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The Streak

Shooting Streak

Rio the setter is holding just below a lip of pitted volcanic stone a few paces up this 60 degree slope. We’ve climbed for over two hours to get to this point. The entire trek from the bottom the dogs have been trailing and repositioning. I can tell by Rio’s stature that she has trapped birds that have outrun us all the way uphill. She refuses to even sneak a glance my direction or acknowledge the young lab, Ida, beginning to close in on her find. I’m able to reset my feet on nearly level ground and catch a few deep breaths as Ida moves in to flush. A large covey of Chukar launches off the lab’s nose and begins to glide down the slope from right to left. For anyone else watching it all must appear a blur, a span of maybe three seconds. But for me these moments are as slow as time has gotten this season. Seeing every wingbeat in the vivid detail of elastic time, I pick a big bird and bring the bead to meet the dark mask expecting the fold on the snap of the trigger. But this red-leg never flinches. I follow with the second barrel again with no effect.

Time regains standard pace with my muttering a few choice words as the group sails hundreds of feet below us and around a point. I’m disgusted by the blemish on this perfect moment. But it’s something I’ve become painfully accustomed to this season.

I’ve always been a streaky shooter. Doesn’t really matter how much practice or repetition, I’m either hot or cold. Normally the streaks come and go without much warning or fanfare. I opened last season as deadly as I’ve ever been. The shotgun felt weightless and swung in a harmony with flushing birds that would fall as if by another’s hand. For much of the year, with a few breaks, that magic was uninterrupted.

During the summer months of training and shooting the hot streak continued, testing gear and breaking clays with good effect. Between shooting with friends, instructing and training with the new puppy the amount of off-season powder burnt was exponentially higher than most years. I started to believe that I’d finally broken through, ended the streakiness, become a shooter.

But I will always remember the start of this year as the season the broad side of the barn wasn’t even big enough.

No matter whether it was five yards or 50, straight away, straight up, quartering….. birds would not drop. I was seeing flushes well, picking out individuals, the gun mount felt the same as it always had. Yet no feathers could be cut. It was as if the birds were pulling Matrix moves and flying between shot. No matter the terrain, open mountains to dense woods, no matter how fair or foul the weather, there were no conditions that could cure this malady.

I’m already somewhat superstitious. So, when a piss-poor shooting string like this happens I start wondering which crack I stepped on, or which undisclosed rule I’ve broken to anger the bird gods to a level of disdain that they’ve chosen to armor plate all birds in my path.

This kicks off iterations of exorcism that truly start sounding insane. During hot streaks I don’t clean my gun because I don’t want to wash any good mojo off of it. But when a streak this cold arrives I break it down to the elements, clean everything.

Cleaning didn’t work.

I started shuffling choke tubes with ADHD fervor. No effect.

I switched ammo from favorite shells to alternate brands and loads…… three times. This is ill-advised during the midst of a hunting trip but desperation calls for extreme measures. No effect. At the conclusion of the trip I took this rainbow of shells and a stack of paper plates, measured out different distances and began shooting them with each load and each choke. Then I hired child labor to count the number of holes in each plate — easiest $20 my niece ever made. She’s likely hoping there are more cold streaks in the future. It’s not like I haven’t patterned this shotgun before but I’m at the end of my rope.

It’s not the gun or the ammo, though I elect to tighten chokes from my standard setup in order to make it more difficult for armored birds.

Then I start thinking my eyes are failing me. Am I actually seeing birds differently? I start closing alternating eyes, trying to read road signs at different distances while driving. I manage to convince myself that there’s pressure building up in my eyeball and there is potential for complete blindness at any minute. I start raining drops into eyes trying to prevent the coming darkness.

There’s no resulting bird lethality but at least my eyelids feel super slick from four different kinds of eyedrops.

I order new shooting glasses just in case the microscopic scratches on this used pair are distorting my view. Of course that’s not it either.

Obviously the forces at work here are strong. I’ve been hexed. I’ve angered someone with a story about tailgate photos or talk of Federal Upland Stamps to the point that they purchased a lock of my hair from the barber and made a voodoo doll. Then they stuck that doll’s tiny shotgun in his ass. And there’s nothing I can do about it. The chicken blood I need to break such a curse would require me to kill a bird and I apparently will never shoot another one again. I’m officially cutting my own hair from now on.

I give up.

I’m resigned to my fate as a birder and vegan once my freezer runs dry. I’ll keep carrying a shotgun to give the dogs a pittance of hope.

This streak has been trying. But it isn’t the result of equipment malfunction or even some witch. It’s my own preaching. My sermons always conclude with finding success in the hunt beyond the heft of the game bag. Now that’s come full circle, testing my own faith. But I believe. No streak will convince me that this upland pursuit is dependent on killing birds. The hundreds of miles covered with horrible shooting hasn’t weakened that resolve.

Maybe all it takes is that acknowledgement.

The birds begin dropping again. Hopefully these shots will set off a new era of shooting success. Because honestly the idea of becoming a vegan wasn’t very appealing.

Target plates

Testing shotguns


The Difference Between Shooting and Hunting

Wild Quail


Around the age of 12 I went on my first bird shoot in the state of Ohio. One snowy, winter morning my dad and a few family friends drove to a local shooting preserve. I had just gotten my first shotgun for Christmas, a single-barrel break-action 410. We rode to fields of manicured milo separated in neat strips.

As I recall the guide unleashed a chiseled liver and white pointer into the field. I’d been instructed to not try and pet the dog for it had only a temperament for hunting and no time for the affections of a boy. Within the first 15 yards of walking that demon dog had locked down on a pheasant. It could have been a rooster or hen, I had no concept of any difference at the time. With coaxing from a well-placed foot the bird flushed from the snow and I shot my first game bird.

The rest of the day went much like this, though I’m not sure I cut another feather being new to moving targets and a bit overwhelmed by the intricacies of this pursuit. I know our group shot over 25 birds that day. After a steak dinner at the lodge I recall the guide swapping our shot birds for pristine, plucked and packaged pheasant ready for the freezer.

It was all amazing to me. How did I not know that walking a field with a dog could roust birds to shoot and then eat? The tractor treads in the fresh snow between strips never tipped me that these pen-raised birds had been seeded for the day. That may sound crazy, but at that point in life I’d only hunted varmints.

It’s pretty comical to consider how far the pendulum has now swung the opposite direction. I drive thousands of miles annually to dig up wild birds in the wildest places with dogs that crawl into my sleeping bag on cold nights. Cut my 12-year-old self some slack, maybe I wasn’t the brightest bulb. But it didn’t take too many years of pursuit of wild birds in Kansas in order to recognize the difference between shooting and bird hunting.

When birds are raised and released in an area for the sole purpose of being harvested, that’s not hunting. When the outcome is guaranteed, it’s not hunting. It simply cannot be by definition of the word hunt.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with game preserves and shooting pen-raised birds over dogs. Many state wildlife agencies east of the Mississippi even release birds on state lands to increase opportunities for bird hunters in areas where wild birds no longer thrive. It’s great practice, great for training dogs, great for introducing people to the sport and entertaining. But it’s not hunting.

The danger comes when game preserve outcomes are confused with hunting which downplays the struggles of wild birds. When large numbers of pen-raised birds can be shot just feet from trucks it skews perspectives on the density and prevalence of game birds. When the number of birds shot is limited only by the amount of money paid it can appear wasteful and bloodthirsty. When preserve seasons are longer and don’t coincide with wild bird seasons it can subvert regulations managing pursuit of wild birds. When one must kick a bird in order to prompt flight it distorts the challenge presented by wild birds that often outrun and outsmart dogs and flush wild hundreds of yards away.

When hens and rooster pheasant can be shot alike the skill of bird identification and selective harvest is nullified. And when species such as Chukar can be shot in places that don’t at all resemble their natural habitats – the rockiest, steepest, inhospitable high desert – it skews the difficulty and challenge many game bird species present which takes both training and conditioning to levels few hunters are willing to invest.

If you are shooting and sharing from a game preserve, my only hope is that you recognize the differences and identify your pursuit as such. Call it shooting. Call it training. Call them pen-raised birds. Certainly have fun but don’t feed misconceptions of the ill-informed (or goofy, doe-eyed teenagers). The advent and prevalence of social media can do wonderful things to promote our passion for chasing birds. It can also be a detriment by giving false views of what it means to be an upland hunter. The beauty and honor of this upland pursuit and the struggles of many upland species shouldn’t be undercut by pictures of piles of pen-raised birds.

SHOT Show Media Day 2014

Had a great time at the range testing new products today.

Big thanks to all the vendors, shooting professionals and the safety folks at Boulder Pistol & Rifle Range in Boulder City, Nevada.

Check back for more extensive product reviews and posts. We’ll be here all week.

Birdhunter Battle of the Sexes: Day of Reckoning

Headed off to the desert to finally settle the score with Britney Starr from the WON. Along for the ride are the Franchi Instincts and a pile of Winchester Shells including the new TrAAcker.

The Nellis Skeet and Trap club is a hidden gem just a stone’s throw from the Vegas strip. It takes a little wrangling to get on the base, but it is a public course and the scenery just can’t be beat. On this bluebird day while we try and focus on breaking birds on the sporting clays course there are fighter jets of every breed swirling overhead. Warthogs, Strike Eagles, F16 and the USAF Thunderbirds taking practice runs make this round nearly an adrenaline overload.

It’s always a bit  tough to pull a new shotgun straight from the box and try to shoot proficiently. On this day we’re testing two new Franchi Instincts, one in 20 gauge and the other in 12, alternating guns and shooting order between stations. Luckily the Winchester TrAAcker shells can really assist with seeing your shot string since the colored wads act almost as a tracer round. Unfortunately TrAAcker are currently only available in 12 gauge, so the shooter of the 20 is flying blind.

This was more fun than a person should be allowed to have in a day and it will be tough to find a more memorable shoot.




Birdhunter Battle of the Sexes

The gentle ribbing which started in the North Woods over Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock shooting in October extended through the ensuing months with Britney Starr. The taunting spilled over into 2013 and so we decided it’s time to put up or shut up.

This week at SHOT show we will be putting the feud to rest with a mid-week round of sporting clays. The kicker is we’ll be shooting guns that neither one of us has ever fired at a course we’ve never seen. There will be no custom fitted firearms, no home field advantage, no familiarity for use as a crutch.

Franchi has been generous enough to lend us two break action Instincts to help settle the dispute: the Instinct SL in 20 gauge and the color case hardened Instinct L in 12 gauge.

An initial coin flip will determine choice of shotgun or shooting order. Halfway through the round we will alternate guns since I shoot 20s during the season and Brit shoots 12s. At one station of the opponent’s choosing the shooter will be required to shoot opposite handed. Trash talking, interruptions and distractions are all highly encouraged. Whoever breaks the most clays wins.

The victor will award 100 rounds of newly released Winchester TrAAcker shells to a randomly selected female member of Ultimate Upland (if Britney wins) or a male member of Women’s Outdoor News (if I win). Be sure to sign up for the WON’s weekly newsletter or Ultimate Upland Lodge for a chance to be selected. And every day for a month the loser must tweet “(Winner’s name here) is my Birdhunting Hero”.

Stay tuned for pictures, videos and scores being shared in real-time from the course. And I’m sure the chatter will continue all week at SHOT since Britney just can’t help herself.


Learn to Shoot From the Womb

It’s difficult to comprehend what it would be like to grow up without a gun in your hand. I naturally assume my formative years were much like most boys growing up in the heartland; watching and idolizing characters on tv who were proficient marksmen. We pretended to be cowboys or GI Joes while running around with our toy guns. We envied dad’s return home from successful hunting trips. When we got to be the age our parents determined was appropriate, we were given a BB gun to expend all of our energy on unsafe activities and harebrained ideas. Once we were done shooting out windows, ricocheting BBs and performing stupid acts of boyhood with our peashooter, dad decided to move us up to the big leagues with a gun that went ‘BANG’. With any luck this was accompanied by Hunters’ Safety Class as mine was. Once we graduated to the fields, we were free to progress up the gunzel ladder until we became fully obsessed and unable to picture life without firearms. Now we are caught counting the minutes between our trips afield. Guns pretty much become an extension of our being, an extra appendage with which we have a full level of comfort.

So a few months back, when I was relaying a bird hunting story to my acupuncturist, Marston — I see you rolling your eyes, but I’m telling you, that needle stuff works — I noticed a flicker of interest in her response and succeeding line of questioning. She even expressed a desire to try her hand at bird hunting one day.  Over the course of the next few treatments I learned that she had never shot a gun in her life. Beyond this, she had never held a gun in her life. Yet, she’s interested in bird hunting? This started my mind racing. Suddenly, I was given a golden opportunity to retrace the steps that turned me into a bird blasting fanatic and see if those same steps could transform a professional woman who has never touched a gun into an upland huntress.

Marston Shooting

Even though she is a bit younger than me, I thought it best to forgo the obligatory childhood ritual of watching GI Joe and jump ahead to the next step. I acquired the same BB gun that I first started with, the good old lever action Red Ryder. Not much has changed in over 30 years to this little beauty. It has more plastic parts, it loads a little differently, it has a safety which is sort of a buzz kill, but it pretty much looks exactly the same. The biggest difference between Marston’s first gun and mine is that Daisy has been kind enough to doll up that little rifle with a bright pink stock. This is a bit stereotypical for a girl’s first gun, but at the same time I find it highly entertaining.

I know shotguns and rifles are different, and we’ll get to all that. There are professional instructors that probably find this a laughable way to learn. But this technique worked on me. I can think of no better way to learn gun safety and shooting principles than by wielding a BB gun that shoots a single small projectile 350 fps, if you believe the claims on the box.

I probably shot 25,000 rounds through my Red Ryder while growing up. I targeted numerous birds, always wondering why they didn’t drop when I was sure I was hitting them. (This trait seems to have followed me to adulthood too). All those bruised sparrows can thank non-lethal force. But, I assure you the rattle of those BBs in that little rifle’s tube was enough to scatter every cat and bird within a mile of my boyhood homestead.

I scheduled a morning with Marston as her initial foray into the dark art of shooting sports. Pulling that little fluorescent Daisy out of the box flashes back to lessons my dad took so much care to instill in me. And although this gun is toylike, the principles are quite similar to it’s more powerful ballistic cousins.

I initially go over the fundamentals of sight picture, drawing a quick diagram to show Marston what she’s looking for since her eye has never focused down the barrel of anything. We had already determined she was right eye dominant, thankfully, because as a remedial instructor having to invert everything could have challenged my skill levels.

Next, we went over loading the feed tube full of hours of copper plated fun using my preferred method of crafting a crude funnel from the nearest available scrap of paper.

After placing a paper target downrange, and the requisite aluminum can, we settled in to a discussion about safe muzzle directions, and the general operations of the safety, lever action and trigger. There’s a comical awkwardness to watching a greenhorn try and handle a gun. It is so foreign to my new pupil, and a true eye opener of the things I take for granted.

Marston is a details person, highly perceptive, so she wants to know everything down to the last micrometer. We go over hand placement on both the forend and aft. I emphasize that her finger should not touch the trigger until she is truly ready to shoot. I demonstrate where her cheek should be on the the stock so that she is able to properly site. She’s unsure of this technique for fear that the recoil will smack her in the face; refreshing naivete´ that makes me chuckle out loud. But this leads to valuable further discussion about bigger weapons and why she’ll want to keep the stock tucked tightly against her shoulder and her face comfortably planted.

Once we’ve thoroughly reviewed all the details, we reach the moment of truth. Marston cocks the lever, shoulders the Pink Plinker, takes aim at the Cheerwine hull 12 yards down range and I watch as she nervously squeezes off her first round ever. There’s no report. Over the next few attempts I alternate between watching her technique and watching the BB’s flight. She’s doing everything right, except she’s shooting consistently low and left of the can. I do a little fiddling with the rear sight, another upgrade from my boyhood version. With every pump of the action she is gaining confidence, and somewhere around 10 or 11 shots she finally hits metal. This new Daisy has a bit more power than I recall my Red ever having because it is a complete pass-through of the Cheerwine vitals. There’s nothing more satisfying than the sound of that plink, it’s the hook for both student and teacher. After a few more reaffirming aluminum volleys we move to the paper target.

I go over shot grouping, explaining the merits of consistency. As Marston continues to fire at will, we talk about minute of angle, breathing and what teeny movements of the barrel translate into on the target.

This brings us to shooting positions. After demonstrating prone, kneeling and offhand, I suggest she alter from sitting to improve her accuracy on the target. She makes an effort at prone, but she’s unable to flatten for stability. You see, Marston is pregnant, a solid 5 months, and prone shooting just isn’t gonna happen. Of course, bird hunting this season probably is not really in the cards either. The good news is that I feel like I’m teaching the next generation to shoot at the same time that Marston is learning. It’s a double.

This baby is gonna be born with a gun in his/her hand. Now that Marston’s hooked, I will start lobbying for good sporting names: Annie O, Wild Bill, Daisy, Parker? Oh the possibilities are endless. She has continued her target practice and the next lesson is upcoming. I know secretly her goal is to become a better shot than me, and I have little doubt it will happen. I’ve always found women to be superior marksMEN, probably due to their attention to detail and focus. My only consolation once she eclipses my skill level is that kid’s name. I guess I’ll also be comforted knowing that my passion for shooting has been passed on to at least one and a half others. But if you have a good baby name, let me know anyways.