SHOOTING GAME BIRDS ON A VIRGINIA PRESERVE


I'm not a superstitious person, not really; but I do have this notion that it's not a good idea to take a gun to Africa unless I've made a kill with it. Since I want to take my drilling with me on my next safari, and hadn't "blooded" it yet, I took advantage of an opportunity that arose to at least put a few (metaphorical) notches in the gun.

I had received a flyer from Summit Springs Shooting Sports and Holland Shooting Preserve, for a "Clays and Quail" event on December 10th. This was a combined half-day shoot on put-and-take quail and a round of sporting clays, for a reasonable fee. †Around here the only wild birds to shoot are doves (if you can find any) and turkeys, which are hunted like deer. Wingshooting in the classic sense isn't much of a deal in Montgomery County and environs.

Now, I have deep-rooted philosophical objections to the concept of paying "lease fees" to hunt native game, and would never pay anyone to hunt deer; but pen-raised birds count as livestock in my book.

If I were going to do any of it, it would have to be on a preserve on put-and-take birds. †I went with my friend and colleague Phil and Mac, the husband of another colleague. I had never before hunted over dogs, but Holland provided a guide and trained dogs in the price. Three hard-charging Brittanies with inexhaustible energy and infallible noses.


We unloaded the dogs at the shoot site about 8:40 AM and they immediately started bouncing around and sniffing. †I brought my drilling, Phil had a 12 gauge Browning Auto-5, and Mac was using a phenomenally beautiful Parker in 28 gauge. I had to be very careful not to drool on the Parker, which not only was a 28 gauge, it had selective ejectors. God knows what he spent for it, but it was worth the price just to look at, let alone shoot.

My drilling is choked very tightly. I'm not sure exactly how to rate the chokes but with a micrometer they seemed to be Full and Extra Full. Drillings are used on anything that comes along and buckshot and slugs are par for the course, so I suppose tight chokes are ďnormal.Ē†

Then, too, this gun was made in 1940 and in those days shotshells didnít use cup wads; modern shells will pattern more tightly from any degree of choke.† Ideally one should use a gun thatís bored Improved Cylinder and Modified, for this sort of game, but what I have, I have. †I had neither the time nor the inclination to have the chokes opened up, so I took it as it was; though of course I dismounted the scope.

I actually made the first kill that day. The dogs put up a chukkar and I fired more or less instinctively and nailed him good and hard. In the course of the day I managed to hit several quail, and at least one more chukkar. Sometimes the shooting was so fast I lost track, but the three of us racked up a total of 36 quail and 4 chukkars.

Mac is a heck of a wingshot, and that 28 of his worked like a death ray. I do modestly claim to have made The Shot Of The Day, however: †a quail dodging through the trees, neatly dumped stone dead from 30-35 yards. I'm certain I killed at least 7 quail, perhaps a few more; and two chukkars. Not bad for a guy whose last experience with wingshooting was 10 years ago on barn pigeons.

The dogs were amazing. They would be jumping around, seemingly at random, and suddenly one would freeze on a point. We'd walk up in a line (I usually took the far right end of the line) and the guide would then move up to the dog, who was staring at the birds, frozen like a statue. He'd get down, tickle the bird to make it fly, and BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, down would go the bird. Mac was incredibly fast off the mark, and if the bird went up in front of him, it was dead in half a second. Then the dogs would go fetch it. A couple of times we weren't able to find a downed bird, and the guide simply said, "Let's go bust up another covey: we'll come back for it later." This seemed impossible to me, but damned if those dogs didn't come back to the same pasture area half an hour later and find every downed bird. The only ones that got away were one chukkar who managed to fly into a no-shooting area unscathed; and a second one who never got detected, possibly because he had the good sense to move to the next county as soon as he was released.

The dogs were fitted with special collars with speakers on them. Each dog's collar had a distinctive BEEP! sound, so that one could tell where he was, because often they were invisible in the weeds. If the dog froze on a point the immobility changed the sound to the scream of a hawk, which froze the birds in place until the guide got there to make them fly. There were three dogs, two of them very experienced and one a 9-month old pup who had a nose like a heat-seeking missile. He was the one who found the downed birds: he'd been in the dog box the first half of the shoot, but as soon as he was released he ran into the area where we'd been, and picked up on the scent of the dead birds immediately.

We subsequently did a second shoot a few weeks later.† That time I brought along a pretty little Belgian hammer double in 20 gauge.† I did pretty well with it: 7 quail and 2 chukkar, but I had some "gun problems."  It doubled on me at least twice: on firing the right barrel the left went off, presumably from the recoil jarring the sear out of its notch.  It's at the gunsmith being disciplined. With both this gun and the drilling I found that 7-1/2s worked much better than 8's.

The other problem I'm having is that this gun, as well as my 16-gauge drilling, is beating the hell out of the middle finger on my right hand.  The trigger guard raps me on the knuckle, leaving it pretty swollen and red, and more than a bit sore.  I've had this problem in the past with a 12-gauge double, which was MUCH worse: but I solved it on that gun by a modification to the trigger guard. I can't do that on this gun nor on the drilling, the guards aren't "bendable" the way the one on my 12 gauge is.† I have bought some soft rubber pads from Connecticut Shotgun that clamp on the guard and are supposed to fix this: weíll see if they work.

On this second trip the DOGS got four birds by themselves.  They would hold a point 99% of the time but if the bird flushed close to them, BAM! they'd make a grab for it, and sometimes catch it.  I was told by the dog handler this is permitted in field trials, which seems odd.† I should think it would be a fault, but what do I know?† Wild birds, Iím told, are far less willing to hold tight with a Brittany spaniel breathing on them.


On the 29th of January we went out to shoot pheasants at the same place. I shot very well, at least by my standards.  There were three of us in the party: my colleague Phil (who'd come on the first trip), myself, and Art, with whom I hunted in Africa. Art said he hadn't shot pheasants since his boyhood in Illinois 60+ years ago.  I'd never shot one in my life.

This time I used a 12-gauge Stevens 311 double barrel that I'd had re-stocked some years ago to fit me.  This gun was perhaps the last firearm legally sold in the District of Columbia under their idiotic 1976 law, the one that was struck down in the Heller case.  I got it at Herman's Sporting Goods in 1981. Herman's was the last retailer in DC licensed to sell guns, and had to bring this one in from one of their Virginia stores.  I got it when we had our country property and I wanted something I could bring back and forth with me without fear of being arrested.  Years ago I had Carlson's put in tubes.  I don't have a lot of use for choke tubes in single-barrel shotguns but in a double they do make sense.  Today it was wearing Improved Cylinder and Modified tubes in the right and left barrels respectively.  Pretty typical set-up for pheasant.

I used shells that I believe qualified as genuine antiques.  My late father in law was a big believer in Montgomery Ward's products, and among the detritus of his life when he died in 1999 was a box or two of their shells.  These were "Hawthorne" brand "Reliance" shells, 2-3/4 inch, 1-1/8 ounce 6's....in roll crimped paper hulls.  They had to be at least 50 years old and probably more than that; no one has made paper shells in 40+ years that I know of (except Federal, who make one style of target load).  Everything is plastic now, and while I acknowledge the superiority of modern shotshells over those of Yesteryear,  I like paper shells. These were in excellent shape, had the right shot size, and I sort of viewed using them as a last salute to Leo's memory.


We paid for 18 birds, six apiece.  I'm pleased to say I shot at least 7 of the 14 we knocked down, with a total of 22 shots fired. I killed the first pheasant handily, a big rooster.  The dogs pointed him not 40 yards from the truck, we walked him up, and BOOM, down he went, stone dead, with a shotshell that may have been loaded sometime during the Korean War! At one time I'd have done better but I'm out of practice and consider a 30% kill rate as pretty decent.  There were also two "bonus" quail left over from someone else's hunt that the dogs sniffed out and put up.  Art managed to knock down a couple of birds, including one quail on which he made a really excellent shot. 

So it went all morning.  If I got a shot and didn't think about what I was doing, the bird came down.  I saved one really nice rooster for the taxidermist, and brought home a hen in feather to pluck so I could roast it whole.  The others were all skinned.  I have two neighbors who are both fly-tiers and I gave them the skins, to their delight.  Apparently pheasant skins are highly regarded as raw material for fishing flies.

I'll say this: it's a LOT easier to hit pheasants than quail, if only because they're so much larger and they seem to get airborne at a fairly slow speed.  Once they get up they fly quite fast but they go more or lessstraight up when taking off and at the top of the rise they're pretty easy to hit. I was very pleased to have a chance to use that Stevens again.  The last time I used it was when I had a place to shoot barn pigeons, and it's been a safe queen since, probably for a decade.  If and when I get too old and feeble to drag deer out of the woods, this wingshooting gig would be a pretty good substitute!


I can't call this sort of thing a "hunt," really, because the birds were put out into the area so that we knew where to look. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, and I'll certainly do it again. Now my drilling is "blooded," and perhaps next deer season I'll take a deer with the rifle barrel. We have plans for a pheasant "hunt" at Holland Preserve in March.