When the chairman of the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association offers to take you to a new marsh on a new estuary, there is only one answer to give, which is why I was waiting for Mike Lawrence in a layby off an Essex dual carriageway one November morning.
Our club shoots on two Essex estuaries: the Blackwater, after which it takes its name, and the Crouch. I had only shot on the Blackwater, so when Mike offered to take me out on the Crouch I did not give him time to change his mind. He explained that we could expect action almost as soon as the flood tide began. The plan was to arrive just after low water to shoot an afternoon spring tide. We would be crossing on to the old sea wall which had been breached either side of us, so there would be no coming back until the tide was well on the ebb.
Mike advised me to check my decoy rigs to make sure there were no weak links. “There will be plenty of wigeon about”, he promised, “but the tide does race through a bit. It’s a famous place for losing decoys”.
So, loaded with well-prepared decoys and plenty of provisions, I followed Mike through Essexback roads and along a slippery track to a parking spot in scruffy, lowlyingfarmland. Much of the marsh had been part of the same holding until recently, when the long battle to keep the high tides from it was given up and the land surrendered back to the sea.
Through the great work of Mike and his colleagues on the committee, the newly created saltmarsh came under the control of the club, which has been reaping the benefits since.
We wriggled into our neoprene waders, shouldered bags and guns and growled at dogs. I followed Mike out to the sea wall for my first glimpse of the Crouch. At low tide, the deep, narrow river lacked the grandeur of the Blackwater. I reminded myself that I was here for the duck, not the view. If there was one man likely to fi nd them, he was walking ahead of me along the sea wall, raising his hood to fend off the drizzle moving in on a gentle easterly breeze.
After just a few hundred yards we came to the critical point. In front was a deep, broad creek separating us from hundreds of acres of saltmarsh. To our right, where the sea wall once took a right-angled corner, was a 20-yard breach nearly as deep as the creek itself. This led to our smaller area of saltmarsh behind. Half-an-hour after low tide we skipped down through the mud and back on to the sea wall on the other side.
A few yards on, Mike pointed out a couple of ancient breezeblocks near the top of the bank and suggested I build a hide around them and use them as a seat. Twenty feet below me there were small pools in the bottom of the creek and I laid out a dozen wigeon and teal decoys. Leaving me in the prime location, Mike carried on for 100 yards down the sea wall and started setting up under a small spinney that had taken root on top.
Scrambling down the bank with decoys and lines, I discovered that much of it was constructed from lumps of concrete with jagged metal reinforcement rods. I tried to lay decoy lines avoiding snags, but was not confident that all of my little armada would be coming home.
One out of three
For the moment, though, the decoys were pulling gently against their weights as the tide started to flow and soon we had customers. A pack of wigeon came off the river and thought about heading up our creek. They would not come to the decoys, but they did circle round and gave me a fair chance — which I nearly made a mess of. The first two shots were well behind, and I thanked the god of semi-autos as I finally managed to get the barrel in front of my bird with the third, and it collapsed into the creek. My Labrador Pod was in his first season, and as I dropped into the bottom of the creek and took his retrieve a cock wigeon hovered over the decoys and dropped to my single shot.
Back in my hide I settled the dog and sealed up all gaps in my clothing as the rain began to fall in earnest. With the creek only just beginning to fill, I had the strange experience of shooting down on to the ducks coming into the decoys as my hide was high on the sea wall. One hen teal dropped among the imitations; two more teal somehow managed to evade three shots and then a pair of wigeon committed to the decoys and both dropped dead in the growing current. Pod was knocked sideways and was momentarily confused as he swam out to the first duck. The second was well away as Pod returned, but I saw Mike’s bitch Bracken heading out to intercept it, while a cock wigeon responded beautifully to the whistle and crashed into the decoys to provide another stiff swim for Pod.
As the water level rose, the duck were less willing to commit to the decoys, but we were now on an increasingly small island in a growing sea and the fowl were moving all around us. A single wigeon came from behind me fast and high, just on the limit of my 3in steel no. 4s. Pulling well through, I squeezed the trigger and the duck fell, its momentum taking it to the edge of the creek where it landed with an explosion of water.
Mike joined me as Pod completed the simple retrieve, when another wigeon appeared on the same line. Again steel hit home, but this time the duck staggered and then flew on before setting its wings in a long glide across the main creek and well out on to the marsh beyond.
I looked down at Pod who was having one of the most exciting days of his young
life, but he had no mark and there was no way I was going to get him across that current and out to a blind retrieve.
“Shall I send Bracken?” I heard Mike say, “I think she saw it across”. The bitch was waiting, poised.
“Of course,” I replied and she was gone. The creek was now in full flood. Huge volumes of water were being forced up the narrow river Crouch and spilling out to fi ll the vast marsh in front of us. The full force hit Bracken mid-stream. She fought across, but made the far bank a hundred or more yards downstream. As soon as she was out she took a bearing and galloped back up the bank before taking Mike’s signal and working out into the breeze towards the point where we had marked the bird down. She disappeared into an unseen creek and then reappeared with the duck dead in her mouth more than 200 yards from where we stood. She came steaming back through the current to complete an amazing retrieve.
At high tide, we pulled in our decoys as far as we could and retired to the top of the sea wall for a long lunch. I complimented Bracken and told off Mike for putting me under so many duck when he had just a couple.
The rain ceased, the wind dropped and we had a pleasant intermission as the tide peaked and the marsh went quiet. Against all odds we managed to retrieve all our decoys with just a few damp moments.
A few teal and mallard moved as the light faded and I came back to earth, making a complete mess of two very easy chances. Finally, as the tide ebbed enough for us to pick our way back through the saltmarsh we headed back to permanently dry land after a day which goes down as a proper wildfowling adventure.