Tom Payne offers tips on how to improve your shooting and bag more birds
The season is well under way and many of you will have no doubt already enjoyed your first outings. I’ve spoken with many gamekeepers and they are all singing from the same hymn sheet: pheasants have done well this year and in many cases have feathered up nicely too.
There has been a lot of dogging-in on many estates because of a late harvest and a heavy hedgerow harvest, encouraging birds to wander from home. I don’t think this is a bad thing — yes, it creates a lot of work for keepers, but those I’ve spoken to think it encourages good, strong birds, as they are flying home every day, so you have strong-flying birds from the start. These days it is rare to shoot an early pheasant day in October — most shoots prefer to give their birds a bit more time before shooting begins, so first pheasant days tend to kick off in either late October or early November. Here are some techniques to help you in the field.
Technique for pheasant shooting
Footwork and balance
In all forms of driven shooting, good footwork is the building block to any shot, and with good footwork comes good balance and control. Without these factors, shooting consistently is impossible. I always describe footwork as moving depending on what the bird is doing. You don’t move because the rulebook says you move — you move because you have watched the bird in flight correctly and moved your feet before mounting your gun, preparing yourself for the shot.
If you start moving and mounting you will end up in a whole world of trouble, pulling the muzzles away from the line of the bird and generally tying yourself in knots. Remember, the bird dictates where you move your feet if you watch it correctly.
In order to shoot consistently, you must also be able to mount your gun smoothly and accurately on to your moving bird. This will enable you to read the speed, distance and direction of the bird accurately and in one smooth movement, allowing you to make the shot at the right time. If you can’t get your gun-mount right, you will misread the bird and consequently miss the shot.
Try to reduce any factors that could affect consistent gun-mounting. Address your chosen bird correctly by, for example, holding your muzzles just below the line of your bird for a straight-driven one, and make sure your eyes are in line with the muzzles. Keep your eye on the bird and your head still as you bring the gun to your cheek. Keep watching the bird as you pull the trigger and stay watching as it folds in the air, making sure you fi nish your shot smoothly and correctly.
Know your distances
So many people beat themselves up because they are missing or, worse, pricking birds that they think they should be able to hit but which aren’t an easy, clean kill unless you get that lucky golden pellet straight on the chin.
Part of consistent shooting is knowing what you can kill cleanly and safely. It is important to understand your distances and a good way to develop this is to practise with different heights of towers. I can’t stress this point enough — it really does make a difference.
People often talk about the difference in speeds of varying gamebirds and the strength of birds in flight, but within the pheasant family different strains have different qualities and taking this into consideration can help. Here are a couple of examples:
Common ringneck For many shoots this has always been the go-to breed. The common ringneck is a very large and powerful pheasant that is capable of taking on strong wind conditions. As the breeds go, I have always felt that this particular breed of pheasant demands a bit more respect when shooting because its size and power can be deceptive.
Polish Bazanty This bird has become popular on many shoots in the UK. A medium-sized pheasant, the Polish Bazanty is a strong and hardy bird. Many shoots find them straightforward to flush, so the surprises to the Guns are limited, and they are brilliantly strong fliers. On windy days, especially when there are crosswinds, there is no pheasant in the UK that can move and slide like the Polish Bazanty, making the breed a real challenge.
If you are aware of the behaviour of different strains of bird, and indeed the different sizes of bird, your ability to read the bird in flight will be increased, helping to improve your consistency on the day.
Understanding conditions on a day and how the birds will behave in flight — for example, how they will move and slide in different winds, how a drive works and the topography of a drive, and understanding whether a bird is gaining or losing height — all comes under good fieldcraft, and paying attention to this will improve your shooting no end. This is something I will be dealing with in future articles.
Getting in some good-quality practice under towers that simulate pheasants’ height, angle and speeds is so important. When you are practising don’t be one-dimensional — practise under a variety of towers. A lot of people shun the lower tower because they feel that in order to shoot well they should only stand under 40-yard birds. However, a good 25-yard tower can really hone your skills and help with confidence, timing and tempo. Once this has been mastered, you can start to stretch the distance. This type of practice will also help you to become a good judge of range. Mix it up when you practise: start on lower birds, move on to higher birds and then back down to lower birds. To be an all-rounder in the shooting field you have got to be able to cope with all types of challenges, heights, speeds and weather conditions.
Build on your technique within your comfort zone to start with and then, as your confidence builds, gradually move out of it. If you start to struggle, come back to practising a bird that you can kill well.
Mind as well as matter
The psychological side of shooting is always important and confidence plays a big part. The hardest days to shoot on are the days when opportunities are few. If you get off to a bad start, you have little chance to “get the wheels back on”. But if this happens, simply try to enjoy the day and be realistic about the challenge of the birds. Always be the first to laugh if it goes wrong. Be positive!
Tom’s top tips for pheasant shooting
- Pay attention to the breed of pheasant you are shooting on the day. They are all different and can all behave slightly differently in flight. Their size and speed vary, as does their manoeuvrability in different conditions.
- Remember, your footwork is the building block to any shot. If you get your feet wrong, the shot will go wrong. Your feet should move because of what the bird is doing in flight — not because the rulebook says you have to move. Move your feet correctly before you mount the gun and make the shot.
- Good, consistent gun mount is so important. Reduce the factors that could go wrong in mounting the gun consistently on to your pheasants. Address the bird properly and set yourself up for the shot. Do not rush or panic. Finish your shot properly by watching the bird fold in the air.
- Fieldcraft is so important. The more you understand what is going on, by being able to read a drive and take into account the conditions, for example, the more you will understand the birds in flight.
- Keep smiling, even when the going gets tough.