You'll never shoot a lot of pigeons without some basic fieldcraft, says Rupert Godfrey.
I'm often asked for tips on decoying – usually by people who have gone out and bought a pigeon magnet, set it up, and not shot anything! It's not quite as easy as that, but if you follow some basic rules you will increase your success rate dramatically.
Although rotary decoys have made life much easier over the past 15 years, pigeons have grown much more wary of them now than when they were first used. Success comes down to fieldcraft, the more you have, the more pigeons you will shoot – it's as simple as that.
How do you learn fieldcraft? Well, it's a good start to read the bible, Pigeon Shooting by Archie Coats, which I bought in 1971. Second-hand copies are available online and it goes through the basics and more advanced decoying tactics. You can also watch Archie in action on YouTube in the TV series Jack's Game, made with ex-footballer Jack Charlton in the 1980s.
Assuming your reconnaissance has led you to a field with plenty of pigeons, there are a number of basic rules. Remember that the woodpigeon is a wary, wild bird with great eyesight, which means that your hide must be well camouflaged, but, more importantly, that you must keep as still as possible until the moment you move the gun to shoot. Usually, with a prevailing southwest wind behind you, you'll be facing away from the sun. If the wind is wrong and you have to face the sun, remember that your face will be reflected like a beacon, and any movement will be magnified to an incoming woodie. Some people wear masks; I just keep very still, with only my hat and sunglasses visible over the front of the hide.
Building your hide
There's an old adage that a bad hide in the right place is better than a good hide in the wrong place. Sometimes there looks an ideal spot, but the woodies just don't go there, so you have to choose a more open, obvious spot. It works more often than not. I remember a rape stubble where the birds would only drop into the middle of the large field, so that's where I had to put my net hide. It couldn't have been more blatant, but they decoyed perfectly. I'm never worried about putting a net hide on a barbed-wire fence; the birds are used to seeing bushes there, so the hide shouldn't concern them. Occasionally I've used a few tree branches to add natural foliage to the hide (the dreaded leylandii is good for this), but usually, when I've finished building the hide, I walk out 40 yards to where a pigeon would see it from and just check it looks natural.
Avoid putting the hide under a tree with overhanging branches as you cut down your angles far too much. It is better to position it 20 yards to one side of a prominent tree, so that you can easily kill birds overflying the decoys and heading for the tree. I don't like any roof on my hide at all, as I've shot masses of birds directly above me.
The decoy pattern must attract passing woodies, so it must look natural to them. Pigeons generally land into the wind as they can control their descent more easily that way. In an ideal world, one would always have a perfect hedge to build a hide in and the wind would also be right behind you. Before rotaries, the classic V-shaped pattern would be aimed at the hide with a good space between the two arms of the V, which Archie called ‘the killing ground'– the woodies would just fly straight up the V towards the hide.
You can still use the classic V shape, even with a rotary. If the wind is slightly to one side behind you, place the rotary on the upwind side of the V, so the decoying birds are flying towards it. Some people use the old classic decoy patterns and a rotary some distance away simply to draw the passing woodies towards the pattern.
The decoys should be placed far enough from the hide not to spook incoming birds, but not so far as to be out of your comfort zone in terms of range. Obviously, the better Shot you are, the further out you can shoot. When I started, I liked the point of the decoy V to be no more than about 12 yards out; now it looks too close at 20 yards. It is all down to what distance you feel happy shooting at, but sometimes if the birds aren't decoying, it means your pattern may be too close to your hide.
Twenty years ago, springtime meant drilling – peas, beans and spring rape. It's different in this area now with mostly winter crops. If you can find a freshly-drilled barley field it will be a great draw, and, of course, your decoys will stand out perfectly on the bare ground, so you may not need a rotary at all. On big fields though, some sort of movement is always a help – a floating decoy or a mechanical flapper are better than nothing. On small fields, birds may not need any further attraction than your decoy pattern.
What decoys you use are a personal choice, though some artificial birds are too bright and shiny in the sunshine. I prefer to use dead birds which I have breasted – I always keep 20 in the freezer and replace them as they get a bit old and untidy. Metal cradles are useful to raise the decoys above a growing crop and in the spring, a wooden peg holding the bird's head up may be enough to make it stand out.
On bare ground, it may be more important to keep the pattern neat. A dead bird lying on its back may cause the incomers to shy away. If this happens, check the pattern. If they are decoying well, I sometimes take in all the shot birds and keep the pattern clean. On other days, the more birds you add to the pattern the more effective it is.
When to shoot
Ideally, the first shot should be fired before the pigeon is aware of your presence. It is much easier to achieve this if you learn how to shoot sitting down.
This sounds more difficult than it actually is – most of the shots you take will be in a V shape in front of the hide, so you can orientate yourself for that shot. You should be able to swivel to either side for a second shot – a seat with a padded top helps with this rather than a shooting stick. Sitting down also means you can have a smaller, lower hide and you can look over the top of the net (as long as you keep your head still), rather than through a peephole, which cuts down your angle and field of view dramatically.
If a single bird is coming in, you can shoot it well out as it approaches, or let it come in and put the flaps down. It sounds easier, the closer it is, but in its final few yards of flight, it may jink and swerve as it looks for a place to land, and with a flip of a wing it can be a yard away from where you put the shot. The truly good Shots never miss with their first barrel – I still do and am much better when the bird powers away after the first shot! If several birds come in together, ideally you should let one settle and kill the one behind it, and then take the first as it flies off. With a rotary, however, decoying birds seem much less sure about landing, so you may just need to shoot the easiest bird first, knowing that, generally, the second shot will be a more difficult one.
Highs and lows
I love decoying for its unpredictability. Some days you do everything right and nothing works. On others, the wind is just perfect and they come in as if they are on rails. There is always tremendous satisfaction from making a big bag of pigeons as you have to have done so many things right.