Hit or Miss Pheasants

It's astonishing how "easy" it can be to miss a game bird as big as a ring-necked pheasant, but it happens all the time. Here's how to prevent costly misses the next time you're afield.

by Stan Warren

There might have been a downy feather on Joe's boot toe, but if not, the bird had been close enough to leave one. Clacking, clattering and with wings thundering, the rooster lifted off and headed for a nearby marsh.

Joe swung smoothly on the pheasant with his 12-gauge double. Boom! Miss. Boom! Miss. No falling feathers drifted in the air. The bird flew off unscathed. Joe looked on in amazement.

"How in the devil can anybody miss a bird that size, twice?" he grumbled.

Since I had enjoyed a position as an observer rather than gunner for a change, I actually had some thoughts on the subject. I could see that when Joe pulled the trigger, the pheasant could not have been more than 15 yards from the muzzle. Had he been on target with the shot charge, he would have collected a well-mangled trophy courtesy of the modified choke.

His second shot was at an estimated 20 to 25 yards, a good distance for an improved cylinder choke, but not the full variety that had graced his second barrel. Simply put, my companion had gotten rattled by the in-your-face flush and hurried things too much.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

At the risk of raising the ire of pheasant fanatics, it should be stated that ringnecks are just not the fastest game birds on the planet. On the rise they certainly cannot compare with quail or members of the grouse clan in terms of departure speed. They are plenty fast enough by anyone's account; it is just that when flushed up close either by the hunter or a dog, there is enough time to collect your wits and get the muzzle where it is supposed to be.

Start by getting the stock cleanly to your shoulder. While hunting with a borrowed vest one afternoon I snagged the stock of my favorite 16-gauge double when attempting to mount the gun. There was enough time for me to poke the smoothbore forward to clear it, and then snap it back into proper shooting position. The rooster did not have time to get out of range of the modified barrel.

To prove how much time you really have, act as observer for a couple of flushes. Knowing that you are not going to be trying for a shot will defuse that adrenaline-spurred desire to start shooting in a hurry.

Since choke choices have to come into play, let us take a quick look at when each type is appropriate. If you are hunting wide-open expanses, especially driving the birds or working with a flushing dog, there will be times when a full choke can be essential. When hunting heavier cover, especially with a pointing dog, open things up.

An improved cylinder choke will deliver a much better working pattern out to 25 yards on any rooster that ever flew, and you can tack 10 more effective yards with a modified choke. With some of today's tight-patterning shot shells, the lethal distance is even greater. Full-choke guns do not come into useful status until the range exceeds 35 yards, assuming that your ammunition is up to the chore.

Speaking of which, what really constitutes a load suitable for use on rooster ringnecks? The old 12-gauge, 3 1/4 dram equivalent load pushing 1 1/4 ounces of shot is fine most of the time - although you may want more velocity as the season progresses. Shots get longer as the birds get wilder, plus their feathers get denser as the weather gets colder.

For general hunting, especially during the first half of the season, you can get by nicely with a 16 bore with loads carrying 1 1/8 ounces of shot. The same can be said for the 20 gauge as long as it carries an equivalent payload. Using anything lighter is not adding more sport to the hunt, just increasing the chances of wounding and losing a fine bird. If you absolutely have to shoot the light stuff, restrict your hunting to preserve birds or those otherwise released for shooting where your chances of getting up close and personal are best.

An awful lot of roosters have drifted off to the Great Beyond courtesy of small pellets designed for use on quail and other upland birds that lack the size of a ringneck. In most instances, this happens when the big bird makes a surprise appearance and was not the intended quarry. Within reasonable range, small stuff such as No. 7-1/2s or No. 8s will drop a pheasant, although no sensible hunter would stake his trip on it.

Early in the season No. 6 size is the choice for walk-up hunting, according to statistics put together by ammunition makers. Some of us prefer No. 5 pellets with modest powder charges early on, then heavier doses as the season progresses. Some characters who hunt where birds are as scarce as they are wild, or who do drives over huge fields, make a case for No. 4 shot. I am not going to argue with their successes.

One key here is to make sure that the shot size of choice patterns well in your shotgun. I once had a wonderfully reliable pump gun that delivered ugly, ragged pellet spreads with anything other than No. 7 1/2s or No. 5s. Gun makers have puzzled over this for years; they know that it happens even when they can't be sure why.

Larger pellet sizes do have distinct advantages. They carry more retained energy per sphere and are thus more likely to deliver deep penetration as the range of the shot increases. Pheasant chasers can affirm that unless a rooster is killed outright or has both a wing and leg broken, you had better have a dog capable of finding him. Getting a cock bird on the ground is just part of the job.

Conversely, large shot sizes mean fewer pellets in the shell, which lowers your pattern density. Again, check things on paper before going afield to make sure that your gun performs adequately. An ounce of No. 6 shot is preferable to a magnum dose of anything else if the shot spread demands it.

A young friend and I were walking beside a brushy marsh when my Labrador put a rooster up just ahead of us. My companion took the shot, and the bird headed for the ground, still thrashing strongly with his left wing. Even though it was by then at the outside edge of my smoothbore's effective range, I gave the pheasant another blast. A question came from my partner who wondered why I wasted the shell.

Remember the quote, "It ain't over 'til it's over"? That applies to ringnecks just as much as it does to baseball. Never count one as in the bag

until you have it in hand. Maybe not even then; I once had a rooster fly out of my game bag, which was apparently defunct, after being carried for the better part of an hour.

Shot shells are the cheapest part of any trip, so do not be stingy in their use. Certainly you do not want your birds pellet-riddled and unsuitable for the table, but neither do you want to lose cripples. Unless you are absolutely positive that the rooster you hit is not going anywhere when he reaches the ground, rake him again. The hunter who has to brag about his shots-per-bird ratio is putting his ego ahead of his ethics.

You do not have to approach off-season practice with the serious manner of a competitive shooter, just pop a few caps prior to hitting the field for real. A round of sporting clays can be fun, but you can accomplish the same thing with one or two friends and an inexpensive target thrower. Set it up to simulate the way that birds are most likely to appear in your type of hunting and play for a while.

Certainly you will want to use lighter loads and smaller shot than will be needed for the real birds, but your hunting gear should not change otherwise. Wear the same vest or hunting coat that you intend to use in the field. If it snags your gunstock in practice, it can do the same when you really mean it.

Good hunting.

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