Enhancing your chances
Rupert Godfrey offers some valuable tips to improve your success when pigeon shooting.
I always smile ruefully to myself when I see something along the lines of ‘Pigeon shooting is great practice… and it's free!' quoted in the shooting press.
There may have been a time when this was so, but in most areas of the country those days are now long gone. It is no secret that pigeon shooting is increasingly difficult to come by, so when you do find yourself in a position to shoot the humble woodie, it is wise to make the very most of the opportunity.
There are various factors that will, ultimately, determine the extent of one's success.
Farmers no longer welcome unknown shooters with open arms and immediately give the go-ahead to shoot – it's just not worth their risk. And that's if you can find the farmer – land holdings are now so big that the relevant person to ask may live miles away.
By all means, try. If you see a field which is obviously covered with woodies, and there's a farm nearby, make an approach and try and find whoever's in charge. It helps if you can leave something with your name, address and phone number on it, together with a copy of your shotgun certificate and proof of membership to an organisation which includes insurance cover. Make sure you already have an OS map of the area, so that you can see where there are footpaths or bridleways.
If you are lucky and this works out, then there are several things to bear in mind when you do shoot. Don't drive where you shouldn't, don't shoot anything but pigeons and corvids, make sure you don't leave any litter, and pick-up all the birds you possibly can. It is polite to ask if the owner, or any of his farm staff, would like any birds, and a bottle of Scotch as a thank you after your day out is generally welcome.
If you have no success, you can always try a pigeon guide. Someone local may be found online, but try and talk to someone who has used their services (successfully) in the past. There are too many horror stories about clients being driven around for hours, before being dumped on a field where there are no pigeons to be seen, or shot at, having paid up-front.
If you do buy a day, it helps if you can shoot! Pretty average game Shots who struggle with moderate pheasants and partridges go pigeon shooting and think it is going to be easy. It's not. The fact that you've done a lot of high pheasant shooting does not make you a pigeon specialist either and, as with grouse, many novices find it very off-putting to be shooting at quarry flying only feet – sometimes inches – off the ground. For this reason you should also make sure that you are at least 250 yards away from houses and public rights of way, or be certain not to shoot in their direction. This can take a certain amount of discipline, but is an absolute must.
Hitting the target
You're unlikely to be taken seriously for a second time by a pigeon guide if you don't kill what's on offer. He will want the birds killed, not scared, as he's doing the farmer a service. One ‘experienced' Shot I heard of recently fired 270 shots for 19 birds. He may have had a great time, but there are an awful lot of woodies that learned a lesson about decoy patterns that day.
You don't need a special gun for pigeons – use what you shoot well with at any other quarry, be it game or clays. Chokes and cartridges are the same: while the Digweeds and Wards of this world may consistently kill pigeons out to 50plus yards, for us lesser mortals, most will be killed within 35 yards, and closer than that if they are decoying well. You may just end up making life difficult for yourself if your chokes are too tight, and uncomfortable for yourself if you use too heavy a load.
My gun happens to pattern well with my favourite 28g cartridge and modified choke; and, over a number of years, I've found I have fewer runners using No. 5 shot. However, others who have shot just as many woodies as I have swear by No. 7s. I repeat, use what suits you and your gun best, and stick to it.
The perfect hide?
There's a lot of unnecessary stuff bandied about with regards to building the perfect hide. A hide is there to prevent an incoming pigeon from seeing you, but you must be able to see out of it. If you normally stand up to shoot, while you are waiting for the birds to come you will almost certainly be sitting down, which means that you can't see over the top of the front netting or foliage (if you can, it's too low!) This means that you have to have peep-holes to look through, which, by definition, limit your angles of view. This is fine if all the pigeons are approaching on a well-defined flightline, but if they are coming from different directions as is often the case, then you will fail to see many of the birds. I've seen experienced pigeon Shots simply not see a large proportion of the birds which decoy in front of them.
Master your technique
It helps to master shooting from a sitting position, but if you have to stand up, you will need to mount the gun as you get up so that you can fire as quickly as possible. Unless you are perfectly camouflaged, or in deep shadow, the incoming woodie is likely to see the movement and be off before you can fire – a flaring, turning, jinking pigeon is much more difficult than one which is approaching unaware of danger. Ideally, your first shot should be taken before the bird is aware of your presence.
Your face is the main giveaway, especially if the sun is shining on the hide. Some people wear a full face mask, however I've never felt the necessity as I've learned to keep still – the only things above my hide being my camouflage cap and my eyes. Sometimes when I watch other people shooting, it's amazing from what distance you can see their white face – or bald pate – shining in the sun. And they later tell you how their woodies wouldn't decoy!