In Gray’s Sporting Journal, Bird Hunting Edition, August 2016 – a wonderful read – two hunters are described in glorious detail. One (a Texan known as Veggie Burger) is bumbling, unaware and unskilled, and as I read it, I thought, man, I’d hate to be that guy. If I’d recognized myself in the writing, I’d be really embarrassed to think I’d been humiliated nationally. It’s bad enough that Bruce tells anyone who’ll listen about my (novice) 100 yard shot on a rooster pheasant with a 28 ga. I swear it was only 50….
The other writer, though, evokes a hunt for ruffed grouse in the woods of Northwest Montana, a story that made my heart yearn to be there alongside him. After a day of walking, tracking, pointing, plenty of wild flushes but no shots, a magnificent bird bursts out of the cover and presents a marvelous shot opportunity. How differently the story would have ended if the shooter had fumbled the shot and missed! Diligence and skill made the hunt memorable for all the right reasons and made me want to practice.
The more I learn about wing shooting, the more I appreciate the skill level involved, but it’s taken me a while to “get it”. At one level, bird hunting is deceptively simple: swing your gun on its beak and pull the trigger. If you miss, ah well – the bird lives another day and you may get another shot at it.
Or maybe not. Instead, you may have crippled it, and it is going to die soon anyway, but a slower, futile death, unless you’re hunting just to feed coyotes and bald eagles. Missing the bird is just the tip of the iceberg: all down the line, the unconsciously incompetent shooter is playing jeopardy with the health and safety of fellow hunters, their dogs and their own reputation.
I think back with shame to the sky blasting I have done, getting more gung-ho as I became a better shot, yet not good enough to kill cleanly even half of the time because I was lacking other key skills. I became driven in my need to prove myself, down more birds, compete with my husband. Then I woke up.
When you have a broader concept of the skills required to be a decent wing shot, you take more pleasure in the process of hunting than in counting trophies, and – sort of ironically –put more birds in your bag. The hunt becomes multi-dimensional, faceted, more like a dance than a relentless march towards a single goal. A clean kill is a desirable outcome, but if you view it as the culmination of a process, where you bring to bear both shooting and hunting skills, then you can enjoy the whole context, and if you do miss, or don’t get any shots, you’re less likely to get frustrated, miserable or downright pissed off!
So, what are some of the skills that make bird hunting more pleasurable and successful? One of the most important is learning to judge distances, and being disciplined about shooting within your range. That leads to the ability to choose appropriate ammunition and chokes, and even influences the size of shotgun you carry. Learning to observe how the bird flies is another skill. Mounting your gun, balance, timing and footwork – the basic form – is a must, and is dependent on having a gun that fits and shoots where you’re looking. So you need to know where to look: how to assess the amount of forward allowance (lead) at different heights and trajectories, then put that into muscle memory so you don’t have to look at your bead (and therefore miss).
Phew! And that’s only the shooting part – it doesn’t even touch on the hunting part. Reading the landscape, understanding how and where the birds stack up, what their escape tactics are, where they feed, what time they move; how to walk in line safely with other hunters, as if by osmosis, while at the same time reading the dogs’ body language, pointing your gun barrel in a safe direction and not losing your footing over rough ground. The novice hunter who has had no training can’t possibly grasp all of this and consequently may respond inappropriately with bravado or fright!
I’m not sure if there’s a gender bias that makes it more likely a man will hunt without training than a woman, but I do observe that women tend to be more diffident about putting themselves in situations where they will be embarrassed if they show themselves up or let people down. So, given a choice of going out unprepared or not at all, she is more likely to give it a miss, and maybe never give it another chance. It’s high time people were able to learn all these hunting and wing shooting skills other than by trial and error!
So why don’t you come to Montana for a four-day hunting retreat, where you will gain the skills and wisdom to become a conscious and competent bird hunter, in a small group where you can go at your own pace. You’ll make new friends, form special memories and enjoy gracious yet informal hospitality. We‘re famous for our wide-open landscape and our Big Sky.
And a final word to guys: I’m sure you would also enjoy a training course in bird hunting and shooting skills, served up with great food and wine, and seasoned with plenty of stories (and a Montana-made wee dram). We’ll happily organize a customized co-ed course for you!
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Joy of Hunting