Two men went to a marsh, they were looking for a wildfowling dog and had been told this was the place they might find one.
Both were experienced hunters of upland game and had spent many a winters day following their spaniels across the midland bogs and thick gorse ditches in search of snipe and pheasant. They had enjoyed the high challenging birds of the driven shoot and watched with admiration the dogs that waited patiently and worked silently and almost unnoticed as they gently and tenderly retrieved the birds that fell around their pegs.
Times changed the bogs were lost to the building boom where midland villages became commuting towns. Work brought the men to the southern coast and wildfowling became their sport of choice.
The life of a wildfowler is not an easy one. Only the most dogged and determined hunter , ( some might say marginally insane ), will rise before dawn in winter, look out their window and pump their fists in celebration that a force 8 gale is blowing outside. Bring on high tides, heavy swell, dark cloudy skies , lots of wind and the wildfowler is in his element.. Yes, the life of a wildfowler is not an easy one and the dog that accompanies him or her must be as resolute and determined to hunt and retrieve those birds as his master is.
For that first year along the foreshores in the south their plucky little spaniels coped well. On the mornings when the birds came in on a low calm tide ,and there were a good many of those mornings, the dogs rarely lost a bird in the heavy reeds that surrounded the marsh edges. It was when the full moon tides coupled with winter storms and freezing winds came that, although the little dogs worked hard, birds were lost and on one or two occasions dogs were dragged away with strong currents and almost lost in the process.
The men had grown to love the wildness and unpredictability of this type of hunting but realised that if they were to continue they needed a dog with more strength and substance to deal with the high tide waters and the excruciating cold as they waited out those long hours along the marsh edges for birds to come in…..
On that morning, in late November, winter was in one of her worst moods. A north-east wind bellowed down the shoreline, rain mixed with sleet pelted hard against the windshield where they pulled in to meet their fellow wildfowling companions intent on sufferance for the hours to come.
Dogs weaved in and out among cars and humans, tails wagging, caught up in the anticipation and excitement of what was going to come. Their silhouettes and body language instantly recognisable as Spaniels and labs. Both were breeds they were familiar with and respected and admired.
The dogs they had been told about, though, sat alone in the back of their owners open pick up truck. Chief, the male, and his sister Kuma were Chesapeakes. They showed little interest in the business that involved the spaniel meet and greet. Their amber eyed gaze shifted instead, between what their master was doing and out past the parked cars into the inky distance towards the sea, noses testing the wind for any signs of what the morning’s hunt might bring. There was an aloofness and indifference about their bearing, not unfriendly, just a sense that being here was not a social visit but a duty to their Master. With their size, broad muscular chests and thick wavy oily coats their stature and physique left no doubt that no matter how long it took or how hard the task this pair had every confidence in accomplishing what was to be asked of them..
A call from their master and the dogs leaped from the back of the truck with surprising athleticism for such big dogs and with tails wagging and a houndy ‘roo, roo’ they joined the procession into the marsh.
Four guns spread out below the seawall that ran in a C- shape around the marsh, breaking only at one point where the wall had long ago collapsed and allowed the tide to fill the salt marsh twice daily.
Tucked in on the southside base of the seawall there was relative protection from the relentless wind although no such respite was given from that cold driving rain. The group settled down, dug their hands deep into their pockets and waited. The dogs sat alert facing into the wind and rain,never wavering from their posts as sentinals; staring instead through half closed eyes off into that middle distance again, noses raised to the wind as if challenging it to blow harder.
Nothing changed that was apparent, except a slight shift in the body language of Chief and an almost imperceptible sound like a licking of the lips. It was enough ,though, to make their Master cast aside all conversation, gather his gun and peer into that band of purple half light that promised dawn was coming.
Over the seawall, silent, swift and flying low into the wind came a flock of teal. As the first shots rang out across the marsh there was just enough light to make out the silhouettes of two as they faltered, peeled away from the retreating flock and dived into the marsh in front.
A single command to Chief and he was off , over the wall and disappeared into the darkness. Whether a bird would remain lost or be found depended on him, his nose, and his desire to use it. Darkness and the impenetrable sea wall precluded any help offered by his master. The bird was found and as he brought it to hand Kuma was sent to seek out the second bird that fell. Their master never rushed them, he had no idea how far they needed to range to find that bird but as long as they stayed out there in the dark hunting they were left to figure it out for themselves. Kuma seemed to have had a harder job finding the second bird, they could hear her splashing through the channels as she worked, snuffling as her nose figured out the myriad of scents that lay within the mesh of marsh grasses, but eventually this bird was also brought back to the bag. Both dogs again settled into their role of sentinals and watched the ever lightening skies for movement.
Sunrise never came that morning it was swallowed instead by an angry mix of grey and purple clouds and as the storm strengthened and the tide rose higher the birds moved from the mudflats in the center of the estuary to the shelter of the inland channels and streams for feeding. His companions on either side filled their bags but alas apart from the early teal nothing came our man’s way.
The measure of a good wildfowling dog is not in the volume of birds they retrieve, ( most serious wildfowlers will only shoot what they can bring home to the pot ), but in their persistence and game finding skills of working wounded birds on difficult water. An experienced wildfowling dog will work the current to their advantage, not waste energy fighting it and steadily follow that bird. They know that once a shot is fired and bird down the place to look for a bird is not the sky but the water and the reeds around the water. They will doggedly pursue a diving duck until called off or the duck gives up but mostly they have to learn to be patient, to endure the harshest weather that winter can throw at them and still wait.
When the tide was at it’s highest that morning, the Chessie owner and his dogs were called to the end of the seawall by one of the spaniel men. The channel here was at it’s widest and the tide was rushing in at a bracing 4-5 knots /min. The plucky little spaniel had made several brave attempts to negotiate the increasingly strong current in an attempt to cross the water where a pair of teal had been shot and landed on the island. A high bank at the narrowest part of the channel prevented any dog from taking the shortest route across so the only option was to face them into the current and aim for the stoney point at the end of the island.
Kuma was to be sent first, her master aimed her for the point of the island. She slid into the water and faced the current and the wind that whipped the water high into frothy peaks around her. It took her a minute to gauge the water but she settled into the current, lifted her head to peer above the waves, aimed for the island and engaged her powerful shoulders to push through that heavy current. Once she banked on the far side the north wind that worked so hard against her on her swim across now became her ally in helping her find that lost bird. As she returned Chief was sent to retrieve the second teal.
He took a similar line to his sister, pushing against the incoming tide as he made his way to the island point. The wind again guided him to the point where Kuma had found her bird but a quick search told him there was nothing there. Without guidance he hunted on, lifting his head intermittantly to test the wind for any hint of scent, retracing his steps to recheck where that bird may be or may have moved from. Then, as before, the men could see his body language change with an increased waving of the tail and nose to the ground he took off through the reeds towards the back of the island and out of sight. The men waited, they could hear him splashing through the deep channels that cut through the marsh bed, the bird was a ‘diver’ it would take time and perserverence to bring this one to hand.
The Chessie owner had learned to trust his dogs, he knew they were serious about the role they played when hunting wildfowl with him. They had long deciphered the difference between a wounded bird down that was worth hunting for and a bird that will live to flight another day. He watched and waited, with the same patience that his dogs had waited out the morning with him he gave his dog time to do his job.
Then the reeds on the far bank parted and Chief was there with his hard won teal in his mouth. He slipped into the water, allowed the current to carry him across and made his way to the end of the sea-wall. He shook the icy sea waters from his thick brown coat and hesitated as he scanned the line of fowlers and their dogs waiting on the shoreline. None, in his eyes, deserved to receive this bird save one. His eyes searched again beyond them to the top of the seawall and with one final bound and a slight wag of his tail he made his way through the waiting crowd to where his master waited.