The high winds we enjoyed from November through to January saw some terrific sport. But along the way many experienced Shots lost their mojo, suddenly experiencing a dip in form. Strangely enough, this often showed itself on less demanding birds in between the windy days, leaving them totally bemused.
It presents an intriguing scenario.
The Gun in question is the kind of individual who has probably been shooting quite nicely, but when presented with high, downwind pheasants he is stepping out of his comfort zone. Consequently, he is not too surprised to miss the turbo-charged birds, but because of the extravagant lead he has been giving them, his muscle memory has been retuned and this will almost certainly result in missing average birds in front – sometimes by a ridiculous amount.
People say it's impossible to miss any bird in front, but believe me it isn't. During the season I spend quite a lot of my time coaching in the field, I see it all the time at first-hand. Muscle memory from shooting fast, high birds is often to blame. Also, did you notice that if birds were driven into the teeth of a gale, some appeared to hang in the heavens, being hit by gusts? It seems wrong to recommend people not to shoot a bird in front, but a stalling pheasant like this requires no lead at all, just a moving gun.
A bad day can lead to a loss of confidence – this is where practice comes in, and good quality coaching. Having highlighted the flaw in your shooting, i.e. the bird which has become more difficult than it used to be, ask the resident coach at your preferred shooting ground if you can train on a similar bird. If you run through the basics you will soon get your rhythm and timing back. Then book another session and you will be ready to return to the shooting field using your freshly honed skills! Remember everything that the training taught you and your confidence will be restored.
When coaching in the field, not only is it easier to see where pupils are going wrong, it is possible to put them right.
But it surprises me how often people fail to show any sense of fieldcraft, the easiest and most important aspect of which is checking out the wind, its direction and strength – a key element that has a huge bearing on the change in speed and direction of the bird's flight. For instance, I was recently with a client on a drive in Wales where the line averaged 12.5:1. He was out of the shooting but we could watch as the team struggled. The birds were being driven into a strong headwind, whereas on the previous drive, where the pheasants had the wind at their tails, all the Guns shot some excellent birds at a 4.5:1 average. So on slower, theoretically easier birds they all struggled, and I would suggest that this was because the Guns didn't give wind speed or direction sufficient consideration. If they had done so they would have adjusted accordingly, rather than simply swing through the bird. The Guns probably thought they were missing behind and to rectify the problem were giving the bird the same kind of extravagant lead with a strong follow-through as on the previous successful drive.
High gliding pheasants out in the open can present the toughest test for most game Shots. But any bird which is visible to the Gun for a long period of time can be a serious challenge.
Many clients at some point or other tell me that they can comfortably shoot a high bird when standing in a woodland ride and there is little time to think and react. But when a pheasant is flying towards them from the far distance in open air, then the shot becomes a whole different ball-game.
The solution comes in turning it into an imaginary woodland ride shot situation. Firstly check the speed and line of the bird, so you can get your feet and body in the right position. From that point look at it in ‘soft focus', only changing to ‘firm focus' when it reaches your chosen shooting window. Then swing into action. By doing this it greatly helps to get your timing right and keeps your gun moving.
TAKE TWO SHOTS
When it comes to tackling those medium to high birds (60–90ft) and you are not shooting as well as you might have expected, then try to shoot the birds further out in front between 10 and 11 o'clock – by planning to take the birds further out in front of the line, this will enable you to have two shots comfortably if needed. If you plan to give yourself enough time to use both barrels this will greatly help you keep your gun moving.
By looking to take just a single shot you run the risk of measuring your shot too deliberately, which is a surefire way of killing gun movement… and missing!
Turn into the shot
On high driven birds that are not quite overhead, you can keep them in the picture throughout by using your feet to turn the bird into a high crossing shot.
Having adjusted your feet position, mount smoothly onto the tail of the bird, progressively accelerate in front and take your shot when it feels right. Keep the gun moving after the shot has been taken.
By executing the shot in this way, there will be time to comfortably use your second barrel – if needed!