips snaked like an enthusiastic belly dancer. There was only one other important question on my mind. Would there be enough light from the street lamps to pick some of the parasol mushrooms growing on the outskirts of the village?