Richard Brigham's beginner's guide to shooting in bad weather explains how our varied climate can make or break a shooter's day
The weather has a huge influence on my everyday life. It’s an important factor in the success or otherwise of much of my shooting, especially when decoying pigeons. Shooting in bad weather can make or break a shooter’s day.
Whatever the time of year, I always pray for a good breeze when birds are ganging up on the crops. It helps you read their movements while out on a reconnaissance trip, determines the best place to site the hide when setting up, blows away the sound of shooting action and helps keep the birds on the wing.
Any movements you make in the hide are less conspicuous, and providing the decoy set-up is well placed, the weather helps channel the birds in pretty much where and how you want them.
The same applies when wildfowling. Duck and geese flight lower and far more predictably instead of haphazardly floating around well up out of range and the effects of shooting disturbance are minimized on either flightline or flight pond.
From my point of view, wind is preferable to frost, especially a sharp one that stings your nose and starts your eyes watering. Despite thought ideal by those not in the know, frost – and indeed snow – often creates hopeless conditions for decoying pigeons. Though the birds must be desperate to feed, needing a full belly to fend off the harsh conditions, for some reason they seldom react to decoys more than half- heartedly on frosty days. Why this should be so is one of life’s great mysteries – as is their customary refusal to come in to decoys regularly or with any confidence when shooting over a snowy landscape.
The first fresh fall of the white stuff gives you the chance to explore a brand new landscape, however familiar it might be. With every shape and form enhanced in stark detail, you see everything much more clearly – and the signs of what’s been moving around. And every impact on the pristine whiteness can be clearly seen from a distance, making a delightfully easy pick-up.
Shooting in bad weather – particularly in the rain – inevitably puts a dampener on most organised shooting days, especially when backed up by a chilling winter wind. Facing a sudden shower from an exposed peg just as a drive kicks off, life can be miserable when you’re wet through and cold, especially if it happens early in the day and leaves you with heavy, sodden clothes that restrict fluid movement and do nothing to improve marksmanship.
Funnily enough, the same seldom applies to wildfowling, and if you’re tucked up in a hide, a drain or a gutter, come what may, getting cold, wet and muddy is all part of the experience and seldom seems to matter, only serving to greatly enhance the atmosphere. Following a successful outing, the sense of achievement and satisfaction is far greater after overcoming hardship, sticking it out, and earning whatever comes to the bag.
There is surely a bit of the masochist in all wildfowlers but, weather permitting, we get to see some spectacular cloud formations at dawn and sunset, particularly exciting when the radiant hues are criss-crossed with echelons of flighting duck or geese.
Apart from being potentially dangerous, a day in thick fog is the peak of shooting in bad weather. With both shooter and quarry disorientated, game is seldom worth shooting, flying low and hugging the contours to keep the ground in sight. The only time I can enjoy a real pea-souper is when taking an early morning stroll with the gun. It helps blend you into the background and having studied their regular daily movements, it’s one way of getting up close and personal with the hard-to-get carrion crow, magpie, or other elusive form of vermin.
You don’t always find yourself shooting in bad weather in the winter, either. I remember one early season partridge day. It was mild, calm and unseasonably warm, the air decidedly humid and more than a bit oppressive. It just didn’t feel right being lined out on pegs around the blocks of gamecover, and by the end of a shortened day most of the Guns had had enough, not to mention the beaters who were teetering on the edge of exhaustion. Even the partridges were reluctant to exert themselves by actually taking to their wings, their lethargic mood reflected by the day’s bag.
A changing climate
We hear a lot about climate change – it’s become a fashionable topic for debate, but admittedly, there do seem to be a lot of extremes in present day weather patterns.
During the prolonged deluge of summer 2012, the weather became almost tropical, with cloudless, baking hot sunny mornings followed by heavy rainfall that almost equalled monsoon conditions. Following a more settled autumn, the long, cold winter then set in, with a deep carpet of mid-season snow that stubbornly remained until a sudden but brief thaw, when some of our last pheasant drives were practically unshootable in the subsequent flooding. The adverse weather lasted well into the spring. Everything in the countryside was playing catch-up, and with the prolonged period of intense cold delaying all traces of normal spring growth, I was still decoying pigeons three weeks later than usual on the fields of oilseed rape.
This varied weather dictates much of the atmosphere of any shooting day. To turn up at a shoot, the ground crisp with frost, the breeze strengthening and the weather looking fair for the day that lies ahead gets the whole team in the right mood. A strengthening wind improves the quality of the birds as they climb high before soaring impressively over the line with the wind in their tails.
I couldn’t bear to live in a gentle, unvarying climate, as day after day of predictable weather would quickly lose its appeal. With autumn well under way and a new shooting season almost in full swing, I wonder what treats this winter has in store? Whatever it holds, a brand new season lies ahead – so enjoy what comes!