When I started hunting pheasants as a young teen in the late 1960s in south central Minnesota, there were few opportunities to bag a rooster, so when I got a chance, I darn sure wanted to make the most of it.
After missing a few roosters, I realized I wasn’t acquiring the target quickly enough, not shooting fast enough or accurately enough. A dog-flushed rooster can move out pretty quick, especially with a wind at its back (pheasants can fly 28-36 mph, but up to 56 mph flat out when chased by hawks).
If I was going to pull off this rooster hunting thing, I thought back then, I was going to have to aim quickly and accurately at the same time to make a hit. I had to up my game. So, I started consciously pushing myself to always be at the ready because so many times I was caught off guard by a flush. I also learned to closely watch for the signs a flushing dog makes when he’s getting close to a bird, such as nose closer to the ground; quicker tail wagging; faster, more twisting trailing through cover and even yipping. This meant discipline, that is, gun always at port arms, finger near the safety, focusing ahead of and over the dog (not at it) … staying on the manic edge, ready to explode. The next bird was going down!
At first, staying on the edge didn’t come naturally. It isn’t a natural state of being to remain so taught, wired up, ready to explode into action. After a few seasons of pushing myself to speed up, however, my reflexes intensified. After a while, I didn’t have to walk around like I just had five cups of coffee. I remained alert, but relaxed, my upper body ready to snap into action. My visual focus stayed sharp and reflexes fast, but practiced, smooth. (I also learned that when I’m tired, I shoot slow. At these times, I’m just better off saving my shells for another day.)
Of course, after blowing up a rooster or two at close range, rendering them inedible, I learned to have the confidence and patience to let a rooster fly out a bit further before pulling the trigger. But, don’t dally too long--a quick draw will kill more birds than a hunter who lets the game get too far out, diminishing the shot’s killing power.
It is not easy to maintain a sharp focus while pheasant hunting. There are many distractions. Walking a grassland or crop field, you have to watch your footing lest you fall on the many obstacles afoot such as downed fences; badger holes; uneven, frozen and unforgiving ground. I have learned to make frequent, quick glances down for footing so I can keep my attention forward, ever vigilant for a flush. I also make similar quick glances at the dog to read his ‘tells’ if a bird is close, but quickly refocusing ahead of and over the dog’s path.
There are other distractions, such as the antics of the dogs and fellow hunters and avoiding spending too much time day dreaming about work and home. The ‘on’ bird hunter must be wide-eyed and ready to ‘snap to’ in a split second. Sure, yacking it up with our buddies is a great upland hunting tradition, but over indulge and Mr. Rooster will get away. I try to save the story telling for breaks and meal time, which is sometimes why I trail off on my own. I usually shoot better on my own, leaving the distractions behind so I can focus better.
Like any predator, it helps to be in good physical shape to hunt successfully. If I’m hungry, I can’t focus 100 percent on the hunt or react quickly. If I’m cold, wet and tired, the prey has the advantage. If my gun isn’t cleaned and in top condition, it may falter at the critical moment. Have fun out there, but be prepared to go into action at all times. The ultimate high for me is making a good shot.
I always wear a brimmed hat to avoid having the sun ruin a shot. I wear sun glasses on bright sunny days to reduce glare, but also reduce eye fatigue. You can’t hit something you can’t see well.
Once I started solidly hitting flying game, I realized there wasn’t much in life that equaled the thrill of dropping a hard flying rooster or other game bird.
Now, do you want to talk real speed shooting? While the ruffed grouse clocks in at only 20 mph, it does so in dense forests and shrubs, demanding quick reflexes if you want to make a hit. Ducks, such as the huge, streamlined canvasback, have been clocked at 72 mph, but their straight-line flying style makes them predictable. For a real challenge, try leading a screaming bluebill on a strong November wind--you’ll have to pull ahead so far the birds won’t even be in your field of vision!
Regardless of all your conscious preparations, the fact remains that for most wing shooting, you won’t hit much unless you shoot instinctively, that is, you don’t have to think about it much because you’ve done it so many times. Mount that gun well and fast, let your instincts take over and enjoy the ride!
Photo credit: Sam Stukel