Using decoys to lure pigeons within range is seldom easy but Mat Manning believes the rewards justify the effort
While I can’t deny that the shotgun is the most effective tool for keeping woodpigeon at bay when they are hammering crops, it is possible to make decent bags with the air rifle. Not everyone has a shotgun and, with a little forethought and lots of fieldcraft, airgunners can enjoy some exciting sport over decoys.
Move quickly but don’t rush
- My priority when planning a session on the woodies is to move quickly.
- These birds change their habits, and their feeding grounds, at the drop of a hat.
- Fields that are grey with them one day can be completely barren the next as the flock moves on to another area with richer pickings.
- If you see pigeons starting to build up on your ground and fancy a slice of the action, it pays to strike swiftly.
- Don’t be too hasty, though. While it pays to get out quickly, a few minutes of reconnaissance could save you a great deal of wasted time.
Decoys aren’t magical
A lot of shooters seem to think that decoys possess irresistible magical properties that will pull pigeons to wherever they want them. That couldn’t be further from the truth; set up your fake flock in a place where the woodies don’t want to be and they won’t go near them — no matter how much you’ve spent on fancy flappers.
Basing your ambush
Pause to watch what’s going on before setting up and it will become apparent that birds are using distinct routes to flight in and out from wherever they are feeding. The aim is to base your ambush beneath a line that pigeons are already using. There are more factors to consider before deciding exactly where to site your hide and decoys. Unlike those who use shotguns, airgun shooters are limited to static targets.
It helps if you can find an area where the crop is low enough for you to get clear shots at birds when they have landed. Such places are not unusual because it’s likely that the crop will either be stifled or flattened by the activity of feeding pigeons. Better still, find yourself a place where you can set up within range of a sitty tree close to an incoming flightline.
Pigeons will often pitch in trees on the field margin to check that the coast is clear before they commit to landing on the ground — and they sometimes flight back to these trees to snooze and digest their food after bingeing on crops. Being able to shoot pigeons from trees makes life a lot easier than trying to get a bead on birds that are on the ground, where they could be obscured by stalks or stubble and will be bobbing up and down as they peck.
Once you’ve identified a promising spot, you’ll quickly realise that pigeon decoying is not for those who were seduced by the simplicity of airgun shooting. Aside from your normal kit, you will have to lug hide-building gear and a squadron of decoys to wherever you’re planning to dig in — and you can usually count on that being one of the furthest points from where you’ve parked your car.
I’ve taken to using my decoy bag as a seat on these forays as it saves me from having to carry a beanbag — it’s only a small saving but it does make a difference. I also sacrifice my shooting sticks because it’s usually possible to use hide poles to stabilise shots. As with any type of hide shooting, I aim to weave my camouflage screen into a natural backdrop — a hedge, tree trunk or bank — to help it blend in with the surrounding landscape. Unlike shotgunners, we are able to shoot through the net rather than over it, so I set the poles pretty high.
Hiding the hide
Woodies are sharp-eyed birds and can spot the straight edges and shiny finish of hide poles — wrapping your camo netting around them will help. How far to go in terms of dressing the hide is a quandary. You want it to be as unobtrusive as possible but you don’t want to spend hours creating an invisible cocoon only to find that the birds have pushed off to pastures new by the time you’ve finished your grand design. My approach is to spend a couple of minutes placing dead branches and scraps of vegetation to take the edges off the net.
With the hide in place, it’s time to set out the decoys. My preference is for a wide, U-shaped pattern with a large central landing zone into which incoming birds will hopefully pitch. I try to have the closest decoy about 18m from the hide and the furthest one no more than 35m away. These serve as handy range-markers and, in calm conditions, I’d expect to nail birds that land between them.
Most shooters are aware of the fact that pigeons like to land and take off facing into the wind, and the birds in your artificial flock should reflect this. Don’t line them up too neatly, though — different spacings and angles will look more natural. I rarely use magnets or flappers when shooting with an air rifle but I do like a variety of full-bodied decoys, again with the aim of introducing some natural-looking variation to the pattern. I tend to use about 20 pigeon decoys for the main pattern and a couple of crows just beyond that as confidence boosters — I wouldn’t want to carry many more than that.
It pays to cover your face to prevent pigeons from glimpsing flashes of skin as they swoop in. I try to position myself ready to take shots, so I don’t have to shuffle around and attract attention when opportunities arise. It’s exciting when you have birds down among the decoys.
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You need to shoot quickly as they don’t always linger for long, but this is no place for flustered pot-shots. Compose yourself and grab a hide pole for extra stability if you can. Head shots can be tricky when birds are pecking at the ground so try to land your pellet just in front of the fold of the wing or right between the shoulders for the clearest route to the heart and lungs.
Birds wise up
As airguns are quiet, it’s not unusual for birds to take flight, circle a couple of times and land back among the decoys after you’ve removed one of their number. But they soon start to wise up after a couple of losses, or if you get a bird that lands belly up. The last thing you want in the landing zone is a dead pigeon with its legs in the air. If this happens, I break cover and add the shot bird to the decoy pattern, pushing a sharpened stick through its chin to make a prop for its head — there is no better decoy than the real thing.
If all goes to plan, you should account for a few birds during your outing and will have even more weight to lug back to the car at the end of the session. But do be prepared for failure — there are days when the pigeons stubbornly refuse to land anywhere near the decoys.
The airgun’s handicap when it comes to taking birds on the wing means the best thing you can do in this situation is tell a shotgunning friend there’s a ready-made hide and shooting opportunity waiting for them to enjoy in the morning.