A Smile Is Infinite: Shooting Wood Pigeon
A long-time client recently asked me what my all-time favourite quarry was? I feel like I almost disappointed him with my answer, as it wasn’t one that required more than a nanosecond of thought and almost rolled off the tongue, like the speediest of returns seen on Centre Court at Wimbledon; it met him with considerable surprise. 15-Love.
“Cushiedoos, without a doubt” (for the non-Scots among you, this refers to wood pigeon.)
I’m lucky enough to have taken most of the permitted avian species in the UK during my time in the field, in the various presentations they can be offered to at all budget ranges, from the baler twine secured tweeds to the pomp and ceremony of the most prestigious shoot lunches. Indeed, these days absolutely hold a place in my heart too, but how do we quantify our ultimate day and defend its ranking in our minds? The more I thought about it, (I’m deep like that – unless my mind wanders to fond thoughts of pies or how referee Pascal Gauzere, might actually be Welsh) the more I seem to be compartmentalising the various aspects of each of the game and GL (General Licence) birds out there. For me it breaks down into a plethora of categories, which can be applied to almost all shooters. Indeed, there will be more reasons than someone of my limited mental capacity can reasonably comprehend, so I try to keep it simple.
After the return, which Roger Federer would have been proud of, I delved deep into these categories with my friend (whose favourite game day is Partridges by the way – I’ve yet to coax him behind the decoys) to justify my point of view. We went though the value aspect, the attainability of quarry, the fact that it bridges all socio-economic factors in terms of budget and gear, the benefit of crop protection, the fact wood pigeons can raise four broods per season, that they can stop on a dime and make a U-turn faster than a Scottish politician, blah blah blah….
But here’s the kicker. Here’s for me the point that it took me more than an hour to get to, here’s the measuring stick that comes from a totally untainted and innocent to the troubles of the world point of view, here’s the kicker that nobody can argue against, here’s the kicker that the most fabled of Oxford Scholars couldn’t describe in any length of text, here is all the justification that I need to stand by my decision;
The smile on my son’s face, at the end of a day, in the hide with me.
His smile was unmatched by any of the other days he has been to me with – which, with the exception of Grouse, is pretty much all of them. I think up to that point, I hadn’t realised I had noticed it, but it seems that somewhere in the grey matter I had taken a mental note. That smile is, for as long as possible, going to be my yard stick for quality. A picture paints a thousand words, but a smile is infinite.
As many of you know the UK, in particular Scotland, has been under a considerable amount of snow in the last few weeks. This volume of the white stuff hasn’t been seen in a few years, and I had everything possible crossed that it would have the same effect on the Wood Pigeons that it did in previous years – 2018 was the last time it came like this. I should have nipped to Ladbrookes and put a tenner on an influx of doos to my local area, but had I been given the choice to double up my odds to bet that it’d be the highest volume of them I’ve seen in my living memory, I think I would have bottled it. Alas, I would have won big. I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many of them in such a concentrated area for such a duration of time. I’m almost worried to do a stock take of my ammunition but I’m several slabs lighter than I was when I set out. Don’t tell my wife for goodness sake.
Having watched them for a day or two, normal fieldcraft kind of went out the window, and I could set up my hide almost anywhere around one of my particular permissions and get a respectable bag. This area is two very large OSR fields (Oil Seed Rape) parked adjacent to a field of East Lothian’s finest sprouts on one side, with thick woodland and an untouched estate on the other… a veritable all you can eat buffet for the doos. Once word got out to their feathered friends, they came in like clockwork. On the busiest days I took a low-ball guess that there was in excess of 30,000 on the two fields. We hit them hard over the next two weeks, and I even sacrificed big bag days to let my son shoot first with his single barrel .410. His success rate was respectable for such a young lad, but he was smiling so hard his face was about four feet clear of the stock. After a few days of myself and the wee man hitting them, we had to call in reinforcements, as well as liaising with other guns shooting on nearby permissions to try and have maximum impact. Our combined bags were huge, but at the end of the day we had only really taken the tip from the iceberg. Much to my surprise, Mr Farmer was just as pleased we were keeping them off the crop as we were taking big bags away. After a couple of weeks of this, we had harvested enough meat to fill our freezer with breast meat and the thaw pretty much came in overnight.
With that, and still hungry for sport, we reverted to watching them to see if their OSR passion would prevail. Almost overnight, the numbers and huge groups dispersed, and given the rapid harvest of sprouts, the birds seemed to make the switch to cover crops (I’m guessing pre tattie-planting crops), grass fields and were enjoying some time resting on winter cereals.
Another of my permissions has a good field of cover crop with trees surrounding that the doos like to use as resting / lookout points. My wife and I took a chance at a day here, to see what the birds would do. They were flighting fairly regularly into a shaded corner, and with the wind blowing out from the corner (doo’s tend to land into the wind) it looked like the ideal spot to set up. Call me lazy, but we recently added a quad bike and small trailer to our portfolio, and I have to say it’s been the best thing I have done in a long time. If you’re serious about shooting pigeon, there is an abundance of gizmos and wizardry to help you in your plight, but even with a fairly basic setup the amount of gear can be substantial and the overall weight, including ammo, is not to be sniffed at. The landowners of my permissions actually seemed to prefer the quad nipping along field margins rather than the truck going down tracks – I’m not suggesting that its something you absolutely need to get but if the chance of a well-priced and reliable machine pops up…….
Everyone has their own signature when setting a hide up; my ethos is making it sturdy but don’t make it an obstacle. Some people are prolific standers and have the top of the hide set high. Thanks to the joys of the rugby field, a full day of standing given my current mass is suicide for my knees, so I tend to be a sitter between flights. I’ve actually taken to dropping the wee trailer off the bike somewhere out of sight and where possible building the hide around the quad. It gives me surface area at height for the cameras, pies, ammo etc etc, while giving somewhere to sit side saddle. There are some superb hide chairs that might be worth a look at too, and many shoot from a seated position – not me though. I set the hide up with a double net up to a belly height, with a single net higher up. This allows me to see what’s coming (within reason) through the first net, but hides the majority of my movement to the incoming birds – doo’s have sharp vision for movement, and seem to be quite good at registering a human face (a face covering is a must IMHO).
Slow and deliberate movements into your shooting position are key, and provide a solid base to take a nice shot. Don’t panic and throw the gun into your shoulder. The whole thing should be calm and collected – if your hide and pattern is solid, then your barrel movement is the last thing that will flag up for your quarry. Work on judging distance too – a few guys I watched during the snow were shooting at birds that were much further away than they realised. Shoot to your skill set and remember we have a duty to be ethical in our taking of these birds. The last thing we want is Jo Public reporting loads of injured doo’s around an area. Be clinical, be concise, be calm.
We also utilised the pigeon magnet which had worked very well in the snow, but on this day it seemed to be putting the birds off slightly. Pigeons are fickle creatures so never stop reading how they are reacting to your pattern and area of choice. We noticed a change in the wind after setting up which brought them in at a slightly different angle, meaning they didn’t decoy into the open area of my pattern quite as I had hoped – best laid plans and all that. They seemed to almost whirl around the right hand side of the pattern just before trying to set down – this whirl became my green light for making a move to taking the shot, and after a few did the same thing I committed to waiting until the whirl had made an appearance , taking a steady shot just below their feet. The change in wind also meant a less busy flightline behind us was pushed over our hide from the high left, which every five or ten minutes gave me a real high sporting bird to take on. Such was their height; they proved a little tricky to track down in the cover crop a fair distance away where they had fallen after encountering my new Browning Maxus semi auto.
I recently added this gun to my stable mostly because I was petrified about knocking my main competition gun about in the hide. I also find that dropping an O/u down in a tight hide to open it and it getting snagged on the net etc is a pain. The semi auto is always pointed skywards and combined with the Browning Speed load system it’s a joy to work with. Please don’t take this as me bashing double barrel guns in the hide – this part is completely down to personal preference. If I’m able to load it faster and I don’t need to worry about the scratches and bangs it gets, I’m more focused on the birds. Do what’s right for you.
We spent a good three hours in this corner, but the persistent shooting soon gave way and the birds were no longer being pulled into the pattern. With the bag a third the size of a week before in the snow, I can honestly say I’d enjoyed this day just as much. The birds that committed came in good steady groups on strong lines, and the high flightline breaking towards the estate behind had given me a real challenge. Even my wife seemed to have enjoyed it, if anything slightly (completely) exacerbated with my dad jokes and general poor chat.
As a parting thought, and if you’re wanting to shoot more pigeons under the GL, work on your fieldcraft. Cammo, decoys, magnets, flappers , netting, etc are all excellent as aids to you, but you must spend some time (days – weeks) watching what the birds are doing and what affects their movements. If you set up in the wrong place for wind, sun or general interest, no amount of gear will pull you out of a day with no bag.
Invest the time, and if they show an interest, involve your kids. Teach them about what you are looking for. Shooting in the filed under the GL is about so much more than pulling the trigger. Use every chance you can to promote and educate the young and new to the reasons why you are doing what you are doing. If you don’t, our industry won’t have a future. And we’ll all be eating artificially grown ‘meat’ and have veganism and anti-farming practices shoved down our throats. Experiment with your gear and patterns. There’s infinite information online about pattern set up but keep it simple. If there is an area for birds to set down you should be ok. During the snow I experimented a little with my pattern and followed a traditional ‘V’ layout – but I had the decoys positioned in little groups of three of four. This seemed to work well on the cover crops for me, but again experiment with what works best for you.
With spring drilling about to start on my permissions, I’m out every day looking at where the birds are likely to hit. I’m paying particular attention to a few fields that will be peas, but in general the spring drilling will be a calling card to the doos who have come through a hard winter. The question is, can I get the right place for spring drilling? I guess you’ll need to wait till my next blog, to find out.
What’s in my trailer?
- Ammunition – I like a 30g 6 but have shot 4/5 shot at times
- Netting – you can never have enough
- Poles – at least 8. I find that four isn’t enough to stop the wind chucking the netting into you
- Cable ties – for securing netting
- Pole Magnet – quite possibly the best thing I have bought. Picking up 2-300 shells takes no time
- Bakers Crates – in place of a game bag.
- Pigeon Magnet and battery
- Flapper decoys
- Shell decoys
- Full body decoys
- A few crow decoys
- Hide seat
- Back up jackets
- Food and drink
- Knives and a small saw
- Ear protection
- Eye protection
- External phone battery
- Spare face coverings
- Basic gun cleaning kit – in case the barrel gets choked
- Clicker counter – helps me when picking up the birds at the end of the day so I know I’ve got them all
For more from Murray, head to his expert profile page or find him on Instagram at @lockstocksporting.