How to shoot a Macnab on a budget
While it may lack the glamour of the classic sporting challenge, this affordable alternative offers its own rewards, says Charles Hartley as he shares how to shoot a Macnab on a budget
Most of us will have heard of a Macnab, spawned from John Buchan’s 1925 novel, where three friends set out on the ultimate sporting challenge to unlock the doldrums of life by poaching a salmon or stag from three forewarned estates over the course of 48 hours. The modern version of the challenge is a little different, entailing stalking a stag, catching a salmon and shooting a brace of grouse between dawn and dusk of one day with, of course, the permission of the estate.
Sadly, I do not have enough pennies to rub together to grant me such an adventure, but have been lucky enough to be treated to the Dumfries and Galloway version by a good friend many years ago. This started successfully with an early morning roebuck, followed by a fantastic foray on snipe and a hilariously pitiful effort on sea trout. My comrade foul-hooked a bat on his back cast, while I landed one of the smallest brown trout I have ever seen, using a huge shrimp-like fly.
Though not our targeted species, we had managed fur, feather and fin of a sort and celebrated the fact with great vigour.
Visiting a local permission, I was met by the farmer looking utterly forlorn. He had put down a large quantity of seed, but it had been slow to take, leaving the ground bare for longer than normal and an opportunity for the local birds to ruin his hard work. Non-lethal methods had been found wanting and daily bangers were impossible due to the location. (Read more here on how to get a shooting permission, and how to maintain a shooting permission once you have it).
Another visit was called for, but with little space in my diary I needed to try to kill two birds with one stone and in a single visit decoy the seed and continue on the rabbiting. Surveying the farmland below me, which sat within a wide sweeping meander, fur, feather and fin were within my sight and the spirit of Macnab gripped the day — I would fill my bag with problem jackdaws and woodies, catch a wild brown trout and finish with a bag of bunnies.
The morning of the challenge came, but so did a family emergency which kept me at bay until noon. Finally, I was green-lit, but with half of my dawn-to-dusk window in tatters, I was now on a real mission. Arriving at the field, the ground lifted with feathery prey. I quickly threw together a makeshift hide of old camo netting tangled into a holly bush. (Read more here on the importance of location in setting up a hide).
I only own pigeon decoys and not corvid ones, so these were flung into a rough pattern in the hope of bringing in pigeons and working on jackdaws as and when the opportunity arose. As I hunched down in my hide, things started eerily quietly, as if my active arrival had spooked the locals. But finally, with a gust of wind, in sailed a plump-looking woodie.
As he circled, I kept my head below the parapet. He swung round, locked his wings and floated into the middle of the pattern. Popping up, I caught myself on the holly, and while I struggled to get a bead on the bird, the shaking of the bush sent the pigeon away at great speed — in my haste, I had not done my usual dry runs and, after all, ‘if you fail to prepare, you must prepare to fail’.
A few adjustments later I was back in my hide, peeping through the holes in the camo and listening to the chirping of jackdaws as they worked their way in from the rear, landing as a large group out of range. Fishing a caller out of my bag, I started to make a few rallying calls, just to see if I could shift them. To my surprise, two lifted and cruised towards my hide. Waiting for my moment, I emerged and got my first right-and-left of the day.
I am no decoying expert, but I had seen both pigeons and jackdaws coexisting on this ground quite happily. So, taking a risk, I placed the fallen pair into my pattern, taking great care to make sure they looked well, knowing the cunning and eyesight of my feathered foe is easily underestimated. With this addition and a thorough helping of calls, I soon had regular visitors and the bag quickly filled. Though with my slow start and, to be honest, enjoying the fun of the hide too much, hours whizzed by and it was 5.15pm before I left my sanctuary to dash back to my car to don my waders and rig a rod. (Read here for our list of the best waders).
While on the rabbits, I have often stalked the banks of the river and found myself gazing upon a plethora of rising fish. The grass is always greener, and I have been excited to lay a line across this stretch for some time. Getting to the riverbank, frustratingly, there was little in terms of a hatch, and with few fish showing, I adopted the tried and tested method of ‘if in doubt, put something small and black on’.
As my blood knot balled up tightly, a fish rose on the nearside bank. Lacking the back cast, I slid quietly into the cool peaty water downstream and worked my way out and into range of the fish. After a number of casts, he remained quiet as, once again, the river flowed without visible life.
Giving up on this spot I crossed the river, seeking out a couple of overhanging trees further upstream that looked ‘fishy’. I planned to start at the upper stream tree and work my way to the bottom of the beat, four casts and a step at a time, hoping for an underwater pull. Three-quarters of the way through this plan, and with time weighing heavily, there was no sign of life, but as I reached the end of the last tree, it was as if someone flipped a switch.
Like the start of heavy rain, one loud wet slap of a rising fish bred two, then four, then six and then too many to keep track of. It was feeding time and I was surrounded. Hope rose like the fish as I started dropping flies on to the activity around me, but without a single nudge, a fly change felt necessary.
Six flies later (including a dropper or two) and not a single bite. Each cast had my stomach in my mouth and my body coiled like a spring ready to strike; I was not going to miss my opportunity when it came. But the sands of time were not on my side. If I stayed in the water, I felt certain I would catch, but I knew that
meant I would miss my rabbits. Reluctantly I saluted the scaley victors and peeled myself out of my waders, jogging back to base, making sure not to miss the light.
Thumbing subsonic rounds into my magazine, I set out on my route, ghosting the field margins that now bounced with ear-twitching fur, silently picking off bunnies as I went. My pace was quicker than normal with time draining away, so the bag was not filling as quickly as it might have normally done by this point.
But I knew there was one last spot I needed to get to before the sun set, a huge embankment right at the opening of the ground between the two arms of the meander.
Getting on to my belly, I crawled into the field beneath this embankment, and in one continuous sweep across the ground from prone, I was able to pluck targets from around 80 yards out without disturbing rabbits further over on the same hill. Within moments, and as the sky glowed red, the bag was full and two of my three tasks were complete.
If I’d had my full day, or had decided to stay in the water longer and lamp the rabbits, I feel certain I would have completed my quest, but this would not have been in keeping with the spirit of the Macnab. There are always going to be variables that make it more challenging, even if they are found outside of the field,
and if I was to have lamped the rabbits, it would have been after dusk and this felt like a rule I could not break, even on my ‘poor man’s Macnab’.
Regardless, I was proud of my (half) day’s work and look forward to the next time I take on the challenge.