There is a certain charm about waiting in the deep glow of a September dusk for mallard to flight into the stubble, and the thrill from being in a wild, stormy tide with parties of duck battling up the tideline takes some beating. For some, the magic of wigeon whistling into a flooded flash at moonrise is the cream of duck-shooting. But for any “real” wildfowler shooting a goose is the ultimate objective. Other quarry pales into insignificance and bagging one kindles a lifetime addiction to wild places.
It’s not just the desire for bagging the bigger goose that stirs the wildfowler ? it is the whole atmosphere that surrounds hunting geese: the need for big guns, the huge cartridges packed with pellets the size of peppercorns, the wild, mysterious marshes the geese inhabit and the persistence and wildfowling fieldcraft needed to bring one to hand. There are dangers, too: getting lost in fogs, risking the surging tides and exposure to the biting cold. It’s because of these things that geese hold a special place in the heart of a wildfowler. Many books have been written about the pursuit of wild geese and every autumn the keen ‘fowler picks them up to reread the
well-thumbed pages casting tale after tale into his mind. He relives the authors’ experiences through his own eyes until a glazed expression takes over and the desperate need to be out in the morning grows, no matter what the weather, to watch the great skeins come in out of the dawn and perhaps, with luck, make a successful shot. If our wildfowler fails, no matter ? there will be other dawns, other chances to kindle his hopes as that affliction that few gunners ever recover from, goose fever, takes a stronger hold.
To the inland gunner hidden in a southern river valley, perhaps the magic is not quite so strong, but even here the sight of a hundred Canadas in full cry bearing down on him will make his heart pound with excitement as they draw closer.
After several years of trying, my first goose was a pinkfoot shot on the Wash in the Seventies. After many freezing dawns with no success, the pinkfeet came over me in butterfly weather, only 30yd up. I would have been a fool to miss, and I nearly did. But with my
second shot a single bird faltered and then crashed down on to the marsh. My first goose, a milestone for any wildfowler.
In my teens I used to shoot over the Broadland marshes, well after the wild geese had departed as marsh after marsh was drained, leaving little to attract them back. During the November moon I had heard a little bunch of white-fronted geese pass over the house, heading over an area I could shoot. Just before dawn they would return, their calling rousing me from my slumbers as they flew to their daytime refuge. The next dawn I was out waiting for them. I was hidden by the dyke bank to see them lift just as the first signs of dawn were growing in the east. There were about 30 of them, and in the still air they had not had the time to lift out of range as they flew over my dyke, but they were at least 200yd wide of me. Like a fox balked of my prey I watched them go, coal-black shadows merging into the dark sky.
I was back the next dawn, under the place where they had crossed the previous morning. Like the creatures of habit that they are they came again, but this time passing 100yd the other side of me. For the next three mornings the pattern was repeated, the distant calls as they lifted warning me of their approach, me tucking down into the bank and yet again the birds passing just out of range. Friends looked at me strangely when I left the pub early for some sleep before braving yet another freezing dawn. My parents were convinced I had taken leave of my senses, but turning deaf ears to their comments the following morning again saw me hidden alongside the dyke.
Moonset was well after dawn now, and the geese were later in their flight. As the sun rose I could see them grazing the sweet grasses 400yd away across the marsh. Through the glasses I could clearly make out the fine barring of an old gander, alert and ready to take his skein back to the refuge. A couple of calls and they were up. This time they headed straight for me . As I willed the birds on they changed direction slightly, passing 50yd off to my right. It was a long shot, but to my joy a single goose dropped out of the skein. In a few bounds I was there, but my joy soon ebbed away. Instead of a white-front, a pinkfoot lay belly up in the grass ? a stray bird that must have joined the flock for company. The white-fronts never returned to that marsh for the remainder of the season, so I had to wait five years for another chance.
December of 1978 saw me moon-flighting pinkfeet on the Wash. I had moved to north Norfolk and was a long way from my old ‘fowling grounds. Nevertheless I still charged off into the darkness two or three times a week, gun on shoulder, to chase the huge pinkfooted flocks that were starting to return to Norfolk.
I had arranged to meet a friend on the sea wall to sit out the top of the tide and hope some geese would return to the muds as the moon set. Hundreds of pinks did, but were all much too high for a shot. Then, just as we were thinking of packing up, a small bunch of geese slipped out low. As they flared to my friend’s shot they called ? white-fronts. His shot was on target and one goose fell. The remainder of the geese swerved over me and I hit one hard, but it did not come down and, instead, disappeared over the sea wall. There was little point in searching for it as the tide was still high, so I returned the next morning in the hope that it might have washed up on the tideline. The creeks were still full, but the marsh top was dry. After an hour of searching I was ready to admit defeat when it jumped up in front of me and ran for the big creek. Mortified, I had to watch a grand old barred white-front swim out to sea.
A couple of years later the weather turned very hard in January. It snowed for four days and temperatures dropped well below zero. Potato fields froze solid and snow covered the winter wheat. The muds became covered with ice which, with each successive tide, was piled into flows that would ride in and out of the creeks with the waves. Most of the pinkfeet left for a milder climate, but a few hundred remained feeding in an area of wheat where the wind had blown most of the snow clear. With them was a small bunch of white-fronts. Night after night they would head out into the estuary, but always too high for any chance of a shot. Then one night the wind backed to the north and brought more snow. The geese were late flighting that night, no doubt making the most of the available food. It was very dark when the first bunch lifted, their calls betraying them as white-fronts. Within moments they came into view, battling the driving snow. Right overhead they came, yet I missed with my first shot. A hurried second barrel connected and a gander plummeted into the creek beside me. The dog ran in but hesitated at the churning ice. She wouldn’t last long in the ice-strewn waters. We stood side by side ignoring a following skein of pinks, sadly watching the dead goose go out with the tide.
Early November a year later saw the return of the pinks to the Wash. In past years we had been happy to see a few thousand geese on the marsh, but there were many times that. The pinks had discovered the delights of sugar beet and were telling their friends. Some mornings the sky would be covered in wavering lines of birds , just as “BB” had described them in Tides Ending. One morning two old friends from the Broads and I hid in a small creek close to the muds. As the dawn came up the silvered muds revealed thousands of geese only a few hundred yards to the seaward. With the stiff wind we were going to be sure of a few chances this morning. A skein came in low over my friend, who dropped one. This was followed by a small family party that was going to pass 30yd off. Again their calls betrayed them as white-fronts and, swinging through the nearest goose, I pulled the trigger. In a flash its neck went back and it dropped on to the muds 20yd in front. It lay there, legs in the air, still ? dead enough I fancied ? and with thousands of geese still sitting close in I left it there. An hour later the flight was over. Putting my gun down on my gamebag I strode out to pick the white-front, still unmoving. As I neared it, it righted itself, opened its wings and took off, leaving me to watch it, gunless.
Almost a decade passed with no further chances. However, to those that persevere, the gods will finally relent. During the early years of the last century the coast near where I lived used to be a famous goose haunt. Pinkfeet would come in their thousands, and with them some white-fronts. But changes in farming and the war years contrived to drive the birds away and with them went the old ‘fowlers.
Later, as the Wash pinks increased, some visited this long-abandoned marsh, and before long their numbers exceeded the number the old ‘fowlers saw by a long way. Morning flight was a sight to behold as countless numbers of geese struggled in over the surf on a storm. Equally, the evening flights were nothing short of spellbinding as the flocks banded together to come out off the land in baying packs to deafen the ‘fowler waiting in the dunes. Of course, they flew out of range most of the time, but there were evenings when the wind went east, cutting through to the bone and freezing the sands, when the great birds flew a little lower.
I was there one such night with a companion. All day the wind had risen, lifting the sand into rippling curtains. The sand got everywhere: into clothes, hair, ears, eyebrows and even into the action of my gun. This was no place for modern autos ? good, solid side-by-sides were needed, strong enough for you to force the barrels shut despite the sand.
We waited amid the howling wind and crashing surf, hoping that tonight would be the night of the year. The dogs were unhappy, huddled up in the lee of the dunes out of the worst of the drifting sands. The geese were late that night. Fighting the east gale, they had to take their time to make their way out to the roost. But when they came it was a sight that every wildfowler dreams of, an endless procession of skeins looming up out of the darkness, just yards up, fighting the wind ? and there we were, right in the middle of their flight path. While the conditions made for poor shooting, we soon had several birds.
Still they came, big skeins and small. The pile of geese at our feet swelled rapidly and we thought of packing up. A brace of geese is a nice bag, a dozen is getting close to a slaughter. As we made a decision to unload, out of the darkness came that familiar call from the breed that had defeated me over the years. White-fronts, and a goodly skein by the sound of them.
Out of the swirling sand they came, in a great skein that stretched away into the night. This time there was no mistake ? a goose crumpled to my shot. In a flash the dog was out and bringing it to hand. After years of waiting, my first white-front was in the bag, to take pride of place on the Christmas table.