The first day of September is tattooed on the minds of all fowlers ? a day not to be missed for many, yet I do not rush out. I can still recall, all too vividly, the warm butterfly evening with a spring tide, the local yacht race, jet-skis and a power boat whistling around me as a reminder that summer had not given up quite yet. That is the increasing problem with the Exe. For its size, I cannot think of another estuary with as many user groups ? whether we like it or not, they all have a legitimate and equal right to enjoy it.

Tales of the opening day soon reached me from fellow fowlers, but still I was not overly tempted until a chance walk in the clover field above my home. Wondering to myself whether a third cut of silage might be achieved, I heard them ? or so I thought. I stopped as an involuntary reaction and, in the

distance, I could hear geese getting ever closer. Then over the tops of the forest oaks, a skein of Canadas, maybe 50-strong, sailed past, singing to me as they took a line towards the estuary.

It brought me out of my summer hibernation. This year, from a weather perspective, early September was not unusual. The following week offered an agreeably low tide, however, and Tuesday?s forecast promised a strong westerly accompanied by scattered rain. A call to my fowling friend Andy revealed he would defi nitely be going out, together with fellow club member Paul.

The club insists on the presence of a competent retrieving dog being made available to all who take a permit and this was to be my first dogless outing. I would be reliant on Andy?s dog in case of a water retrieve or a strong runner. Of course, Andy was fine about that, but I had a heavy heart about the whole thing. In truth, it was my own fault.

I have always subscribed to the simple and trusted principle of keeping two and then three dogs, aged three to four years apart, thus allowing for retirement of the faithful within the family home and ensuring I always had one at my side. My failing was based upon focusing on a change of career and a passion for working terriers. My wife had put her foot down and refused to entertain the conversation of more dogs. I thought about a divorce but decided I could not afford it.

My springer was in the kitchen when I started to gather my kit and it knew what was happening ? they always do. Its heart and enthusiasm was as loyal as ever, but 12 years of mud and kennels has left its back legs unstable. The spaniel?s quality of life is good and daily Metacam has stabilised its joints. Putting down a friend just because it no longer fits my needs is not going to happen quite yet. Ridiculously, I put a handful of biscuits on the slate floor to distract it from the sight of me leaving the house without it, but with gun and kit.

The fowling madness

We were meeting in the usual spot by 6.30pm, plenty early enough, but we all arrived ahead of schedule. Waders and kit on, Paul was to take the far gutter out to a point which he always favours, while Andy and I walked the mud on a low tide. I soon regretted not having thicker socks as the mud pulled my waders southwards. Andy was perversely keen to get into the heavier mud and his favourite haunt, despite carrying decoys and a lime-coloured wash tub for a seat.

I found a hard bed of cockle shells and sat down on my game bag, surrounded by zostera. In the distance I could make out 20 or so wigeon feeding, early migrants soon to be joined by the wonderful Brent geese that make their incredible pilgrimage from Svalbard.

Looking across the mudflats, I smiled as Paul, with his new rotating winged decoy furiously propelled by the westerly wind, looked like a child with a seaside windmill in hand. Even at 300 yards I could see the spinning wings. Would the duck like it though? With half an hour before the tide turned and the light gently fading, I was absorbed by the sounds, the wind and the wonderful madness of the sport. I was brought out of my trance by three shots from Paul?s Hatsan Escort. The duck flared, but nothing fell.

Birds were in the air and a duck was cleanly folded by Andy. Both men are keen on duck, notably wigeon and teal. As I was loaded with Eley Maximum 3s, the young birds would have to wait. Geese were firmly in my thoughts. I have never got on well with steel, but my experiments were 10 years ago and loads have changed considerably. I also have an obsession with English guns and my E. M. Reilly delivers Bismuth well. Paul swears by steel and uses Eley 32g of 3s for all his shooting including Canadas when close enough. Andy is also committed to steel loads, using suitable sizes for geese in his 10-bore bolt-action Marlin.

Managing a Marlin

I don?t recall Andy ever not having his Marlin. It really is part of him. Last year, however, admitting to the aches and pains of swinging the brute, something had to change. It?s a sobering thought that age does not come alone ? we teased him and I expected a semi-auto to appear under his arm. How wrong I was. He simply took a hacksaw to the barrel and cut six inches off, reducing the weight by 1lb. What about the choke? With all traces of it gone it?s knocking the birds down better then ever.

A gentlemen?s game

Fifteen minutes passed and, looking towards the Powderham estate, the estuary took on all the colours of a Turner painting. With perfect timing I heard geese, maybe 20 Canadas, high over the hillside fighting the wind. They dropped height, immediately reaching the shoreline, skitting no more than 4ft over the mud, passing between Andy and me. No shot was possible. Five more appeared and were called by Andy. That was just enough to pull them into range and one fell. A huge skein appeared, again low, but safe over Paul. No shot was fired. Closer and closer towards me they came, now slightly veering, now back on course ? a shot was on. With my face down low and close to the bladder wrack I waited. My moment arrived and the first shot went behind, but the second caught up and spun a bird to the ground. With geese all around and the light fading, a couple more shots rang out, then it was over.

Something appeals to me when fowling with gentlemen such as Andy and Paul: there is no competition, each enjoys the others? success. When I asked Paul why he left the geese his response was simple: ?I know you like a goose and I was enjoying the duck. I left them for you.? We all had a bird. Between the three of us we shot two geese, a mallard and two wigeon. As for me, when asked why I didn?t take a shot at the duck… there?s plenty of time yet.

How wrong I was. He simply took a hacksaw to the barrel and cut six inches off, reducing the weight by 1lb. What about the choke? With all traces of it gone it?s knocking the birds down better then ever.

A gentlemen?s game

Fifteen minutes passed and, looking towards the Powderham estate, the estuary took on all the colours of a Turner painting. With perfect timing I heard geese, maybe 20 Canadas, high over the hillside fighting the wind. They dropped height, immediately reaching the shoreline, skitting no more than 4ft over the mud, passing between Andy and me. No shot was possible. Five more appeared and were called by Andy. That was just enough to pull them into range and one fell. A huge skein appeared, again low, but safe over Paul. No shot was fired. Closer and closer towards me they came, now slightly veering, now back on course ? a shot was on. With my face down low and close to the bladder wrack I waited. My moment arrived and the first shot went behind, but the second caught up and spun a bird to the ground. With geese all around and the light fading, a couple more shots rang out, then it was over.

Something appeals to me when fowling with gentlemen such as Andy and Paul: there is no competition, each enjoys the others? success. When I asked Paul why he left the geese his response was simple: ?I know you like a goose and I was enjoying the duck. I left them for you.? We all had a bird. Between the three of us we shot two geese, a mallard and two wigeon. As for me, when asked why I didn?t take a shot at the duck… there?s plenty of time yet.