As the first page of the 2022 calendar is turned, here is Janet Menzies' month-by-month guide to ticking off those sporting firsts

There are just a few iconic sporting moments to which we all aspire but rarely achieve. The red-letter day when you catch a trout on the mayfly, or jump that hedge, or shoot a serious January pheasant, is the one that stays with you. And they live in our communal zeitgeist, summing up all that sport means to us. It’s time to make this your year to remember in the field.

As the end of the season approaches, the pheasants still at large might offer a memorable shot

JANUARY: SHOOT A DIFFICULT PHEASANT

Many truly memorable pheasants are shot in January, not just because of the height and speed of these strong birds but due to the fieldcraft needed. By the end of the season, even the dimmest of pheasants will have got the message that something is up and will react accordingly.

Respected pheasant shot Jonathan Irby (rbss.co.uk) warns that Guns shouldn’t fall into the trap of following a bird that jinks down: “Safety is all-important at this time of the season. Be mindful of where everybody else is and be clear about what your host is expecting. A good tip is to go to number five shot as the birds are heavier. Don’t be hurried into losing your technique – the front hand takes the muzzle to the bird and the back hand brings the gun to your cheek.” So be alert and make the best of what is presented – the distant crosser is every bit as far away as the traditional high overhead, and will stay in your memory at the end of a thin day.

FEBRUARY: LONG NET A WARREN

Get out with the ferrets at the beginning of February after the brush has died back but before there are any young, then follow Mark Gilchrist’s advice: “Where I go on Romney Marsh is perfect because you can net round the whole warren in the open – you don’t want any hedges, trees or heavy undergrowth, which make it difficult to get a completely escape-proof net.”

He warns that absolute concentration is needed, as rabbits bolted by the ferret are very fast out of the hole and away. For him, the satisfaction is the opportunity to be off-grid and self-reliant.

His protégé, Cai ap Bryn, has taken this a stage further: “I started Game & Flames (gameandflames.com) to bring street food-inspired game cookery to people who wouldn’t otherwise eat a rabbit or a pheasant. For example, I am doing a katsu curry based on pheasant; I want this wild-harvested food to be as relatable to everyone as a Nandos or a Wahaca.” When it is you who caught the rabbit, prepared it and cooked it using one of ap Bryn’s recipes, nothing could taste sweeter.

You may not win the National but you could shine at the hunt point-to-point

MARCH: WIN THE HUNT RACE

The hunt’s point-to-point is the only chance most of us will ever get to experience the adrenaline high of being a jockey. But it can be a downer if, when legged up, you hear the commentator announce: “And Mr Astall putting up 24 pounds overweight.”

Jamie Snowden (jamiesnowdenracing.co.uk) was so successful as an amateur point-to-point jockey he is now training racehorses professionally. “Definitely do it, it is the most exciting thing,” he says. For Snowden, however, you want to win as well as just take part: “Fitness is key. You can go to the gym as much as you want but there is nothing like riding to get yourself fit, so get involved with a racing yard and ride out as much as possible. If you are not fit enough you find you can’t think. You have to be aware of where to go and where to be in the race, how to present your horse to a fence.” Snowden confesses to being hooked on that amazing feel of riding a good horse at pace over a decent fence: “You will love the thrill, it is a brilliant way of life.”

APRIL: BUILD A HIDE

The happiest hours of our sporting lives are spent silently in the hide, hearing flocks of quelea birds in Africa thrumming past like rain showers or watching the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels. When tutoring apprentice professional hunters (including me), the late, great professional hunter Ian Goss pulled no punches: “If you’re building a hide for a leopard, remember to put on the bloody roof,” he would say. In hide building, as in life, you must leave nothing to chance. Is there a hole in the back that will silhouette you against the setting sun? And when making a loophole for your rifle, angle it so your body can’t be seen directly. Pigeons will spot the smallest twig that doesn’t look right. So start building your hide early and keep checking it from the bird’s perspective until you are sure you are one with the hedgerow. Then sit back and wait for the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck as you watch wildlife behaving as if you weren’t there.

Landing a trout during ‘Duffers’ Fortnight’ requires skill

MAY: CATCH A TROUT ON A MAYFLY

Champion fly-fisherman and guide John Horsey (johnhorsey.co.uk) explodes a few myths about the beautiful but short-lived mayfly: “They are the iconic fly of chalkstreams like the Itchen and the Test, but they are also on lakes. On the 44,000-acre Loch Corrib in Ireland the mayfly hatch in their millions, covering stretches of the lake.” Horsey also warns against the myth of matching the hatch. “We call the start of the mayfly season Duffers’ Fortnight because the trout are gorging themselves on the newly hatched fly. As the mayfly mate and become spent, the trout are very selective, often to the extent of which side the spent mayfly is lying on, and so the casting and choice of fly is important.” Like a London chef amusing celebrity diners, the fly-fisherman must tempt the trout with an unusual delicacy on the menu. Horsey says: “You should select a fly that is convincing but just looks a little bit different.”

JUNE: LAND A GAMBLE

If you want to star in your very own heist caper, this is the month to try beating the bookies at the Derby or Royal Ascot. Horse-racing author Nick Townsend wrote the biography of infamous professional punter Barney Curley, and his latest book, Mark Johnston: Phenomenon (Welbeck, £20) charts the successes of the Scottish trainer, so he has an inside track. But he admits: “Even nowadays with online betting platforms, it is very hard to make serious money from betting. Barney Curley used to say ‘the bookies will always win’ and he was someone who made a living from betting. Some mates and I had a horse running at Stratford that we thought we could land a gamble on, and we did, but we had to work hard, going round lots of different bookies putting on small amounts of money at long odds. You have to do something like that otherwise the bookies will notice and shorten the odds. I think that’s why it’s so satisfying, not just the winnings but knowing you have outwitted the bookies to get the money down – the secrecy is exciting.”

Head to Florida’s Key West and unleash your inner Hemingway

JULY: FIGHT A MARLIN

If you are channelling your sporting Ernest Hemingway, James Bond – or, of course, Miss Moneypenny – then the place to be in July is Florida’s Key West, where Hemingway’s sea-fishing boat captain, Harry Morgan (played by Humphrey Bogart in the film of To Have and Have Not), was based. Find yourself a more law-abiding Captain Morgan and enter the annual Key West Marlin Tournament coinciding with the Hemingway Days Celebration each July (keywestmarlin.com). However, salmon and saltwater game fishermanTarquin Millington-Drake (frontierstrvl.co.uk) finds the giant trevally (GT) and the tarpon more of an individual challenge compared with the teamwork of marlin  fishing: “With marlin, you are very dependent on the skill and knowledge of your skipper, so for me the true personal test of saltwater fishing is the GT and the tarpon. On the take they bear down aggressively and you are stripping like hell, and the key to it is self-control and nerves of steel. These are the fish we dream about.”

Could you take five grouse from one covey?

AUGUST: FIVE GROUSE FROM A COVEY

George Digweed has described grouse shooting as “the Sport of Kings”, and he should know, as one of the greatest game and clay shots of all time. His most useful – and perhaps surprising – tip for successful grouse shooting is: “Shoot in your own time.” He stresses the importance of remaining calm: “When grouse approach, most of the birds should be shot in front, and many of the first shots I see are taken far too close to the line.”

But for the novice grouse gun, taking five birds out of the covey remains a huge challenge, usually necessitating working closely with your loader to change guns twice as the birds go over. Digweed advises that as soon as you arrive in your butt you should plan how and where you will shoot and, crucially, how and where you will move your feet. He concludes: “The earlier you shoot with a pack of grouse in front, the greater the chance of being able to pick more birds out of the pack behind, giving you the time we are striving for.”

Join the prestigious ranks of Macnabbers

SEPTEMBER: ACHIEVE A MACNAB

The best Macnabs are born and not made, however, Gannochy Estate owner Allan Hemmings (gannochyestate.co.uk), believes in getting every aspect right rather than just relying on luck. He says: “It is such a demanding and complex challenge. If you see a hill you want to climb you go and do it, but with a Macnab you have to be able to make it happen. Make sure you are fit enough to start with. I did an all-walked Macnab here a couple of seasons ago and covered 16 miles on foot. Add to this your sporting competence. We usually advise starting with the salmon as there is more of a chance element, and once you have that you can move on to the other parts. The day is mentally exhausting as well as physically. I have seen good Shots really stressed about getting their brace of grouse. But the high and the elation once you have achieved it are amazing. I must confess to feeling rather smug in the bath that evening after my walking Macnab.”

Savour the pleasure of taking a bird flushed and retrieved by your own dog

OCTOBER: SHOOT OVER YOUR OWN DOG

For the pathologically self-sufficient there is no greater satisfaction than to have your dog flush for you a grouse or any game; instantly drop and sit while you shoot the bird; then, at a word from you, go out and retrieve it to your hand. There are so many elements to be achieved: your dog must have a good nose and be well-trained in steadiness; you must be a satisfactory shot; and the wind and the cover and…

Leading spaniel trainer Ian Openshaw (rytexgundogs.co.uk) has never believed any of this is down to luck. He stresses: “Your dog must be 100% on everything, especially steadiness. Don’t let him hunt too far out in front otherwise you will not have time to get your gun up and take the shot. Have him crossing you almost at your feet on each sweep.”

It’s not just that you tramp triumphantly back to the lodge with bird held high that makes this achievement so sweet, it’s that you shared it with your dog, the two of you working as a team. He did his bit perfectly and you didn’t let him down by missing.

Up…one, two, three… down – fly that massive hedge and long – enjoy the memory

NOVEMBER: JUMP A HEDGE

Whether or not you plan to ride at the opening meet, autumn is your big chance to face up to a decent hedge. Hunter trials, eventing, team chases and trail hunts all offer the  opportunity to jump hedges, sometimes so fiercesome that they have their own name and long history.

Sally Cole and her friends went on a pre-hunting clinic hosted by the Taunton Vale Foxhounds. She says: “I can definitely recommend this to get you going, and meet a wonderful bunch of people at the same time. It has set me up for the proper hedge day at the Avon Vale this season.”

Cole’s photographs show immaculate lower leg position and upper body perfectly central to the horse’s centre of gravity, while the hands are forward to give him freedom to balance over a drop. But even if you can’t manage perfection, the message is: ‘Kick on and stick on’. If you can count to three between take off and landing, then you have jumped a memorable hedge.

A well-executed Boxing Day shoot certainly deserves a big pat on the back

DECEMBER: HOST THE BOXING DAY SHOOT

As the author of How to be Asked Again (Quiller, £20), Rosie Nickerson literally wrote the book on shooting etiquette and loves the Boxing Day shoot, although she warns: “If you are shooting and working your dog and doing the lunch and generally hosting, you have to be fairly well-organised. It’s important not to let the guests turn up before 9.45am to give you a chance to get everything prepared. I always cook a slow one-pot like a chilli con carne, which doesn’t need watching. Our farm isn’t well-suited to hold pheasants, so it’s a lot of work for one day. But it’s worth it for that lovely feeling of seeing everybody enjoying themselves and the young people going round and getting a chance to shoot. It doesn’t matter if the only bird in the bag is a pheasant pegged by the terrier.”

All in all, a wonderful memory to dwell on as you soak in the bath that evening.