Wildfowling 1876

Article from a national sporting newspaper of 1876
A couple of months ago I was interceding with a military acquaintance for leave for his son to accompany me on one of my trips, but my gallant friend was obdurate. “Not until he has passed his exam.,” he said decisively, these are serious times for him, and I should not like him to be disturbed, do you see? “I understand your argument,” I re-remarked, “but allow me to observe that Frank has been very hard at work of late, and that a little change would do him good. He will get silly at last. Not that an army exam, is a very hard thing to pass, but still, cramming one’s head with all’sorts of things makes a fellow rather dull in the end.” He admitted that there was some truth in what I was arguing, but was nervous as to the result, and so we came to a compromise, in which the result of the examination was largely concerned. ” If you get on well,” he said to Frank,”we will all go to my brother’s, and then you can have your trip on the sea,” Frank, accordingly, ” wired ” into his books more than ever, and passed with flying colours. In consequence thereof the other morning all three of us were in the train for the north, and a very dull journey we had of it, too. Frank’s uncle lives in the neighbourhood of Seaham, and the only way of getting there was by dismounting at a certain station, whose name now escapes me, and thence driving through Houghton-le Spring to Seaham.This part of the journey was no joke for the mare, as the roads were hard frozen and very slippery. However, the coachman had got her “roughed” at the blacksmith’s, and we got on tolerably well, reaching the house of our entertainer at about half-past 6 p.m. The country from the station to Seaham is not particularly pretty, and the district being a coaly one the dust settles a little everywhere, and a good deal ‘n the neighbourhood of the pits. After dinner we discussed our plans of action for the morrow. We agreed to make it a shooting day along the sea shore, there being, according to the keeper’s account, lots of curlews about, in the cliffs and over the rocks, at low tide. Meanwhile, whilst Frank and I undertook that part of the affair, his father would get a boat ready for us for the following day, so as to have some sea fishing also. At daybreak the keeper woke us up; the weather was fine and bitterly cold; all the better for the success of our undertaking. Filled, then, with enthusiasm, Frank and your humble servant drove with the keeper to the shore, where we no sooner arrived than we heard many curlews calling almost on all sides. Seaham was not quite awake yet; but already its gunners were out, or at least some of them, for whilst we were putting our best feet foremost to reach the sands, we heard several shots fired consecutively, and saw a bird or two being knocked over. The fact of the matter was simply this:—Owing to the frost the fields and meadows were all hard, and the only place where the birds could find something to feed on was in the cliffs, where little threads of water always run and keep the ground moist, and on the sea-shore proper, when the receding tide left the sands soft and easily investigated by the hungry birds. We saw thousands of larks in the course of the day, and the sea-fowl—at least shore birds—were also very numerous. The keeper, with his double duck gun, walked at the top of the cliffs, whilst we two divided the shore between us. Frank walked near the land, and I kept near the sea. Between us three and the keeper’s strong retrieving spaniel some birds were bound to come into the bag, and some did.

The keeper opened the ball by firing both barrels towards the fields. Of coarse we could not see what he had been shooting at; but as he disappeared, and we heard him calling to the dog, “Fetch ’em, lad!” we conjectured rightly that be had brought some to grass. They turned out to be lapwings, and he had sbot three with his two barrels. I was looking at him and waiting until be was ready, when I heard the frou-frou of many wings, on my right side. I turned hastily, instinctively shouldering the gun as I did so, and let drive right and left into a flock of sandpipers. The keeper sent Sam, the dog, down, and he no sooner spied the wounded birds fluttering in the sea than he went at them, in spite of the breakers, and brought them up one after the other very sensibly. There were seven of them. I fastened their heads together with a bit of string, so as to make a lump of the lot, and gave them to the dog. He did not know what to do with them, and when his master whistled him he went, but without the birds. However, the keeper no sooner had him by his side than he sent him back with the order to “ Fetch ’em, lad,” and he came down at a gallop, took op the lot, and went up with them like a shot.

There is nothing like patience and perseverance in such matters. A little further on the keeper signed to us to proceed steadily. I stopped, being in the open, but he and Frank kept going. Suddenly they came upon their birds, three curlews feeding on the side of the cliff at a pool The keeper fired and did not hit. Frank fired and missed with his first barrel, but his second told on an old curlew with a beak the length of my gun barrel, more or less. The said long nosed bird, though winged, had kept the use of his long stilts, and he began a rare run, both of us backing him in a breath against the dog to reach a pool first, which he did; but his exertions had told on him, and Sam nabbed him and brought him back very proudly, whilst the curlew at the very top of his voice was shouting ten thousand murders! This being the first curlew Frank had ever killed, we agreed that the proper thing for us to do under the circumstances was to celebrate the event with the usual baptism. Sawyer (the keeper) came down with the flask, and I wished Frank many happy returns of the event in a bumper of sherry. “But,” said he, “I read somewhere that killing seven curlews is all a man can do in a life time. Have you ever shot a lot of them in one single day?” “Yes I shot fourteen once in two hours, in a couple of meadows on the South Coast, during the hard winter of 1870. The frost was so hard that only one brook was running, and they would stick to it in spite of my firing.

They rose, of course, at every report, but after sitting down for a while inland they would come again to the brook, when I would stalk them again. I could have shot more, but being alone. and loaded already with my fourteen birds, I gave it up.” Thus conversing we were making way, and when we reached the belt of rocks, the tide being on the ebb and half spent, we agreed that hiding in the rocks would not be a bad plan, and at once chose holes facing the cliffs, on the top of which Sawyer squatted, and agreed to sign to us when anything should turn up. I got a very nice rock, standing about 5ft 6in from the sand on both sides of me. On the top I disposed two or three bundles of grass, through which I could keep a look-out, and having made myself comfortable, and ascertained by a glance that no birds were as yet near I called out to Frank. “Yes,” he said. “Are you all right?” All right,” be replied. And now began the watching. Soon after we had ensconced ourselves a flock of grey plovers flew our way, but they settled on sea weeds some hundred yards from our guns.

Thereupon Frank left his biding place and came towards me, taking advantage of the rocks in the way, so as not to let the birds see him. u Let us drive at them.” he said in a whisper. “No, no,” 1 said, “They will attract more birds if we let them alone.” And the words were scarcely out of my mouth when Sawyer telegraphed to us from his “exalted” position. I peeped through the grass and bobbed down again at once. “There are two curlews now,” I said to Frank. “Where?” said he, with sparkling eyes. “Near the plovers.” “Let me look: so there are!” Then he looked again, and declared that the whole let were stalking about, but coming our way. Just then, however, some one fired a shot towards Seaham and the birds got up. The plovers went out to sea and the curlews passed between us and the cliff. We fired our four barrels, and the keeper his two, but we only got one bird. Now, after all this firing, it was likely enough that a little time would elapse before any more birds would come near us so I volunteered to go over the rocks and see if I could see any shots there. When I reached the extreme edge 1 saw several birds on the sea, but quite beyond reach. There were two or three companies about, and I made a note of it for the morrow.

When I came back we sat on stones, and began our lunch, but we were kept continually on the qui vive by passing birds. Our sandwiches gone, and the bottle of sherry emptied, we stepped forward once more. Sawyer climbed back to the top, as before, and in so doing he flushed a snipe from the soft mossy ground, and being unable to steady himself, he let it go. We did not expect it either, so that when the man called out in a stentorian voice ” Mark snipe!” we did not fire at it until it was nearly a hundred yards from us. Of course, we did not get it. Sawyer no, sooner reached his post than he sent the spaniel to beat the intervening softs, but we did not see any more snipe, although plenty of other birds were flushed. We turned back at about 2 p.m., and arrived at Seaham at 4. thoroughly “done for the day.” On reaching home we heard what preparations had been made for our next day trip on the sea. A hamper of provisions was ready in the hall, and the boat would be waiting for us at 8 a.m. “What about bait?” I inquired. This it appeared, had been overlooked altogether. We then sent into the town to get some mackerel, fresh, if possible, and the man coming back, after a good search, with bait a dozen,
we were content. The boat placed at our service was a large, roomy, open sailing boat, no decked boat being avail able ; and the two men who were to take us out knew the coast thoroughly wall. After dinner we commenced pre paring lines, guns, and cartridges. Sawyer came to help us in this, and he took the opportunity of mentioning that he should not be able to accompany us on the morrow, as his ” stummick” would not let him. Next morning the weather was much milder than it had been on the previous day.
We started somewhat late, and got on board with traps and baggage, and went away amid the cheers of half a dozen urchins who had been watching the work of embarkation. Frank had brought his double gun and his uncle’s single duck gun. I had my double 10-bore. Presently Frank stood up to load his uncle’s six-foot ducking iron, but owing to the boat’s motion, and to the breeze, and his uncomfortable position, half the powder was dropped in, and the other half out of the
barrel. That is the worst of long muzzle-loaders, you can’t get at them. And if it had been raining I doubt very mach whether we could have loaded the instrument at all. How beit, I helped my young friend by holding him tight by the waist, and be resumed the loading process. Then ramming it was another queer job. When the ramrod was placed at the    muzzle, the whole lot almost reached the top of our mast
We managed at last to feed the gaping muzzle, and looked out greedily for something on which to try it. “I see a bird,” said Frank, pointing in his enthusiasm to a log bobbing about with the tide. “That is not a bird,” I said. “Bet you it is,” he replied, and he was going to fire the “six-foot”gun into it, when the men asseverated that it was a log, just in time to save a load of powder and shot and the nuisance of reloading. Thus discomfited, Frank made up his mind to find something else, and I was as anxious as he. Men are, after all, but great children, and the four of us were as anxious to see what the big gun would do as the artillery officers at Woolwich are when the 81-ton infant is going to be fired.

At last, we saw three widgeons on our starboard a quarter of a mile off. “You come over here, sir,” said one of the
men to Frank, making room for him forward, “and if yon put the barrel over the gun’ale you will be able to fire quite comfortably.” ” Don’t fire until they rise,” I told him, but be did not act to the letter of my advice, for when we were at least a hundred yards from the birds the man began to whisper all sorts of nonsense to him. “You are within range now, mister; get ready. Fire away, sir, fire away or they will go! Of course the man was well meaning, but no gun could have floored swimming birds under such circumstances except by a flake. When they rise even spent shots may break their wings, or hit them in the head and settle them. At an unheard of range Frank fired, and had the mortification of seeing the three birds going off apparently perfectly unscathed. I blew the man up, and told him to give no more advice until asked for it, and then remonstrated with Frank. We were then opposite the first ledge of cliffs, and several divers turned up. We would have fired at them had we not perceived ducks some way off flying. We watched them until they settled, and then went in chase. The first lot we came to consisted of fifteen birds. We drew op to them capitally, and Frank waited very patiently, but just when they rose I think the boat lurched, and the verdict in consequence was only one—a splendid mallard. He bad had a shot through his head and one  had broken his wing, whilst we were reloading the long gun, another company turned up. Frank wanted me to try for them, this time, but as I knew that, in his heart of hearts, be would feel much obliged to me if I would let him fire, I professed that I did not care much, and would be glad to see him do it. So he went forward again, and this time did the affair beautifully getting three birds, two dead ones and a cripple. After that we saw nothing near us, so we went to a nice place, and anchored for some fishing. It was just 12 o’clock when we began.
The men told us we bad been lucky, so far as concerned our birds. “The artillerymen,” they said, “fire cannon occasionally, for practice, from Seaham into the sea, at a barrel, or something of that sort, and of coarse, when they do so, there is but little chance for shooters. I was surprised that there appeared to be nobody fond of sea fishing about Seaham. Ours was the only small boat on the sea, although there were plenty of sailing vessels and steamers moving up and down along the coast, Frank is very fond of sea-fishing. Last year we had a little bit of it together at Kingstown, and be was then very proficient in the art, but now he has become quite an artist, ” I have got two on,” he began, and brought up a whiting (the everlasting whiting are everywhere, seemingly) and a conger eel some yard long. “That is not a bad one, is it?” he added, on perceiving the latter, which came on the bottom hook. ” No, tain’t a bad one, sir,” said one of the men.” but you will get better ones here. It is a good place for them.” I had one about half the size of Frank’s, and he was jokingly affecting that all large fish would patronise him and ignore me, when with my next throw I caught a monster weighing fully 61b. This reversed the tables at once; but presently Frank got one almost exactly the size of mine. They seemed to be very fond of mackerel in that spot, and it was lucky, for that was the only bait we had been enabled to procure. In the midst of our fun one of the men called our attention very quietly to four birds that were dancing about on the waves close behind as, some 200 yards away. “They are ducks,” I said.” let us get our anchor up and go in chase,” I then explained to the men what we were to do. The wind would drift us right on to the birds, so they had only to get up our moorings, and then we would squat in the boat and trust to chance. When we had been drifting some five minutes I took off my hat end peeped over. The birds had seen the boat drifting on them, and not liking it they had swum away, and were now fully 200 yards on our port side, and were paddling away from us. I got up and signed to the men to put up the mast and sails. They did so, and we sailed towards the birds, and eventually fired at them when they rose at an awful range, and hit one, but he kept on flying for 200 yards, and then settled on the sea, whilst the others disappeared. We went for the cripple, but be got up again, and kept us half an hour at that game. At last a lucky shot turned him on his back, and we got him. We were then at least three miles from the shore, and in ten or twelve fathoms of water. We took up our lines, and for two hours stuck by them devotedly. We caught a variety of fish, codlings, whiting, coalfish, a brill, two skates, and a lot of small fry not worth mentioning. The weather kept very mild and inclined to a thaw, but when tbe afternoon was somewhat advanced we began to feel chilly, in spite of our rugs and overcoats. At 4 o’clock we cried “Enough!” and up went the mast, up went the sail, and we returned merrily to the harbour.