We saw the pheasant run from the cornfield into the fencerow. He did not come out the other side, where my shooting partner and best friend Roger Lewis had taken position. We were within 20 yards of the end of the hedged row when the dogs pointed.
Both Speck, my Brittany, and Tony, my English Setter, had locked onto points. "They've both got a nose full of bird," I told Roger quietly. "I'll flush, you be ready," he quickly responded. As Roger stepped into the fencerow, facing the dogs and me, birds came out of everywhere, fluttering, cackling, and causing a split-second cardiac arrest.
The cock pheasant had run to the end of his cover, as did a covey of about 25 bobwhite quail. The pheasant flushed cleanly out the end and was neatly dispatched with a single shot from Roger's Beretta 12-gauge autoloader. The quail came out toward me. More accurately, they all came right at me. They were everywhere more than anywhere else.
There are only a couple of things that I dislike about hunting and both have to do with waste. I hate putting down a bird and not being able to find it. I also hate making a shot too quick or too close and losing the meat. Luckily, the breast of this quail was easily salvageable. But this brings us to an interesting topic: guns and loads.
Opinions vary widely on the type of gun to be used for upland game. Quail, rabbit and pheasant all require slightly different hunting techniques that require slightly different performance from your guns and ammo. Let's first look at quail.
Hunting most often in places where quail and pheasant co-habitate, I prefer to stick with a 12-gauge. Even though 20-gauge, 3-inch magnum shells are extremely adequate for pheasant, the heavier shot loads of the 12-gauge gives me a denser pattern. For me, more pellets in the target equate to a cleaner harvest.
Early in the season, I tend to shoot lighter loads with smaller shot at both quail and pheasant. For quail, I start with 1-ounce loads of No. 8-shot and, as the season progresses and the birds become wiser, I switch to 1-1/8-ounces of No. 7-1/2-shot. The denser patterns and heavier shot combine to give me more punch at greater distances, for wildly flushing birds.
The absolute optimum choke system lies in the over-under shotgun with screw-in choke tubes. Having one barrel with an open choke and one with a tighter choke can be perfect at the flush. Most over-under guns that do not have choke tubes are designed this way, but you do not have the advantage to change chokes. With choke tubes, you can go from improved/modified to modified/full or even full/full in a matter of seconds. This versatility can pay off for you on those unpredictable days.
Taking the time to put together the variables such as gauge, shot size, action, chokes, weather, dogs and time of year can improve your average as a wingshot. Those few that we know who are excellent on flying targets did not get that way overnight. It is not always as simple as swing and follow-through. We always should apply our brains before we engage our trigger fingers.
A flushed rabbit is one of the most challenging targets there is. When birds get air under their wings, they pretty much do not waste time bobbing and weaving. It is a straight-line escape and a fairly predictable shot, but that's not so with Mr. Bunny. His erratic movements and head fakes have cost me many a box of shells in the past.
I have found hours of shooting delight lately hunting rabbits with a .410 pump shotgun. It is not only less expensive to reload and shoot the smaller shells, but it can fine-tune your shooting eye to be more effective on the prestigious flying game that most upland hunters covet. I agree that a rabbit in the Crock-Pot is no substitute for a pheasant in the smoker, but usually the rabbit season continues on for several weeks after the feathered table-fare has been designated "off-limits" for hunting.
The use of good dogs can play an important role here as well. Tighter chokes and at least No. 6-shot are recommended when hunting with beagles. Your target is moving very slowly now, sometimes even sitting. Spot shooting is frequent and the tighter chokes will give you a denser pattern at the stationary targets.
I also have great fun shooting rabbits with a .22-rifle while hunting with dogs. As mentioned, often the rabbit comes through slow and presents good shots. My grandfather taught me how to shoot running deer with a scoped rifle by practicing on rabbits with a .22.
No matter what upland game is your favorite, the choice of gun, chokes and shells will be your decision. Remembering the variables we have discussed here will help you make better, more efficient use of your money as well as the resource we all love.
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