Old dog, new tricks
After decades of pursuing the wily woodie, Rupert Godfrey still learns new things each time he ventures out with the gun.
Since I started pigeon shooting seriously, over 20 years ago, I've kept pretty accurate records of what I've shot and how many shells I've fired. And I've been pretty consistently average. By that, I mean that I haven't improved as much as I hoped I would with all my experience and practice. Over this time, I've never ended up shooting six out of 10 across any year, and I know that there's really no excuse for not being at least two shots out of 10 better. I rarely write up a day without noting ‘Missed at least X birds I should have had'.
It got to the stage where I decided to try to analyse why I still missed too many ‘easy' birds. It wasn't just that I am an average Shot, it was more fundamental. I know where I should be shooting (I can point at any pigeon flying by within 50 yards and know how much lead it should be given), and yet somehow I don't always do it. It's not bad gun-mounting (though occasionally that can be a factor); it's something basic. I thought back to having a lesson with Simon Ward after a particularly depressing day's decoying and, before I'd fired a shot, he proved that the glasses I was wearing were actually stopping me from seeing the target unless I lifted my head off the stock (which of course is a big no, no) as the top frame was too low on my nose. Duh! Pretty obvious – but not to me.
I shoot sitting down in the hide, but not so long ago I tried using a shooting-stick rather than my stool as it was several inches taller. It didn't help, and it was far less comfortable during a long day than the padded seat. I went back to the stool, and had a day's decoying on rape where the birds decoyed extremely well – they would tip a wing 400 yards out and cruise straight in. I was dreadful! I averaged six birds out of 10, but it should have been nine – they were so straightforward!
Afterwards, I identified the main problem. They were decoying from quite high up, so I needed to have the front of the hide high to remain out of sight. The ground in front of the hide sloped downwards, so it was awkward to shoot from my seated position as they made their gliding approach into the decoys. I kept getting distracted by the hide poles on crossers and stopping my swing, or had to stand up and shoot those that approached the decoys low across the field, getting increasingly frustrated by the results.
It struck me that when the ground in front slopes down towards me, I tend to shoot much better, and so I concluded that the height of the front of the hide was a key element that I hadn't previously been taking into consideration.
The next outing, I ensured that the front of the hide was much lower, and that I had a good background and kept very still until I raised the gun to shoot. They decoyed quite well – mainly coming from my right, so the lower hide was not too obvious – though there were also a lot skirting the pattern. After 120 shots, I had 90 birds in the bag, and very few pricked birds. This was more like it!
My final day's decoying of the spring was on a disced maize plot with masses of cobs still on the surface, situated on the top of a long bank. The wind meant that I had to set up by a bush about 15 yards down the slope from the plot, which was only about 25 yards wide. If I'd set up on the fenceline, the decoys would have been far too close in front and the hide would have been very obvious to the birds, most of which came from behind and then turned into the deeks. After a couple of early misses – I was not initially able to ignore the fenceposts between me and the birds – I settled down again into a good rhythm, and again killed three quarters of what I shot at. My initial weakness was not shooting quickly enough in the wind at a second bird after killing the first, so I missed probably half a dozen early right-and-left opportunities. But this soon improved, and I ended the day with a bag of 90.
I tried another experiment at the end of April, when I returned to using a 12 bore. I've been using 28 bores for four years now because of my dreadful tinnitus and the fact that they are so much quieter than the larger 12. I haven't found a fibre cartridge that works at all consistently in my 28 bore, though, and with more and more shoots requiring fibre shells, I decided I had to give a 12 bore another try.
Again with a low hide, I used one of Richard Lovell's Brownings (which was rather short in the stock), with some old Hellfire 30g fibre wad cartridges. By God, did that combination work! It seemed so much easier than with my 28s – just point and shoot – and although the chokes were quite open I killed some very good birds out at 45 yards plus. I had some amazing right-and-lefts, again averaging four shots to three birds, and with none of the confidence-sapping misses I used to get with the 28 bore fibre loads. On the down-side, my ears really suffered that night and for the next few days, so I'll only use a 12 again when I have to.
So, have I cracked it? Time will tell, but five much better days on the trot is a good start. Spring 2015 (Feb 1 to the end of April) was my best ever in terms of numbers: 26 outings for 2,853 pigeons, 80 per cent of which were shot on maize cover plots. In comparison, Philip Fussell (who only shoots about 20 miles away as the crow might fly if it got the chance) had his worst ever spring, but he only shot on rape. His best day was a bag of 70 – though how he shoots 70 on rape nowadays without a whirly, I don't know (and he's 84!). Looking through his old pigeon records from the 1970s, he shot very little in February – as there was hardly any rape grown then, and no maize – but virtually every day in March and April as the spring drillings went in. I hardly ever shoot spring drillings as there are very few peas grown round here now, and spring rape is also very unusual. So thank goodness for maize!