Memories of hunting in France

When I lived in France for three years, some 50 years ago, I resided, for the most part on the southwest coast in the Department of Charente Maritime, whose principal city was the port of LaRochelle. This was a pleasant, sparsely populated, and mainly agricultural and fishing area. The Germans in WWII found the area to be strategic as they constructed massive submarine pens in the port from which their U-boats sailed to prowl the seas in search of Allied shipping.

To this day, I classify myself as a Francophile as I never knew a Frenchman personally whom I did not like. I made several good French friends, and one day one of them named Georges asked me if I liked to hunt. I replied I was mainly an upland game bird shooter and did not know the rules and regulations in France. Upon hearing this, he invited me to join his hunt club and explained how the system operated. I learned the hunting laws in France are quite different from those in the United States.

I was stunned to learn first that all land in France could not be “Posted,” and one did not have to gain permission from the landowner to hunt on his property. A hunter was required to belong to an organized club whose only requirement for admission was to pay a membership fee, the equivalent of about $2 at the time. Then, one had to acquire an annual hunting license from the Prefecture of the Department for a fee of about $1, but the license would only be issued if you produced an insurance policy (another $2) that insured you against damage you might cause to a landowner’s property or livestock.

Other differences were there were no closed seasons on any species of bird and no bag limit. Game wardens were unheard of, conservation of natural resources being understood and practiced with the members of the club taking action against the occasional game hog or other violator of hunting etiquette. It was a wonderful system that worked well; I imagine it still does today.

On the morning of my first hunt, Georges picked me up before dawn, and we motored to the farmhouse of another club member from which the hunt would start. Three other members joined us in Andre’s kitchen for croissants and coffee laced with cognac before we went afield. Andre was what was termed a “mutile de la guerre” (wounded war veteran), and only hunted now and then around his farm. He would not join us that day due to his incapacitation.

As the sun was rising, the five of us spread out in about a 100-yard line and moved across the first field. Our principal quarry that morning was the Hungarian partridge (Fr, Perdirx Gris), a plover called the lapwing (Fr, Vanneau Huppe), and if lucky, the scarce pheasant (Fr, Faisan de Chasse).

All of my French colleagues were armed with 12-gauge, double-barreled shotguns that seemed to be of ancient vintage. I carried a lightweight Ithaca model 37, 12-gauge pump with the then-new “Raybar” sight and modified choke. As the men loaded their guns, I noticed they used low-power, black powder shells while I chambered with Remington Express, high-power shells.

We had not moved 50 yards across the field when a brace of partridges were flushed, and two guns roared. After the extensive smoke from the black-powdered ammo had cleared, it was clear both shooters had missed. The man next to me said, “Be ready, they won’t go far.” Apparently, the same pair of them flushed a short time later about 50 yards in front of us, and before they could get beyond 75 yards, I had brought both of them down. The other hunters marveled at the range the Remington Express shells and Ithaca gave me.

The hunt ended a few hours later with a total of six partridges and one pheasant being taken. Georges was the lucky one who almost stepped on the pheasant and was able to hit it with two shots before it got out of his gun’s range.

Back at the farmhouse for lunch, the members of the party told Andre of the extraordinary killing range I had with my gun and ammunition. He replied that he sure would like to have some of those shells to shoot a hawk that was decimating his chickens. To repay his hospitality, I gave him about a dozen of the Remington Express shells.

The next time we hunted from his farm, I asked him if he had been able to get the chicken hawk. He mumbled something I did not understand, and pointed to his shotgun in the corner of the room. The barrels of the gun were split back like a peeled banana, and it was then I realized his gun was of about 1900 vintage and made of twisted Damascus steel, which would only tolerate the use of shells of low-power black powder.

I think back now with fond memories of those days in France and the camaraderie I enjoyed with my French friends. Many in this country criticize the French when they disagree with our policies, but they forget we have never fought a war with the French, and they were instrumental in our gaining our independence in the 1780s. If we adhered strictly to the French motto of “Liberte, Eagalite, Fraternite” (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood), we would be better off than we are now.

From the March 15-21, 2006, issue