The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

Wildfowling: In glutinous Essex mud

High tide on the Blackwater was due at about 8.30 in the morning, which meant the creeks on one of my favourite marshes would be just starting to fill at first light — helpful timing. The tide was not a big one and the forecast was for a light southerly wind. Not epic wildfowling conditions, but beggars can’t be choosers, so before 5.30am I rolled into the farmyard and quietly dragged on waders, gathered my kit and hoisted a bag of decoys on to my back.

It is a decent walk from the yard out to the sea wall and there was only the faintest hint of grey in the eastern sky as the dog and I walked down the edge of a field to the estuary. In the few yards from the fields to the top of the sea wall came that strange transformation from land to sea and the atmosphere changed as we dropped down the seaward side.

The marsh is a triangle between two large creeks not far from the town that sits at the end of the estuary. The saltmarsh on either side is not shot and nor is the large island that dominates the estuary directly opposite. On a big tide and in rough weather I will stay back on one of the creeks, banking on duck seeking shelter in the marsh, but on a gentle November morning such as the one in question, I headed for the point to set my decoys well out into the estuary looking to attract passing trade.

I had a fair sweat up after two trips out into the glutinous Essex mud and took a moment to cool off before settling down into a well-positioned break in the edge of the marsh with a net covering my front. There was now enough light to differentiate between the mud of the estuary and the water spilling up on the tide. At the edge of the flood, darker spots showed where the odd wader was being pushed up towards the shore. As the shades of grey lightened, the low outline of widgeon, and smaller teal, showed singly and in pairs out over the river and along the saltmarsh edge. A curlew landed cautiously on the opposite side of the creek 50 yards from me and stood rigid and alert for a good while before being confident enough to start a detailed excavation of the rich mud.

Safe haven

To the east, the brent geese were piling into the sports fields on the edge of town which are favourite feeding places of theirs, and the causeway to the island was flooding, cutting it off for four or five hours until the tide was well into the ebb. It is not unusual for parties of Canada to fly very low down the river and across the marsh to the arable ground behind, but the only bunch moving at this early hour passed on the other side of the island down the main river channel.

The island is mostly below the level of high tides, with just the south-west corner, on which a farmhouse stands, being able to claim the status of proper dry land. The rest is surrounded by a sea wall, the construction of which, using only picks, shovels and muscle, is an unimaginable labour in the modern world. That sea wall is now breached throughout and widgeon flight to the marsh inside in complete safety as the whole area is a reserve. It can be frustrating to watch when duck are not moving where they can be shot, but the several safe havens around the estuary are ultimately of great benefit to wildfowlers. Indeed, our club owns and manages an important fresh marsh reserve. Old timers will tell of the days when the whole river was shot from shore and punt in an uncontrolled manner until practically every duck was driven away. Now it is rare not to see duck even if they are not always where you can shoot them.

The sun crept over the flat horizon and the sky turned from grey to orange to the first hints of blue. No widgeon came to the decoys, despite my attempts to persuade passing birds in on the whistle. Finally, after more than an hour of waiting a duck did come within range; a teal which materialised from nowhere, as teal do, and disappeared at speed followed by a couple of misdirected shots.

The ideal companion

Thankfully, that single bird signalled the start of a sporadic flight as the tide met the saltmarsh and started to fill the creeks. I was ready for the next one and it fell dead to my shot among the decoys which were bobbing nicely on the breeze.

My dog, Pod, was out in a flash and for a change did not manage to get himself wrapped in decoy lines on the way back. A pair came next and the hen dropped nicely. The cock only staggered to the second shot and needed a third from the semi-automatic as it tried to flee. Luckily, Pod, as is usual, had pre-empted my command and left our hide. Watching the second bird down he went after it first, picked it 100 yards out and brought it to hand before returning for the first.

The tide, though still half an hour from full, slowed and so did the movement of duck. I took the opportunity to dig out my Thermos and have a breakfast of Bovril and chocolate. While my attention was diverted, however, another teal splashed into the decoys, but luckily she stayed for long enough to let me exchange Thermos for gun. I was expecting a vertical take off, but still managed to miss below with the first shot. The second was better directed and
once again Pod was swimming for a bird now floating in the decoys.

Canadas on the wing

This time he did get well wrapped up and returned dragging three decoys as well as the real duck, but with the tide just about full, the sun high and four teal in the bag I was ready to pack up — until the sound of Canadas on the wing came clearly on the wind from behind the sea wall.

Sliding back into the hide I emptied the steel 4s from the semi-auto and fumbled some 1s in their place as seven geese appeared over the horizon and followed the east creek out into the estuary. The nearest passed no more than 25 yards away but despite telling myself to focus on its head and keep swinging from my cramped position the first shot went into its body and the second did not stop it either. Instead, the goose gradually lost ground on its companions and crashed into the estuary halfway out to the island.

Pod was gone, and in the bright conditions and light ripple he was not going to lose sight of the goose. As he reached it, however, the goose rose higher in the water and swam to escape him. Further and further they went until the water shallowed near the island and the two black dots became one.

The return swim was epic and at one stage, when the goose’s wing rose like a sail and fi lled with the opposing breeze, I was seriously worried Pod would not make it. But he got a fresh grip and ploughed on to deliver the still lively goose as I went to meet him, waist deep in the tide — happy, but most of all relieved that a good dog had tidied up some bad shooting.