The headline says it all. January pheasants are stronger, higher, wilder and faster. Some say they are also a lot craftier
I’m not so sure about the last point. Is that cock bird sneaking sideways out of the beat really taking avoiding action or has he survived by habitually taking this course?
Pheasants are, after all, pretty dim
Irrespective of their IQ, January birds will be harder to pull down.
So how should you prepare for the finest month of the season?
Game shooters swamp their local shooting school at two key times – at the season’s start and around now. The first group visit to brush up skills after an eight-month lay-off, and the second because the wheels have come off and they’re struggling to hit anything – never mind January scorchers.
I recently went through a bad patch with straight driven birds (the last thing you want at this stage of the season). An hour with John Heagren at Bisley Shooting Ground (BSG), Surrey soon had me sorted.
I was tracking too long and trying to calculate lead instead of letting rhythm and instinct do their work. John is BSG’s Chief Instructor and he’s also an excellent game shot.
As a youngster he honed his skills shooting pigeons and rabbits on the farm and later as a gamekeeper. I asked him about the chief ‘sins’ he spots when shooting, or instructing in the field.
“Without a doubt, it’s footwork,” he said.
“Game shooters are notorious for not moving their feet”
“Pick up almost any shooting magazine showing photographs of Guns in action on a driven day. You see people off balance, twisted out of shape, in some cases almost falling over. Guns invariably set their feet to where the bird is coming from, rather than where it’s going and where they will kill it.”
So John’s first piece of advice is to prepare your peg. Make sure you are standing on a flat piece of ground. If necessary, have a good trample around to flatten bumps and rough clumps of undergrowth.
Turn this way and that, to check your feet don’t snag on anything.
This will allow better shooting and will also make you a lot safer when the action starts.
Visit a clay ground to get in some high bird practice
Go on a really windy day, so the clays are unpredictable, and make sure your ground has traps with strong (extra performance) or double springs to ensure the target goes like the clappers.
With crossers to the right or left, practice moving your feet first, before mounting your gun.
“With poor footwork, you might get away with a Hampshire partridge, but you’ll be stuck when you come up against a towering Devon pheasant,” said John.
High straight driven pheasants are at their most vulnerable when they are directly overhead. To practice for these challenging birds it’s best to select a clay off the high tower. One you can see coming from a long way off.
Call ‘pull’ and then practice ‘holding off’.
Focus on the bird over your barrel muzzles to read its line and speed, but do not mount the gun until the clay enters a narrow ‘window’ directly overhead.
Then a smooth mount and a crisp swing should do the job. With your weight spread evenly you can transfer onto the back foot to keep the swing going if the first shot misses.
“You have to push through the swing to hit these high birds, even on slower birds you have to finish the shot. If you stop the gun, you’re in trouble,” says John.
“The key thing is not to mount too early. You have to wait for high birds. As soon as you mount and start tracking the bird, you are looking at the end of the gun, which is a recipe for disaster.”
I watched John coaching Colin – a game shot who had come along to Bisley for a high bird tutorial. John made several points.
Colin, a tall chap, was shooting his ‘woodland’ gun, a short barrelled Black Sable Deluxe. John thought that longer barrels (at least 30in) would lend added control for high bird shooting.
However Colin’s chief sin was poor footwork. He was trying to shoot wide quartering tower birds well to either side, but with his feet still pointing at the tower.
“It’s just the same as golf – good footwork is crucial and enables you smoothly to finish your swing,” said John.