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Wildfowling: A tale of time and tide

The morning may have lacked the stormy weather of classic wildfowling literature, but nevertheless, wigeon flighted well along the meandering estuary creek. A grey dawn had broken over the wide expanse of the firth and with it, a steady breeze had risen from the southwest.

I elected to position myself at the lower end of the tidal creek; my friend had taken its upper reaches. This tactic, we hoped, would give each of us a fair chance of a shot at flighting duck. Though still in our late teens, we had already accrued considerable wildfowling experience, having shot duck both inland and on saltmarshes. The foreshore gave us a sense of freedom found in few other places, for during our time spent on the saltings, we seldom ever encountered another fowler. As nature was about to prove, however, we still had much to learn and she held many surprises in store.

Crouching low in a gutter lined with glutinous grey mud, I spotted a dozen wigeon following the creek upstream. Clearly silhouetted against the growing light, I estimated that the duck should be nicely in range as they passed my place of ambush, so I rose, swung through well in front of the lead bird and fired. As the recoil of the shot jarred my shoulder, I saw the two leading birds crumple in flight, so continuing to swing, I fired a second barrel from the well worn side-by-side. Delighted to have downed three birds with two shots, I sent my effervescent young Labrador out to make the retrieves. The tide being out and the creek low, he made short work of picking the duck as they bobbed belly up in the brackish water.

Two shots rolled off the marsh from the direction of my friend, to rumble away as a distant echo in the gorse-clad hills behind. Clearly, he too was into the duck. With broad sweeps of a powerful tail, my dog delivered the last of the three wigeon to hand. As he did so, another double shot rang out from the head of the low saltwater creek. I thought this odd, as from my vantage point on the river bank, I hadn?t seen any duck approach. Again, a double shot rolled out, followed a few seconds later by another, then another.

Seeds of anxiety began to grow in my mind, for if numbers of duck had flighted along the little river, I would have seen them, as it was now fully light. Something was wrong. Hurriedly grabbing my gamebag, I called my dog to heel, and strode out towards the sound of the unexplained shots. In those days, neither of us carried a mobile phone, so I had no other way of allaying my growing fears.

I had taken no more than a few strides when the sound of a further double shot reached me, again from the direction of my wildfowling comrade. With a hollow feeling growing in the pit of my stomach, I broke into a run, greatly hampered by waders, gun, and heavy waxed jacket. Scanning the flat sand as I lumbered along, I could see no sign of him but on top of the creek bank some 500 yards ahead, a dog ran back and forth excitedly. Sweating now, in spite of the chill breeze that blew, I lengthened my stride and headed towards the lone canine silhouette.

A thousand thoughts rushed through my mind, but chiefly, how was I to explain my breathless arrival, should I discover that my friend had merely been enjoying a wonderful duck flight? I would never be allowed to forget my foolishness.

Only 100 yards from where I thought my companion to be, I heard someone call out. I stopped, and called back, my cry of greeting met by one of distress. Up over the creek bank bounded my pal?s bear of a black Labrador, clearly delighted to see me. I rushed forward.

The sight which greeted me is one that stalks the nightmares of all who chase wildfowl, for there below me, at the edge of the tidal creek, and already up to his thighs in cloying quicksand, stood my companion. Discarding my gun and gamebag, I clambered down the crumbling bank and took a step towards my sinking friend. The sand beneath my wader?s sole shivered and I leapt back before I too became trapped. Around my companion lay scattered a dozen empty, high-brass cartridge cases. His gun, now unloaded, was held flat across the sand before him ? a brace against his further descent. The situation was grave and I knew it. Within a short while, this place would be covered by rising seawater and whatever action I now took could make the difference between life and death. I had to act quickly. My friend, typically stoical, showed not the slightest sign of fear and remained amazingly calm. He explained that in order to remain hidden from the eyes of approaching duck, he had jumped down the bank, only to find both feet firmly mired in sucking, sinking sand. His attempts to free himself had resulted in his sinking further, so he had remained quite still since firing the distress shots.

Perspiring heavily, I removed my jacket and cast it upon the sand between my motionless companion and me. Having no rope about me, I detached the barrels from my unloaded gun, took them in hand and crawled out over the quaking ground, my old waxproof acting like a snowshoe to spread my weight. Despite this tactic, I dared not venture far from the firm ground of the riverbank, for fear that I, too, would become trapped. If that were to happen, our fate really would be sealed.

Lying at full stretch upon my stomach and holding the 30in barrels by the muzzle, I extended my right arm as far as I could. The chamber end of barrels only just reached my friend, who gripped them firmly with both hands. My companion maintained his cool head, stiffened his legs and leaned towards me, as I, with all the strength I could muster, heaved on the cold steel between us.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, my friend?s legs began to be levered from the sand?s sucking hold, for as he tipped forward, his wader-clad feet rose steadily to the surface. Soaked through and covered from head to foot in sand, I carefully wriggled back to dry land, as my companion crawled out of the creek bed to safety.

Once on solid ground, gallows humour stopped the gap which shock could so eagerly have filled ? my friend expressing his delight that he had managed to save both his waders, having purchased them only a week earlier. We both smiled, but this bravado was merely a mask against the tragedy that might so easily have been. In silence, each with his own thoughts, we shouldered bags and guns and, with dogs walking to heel, headed home across firmer ground.

Nature is a stern schoolmistress, who makes no allowance for overconfident youth. The morning had taught us a hard lesson, one which we have never forgotten.