What is it that makes the best stand out from the rest on a shoot day? Simon Reinhold explains how to become the best possible Shot
Very often you will see a person’s true character when you drive game over them on a peg. It’s difficult for anyone to hide it. If you are greedy, lack respect for your quarry or have a tendency to moan, it’s likely to show.
We can learn a lot about our companions on a shoot day. Fortunately, we can also see the shining quality of good Shots as well as the dullness of poor Shots, but the peg is not the place to learn what the best Shots know — it is the examination, not the lesson.
All of the best Shots of my acquaintance share some things in common. Firstly, they are incredibly knowledgeable about their quarry, its habits and behaviour. Very often this knowledge extends from feathered game across the sporting scene to deer and fish. The knowledge crucially includes the conservation of the habitat in which these species live — how it changes through the seasons and over time, what is necessary to improve it and the greatest threats to its existence. You can’t learn this on ‘peg 4’. Many started out as rough shooters.
Rough shooters benefit from good grounding
I relish every driven game-shooting day that I am fortunate enough to be involved in. I think that its accessibility to all, regardless of your background, is one of its great strengths. But there is so much more to the sport than handing over your cash and gunning down game indifferently driven off a cliff.
If you are coming into game shooting, how can you give yourself the good grounding you need to become the best Shot you can? Where is the best place to start? The spectacularly accurate Shots, humble yet knowledgeable, who I consider the best I know, have all spent a good deal of time in pursuit of wild quarry. They have been rough shooters. For most, this means time spent shooting pigeon for crop protection and there are several reasons why pigeon provide an excellent foundation for sporting men and women.
The first is that they provide almost every angle of shot you could imagine and even some that you wouldn’t. I have shot them flying backwards in a strong enough wind and even one upside down as it barrel-rolled into my decoys in its haste to lose height. Even if the pigeon fail to decoy, you may spend the afternoon perfecting your ability to shoot fast crossers as they pass in front of you.
Roost shooting pigeon (although February, the traditional time for it, is entirely the wrong point in the calendar for building up to pheasants) can be a stern test for even the best game Shots.
For those coming into the sport, the main advantage of pigeon shooting over other wild birds is that their high numbers mean that when they do co-operate, you practise your foot movement, core movement, gun mount and swing many times during the course of a day.
If you do it enough, you will come to read the line of your quarry so that you know exactly what it is likely to do and, therefore, what you need to do. Your movement is a result of the bird’s movement and you must be fluid and flexible for a successful shot as no two will be the same. An afternoon roost shooting in a good wind can feel like the best drive of your life, lasting for two or three hours.
As well as spending a lot of time in my late teens and early twenties watching flightlines and trying to outwit pigeon, I was lucky enough to have access to a wonderfully varied farm to rough up reedy ditches with my dog to see what we could find. Sometimes we would get a small team of us together to add a little strategic planning to the process, although “Which side of the pit do you want to go?” was the extent of our brilliance.
These were formative experiences that taught us valuable lessons that are still with us all. One of the main lessons is that anticipation is most of the enjoyment. The shot itself is over in under three seconds, but the planning was to be excited by the unknown — wondering if the wild pheasant has heard you and already made good its escape, dealing with the disappointment when that was true (it never lasted, there was always the next pit or the next Saturday) and savouring the moment when we were successful and the meal to come.
This was the secret to firing the passion. For me, the anticipation and the feast last far longer than anything else. That is directly applicable to my game shooting now. I am sure I am not alone in laying out all my kit the night before, exactly as I did before my very first day on a peg. If that excitement ever leaves me, you can call the doctor, who will probably call a priest.
Chasing wild game alone with your dog is difficult these days for all but the very fortunate, but it forced me to think about whether a piece of ground might hold a snipe or a duck. Whether the pheasant would break left to the marsh or right to the warmth of the conifers. Understanding what a pheasant naturally wants to do, particularly given the wind direction, is one of the hallmarks of what is often summed up as fieldcraft. Fieldcraft is what separates the best driven Shots from the good. The ability to read the wind and topography and know what they mean for the birds on that drive.
Fieldcraft is difficult to define fully, but it is a heightened state of awareness of your surroundings and is largely made up of past experience and a good deal of failure. The key is having the wisdom to know that the new knowledge offered by failure can be more valuable than any success.
Sharpen your wits with rough shooters
To this day, I relish the chance of being asked to be a walking Gun on a drive. The chance to try, in January, to outwit the clever cock pheasant that has spent all season going against the flow, climbing up and over the back of the wood. Walking Gun is the bridge between formal, driven shooting and the shooting of my youth. If you get the chance, I urge you to take it.
While driven shooting receives the most attention from the modern double act of marketeers and influencers, some of my most enjoyable days in the field have been spent in the company of wise and passionate people on ‘walk/stand’ days with a varied bag, various gundogs and, more often than not, a traditional shoot vehicle breakdown.
Sometimes these days finish with a pigeon flight, sometimes a duck flight. Either way, it is an opportunity to sharpen your wits, try to understand your quarry better and fully immerse yourself in the day. If there is anything you don’t understand, remember that there is no shame in not knowing, but there is in not finding out.
These small, syndicate days are arguably the most accessible game shooting and it is hard to beat as an all-round experience. There may also be some pigeon shooting available, too — the best education and ultimate test of your fieldcraft and ability.