THE LOIRE is the longest river in France, running for over 500 miles from its source high in the mountains below St Etienne and above Avignon to the Atlantic Ocean at St Nazaire. All along its route are opportunities to fish, shoot and hunt an incredible variety of species and to eat and drink the specialities of each region while doing so.
On the first Saturday of November, I organised a little trip for myself from Saumur in the west to Chambord, home of an annual Game Fair and an amazing array of game, only a hundred or so kilometres to the east, in order to seize as many sporting opportunities as I could in the space of one day.
My first port of call was firing ranges overlooking the historic abbey at Fontevraud where the tombs of Richard the Lionheart, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine can be found. The army officers have a shooting syndicate based here and the fact that some shooting was due to take place was clear by a plentiful supply of warning signs that were placed along the roadside verges. I commented on them to club president Captain Christophe Mallet and attempted to explain that, in England, they would have been destroyed by “antis” within minutes of being erected.
I have often noticed signs and hoppers in obvious sight of public access and been surprised that they are not vandalised, assuming, as a result, that “antis” do not exist in our part of France.
According to the shoot president, I was, however, mistaken and there are “bad” people here as well. I stayed just long enough to witness the traditional start to the day as the French horns were played and everyone moved off to the first drive.
On to Beaumer, just west of Montbazon, where I had been invited to stop off for lunch with a group of enthusiastic rabbit shooters. The lowly rabbit is a source of great excitement for a great many French sportsmen and I was there as a result of a contact made in August at the Fete de la Chasse near Breil.
The journey was particularly picturesque. In this heavily forested area, the roads were flanked with autumn colours and French families, complete with wicker baskets, were out in search of the many edible mushrooms and fungi of the region. As organised as ever, the French fungi forager unsure of the edibility of unidentifiable mushrooms, can stop off at his or her local chemists (which often open specially at this time of year) and have their harvest verified as being safe to eat. Just how far into the forests I would have been prepared to go in search of “champignons”, when numerous signs warned of the presence of wild boar, I am not sure!
With perfect timing, I arrived just as the final piece of scrubland was being walked through before lunch and met up with Lucien Dulac, who made me both welcome and regretful of the fact that I was driving and, therefore, unable to taste any of the wine on offer. Not for this bunch of shooters a mere sandwich and coffee from a thermos – cheeses, pates, “charcuterie,” rustic bread and bottles from their own vineyards were all laid out on a fallen oak and savoured together with shooting talk and the possible woodcock prospects later in the season.
Apparently, the local pack of staghounds had met close by the same day and we could hear the hunting horns deep in the forest as we sat and ate. As I subsequently drove towards Chambord, I kept a close lookout in the hope of encountering them. I am a keen follower of all hounds and a sighting would have been an unexpected bonus.
My purpose in being there was to look at the “huttes flottante”, used as hides for duck shooting. They are seen throughout France and range in size from cabin-like proportions down to not much more than a punt covered in camouflage netting. The lakes and ponds in the park are ideal for duck flighting and November is, apparently, the best month to decoy passing “canards” on their migratory route south.
Father and son Daniel and Frederic Guette were out on one of the lakes and I was astounded to see them tether a live decoy duck in the shallows, by the use of strings and a metal weight anchored into the mud, before disappearing into a perfectly made hide.
A north wind is considered best for flighting in this area, but as dusk fell so, too, did any traces of wind. It was a lovely evening to be out and even though Frederic had just the one shot, he made it count leaving with a mallard duck for his trouble.
As the decoy duck was carefully retrieved and placed back in its carrying box – it is a veteran to the game and spends the summer months in the Guettes” chicken run – I began my journey home wondering if anyone else had had the variety of sporting opportunities that I had enjoyed in just nine hours and 150km.