When Man created the Chesapeake Bay Retriever it was for places like the River Shannon.
Its name, taken from the Irish goddess ‘Sionna’, means wise river, a name that certainly is reflected in the secrets it holds as you travel its length on a cold Autumn morning. When the skies above and around are filled with thousands of wildfowl, the depth and variety of which is unparallelledd anywhere else on this island, you wonder what is it that attracts them to this particular place.
From where the Shannon rises in the Cuilcagh mountains of Cavan it cuts a path through the very heart of Ireland on its way south to the Atlantic. Separating the east of Ireland from west of Ireland, passing through eleven counties, fed by many substantial tributary rivers and widening its girth at three points to form the lakes of Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg. It runs for almost three hundred kilometers and most of that is through quiet, unpopulated countryside.
The secret to the river Shannon’s success in drawing in such diverse numbers of birds most likely is due to her shallow basin. This has prevented massive use of the river for industrial development and also much of the surrounding land is bog land thus preventing large scale intensive farming. Once the first heavy rains of Autumn blow in, the Shannon spills her banks and spreads for vast distances across the surrounding countryside sometimes reaching widths of a couple of miles.
A dog worked over this type of flooded bog land does not require great speed or knowledge of straight lines. Strength, soundness of limbs, endurance and the tenacity to stay on a bird when all the elements of nature are fighting against him are much more valuable in a wildfowling dog in this particular environment.
When I arrived to my friend Pat’s house last Tuesday morning the river level was at a tricky stage, it was not quite high enough yet to decoy on the floodplains, our only option was to take the boat and walk into spots along the way. I wasn’t expecting much, the weather, which seems to be usual for my forays wildfowling, was bright and sunny but it was wonderful to be out in such beautiful surroundings with my dog and gun for the first time this season.
By mid-morning we had pushed off from shore and Bertie’s tail beat a steady rhythm against the side of the boat as he snorted in great gulps of air, his eyes scanning the reed banks for movement as we clipped along the water.
Even on its calmest days, like last Tuesday, the Shannon waters’ demand respect. As I looked down into the peaty waters that flowed past the boat a shiver ran through me. The wide expanse of water allows the slightest breeze to whip up a swell. The prevailing winds coming from the south west and the rivers current, which is flowing south, are at constant odds with each other.
There was no shortage of birds to be seen either. Migration had started and the low fields on either side of the river were filled with lapwing, starlings and golden plover. All rose in one single mass as we passed and synchronised their erratic flights making it difficult to my untrained eye to pick out the goldens from the lapwings and the starlings. They were here in their thousands. I could see vast numbers swoop in black bands against the grey sky in the distance. We saw reed buntings, mute swans, whooper swans and all the while on either side of us, but just tantalisingly out of range, flocks of mallard and teal got up from the reeds and saluted us as we passed.
Pat has spent his entire life hunting and fishing the Shannon and having somebody who knows these type of waters well is essential for this type of shooting. Not only to have knowledge of where the birds will drop in to feed but more importantly knowing the water and all the factors which influence the river such as wind direction, surrounding land and movement of the birds. One foot placed in the wrong spot can have catastrophic consequences and I’m not just talking about a soggy sock!! When the river floods over bog land what looks like three foot of water is in reality an extra two foot below as your foot sinks through the peat. The effort required to walk this type of terrain certainly made decoying a more appealing option.
Our first bird in the bag that morning was a female mallard. We had just pulled into reeds after seeing a group of teal lift along with some lapwing. A good spot for feeding, and on this occasion Pat’s instincts were spot on. A duck and drake mallard wheeled off to our left. One clean shot brought the female down in the field beyond the reeds. I sent Bertie and he launched himself from the boat and waded through the reeds . The water here was chest height but the peat bottom made it doubly difficult. It would have been almost impossible for either Pat or myself to wade through that type of ground. Bertie needed to use a combination of drive from his rear and strength to pull from his front to keep his momentum going as he worked a path through to dry land. He needed no reminder as to where the bird fell and swiftly picked the duck for His first retrieve of the season.
We had just passed Clonmacnoise Abbey and as we came round a bend in the river there was movement everywhere. The fields on either side were low and green and had attracted large flocks of lapwing and plover, the wind carried their high pitched screech up towards us. Swans were feeding in the shallows behind the reeds. This looked like a promising spot. We edged the boat into the reeds again, cut the engine and waited. It didn’t take long before a group of Wigeon passed just within range. The first hit the water with two more winged and flying on to the far bank.
The bird on the water was stone dead, not going anywhere, but it was the obvious one that Bertie marked. However, the two wounded birds on the far bank were the more important retrieves to take. We moved the boat out and retrieved the bird from the water en route to the far bank. Pat had a rough mark on both birds. The first was easy, I spotted its head up before we reached shore and cast Bertie from the boat, hunted him to the area, he found it easily and brought it to hand. We pulled the boat to shore and walked in from there. Finding solid footing was difficult. Each step found my leg disappearing to knee level. I sent Bertie on ahead to a fence line where Pat had seen the bird come down and asked him to hunt from there. He picked up scent quickly and hunted a tight area but lost it again. I cast him left down towards the river where he dropped his nose to follow a trail and there just along the shoreline we found our duck.
Friday November 1st.
River Duck on the Avoca river.
This is a completely different type of water but equally as challenging. The basin is deep, carved out of the granite Wicklow hills and fed by numerous fast flowing rivers. By the time the river reaches the point where the Shelton drive begins it is wide and fast as it hurries towards the Irish sea. The loose gravel bed means the water channels shift and swirl developing sweeping narrow streams within the river that are flowing at twice the speed of the remainder of the water.
As we set ourselves up beyond the gun line on the river bank it was almost four o clock. The dogs had been working solidly, retrieving driven pheasant, since ten o clock that morning. The light was fading fast and temperatures were dropping.
The dog’s knowledge of how the currents work is important, they need to know not to fight against the charging white water. An experienced dog will slip into the current with little effort then turn into it and work slowly across. The fact that they may be carried downstream as they work forward will not bother them , in fact many times they will calmly thread water focussing on the river ahead and waiting for the current to carry that bird to them. Once retrieved an experienced dog will go with the current until it carries it close to the bank, which again will be forty- fifty meters below its starting point. The drive is fast, intense and finished in thirty minutes. In that period of time any single dog working the water here will have made a minimum of ten retrieves.
Only the strongest dogs on the shoot will work the waters at the widest and fastest point in the river. It is exhausting cold work for a spaniel or some of the finely built Labradors who remain on the riverbank but are kept busy with any duck that land in the cover there.
It is easy to see why the Chesapeake excels at this particular type of work and why it is so important that not only their structure remains as it currently stands but also perhaps to a greater degree their strong mental attitude. The terrain they were built for gave no quarter to half hearted effort. A strong front and sound rear drive is certainly an asset when a dog is pulling its body through the glue-like peat in pursuit of a retrieve along the banks of the Shannon but without an equal measure of bloodminded determination ( which Chessies possess in abundance), many more birds would be lost when tough retrieving is required.
Our final bag on the Shannon yielded one mallard, three wigeon and two golden plover. I marinated the wigeon and mallard breasts in spices and orange juice. Roasted them for twenty minutes and then deep fried for a minute. Served with some sweet chilli dipping sauce….absolutely divine….