"Three years ago , being on a shooting visit to France, for the first time in my life I became practically acquainted with duck decoying. I had read a good deal about it; but somehow or other I could not, for the life of me, imagine how such barefaced devices as those that are employed in the decoying of ducks could possibly answer with such wary birds.
I must here premise that, in France, the art of decoying is not carried on as we understand it in England; viz, the French do not entice the birds into a receptacle inclosed and prepared for their visit, where they are all taken alive [see ...traps]; all the ducks decoyed in France are shot on the spot, the moment they alight on the water; therefore, the only difficulty to be overcome is that of bringing the ducks within range of the guns.
Now I had heard a great deal about the fun to be had at such a sport, and, being at the time located in Abbeville, near the world-celebrated marshes of the river Somme, I determined upon accompanying some professional duck decoyer, (or huttier, as they are called there) on one of his night expeditions.
This was very soon arranged. A friend of mine, at whose house I was then residing, sent for one of the best marsh-men, and stated to him my wishes; hinting at the same time that, should the huttier succeed in showing me sport, my gratitude should take the form of a few silver pieces placed in the man's hands in the morning.
'I am quite willing to take the gentleman with me,' said the man, 'but I am afraid my hut will appear to him far from comfortable.'
'How is that?' I asked.
'Why, you see, sir, mine is the farthest hut in the marshes; there is not hardly any dry ground there, so that it would be very expensive for me to build a comfortable place. At the same time, I get more ducks there than any other fellow in the department of Somme, so that I should not like to change for a drier spot.'
'Well,' I said, 'look here, it is yet early in the day; I will go with you, now, and see your hut; I shall then be able to judge whether I can go with you to-night or not.'
'Very good, sir.'
I put on my marsh boots, and off we started. First of all, we had to cross the river in a rotten old punt, already half-full of water, but which, notwithstanding, my guide assured me was a most trustworthy and water-tight (?) conveyance. I looked dubious about it, but said nothing. The man did not use oars or sculls, he simply pushed the punt along with a long pole; and across the reeds and rushes we went, the water rippling quietly against the square nose of our tub. Through innumerable diminutive islands of reeds and rushes went the boat.
'How in the name of goodness,' I asked the man, 'how ever can you find your way, at night, through all these? It is a wonder you don't get lost.'
'I do, sometimes,' he replied drily.
'Hum! do you, though? Well, I hope you won't to-night, that is all.'
'Oh! No fear of that; we will have moonlight very early this evening; but when it is very dark, as you surmised, it is not always easy to find one's way about here, specially when it rains hard, or when there is a snow-storm of any consequence. I got lost once last winter, and the punt stuck fast, so that I had to wait till day-light to extricate myself. I was nearly frozen to death. Had it not been that my dog was with me, I don't think I could have passed such a terrible night. When I found that I could not move the punt, I rolled myself lump-like in a corner, got my call-ducks on my lap and the dog on my feet, and, between us all, we managed to keep warm and pull through.'
Meanwhile, we had got far away in the marshes; and, at last, pointing out to me some mound of earth that looked uncommonly like a dunghill,
'There is my hut, sir,' said the man.
I can't say that the thing looked very inviting. However, we landed, and I went to inspect the affair more closely. It was built in a most primitive and cheap style. About a dozen willow branches, sharpened at both ends, had been stuck into the soft ground, making thus a sort of tunnel six feet long, four feet high, and about four feet wide. One end of the tunnel was, of course, closed; the other end, facing a pool of water, was left open for the shooters to get in and fire; and the top and bottom end had been first covered with straw, and afterwards some mud had been stuck over the straw, so as to make the concern wind-proof and water-tight. Inside, a thick bed of straw was ready spread for the shooters; but, nevertheless, it did not look enticing.
However, a sportsman, proverbially, will put up with a great deal when he hopes to meet with game; so I agreed to come, and it was arranged that before night-fall we would take our stand.
Having thus decided the question, we came back to the town, and I got ready. At about four o'clock p.m. old Pierre, the huttier, came round and we started. He had his call-ducks, three in number, two ducks and a drake, in a basket; a double gun (formerly a flint apparatus, but now transformed to percussion) was slung on his back, and at his heels walked demurely a curly, brown and white poodle dog, with a most thoughtful countenance.
'We will have sport to-night, sir, I will take my oath,' said Pierre. 'I heard flocks after flocks whistling over in the clouds, and some fellows, who have just come home from the marshes, have told me that they have seen lots of birds settling on the river.'
Talking thus, we arrived at the river-side. It was bitterly cold, and I said as much to my companion.
'So much the better,' said he, 'it will tame the birds.'
We got on board our punt, and shoved off.
'You see, sir,' said the huttier, 'all the ponds in the marshes will get frozen, if they are not so already; so that the birds won't be able to feed anywhere but where water will be seen. Now, I shall break the ice in front of our hut with this pole, and the ducks will come to us fine, you will see."
He said this with such glee that I caught his enthusiasm readily enough.
We landed safely, and we carried to the hut the rugs, drinkables, and eatables I had provided; then Pierre, with the punt's pole, broke the thin crust of ice that had already covered the pond, and placed his ducks in position, each being fastened by the leg, with a string a yard or so in length, to a stone, at a distance of about six or seven yards from the hut. As for the drake, he merely fastened a long string to his leg, and allowed him to go where he liked, keeping, however, one end of the string in the hut, close at hand. And now, everything being thus settled, we made ourselves as comfortable as we could.
We soon heard flocks whistling overhead, and several shots from other huts were fired at intervals.
Night came on apace, and the moon shone occasionally, but not much, there being a moderate breeze and a somewhat cloudy sky.
Pierre and I were side-by-side, stretched at full length, watching our call-birds.
These seemed to know perfectly well what they were about.
'I have had them four seasons now,' whispered Pierre in my ear; 'there are no better call-ducks in the Empire. All the other huttiers are mad about them,' he added with emphasis; 'but I would not part with them, not for anything. I have peppered them, accidentally, several times, but they knew I had not done it on purpose.'
'Yes; they knew. Animals are not so stupid as we give them credit for. Now, this drake of mine got a shot in the eye once, and he only called out the louder for it!'
'So I should imagine,' I said.
'Yes,' seriously retorted worthy Pierre, 'he never, in his life, called better than he did that night. It was a regular blessing.'
'And now, sir, he does not mind the gun a bit. He only ducks his head when he sees the flash of a shot.'
'Ah! he ducks his head, does he? So I should think. I would duck ditto, under such circumstances.'
'Well, that shows that he has memory; does it not? But hush! There are canards! Watch my calls.'
We could hear a flock whirling in the clouds right above us, and our decoys, as if aware of what they were to do, began to flap their wings, and to call out to the strangers:
'Quack! Quack! Quack!' broke forth from them in an éclatant son de voix.
"'Quack! Quack!' faintly from above.
'Quack! Quack!' furiously from our drake, who imagined that his unfaithful wives were having a flirtation with the newcomers, and that they would, eventually, give him the slip.
There he was, the poor old fellow, swimming, with all his might, towards the two light-principled females; but the string which was fastened to his leg prevented him from quite joining them; and this caused him to renew his cries and his exertions with increased fury and indignation.
The two ducks, aware of his jealousy, and of the approach of the wild birds, continued, repeatedly, as if in defiance of their lawful lord and master, to call out softly, to plume themselves, and to duck under water, and make themselves altogether as pretty and interesting as circumstances would permit.
I had got quite absorbed by this, to me, very interesting little comedy, when a nudge from my companion brought me back to business.
He picked up his gun, so did I; and we cocked both barrels in silence.
Suddenly, the quacking increased; drew nearer; then stopped: a rush of wings, a whistling, a flapping on the water, and, behold! about fifteen birds had settled before us, at about twenty yards from the muzzles if our guns.
Our four barrels knocked over seven birds. The rest rose with a whirr and innumerable quackings, and flew away.
I was going to shout something or other, in my exultation, when my arm was seized eagerly by my companion:
'Listen,' said he, peremptorily.
And there he was, his head bent towards the direction that the escaped birds had taken. The dog, also, who had jumped out, instead of rushing to the pond to collar the killed and wounded, was there, tout yeux, tout oreilles, sagaciously listening, too, and ready for a start.
On the mud, Thud!...Thud!
'Away, good dog!' said Pierre.
And the dog flew in the direction of the sound.
'What is it?' I asked.
'Two more birds that we had wounded, and who have just fallen,' said Pierre.
'And that is why the dog was listening so intently?' I exclaimed.
'By Jove! but that is a clever dog!'
'So he is. But, you see, I've killed him such a lot of birds, that he ought to know, by this time, all about his business; and so he does.' Whilst saying this Pierre had got out to load. 'That is the inconvenience of having muzzle-loaders for such work,' he said. 'You are obliged to come out, after every shot; and, when it snows or rains, it is not a pleasant job, after all; whilst you, with your breech-loader, without moving from the hut, you can fire away, and load, in a twinkling.'
'Then why don't you buy a breech-loader?'
'Because all the other huttiers would call me an aristocrate; and I don't want any of their chaff. But, all the same, these breech-loading guns are precious handy.'
Meanwhile, the poodle dog, wringing wet, brought a duck, and started after the other. Pierre, with his pole, brought ashore those birds that had remained under our shots; and by the time that the dog came back, we were snug again, once more. The poodle shook the water off his coat, came to his place in the hut, and there rolled himself into a lump in his corner, as if nothing had happened, and without being told.
'He had to go a long way after those birds,' whispered his master; 'and very likely he had to swim for them into the bargain.'
'And does he always bring back the birds, thus?'
'Not always. Sometimes the birds fall quite dead; and, unless the dog was close enough to see them fall, it is but a chance if he succeeds in finding them; for, you see, the birds may fall in some water, and the scent is lost, then, very soon. But a wounded bird is always to be found, for two reasons; the first of which is, that so long as life remains in him, the scent will be good; and then, after the first shock, the wounded bird moves, and is soon heard, or seen, by the dog. Nevertheless, it requires a very good animal for that sort of work.'
'So I perceive. I suppose a dog that is not thoroughly broken will occasionaly mistake the decoys for wild ducks?'
'Yes, this happens sometimes, but only with young ones; for they usually get a licking that they don't repeat the performance, even under strong temptation.'
'What do you mean?'
'Why, for instance, my drake and my dog hate one another, for some inscrutable motive; so much so that, whenever in the performance of his duty as a retriever the dog has to pass close by the drake, the latter invariably flies at him; and, as invariably, the dog snarls at the drake; but to those harmless demonstrations is their evident dislike limited. Well, then suppose I had a new dog with me, the chances would be a hundred to one that, no sooner would the bird rush at the dog, than the latter would turn round upon him, and twist his neck; and that would never do.'
'Have all the huttiers dogs like yours?'
'Most of them have. But, unless a dog is well trained, he is a great nuisance. Now, my brother has got one that does his business well enough; but when he comes back into the hut he will fondle his master, and, in so doing, of course he wets him through.'
Perhaps my worthy companion would have said more on the subject, but at that moment the canards d'appel, who had been enthusiastically calling, were suddenly responded to, and we kept still.
Half a minute later, a switch of three birds made their appearance, and I knocked them over with one barrel!
Now, mind, reader, I do not call this sportsmanlike. I confess that it sounds more like butchery than sport. I agree with you that if we had flushed the birds first, then shot them, it would have been a far more clever performance; but that could not be done. Before we could have got out of our hut, the birds would have flown hundreds of yards away; so we had to kill them as best we could. Therefore, I distinctly state that this is no more sport than many other expedients and devices employed in shooting; but, at any rate, it is great fun; and, as the birds cannot be reached in any other way, I think, if anything, that it may be considered as an excusable expedient. This digressive explanation being over, I now proceed with my narrative.
We shot about a dozen more ducks and teals. Towards morning the moon disappeared, and a heavy fall of snow came down.
'We will have no more birds now,' said my companion; 'so we may as well go home. What is the time?'
We got out, and he struck a light for me to look at my watch. It was two o'clock. I need not say that, after having been for nine hours packed up in a place six feet in length by four in breadth, we felt slightly cramped. At any rate, I did; and I stretched myself with a certain amount of pleasure. We had killed, altogether, twenty-four or twenty-five heads of game. We carried them to the punt, got all our traps, guns, and ammunition on board, pulled the decoys ashore, liberated them from their strings and stones, replaced them in their baskets, and we were ready to shove off, when the weather cleared up again; and there we stood, debating whether we should 'call' again, or not.
We decided in the affirmative, and were settling down again our ducks, when heavy clouds came once more over us, and we gave up the job as a bad one. This time we made a decided start. The ice was, fortunately, but thin, so that we managed pretty well to shove the punt along; and we landed near the town, without mishap or accident, barring our sticking on the shoals several times. At four o'clock, I was in bed, delighted with my night's sport. Subsequently, I had a more substantial hut, built on the emplacement of Pierre's old one; and many a time since have we enjoyed ourselves, of a night, in it, at duck decoying. Occasionally, we used to repair to this hut in day-time; and sometimes I had great fun with all sorts of marsh birds. Curlews, plovers, peewits, moorhens, etc. etc., occasionally came there, and got shot. I need hardly say that, the colder the weather, the greater the number of birds that came within range.
Bird-calls I found there eminently useful, particularly when between the lips of a practiced fowler. Old Pierre was an adept in the art, and could bring any bird within range. His imitations were perfectly inimitable; he deceived the birds, as he used to say, à ravir. Now this is a talent which is not granted to every would-be caller. As far as I am concerned, I never could persuade a bird to come close to me. Quite the reverse. No sooner did I blow than off they went, to my great disgust and concentrated anger. But this man had a knack of inducing them to draw near. He made his calls himself; and a more successful caller I never saw. However, considering that, for something like thirty consecutive years he had prosecuted this calling (excuse the pun), perhaps, after all, his success was not to be wondered at. At any rate, there were the facts. Now, as far as duck-decoying is concerned, Pierre was considered as the best man among the fowlers of the place; and, if what I have been relating about his style of managing this sport may induce some of our marsh shooters to try the experiment of a hut and call-ducks, I have not the slightest doubt, but that they will be amply repaid for their trouble; in which case I, certainly, shall claim from them a heartfelt vote of thanks for -- Snapshot."Red boxes = huts; lines = those to which the decoy ducks are tethered; arrow = shot fired; added to: "Hut shooting in the French system", designed and painted by P. Hawker, The Diary of Peter Hawker, author of "Instructions to Young Sportsmen", 1802-1853 (London: Longmans, Green, 1893), vol. 1, p. 184.
Go back to Duck dogs: guns, Clement