What is a “high” pheasant and how should you prepare for a day on such birds? Start with some words of wisdom from a world champion, learn how to shoot pheasants properly
Knowing how to shoot pheasants properly is a lesson every sportsman must learn. 26-time world champion George Digweed offers his words of wisdom.
For more of George Digweed’s shooting top tips, read George Digweed’s guide to grouse and George Digweed’s ultimate pigeon decoying guide. Or keep reading to learn how to shoot pheasants like a world champion.
HOW TO SHOOT PHEASANTS
What is a “high” pheasant? That’s a question often asked in the game-shooting world and the answer is, “it’s highly subjective”. Geographical position within the UK plays a massive part, as do weather conditions. In Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and the Westcountry, the guns can be placed in valleys and the birds streamed over them. In that sense, they are more “low gun” than “high pheasant” shoots. But challenging birds are not restricted to ground with hills. In the right conditions, with the right birds and gamekeeper, exceptionally high pheasants can be presented off a flat field.
So what’s a high bird on a “normal” shoot? A fully mature, well-grown ash tree is about 35 yards high, so a pheasant clearing its top by 10 yards would be a 45-yarder – a very good pheasant for anybody to be underneath. That seems high, perhaps requiring heavy artillery, but, ballistically, it can be shot routinely with a traditional side-by-side with 30gm of No 6 as long as the gun has the ability to know where his or her shot is going. Most English guns were designed to shoot this load and set up “flat” to shoot pretty much “point of aim”. This was because excessive lead would not be needed to shoot the birds presented.
Until the early 1980s, most pheasants and all partridges were shown at this sort of height, or lower, on traditional shoots, not across big, wide, steep valleys. Then, with the advent of the big, high-bird shoots, traditional attitudes surrounding the sport changed: the birds were now much higher; the over-and-under became more acceptable; barrels grew longer; and heavier loads of big pellets and tight choking became the norm for how to shoot pheasants.
We then moved into the world of the ultra-high pheasant as shoots responded to a demand to produce birds that would have been considered out of range by earlier generations. In how to shoot pheasants, these birds require different abilities, technique and a change of kit.
So what is an ultra-high pheasant compared to an out-of-range bird? Is it now 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 yards up? Most high-bird shoots have a “show drive” and, depending on the topography, these can vary from a 40-yard pheasant to, in some cases, 150 yards to 200 yards high. It’s important to realise with how to shoot pheasants that a show drive is showing how high the birds can be driven – and a great many of those coming over will be out of any shotgun’s range.
I have seen a lot of high birds shot (and shot at) and, in my opinion, with the modern guns and cartridges available, a true 60-yard pheasant is consistently killable up to that height if you possess the necessary skill. Any higher and you are relying on luck and we need to question seriously whether luck should play any part when it comes to the humane dispatch of a living quarry. It’s all very well hitting clays at extreme range but they are not sentient beings.
Sportsmen like to challenge themselves but there is a fine line between high and too high. If you have to resort – and we have all done it – to using No 2, 3 and 4 shot in 36gm to 50gm cartridges, then, in my opinion, those birds are too high. Length of barrel has nothing to do ballistically with the performance of the cartridge but what it does encourage with longer barrels is the operator to have a steadier, more consistent swing.
Technique, eyesight and hand/eye co-ordination all come massively into play when shooting ultra-high pheasants, as it is rare that these birds are shown where there is any background or marks by which you can judge efficiently the height of a bird that is in the sky over your head.
When shooting the ultra-high birds, they should be shot off the back foot to allow control for the shot, using your arms and body to get through the bird. This is essential if the bird is being tackled directly overhead, which normally is its closest point.
It is my belief that most high pheasants are missed not in front or behind but on the wrong line. When shooting lower-presented game, you normally have trees or objects where distance can be judged properly. High pheasants tend to be shown in a valley situation where there is no background available from which to read the line from point A to point B, as well as distance. How often have we sat on a peg and a pheasant appears from the flushing point and looks as if it is going to go over three guns to your left but finishes up over your head? To deal with these birds properly, you have to have a sound technique. They have to be shot with the gun coming through the line of the bird from behind. In doing this, if you are on the wrong line of the bird it will appear either side of the barrel. I would suggest that the pheasant is allowed to commit to the line and once it has made its mind up where it is going, you start a distance behind the bird that you feel comfortable with, come straight through the tail, the body, squeeze the trigger on the beak and push the gun on to finish the shot. The most important part is how you finish; if you do not push the gun on at the end, everything else you have done will be wasted.
Another key area of tackling high pheasants is to make sure you are side on in your address of the bird, which allows your shoulders to maintain a level plateau and insures that when leaning back you do not roll side to side, creating a rainbow effect.
TOO FEW ANNIE OAKLEYS
A big gripe of mine has always been people shooting at super-high pheasants with smaller gauges. If someone shoots poorly, their comment is, “Well, I am only using a 20- or a 28-bore”; if complimented, their reply is: “Well, I’m only using a 20- or 28-bore.” I do not believe that in the world of the ultra-high bird, unless we are talking about a shot with supreme talent (I have heard a lot of Annie Oakleys but seen few), you can get a high enough density of pellets in the right area with a small gun.
As for choke, I use a lot but then I use a lot in all of my guns as I like to know where the centre of the shot string is. This is only achievable with a tightly choked gun.
Size of pellet does make a difference and the longer the season progresses, the older and stronger the bird becomes and the more difficult it is to kill cleanly at long range. A larger pellet will deliver more striking energy but its energy is also dependent upon the speed at which the pellet is delivered.
From 36gm and heavier, the pellet speed is markedly slower. Therefore, my preference is Gamebore’s Pigeon Extreme. It’s loaded with 34gm of No 5s, which gives me the most consistent patterns. You will kill a higher bird using 4s but the consistency will drop and we are then talking of “fluke pellets”.
Pretty much all the “silly high pheasants” that people talk about are killed with fluke pellets – and they are nearly always hens, which are lighter, softer and more vulnerable to a single impact.
WARY OF INEXPERIENCED TEAMS
I would advise caution when considering these extreme pheasants. Most of the claims need to be taken with a ladle of salt and it does concern me that the average game-shot who puts in no practice during the year, and only gets his or her gun out from one game season to the next, should suddenly believe that he or she is capable of killing high and ultra-high birds consistently.
Shoots should also be wary of relatively inexperienced teams wanting to shoot at “extreme” pheasants and partridges all day because it is the “done thing”. They don’t have the skills, it’s not fair to the quarry and, in the end, missing birds all day long is something that few guns enjoy, no matter what they might say in the bar afterwards.
Just like, as a batsman, you would want to score 100 off Jimmy Anderson, as a golfer beat Jack Nicklaus in match play or grab a racquet and overcome Andy Murray, challenges are there but they have to be managed. We are in a sport, and a great sport it is, but we are also dealing with a wild animal and, as such, it deserves the ultimate respect from its pursuer.
Shooting, like cricket, golf or tennis, is a sport that requires practice and the more we do the better we can understand, ballistically, a gun’s capability and our own. Work hard on both aspects and, just like anything else we do, in how to shoot pheasants the more you put in the more you will get out.
These are very much my personal views on how to shoot pheasants but as someone who loves the countryside and is privileged to be able to provide sport, I would remind everyone that high-bird shooting is only a small part of our world. Very few people would complain if they were presented with – and shot nicely – those 45-yard birds that our forebears killed prettily with 30gm of 6s from a side-by-side.
High birds are always subjective and open to interpretation. Distances and heights can rarely be estimated accurately – and the alpha male will always add plenty of distance.
So often you see teams that work each other up to try to shoot birds that many more experienced shots would never address because they’re simply out of range. A fluke shot might kill the odd 70-yard hen but remember it’s a fluke – it’s not an example of what can be achieved consistently.
This season, I would urge everyone, when confronted with that ultra-high pheasant, which is nonetheless in range, to make a decision before pulling the trigger. If you have put the work in, are confident with your technique and have a reasonable expectation that when you fire the bird will crumple dead in the sky – then take it on. If you are unsure on any of the above, then doff your hat to the bird and let it fly on to provide sport for another day.