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A day & night at the "Hutte des 400 coups"

A Unique and Exotic Duck Hunting Trip to the Baie de Somme
by Kenneth D. Gartrell

Pictures under the text

December of 2005, my wife and my oldest son accompanied me on one of our routine trips to Europe. In the first phase, we had the pleasure of observing the Bicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Austerlitz and we made our way back from Vienna by way of the overnight train to Paris.Once in Paris, we met up with our friend and sporting guide, the incomparable Nick. On arrival, we enjoyed a good night’s rest in the quiet luxury of the Pavillon Henri IV above the banks of the Seine at St. Germain en Laye, we had our breakfast looking to Paris and writing those lines, I am thinking about Alexandre Dumas and Ernest Hemingway who liked to stay there before me. By mid-morning, we were headed on our way by car North and West around Paris through Normandy and into Picardie. In about three hours we arrived in the village of St. Valery sur Somme at the estuary of the Somme River and on the tip of the Baie de Somme.

We arrived in early afternoon and at low tide. While it was a grey day, the air was full of adventure and excitement. I know I can always count on Nick for a well-planned adventure, but little did I know that I was about to enjoy one of the rare sporting adventures  that any American with an interest in wing shooting and waterfowl could imagine. At St. Valery sur Somme, we had arrived at the hub of the waterfowl Mecca of France. The Somme is a region of France replete with a rich past, having played a part in many great events in history. Many soldiers have trod the ground of the Somme over many centuries. Joan of Arc, for example, was held captive in St. Vallery sur Somme, but also William the Conqueror sailed from there to join the famous region of Hastings for the battle that would create the kingdom of England as we know it now. More recent and less glorious, the Chinese cemetary in the village of Nolette, recalls the thousands of workers who lost their lives during the 1st World War to simply maintain railroads (not to speak of the battles in the trenches farther east).  The sense of history provided by this inspiring spot near the Pas de Calais is everywhere and captivating.

St. Valery sur Somme is a typically enjoyable rustic French village. It has beautiful old buildings and all the charms of the French life. There are fine bakeries for your "baguettes" and rustic restaurants where you can enjoy the pleasure of French cooking. There are shops for gunsmiths and the sportsman will not go wanting for needed items, including ammunition (except in 28Ga), or that Laguiole knife that you must have to cut your cheese and open you wine at the gourmet sporting picnics that a fine guide like Nick will prepare for you and your guests.The obvious quality of the village is the reflection of the life at sea. The streets and the houses will remind Americans of mythical places such as Nantucket and coastal Maine or seaside villages on the coast of California and Washington state. A prominent sea-loving resident of St. Vallery sur Somme was the famous fiction writer Jules Verne. It does not require much imagination to envision the balloons and gondolas of Around the World in Eighty Days crossing at the Pas de Calais and floating in the sky above the village.  One can see why Mr. Verne was at home in this location.
After a nice walk around the village, we decided to wait for the local Patisserie to reopen from the traditional mid-day break. Nick knew just what to do and we headed to the famous restaurant and hotel called Mado. Mado is a center for visitors and an extremely popular spot for the water fowl fanatics who make their way to the Baie de Somme each season to partake of one of the great migratory spots in the world. Mado is famous for its food and its hospitality to the devotees of the waterfowl. From its window, one can look out to points of the Baie de Somme and onto the mouth of the Somme itself. At this time of year in early December, the hunters are not present in large numbers as the migrations are not at their peak. There is, nevertheless, enough migratory activity that during low tides the solitary water fowl hunters with their loyal Labradors can be seen making their way into the shallows where they will take their spots for the evening flights.  Mado was very happy to serve us a glass of champagne, afternoon tea and espresso.  We had the pleasure of sitting at the large table near the bar and we had the opportunity to enjoy all the wonderful etchings, paintings and other decorations in the honor of the waterfowl and the hunting dogs of the area.The staff was very friendly and we struck up a pleasant chat thanks to Nick who helped translate for us when our polite bonjours and mercis would no longer sustain conversations. The manager has been at Mado for some time and she was very interested in our trip. She was proud to show us articles from such sporting publications as the French Revue Nationale de la Chasse for which Nick is a regular contributor.
About ten kilometers South and East of St. Vallery sur Somme and on the Northern edge of the Baie de Somme, we passed briefly through the very small village of Noyelles sur Mer. The village has just a few houses, shops and a rail station.  Just a few kilometers out of the village, we turned down the lane to arrive at the entrance of the Hutte Des 400 Coups or "Hut of 400 Shots". My wife remarked that it was a nice enough little cottage. Being familiar with the common mode of duck hunting, I too was ready to sleep the night in this nice little cottage and proceed to the usual duck blinds early in the morning for the morning flight. I was not traveling with waterfowl gear, so I just assumed that Nick had that all planned and taken care of in complete detail as he always does.
The Hutte of 400 Coups was built by a wealthy Parisian Viscount, the vicomte Brossin de Méré, who actually owned the rail line connecting Picardie, Calais and Bologne to Paris. We were headed back into the 19th Century when France was expanding economically by the spread of its rails system, which even today links the major cities and towns in the country with the Parisian hub of industry, government and culture. The Hutte lies at a comfortable distance from the rail station at Noyelles sur Mer. During the times of the Viscount, a rise in the migratory activity over the Baie de Somme would result in telegraph and telephone messages to Paris. Within hours the Viscount, his wife and waterfowl friends, would arrive at the station in Noyelles sur Mer where a game keeper would take them for a quick carriage ride to the Hutte. Little did we suspect as we unpacked the gear for the night, all the interesting surprises to come… Nick had laid his traps well. As we stepped towards the cottage, I noticed that Nick was headed the opposite way. The first big surprise then materialized as we learned the charming cottage was not the actual Hutte. The Hutte des 400 Coups is actually a well-camouflaged duck blind sitting along the point jutting into the one-acre pond surrounded on all sides by swamp and wetlands. The site has the look and feel of nature, but the pond, the Hutte and all the immediate surroundings; are elements of an elaborate man-made system for the attraction, observation and hunting of the waterfowl flying over the Baie de Somme. We had been tricked into thinking the game-keeper’s home was the Hutte.  Nick didn’t say, but I‘m sure this was his plan. He had been reluctant give much specific information about the Hutte to that point. On the way into St.Vallery sur Somme, Nick had made it a point to stop and show me the more typical but upscale huts and blinds. They are found all over wetlands near the Baie. At low tide, explaining in retrospect the carefully chosen plan of arrival, I could walk among the various huts. Usually they are small covered floating blinds (they seem to be buried in the silt but they raise up and float during the high tides. They're anchored by 4 big chains, sitting next to equally small man-made ponds about the size of a home swimming pool and about two feet deep. In front of the huts, sit a small flock of twenty or thirty tarred wood decoys. In these natural surroundings, it takes a few minutes before you realize that these ducks are not moving and are not live.  

I was fooled a second time by the decoys in front of the Hutte des 400 Coups. The natural ambience of the entire area is part of the illusion. Waterfowl is everywhere. The sound of ducks and geese mix with the flight of egrets and sea gulls to distract the eye, the ear and the mind in the lowland mist. Once I stepped in front of the Hutte on the bank of the pond, I realized the shadowy figures on the water were the same style decoys as earlier. They were much more in number – maybe a hundred  – all befitting the surprise yet to come. The power of the illusion of the decoys flows directly from the fact that the Hutte, as well as the gamekeeper’s cottage, are surrounded by live decoy ducks and geese.  This is also a surprise and a treat for duck hunters because France is the only place in the world where live decoys bred and selected for the quality of their voices are allowed to call the wild congenere. 
The uninitiated I talk to often take offense to the use of the live decoys thinking it cruelty to the decoy ducks. But, the fact is these ducks are carefully bred, highly revered and extremely well cared for. The more obvious reason that live decoys are not allowed outside France is that they contribute to a lethal attraction for birds flying over. Their calls are beautiful and exotic as they reach a fever pitch of excitement in unison as wild ducks or geese fly over the area. The beauty of the interaction between the “private ducks" as Michael pointed out (Nick’s brother and a dedicated water fowl hunter who came to stay with us later in the day) and the wild fowl is an intoxicating and pleasurable phenomenon that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Only by sharing the experience, observing the care and dedication of French waterfowl hunter’s, can one reach a competent judgment about virtues of the sport and the implications for the delicate game.

Inside the main features of the hut, hunters can relax, eat, play cards even watch television in the hours they spend at leisure waiting for the wild waterfowl to fly over and be attracted to the pond. On the walls of the hut, facing the water of the pond, are covered openings for observation. When it is time to shoot, these openings can be folded down and guns can be mounted for shooting. Flights are largely concentrated in the dark hours between dusk and dawn. As usually the case, the flights are most intense at the dusk and dawn transitions. There are continuous flights, nevertheless, and the aroused appeals of the “private ducks” call the hunters to duty at all hours of the night. Upon arrival we had seen a brace of the Europen equivalent to our green winged teal, then later a nice flock of about 30 of the same, but all out of reach. Unfortunately for us, our stay was on a night when there was a very thick mist over the water of the pond and night shooting was out of the question. We were confined to hunt the swamps for snipe in the daylight before dusk and to wait in the removed outdoor blinds for the evening and morning flights. Nick's French Brittany spaniel beautifully pointed a few snipes (common snipe "Gallinago, gallinago Linné", and Nick shot one, then only Michaël saw a couple of teal during the evening flight but missed. Despite the fact that there was no shooting in the night, the pleasure of sleeping in a warm comfortable cot, while listening to the calls of the decoys and the wild fowl flying over was a great pleasure and honor. It provided a significant aesthetic experience on a par with any symphony, opera or other great work of art.

Nick showed us the milestone that lies in the hut complex to mark the 178 km trip from Paris (probably at Gare du Nord). The hut is actually made up of three different buildings. The separate construction, apart from the central building, housing the dining and kitchen areas, is a comfortable space for sleeping. One of the buildings was set aside for the Viscountess who was likely not a hunter and wasn't inclined to sit up all night for shooting. The other building has no openings looking onto the pond and provides a few beds for retiring hunters, family or helpers.In addition to working propane fueled iron heaters, the buildings enjoy hot running water, functional bathrooms and showers.  Taking all the elements together, it is likely there is no comparable place on earth. Leave it to the French to create such a work of art!

You can bring your guns into the main hut. But, you have to leave your boots at the door. You need to either bring some slippers to wear inside or you can use some of the slippers provided by the host. This was the one thing Nick had been careful to tell me ahead of time. The main hut consists of a small kitchen, a pantry, a sitting room and two small bedrooms with two single cots in each.  It also has a working bathroom, though there is no shower (there's one in a dependance outside, but probaly used only to refresh from hot summer days... but not appealing for ice cracking winter nights like ours).  The front bedroom, the ante space between the sitting room and the outer walls of the dining room look onto the pond and this is where the openings are located for night observation and shooting. The dining area is the only place in the hut where anyone taller than five feet and five inches can stand upright. Despite the fact people were shorter then, I rather assume the vicomte was incorporating some of the customary discomforts of duck hunting for his design in order to retain the traditional sense of experience. The decorations of the hut are rustic and traditional; specimens of local fowl adorn the wall and shelves. For our evening repast, Nick prepared one if his incomparable meals. Many delights of pate’ of wild boar, stewed partridge breasts, French wines and Winston Churchill's favorite Pol Roger Champagne, cheese and pastries were enjoyed by all. I used my trusty laguiole to spear many of the fine "Mirabelle" plums soaked in an exotic distilled spirit collected by Nick in his gourmet travels of the French countryside. 

We were at the Hutte des 400 Coups very late in the migratory season. So, it was neither a surprise nor a disappointment when our morning shooting was not occasioned by hundreds of wild fowl. Two geese flocks passed slightly too high just above us. The extravagant beauty of the morning sun; the refrain of the “private ducks;” along with a trek into the wetlands for snipe were perfect compensation. 

As we prepared to depart we all took the extra time to savor our good fortune. Nick believes that my wife, my son and I were the first American visitors to this unique place since World War II and shortly after. Since I am not a highly experienced water fowl hunter, some of the great joys of this place may have been wasted on me and so I encourage the more dedicated practioners of the sport to contact Nick to try the same unique experience. 
The French, the Germans and other Europeans believe the only way to hunt and fish responsibly is to be well educated in wildlife. As a clear example of the benefits of this approach, the use of live decoys in France can be permitted because hunters are loyal to the game; loyal to the traditions; and responsible enough in their approach not to harm the waterfowl population. The delicate balance of the incomparable art form at Baie de Somme depends on responsible hunters. In turn, the very existence of the delicate wild game we love depends our mutual efforts not to give critics of sporting excuses to interfere. There is no way for anyone who has not experienced the thrills of a night of hunting the Baie de Somme to appreciate the delicacy and value of La Chasse.

The Pavillon Henri IV where Alexandre Dumas and Ernest Hemingway, liked to stay

House in the village of Saint Valery sur Somme

At "Mado's" an extremely popular spot for the French wildfowl fanatics 

Wonderful etchings, paintings of waterfowl and the hunting dogs.

Mado was proud to show us articles from such sporting publications.../...

.../... as the Revue Nationale de la Chasse for which Nick is a regular contributor.

The game-keeper’s home, entrance gate of the "Hutte"

The actual "Hutte" is reached at the end of this camouflaged path

And is pretty camouflaged as well !

Opening to a 4ha pond surrounded by a 200ha, snipe marshland

The game-keeper’s introducing the Hutte des 400 coups to Ken Gartrell

Nick showing the milestone that lies in the hut to mark the 178 km trip from Paris 


One of these mallards specially bred for the "beauty of their voices"... 

Nick swinging my 28 Ga. Harrieta, near of the blinds we used at evening flight

The dining room when stepping in. All this buried and hidden like a luxury bunker 

And the smaller "salon" near the bedrooms, where we had champagne.

The walls of the rooms, facing the pond have openings for observation...

Now the long, painful wait can start !!! (Et la longue attente commence).

Detail of the unique, "ponting dogs tablecloth" ! ... A collector !

Ferrets belonging to the game keeper (rest assured, they were not living in the hut).

Our restaurant on the road to other adventures after leaving Picardy

And our new... "base camp" in Normandy now.

A wonderful XVIth century castle, lost in the woods

Where we stayed for a couple of day's upland wingshooting,

on pheasant & woodcock

Dec 2005 - Special thanks for these great moments spent afield.

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