Famine becomes feast

Rupert Godfrey experiences autumn pigeon decoying at its best.

I wrote last year about the dearth of pigeons in this area – caused by the tremendous glut of acorns and beechmast. Mother Nature always gets her own back however, and last year's feast became this year's famine as a combination of late frosts and the awful dark summer meant that wild fruits were in short supply. But the pigeons were back!

Whereas last year the autumn stubbles were empty, this year they were busy. I went to shoot one field near home on a late September day, where the forecast was dire for the morning, but supposedly clearing by lunchtime. There were a lot of birds on this field, but I knew it was soon due to be ripped up, so I couldn't leave it. I thought that even a few hours on it, if the rain stopped, would be well worthwhile.

At 10:45 it was still pouring, but it looked brighter in the west, where the strong wind was coming from, so I hoped for the best and set off, arriving just in time for the rain to stop. Immediately, there were birds swooping around the field, in far larger numbers than I'd expected. I was set up by 11:30, with my back to a small wood which is a magnet for several woodie flightlines – I estimated that over 1,000 had been in the wood when I arrived.

Immediately, there was action. Big flocks were flying around, heading for and over the wood. They were using the wind and flying very like grouse, sliding around, and coming in long streams of several hundred birds. I've seen woodies behaving like this before, but more often when they've ‘packed' in November and December – never in September.

It soon became apparent that I was going to have to start shooting at these packs, as there were few single birds. I tried to let most fly by and shoot at the last few stragglers. The wind was obviously carrying away the noise of my shots as the action was fast and furious. They weren't decoying as such, but flying near enough over the pattern to provide a tremendous variety of shooting.

I wasn't on top form (or maybe I was doing quite well at difficult birds!), but the first hour yielded 85. The packs got smaller after that and for the next hour I was shooting almost continuously, adding another 90 on the clicker. They were coming so fast that I sometimes had to count five or six fallen birds before adding them to the tally.

After that, they got more skittish and wary of the ‘pattern', which now consisted of birds dropped in a 50-yard semi-circle in front of the hide. After four hours I had 270 down and decided that I'd pack up if I could get to 300, which I managed at 4 o'clock – a great day, and hopefully a sign of some big days to come.

I've been using 28 bores for all my shooting now for four years. The experiment with the Hushpower 12 bore was a short one, as it simply didn't suit my style of shooting. The 28 bores have been a revelation. I have found the combination of modified chokes and 28g 5s absolutely deadly, and the confidence I have in this has led to a tremendous improvement in my long-range shooting. The pattern at 45-50 yards is obviously excellent and doesn't do so much damage at close range to upset the game dealer. I have far fewer runners than when I used open-choked 12 bores (my ageing cocker is most grateful!), and my bags are dramatically increased by my confidence to shoot at longer range. Interestingly, on the grouse moor, I've had several loaders who have said rather doubtfully; “I've never loaded for anyone using 28 bores before.” But by the end of the day they have been thoroughly converted by seeing what the guns can consistently kill. There are still plenty of people who believe that a smaller bore equals a tighter pattern, and can't accept that it is simply a function of the choke one uses, whatever the calibre.

The cartridges I use have Plaswads and I've not yet found a 28 bore fibre-wad cartridge that provides anything like the same effect, which is a problem now that so many shoots want you to use fibre. Before I went grouse shooting I ran two tests on pigeons, starting off with the Plaswad shells and then moving onto 24g fibre. On each occasion, my average halved using the fibre shells, and when I then had to use them on the moor I was fine at grouse coming directly at me, hopeless at crossers beyond 30 yards, and useless behind the butt where the smaller charge of 6 shot was nothing like as effective as 28g of 5s.

One of my fellow Guns – a Spaniard – was using shells with a new biodegradable shot-cup wad. It looked like a Plaswad but when wet, breaks up very quickly and turns to compost. Sceptical, we cut open a cartridge at lunch and dunked the wad in water. An hour later it was misshapen, and the following day almost dissolved. Perhaps this is the way ahead to get the best of both worlds.

On another cartridge topic: I was out on one of the very cold days in early February – 14 degrees F, a bitter north wind, but bright sunshine – and struck lucky. The woodies just kept coming and I used the 500 shells I'd put in the car that morning. I have an emergency ‘slab' of 250, which live in the car, and hurried to get them and was amazed at the different performance of these cold cartridges compared to the 500 I had already fired. I killed two birds with the first 12 shots and couldn't understand what had changed until I thought about it later. I only used about 70 of the cold shells, but my average tailed off dramatically. Was it just coincidence, or tiredness, or does the cold have that much of an effect on cartridges' performance? I was convinced enough to start rotating my emergency supply so that they are always warm, and not to leave any cartridges in the car at night during the winter.

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