Why the pintail is Alan’s favourite foreshore quarry
Alan waxes lyrical about his favourite duck – the pintail drake – and remembers several encounters with them over the years that have only served to increase their appeal
One of the ever-present delights of wildfowling is the birds themselves. Duck of the northern hemisphere have one thing in common: the sheer unrivalled beauty of the drakes in full winter plumage. Ducks and geese found in the southern hemisphere have same-sex similarities. Each of our drakes vies for ‘top duck’ in terms of its plumage, yet for me it is the pintail drake that beats them all.
A large, sleek, elegant duck, it is graceful in flight and unmistakeable among its peers. It is truly the greyhound of the air. It also has the undoubted bonus of being a superb table bird.
It is more plentiful in some parts of the country than others, with northern estuaries such as the Dee and the Mersey formerly being famous for housing large numbers of these birds. Here in the South East they can be found in good numbers, but they can be elusive and transient.
They are birds of the open estuary, where they guzzle on such foods as macoma (large saltwater clams). They love the flooded saltmarsh where the samphire seeds lie in their countless millions.
In my part of the world it would be like going in search of fool’s gold to set out one’s stall to shoot pintail. That is not to say that, on occasion, my luck has not been in.
It was 1968, and my first season on the shore. That season, a number of ‘firsts’ were bagged – each celebratory in its own way – which undoubtedly ensured that a long wildfowling career lay ahead of me.
It was a bright, windless morning, and my side bag was empty as I made my way off the shore. A distant line of birds approaching caused me to slide into an adjacent gutter, in the event that they passed wide to my right, with only the opportunity for a single shot. A bird fell out of the sky and my first pintail drake was to hand; he was an absolute marvel to behold on that sunny winter’s morning.
Mostly, my pintail have been chance birds, like the two that came at last light to my hiding place in a deep gutter where the teal were flighting through. A pair came through at a reasonable height, and it was with delight that they both proved to be drakes.
There can be few more mystical experiences than being out on the shore in the moonlight when the tide is flooding and pintail are on the move. The soft fluting whistle of the drake cuts through the night air and the wildfowler will remain on tenterhooks. At such times they can respond to gentle calling; like all duck calling,
‘A large, sleek, elegant duck, the pintail is graceful in flight and unmistakeable among its peers. It is truly the greyhound of the air’
it is not too difficult if practised carefully and not overdone.
I have a vivid memory of one January night alone on the saltmarsh. It was bitterly cold and the tide put a couple of inches of water over the top of my island. A drake was knocked out from a pair that drifted wide of the decoys.
Later still, at about 1am, with the tide thankfully beginning to ebb, a drake called nearby. My responding calls brought him right to me. Suddenly, he was under the moon as a great, black elongated shape and fell behind me with the most enormous splash.
One evening the wind blew mightily from the west and a grand flight ensued. A teal and a couple of wigeon were in the bag before the pintail began to flight, with two augmenting my bag. But the flight was a disaster. The gun – albeit an old weapon well passed its best – jammed repeatedly. One of the key requirements of a semi-automatic is to keep it clean at all times, otherwise sloth will eventually get its just reward! That evening several pintail undoubtedly owed their continued existence to my laziness.
Luck can play a huge part with pintail, and never more so than one day when I was out from dawn to dusk. The wind raged and heavy squalls of rain passed through periodically. With the squalls came the pintail, with five of them featuring in a double-figure bag.
In my opinion, it is a quarry to treat with the utmost respect. Over the years there have been some fabulous bags of duck to my gun, but never with pintail. For me, those days are a reward for the hard work and persistence put into the sport.
On such occasions a decent bag does not faze me. The trick is to know when enough is enough, and on occasions the gun has been set to one side with a good bag of duck beside me.
Many years later, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an excellent duck marsh. My picker-up took me to a fleet ensconced within large beds of phragmites; he said it was a pintail hotspot.
So it was to prove, and when the bag reached double figures – mostly pintail – that was enough for me. He seemed quite put out, however, and said: “It’s your flight!” As indeed it was!
Alan attributes many of his misses to his laziness when it comes to keeping up with his gun cleaning regime
The pintail is more plentiful in some parts of the country than others
Pintail respond to gentle, infrequent calling