Chris Bird at Hollands offers some high pheasant shooting tips
Hitting high pheasants with the regular precision of the best game shots is something every sportsman aspires to. However, most average shooters simply do not have the time to commit to hours of practising on the clay ground during the close season. Yet with shoot days being few and far between for most of us, it is essential we prepare properly in order to make the most of our time in the field.
Whether or not you meet with success as that first towering pheasant bursts over the trees on a cold, wet and windy December day will largely depend not on your natural ability, but rather on your experience.
These high pheasant shooting tips come from Chris Bird at Hollands.
“There is no set choreographed way to do this,” Chris Bird explains. “Sportsmen are happy to shoot certain targets in certain ways due to a number of factors such as eye dominance or injuries to joints and limbs.
But there are certain things everyone can do to improve their chances of getting a clean kill every time they pull the trigger.”
The author takes to the clays with Chris Bird at Holland & Holland’s shooting ground in Middlesex.
Planning the shot
Chris’ first high pheasant shooting tip is that much of the work of completing a good shot can be carried out before the gun comes to the shoulder.
“A good tip is to keep an eye on what the songbirds on a drive are doing. They will invariably come out early on, well before the pheasants do, and will offer a great clue as to what the wind is doing. If you watch where they are flying and how they are moving you’ll be giving yourself a head start on the pheasants before they are flushed.
“For example, you might be pegged down behind a wood and feel a gentle breeze on the side of your face. The conditions above for the birds might be quite different. The pheasants will probably fly in the same way as the songbirds. Even if they don’t initially, when they are shot at and become alarmed they will use the wind to their advantage.
“You’re trying to do as much as you can to reduce the chance of having to deal with any unexpected surprises during the drive. Establish what you’re going to go for and where you’re safe to shoot.
“Pick markers in the landscape to define that area. Choose where you want to kill the bird, and think about where you should be mounting onto it accordingly. You should have made a lot of decisions before you even start pheasant shooting.”
A key part of the mechanics of actually making a shot, especially on a high bird, is getting a good connection in your vision between the muzzles of the gun and the target itself.
Chris’ high pheasant shooting tip is that this connection should be made as early as possible. You must be concentrating on the target but in your peripheral vision you should also see the gun.
“We should be doing everything we can to make the shot feel natural,” Chris explains. “Your predicted kill point for the bird will determine where you start with the muzzles of the gun.
“Those who hold the muzzles very upright will cause themselves some problems. If the muzzle of the gun is much higher than it need be for safety reasons, you will either shoot late or you will lift with the rear hand to drop the muzzles to pick the bird up.
“In that situation the mount will be wrong and you will also have moved the gun about three times further than is necessary. The rib in the start position should be parallel to the pheasant shooting position. This helps ensure a good mount every time.”
Chris Bird demonstrates how choosing where to kill the bird and getting a good ready position to shoot from drastically reduces the total movement necessary to complete the shot.
“Remember that a high bird in relation to you is a slow target. It is like a jumbo jet flying overhead at hundreds of miles and hour but which to you on the ground looks slow. The best way to hit that sort of high target is to let the bird govern your timing. That’s why we need the muzzles to come up and make a connection quickly before you mount. It means you must also be decisive in which bird you pick to shoot and, once chosen, you must stay with it.
“Allowing the target to govern your timing will work whatever the quarry. It allows for good instinctive pheasant shooting. If you mount onto the tail the bird will not be able to get away from you. If you mount behind the bird you will rush the shot and the gun will move off-line.”
Another useful high pheasant shooting tip Chris gave to improve the muzzle-target relationship was to imagine a hoop on the end of the gun rather than a bead. By keeping the tail of the bird inside this hoop as you move into a position to mount and take the shot, you will be able to stay on the bird and its line more consistently.
All sportsmen need to be able to accurately follow the line of a target in order to properly judge lead and shoot effectively. Whether a standard crossing bird or a classic straight bird, co-ordinating movement of the shoulders, torso and feet in the right way is essential to completing a good shot.
When pheasant shooting at crossing targets it is very important to follow the exact line of the bird. With a right to left crosser this can be achieved effectively by turning your right shoulder into the body, which allows the gun to travel on a flat plane. And if the bird is coming from the left, allow your left shoulder to turn in.
If you do not allow the shoulder to work, and instead attempt to simply twist from the waist you will be forced into a roll. Here, the gun will move in an arc rather than a straight line. As you reach the extreme ends of your reach, it is very likely the gun will move out of the shoulder and your head will lift as you attempt to maintain the muzzle-target relationship.
Failing to turn in on a crossing bird results in an awkward body position as the gun ‘rolls’ off the shoulder.
You will also end up well off-balance, which can have serious safety repercussions. If you pull the trigger you are highly likely to miss, and will probably end up with a bruised cheek or jaw. This is a particular problem for younger shots, as Chris notes during these high pheasant shooting tips.
“Younger shots can get away with not turning properly or using their feet because they tend to be more flexible than their more seasoned counterparts. That is the seed of a major problem. As they age they will begin to miss, and their error will be thoroughly ingrained.”
Getting your feet to the right place makes an enormous difference to taking a good shot. All foot movement should be completed before you mount the gun, so it is important your ready position is correct. Thinking about where you are going to kill the bird and setting the feet and body up to shoot into that area is essential.
Chris advises taking small steps, since keeping your feet closer together allows you to cope with conditions underfoot more easily and maintain your balance. If you are right-handed your weight should be over the left foot, but it is important not to bend the knees too much.
“The golden rule is to stay within your own space. You do not want to be taking a wide stance, as you will crouch and your range of movement will be restricted. This will move the gun off line and bring the point of aim down. Again, you must allow your target to govern when and how you move.”
Using footwork to shoot a straight driven bird as a crossing bird can be highly beneficial, particularly for those with eye dominance issues. Those who squint or shut an eye will lose sight of a straight driven bird behind the barrels.
By choosing to turn and shoot it as a crossing bird they will be able to keep the muzzle-target relationship all the way through the shot. For all sportsmen it allows a greater range of movement for this classic driven bird.
Economy of movement
“Lead is extremely important. You should think of lead in units. At the clay ground we think of shot spread, which is not dissimilar to a pheasant from beak to tail.
“Whatever unit of lead you choose to think in you must be accelerating through those units when you shoot. Do not try to be too precise or you will end up stopping the gun as you swing. Don’t forget that you must also have an accelerating muzzle at the point of pulling the trigger – do not stop moving once you have pulled the trigger.
“Your total muzzle movement from committing to the shot to finishing the follow through should be no more than a foot. There should be a real economy of movement in your pheasant shooting. Mount onto the tail of the bird and swing through the target, making sure to go through the kill zone.”
As with any sport, regular practise is essential if you want to be successful.
Choosing your kill point will determine how you should stand for the shot itself.
“All we’re trying to do is get the body to take the shot as naturally as possible,” says Chris. “When you get it right you will know. If you can, remember that good, correct shot and visualise and practice the shot dry, away from the clay ground or the field. Though you might not think it, this practise really will make an enormous difference to your pheasant shooting. If nothing else it will help you get familiar with your gun.
“Those who shoot regularly throughout the year, even if it’s only once or twice a month, will be making incremental improvements to their pheasant shooting.
“Those who shoot only in the season will have a sharp drop off in their form and will have to spend a long time building themselves back up to a good standard. You might end up being someone who has shot for 30 years, but has really only ever repeated one year’s worth of experience 30 times.”
The golden rule for pheasant shooting of any type is that safety must come before everything else. For the sake of your health and that of all those around you, be they beater, gun or dog, you must make safety a serious consideration.
Keep your muzzles pointed in a safe direction at all times, either into the ground or preferably into the air. Make note of the safe 45 degree angle into which you may shoot, and shoot only into clear sky. Use your gun’s safety catch, but do not rely on it to make the gun safe. Unless you are planning to shoot, unload your gun.
Chris also has some key safety advice especially relevant to driven birds: “If you have taken a safe shot and killed the bird with your first barrel, take a moment to remove your finger from the trigger and re-apply the safety catch or open the gun before bringing it down to reload.
“Not doing this is extremely common and extremely dangerous. You might be thinking about that magnificent shot you’ve just had, where the bird is falling and whether or not it is dead.
“What you are definitely not doing is thinking about safety, as a loaded, closed gun has just been absent-mindedly brought through the line of beaters or even pickers-up and other guns if you have turned through the line to take the shot.
“Also, if you suspect you have a blocked barrel, do not fire another cartridge to clear it. A few high birds flying overhead unmolested is preferable to losing a hand – or worse.”