Jack Frost had descended three days previously and turned the tired remnants of winter vegetation white. Though it had only been a few degrees below freezing at night, this had been sufficient to coat most small inland splashes and ponds with a hard crust of ice.
The conditions might not be beneficial for inland duck shooters, but this was the silver lining on the cloud for which longshore gunners pray: the cold spell would hopefully have driven a lot of duck seawards. The moon had been full in the middle of the week and peeked through a smattering of white fluffy clouds. Learned long ago in school, The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes, summed it all up: The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas? Conditions were ideal for a moon flight down on the Solway. Rather frustratingly, however, I couldn?t get away until the Friday night. Of course, by the time Friday came around, the cloud cover had completely vanished.
The silvery orb of the moon shone among a multitude of stars up in the heavens. It was breathtaking to look at, but not the most promising of conditions actually to see fast-flying wildfowl. Nevertheless, having travelled from the next county, there was no way I would not be going out on the merse.
One of the most useful pieces of advice gleaned from my precious collection of old fowling books over the years has been, If you don?t go, you?ll never know, so, slightly after 9pm, my footprints left their traces in the otherwise unblemished hoar frost shrouding the saltings. My dog, Kara, snuffled close beside me, her stumpy tail wagging like a white flag as she investigated goodness knows what scents on the ground. As I drew nearer to my intended flighting spot, some sharp-eyed female mallard gave out an alarm and the disgruntled duck flew safely away, totally invisible in the inky night.
With the tide due in at 12.45am, setting up a netting hide on the merse would be a waste of time: I would be constantly retreating in front of the advancing water. A short folding stool was set up in a hollow in the marshy ground and a plastic sheet laid out for my springer to lie on. She wore her neoprene jacket, which helps to hide the white patches on her coat and keeps her warm, especially if she has to go into the water.
The stool has also proved a real boon, as my marksmanship greatly improves if I can actually rise to take a shot. If I had used it decades ago it might also have prevented a lot of the present joint-aches and pains associated with sitting in cold, muddy ditches. If I crouched motionless on the stool, my theory was that I should still be in with a chance of some duck passing in range.
This scheme proved more or less immediately correct when I heard wigeon calling nearby. I whistled back and got a conversation going with one cock bird. Before being able to see him, I could just about make out the dark blurred shapes of three teal zooming past me, fairly low to my left. A bird in the hand, I thought. I swung the 10-bore past the leader?s head and a single shot boomed out to break the calm of the night.
An absolute teal
Due to the muzzle-flash from the barrel, at first I couldn?t make out whether I?d succeeded. A split-second later I saw a teal falling like a stone into a nearby creek; in the poor light it was impossible to tell whether it was the one I had fired at or one further behind. Kara was out as fast as a greyhound and brought me back a hen bird, which I gently laid on top of the rucksack. Success so soon after arriving made me feel vindicated, it had been worthwhile coming out. Even if this was to be the only chance of the night, I would go home contented.
Time passed, the tide made its relentless way across the mudflats and more teal and wigeon whizzed around me, the only problem was that they remained unseen, however hard I peered into the gloom. One thing I couldn?t help but see was a red-hot shooting star dropping from space, a trail of glowing sparks in its wake. To my astonishment it landed on some farmland about a quarter of a mile behind me. It was the first time I had ever seen a falling meteorite so close at hand and I was enthralled. Considering what I was doing there in the first place, it was also rather hypocritical of me to be glad I wasn?t directly on the receiving end of such a big projectile!
Not long afterwards a batch of pinkfoots called from further up the merse and brought my musings back to planet Earth. On my call, they readily returned the quink wink answer. Cartridges were quickly changed and my excitement rose as the replies to my hailing came closer and closer. Eventually they came right over me, but did not pass in front of the moon ? I remained as though blind, straining my eyes in vain to locate their exact position. From the sounds of it they had made their way inland behind me. No more geese were to be heard that night; the feeling of being so close yet so far was frustrating to say the least, but then who said a wild goose chase was easy?
A consolation prize did present itself later, however, as small batches of duck moved out in front. A small group of wigeon was called past on a similar low path to the teal I had seen several hours before, which meant, as they darted past, that I could actually see something. I whispered ?wait there? to Kara, as the birds approached, and for once she actually did, though trembling in anticipation.
There was only time for one shot and a heavy load of bismuth 3s sped on its way to the leader of the bunch. To my surprise, two birds balled up and splashed heavily down on to the water. When sent, Kara made a beeline for the one to which I had pointed, the one furthest away. She swam out and got it, but also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the second duck in her mouth. She had to be called back in and then sent out again. I now had a cock and hen wigeon to join the teal, and was delighted at my good fortune. Kara had no sooner shaken the water off her coat than more wigeon were heard, probably put on the move by the roar of the gun.
I whistled once again, apparently in fluent wigeon, and brought a batch of six birds close enough to fire at. Again, a pair dropped from the front as though they had run into a brick wall. This time I was fast enough to fire the second barrel and a single bird at the back of the bunch took a nosedive. My gung-ho springer was already swimming towards the closest bird. This had been the first season we had gone ?unleaded? in Scotland and I was mightily impressed with the hitting power of bismuth pellets. Being a canny Scot, however, it was a wee bit sore on the pocket.
Kara brought a handsome sulphur-headed cock bird in first, then a hen wigeon. She was then sent out for the final bird, which floated on its back in relatively calm waters. To my great delight it was actually a hen pintail, which had been mixed in with the wigeon. Congratulating the dog on her swimming and retrieving ability, we retreated yet again. I moved most of my kit to the long grass above the high tide line before returning to the water?s edge.
At 1am or so a batch of mallard must have sneaked in quietly to our right; I didn?t see them until they started swimming out and had flown safely out of range before I could identify them. After that I went back to the rucksack and sat cradling several warm cups of coffee, trying to thaw out my cold hands. My neoprene gloves afforded little protection against the icy conditions. I stuck it out for another hour, but to no avail ? I was soon back in the car, heading for Dumfries to feed the dog and get some sleep on the sofa at my mother?s house.
Later that day a couple of friends who stayed locally told me that fowling recently had become a waste of time, as there were so few pinkfoots on the Solway. Ah well, at least I had heard some pinks near me during the night and had plenty of duck to prepare for the freezer. It isn?t always the case that my ratio of duck to cartridges fired is as good. It was definitely a night to remember.