This month Alan tells two cautionary tales from his early season wildfowling missions. Even an experienced wildfowler like him makes the odd rookie mistake, and still learns new lessons on every trip
Even Alan makes mistakes now and then
September is when it starts. Almost six months of sport lie ahead, with the wildfowling season starting in balmy late summer and ending in those grey winter days of late February. The season is a long and fascinating campaign, with many twists and turns along the way. Challenges come and go as the season unfolds and the movements of wildfowl vary in response to time and tide.
September and the early part of the season seems an easy time, and in some ways it is. The salt marsh is green and vibrant – a stark contrast to the storm-battered landscape left behind last February.
The temperature can be oppressively high, with winds warm and soothing; but beware, for the early season can fool you as easily as the harder days of winter can.
For me there are drawbacks to early season wildfowling which can outweigh the benefits. Early mornings and late evenings can be tiring, while any amount of heavy walking can reduce you to a ball of lather!
Mosquitoes can haunt the marshes in clouds, and woe betide the wildfowler that ventures forth without a generous layer of ‘jungle-strength’ insect repellent. Even those days of wind and rain won’t always keep them at bay.
Searing hot days can often turn into chilly nights. The dawn will find the marshes dripping wet with dew, while a low mist will on occasion make life interesting!
However, none of this is designed to deter you from early season wildfowling, rather the reverse, and also to encourage better preparation.
Two of my outings spring to mind, where more thought and better preparation would have made for a more enjoyable time. The first was on 1 September, while the other was with October just around the corner.
It had been a fearsomely hot day, and venturing out for a tide flight required the minimum amount of gear to carry: thigh boots and waterproof trousers of course, but apart from that nothing more than a camo shirt.
The gun may as well have been left at home for all the use it had been! But it was a delight to be out again: to watch the salt marsh flood; to see the teams of waders hurrying to and fro before the tide; to spy the odd grey mullet as it nosed into the creeks.
‘A sopping wet salt marsh meant there was no prospect of lying down for a snooze, so I chose to lean back against my wading pole’
Warm, still days can quickly turn into cold, breezy evenings so it’s well worth taking along some extra layers to put on when the temperature drops and the wind gets up.
It was high water at dusk, which meant not going home for another three hours. No duck came my way and, as the light faded, a tiredness came over me, no doubt caused by a 3am start that day.
A sopping wet salt marsh meant there was no prospect of lying down for a snooze, and eventually I chose the unconventional option of sitting on the edge of a small creek, leaning back against my wading pole!
Catnapping like this was uncomfortable and ultimately very cold. My choice of attire, which had seemed very good common sense under the burning rays of a midday sun, now seemed like ultimate folly.
Much stamping about and grumpiness presaged the ebb tide, and it was good to get going again, with my blood circulating and some warmth coursing through my body.
The second outing came just before October and there was the hope that a few migrants would have arrived. A tide flight on the outer saltings would be worth a try, and lessons learned all those years before made for better preparation.
The weather was surprisingly fresh, with an unseasonal stiff north-easterly breeze blowing into the estuary. Once onto the salt marsh there was time to take stock, and a quick scan with the binoculars seemed to indicate that there were no other wildfowlers present.
Due to the wind direction, it seemed logical to opt for a small bay at the far extremity of the area, even though it would mean a 45-minute hike back after dark – but it was a trip well known to me and, as such, was no discouragement. In the end, my low hide was built so that the wind would be coming in from the rear. A small ‘flock’ of four teal decoys were deposited in the spartina grass, where the tide would lift them an hour or so before darkness. All was set. Even though my fleece and lightweight coat kept me warm enough (the weather was not cold enough for a muffler), before long the wind was blowing down the back of my neck. At length the tide was into the spartina and the decoys bobbed seductively. No duck moved, but it was comfortable enough in the hide, apart from an increasingly cold neck! At last, a pair of teal came in from the estuary and cut wide of the decoys, losing one of their number as they flipped up and over the salt marsh edge. The day was a success. Before long a single bird came low over the tide and boldly to the decoys – an easy shot and some swimming for the dog.
Darkness began to creep in. The tide reached its peak and the ebb began, but nothing else moved, save for a few waders far out over the tide.
In the gathering gloom a pair of teal swung into the bay, but dropped into the spartina some 80 yards away. After a while they swam close under the salt marsh edge presenting the opportunity for a stalk.
Behind the hide the salt marsh was barely 20 feet wide, but by keeping low it was possible to get up to where the teal had landed. They flushed at under 30 yards, breaking right and left, and it was straightforward to get them both.
It was a happy wildfowler who headed off at the fall of the tide with four plump early season teal. Not another shot had been fired in the whole of the estuary and it felt good to be alive.
But for the sake of carrying a muffler weighing no more than a few ounces, I had a badly cricked neck for almost a week. You learn something every trip!
The simple addition of a muffler to your kit bag makes long waits in the hide all the more pleasant if a chilly wind starts up
Alan’s teal decoys do the trick eventually!
The late summer start to the wildfowling season means balmy weather and mosquito clouds – it doesn’t last long though