Getting Better at Incoming/Passing Birds

If you have taken to heart the practice drills we’ve covered on flushing or outgoing birds, then the jump to the incoming birds will not be that difficult. When doing clinics on incoming shots, we separate the incoming bird into two categories — passing or decoying. These can be any bird except the flushing species such as quail, grouse or woodcock, which typically flush and then get back on the ground and “run like the dickens” to get away!

This is what the flocks looked like if Ash mounted as they came into range.

Passing shots seem to be the most difficult for most shooters due to the fact that the gun must be farther ahead of the target than on any other shot. While most wingshooters get all caught up in the “lead” and how big it is, we have come to the understanding that it is not so much the amount lead that is important, but the gun speed matching the bird’s speed. On a recent trip to Bolivia to Jorge Molina’s Las Palomas lodge, we encountered some very challenging shooting on doves and pigeons, and our system of shooting paid huge dividends when the wind gave the birds the advantage.

What an advantage the wind does play. Sometimes it’s the to the hunter, but more often it’s to the bird. When the wind does not blow, then the birds must generate their own speed and line, and are constantly working to stay in the air and get to where they are going. Their normal speed is about 18 to 22 mph (my guess), and it stays that way from the beginning to the end of their journey, which is where the picture of the muzzle being “3 feet in front” (or three inches) comes from. When you add wind, however, things change dramatically.

Lets take for instance a tailwind of 12 to 15 mph. It can dramatically change not only the lead necessary to hit the bird, but also makes it easier for the bird to coast and change its line erratically during its flight to its chosen feeding ground or roost. Two things create lead — the speed of the target, and distance to the target. Of the two, the speed of the target creates much more lead than does the distance. Fast targets take a lot of lead and slow targets don’t. But in order for the shooter to be consistently successful, the shooter must be able to keep the gun on the line and be far enough in front of the target to hit it. Now add wind to this equation where is easier for the bird to instantly change its line.

In two seconds as Ash began to move through the incoming bird, one bird flared and the rest of them reacted to the one that flared!

I was presented just this sort of a challenge while sharing a blind with John Wiles, owner of Best Wing Shooting, one afternoon on our recent trip to Bolivia. We took turns observing doves that were coming over a tree line with about a 10 mph right-to-left wind. We were set up in blinds about 100 yards from the tree line, which gave us enough time to shoot the birds, but these were not just any birds. Every slight movement would cause these birds to “juke and jive” like sugared-up six-year-olds playing soccer with two balls at the same time! As I stood up to shoot, I closed my K-20 with the ShotKam 3 on it and just the closing of the gun caused the birds to flare dramatically. After I mounted and dismounted about three or four times without taking a shot, John remarked, “Not for the faint of heart, eh?”

When conditions change, you have to change with them and change we did. The movement of mounting the gun as the birds came into range increased the difficulty dramatically, so I began to mount earlier and under the birds much farther out. As they closed the distance, I would come from underneath them and in front of them and, because the gun was moving the same speed as the bird, I did not look to them as if I was moving at all. While some did flare after I changed my approach, the flaring became the exception instead of the rule. What a shoot it was and if you shot 50 percent in that wind, you were doing some really great shooting.

I remember the wind throwing our shooters a curve ball on another Argentina coaching adventure where Vicki and I were hired by a group of Y.P.O. shooters to coach them in the field. On the first four hunts, there was not much wind and the birds were flying in fairly straight lines to the roost. These guys caught on to the sight pictures, and were moving and mounting the gun with the target really fast. On the fifth hunt, we were hunting incoming birds in a 15 to 20 mph left-to-right crosswind, so the birds were not only moving faster, they were drifting to the right as they made their way back to the roost.

After about 15 minutes, the cries of, “Hey coach, we need help cause we ain’t hitting anything!” came from the tree line, so we eased around the corner and assembled the group and had one of them shoot. The misses were constantly to the left of the doves and, while we could see the shot over their shoulder, the birds were flaring to the right as the shot passed by them.

Vicki was the first to pick up on the drift of the birds as they were flying pretty much in straight lines and our shooters were getting the gun in front, but they were not picking up on the drift to the right from the wind. What an optical illusion! The birds appeared as straight lines, but the crosswind was pushing them to the right. Vicki suggested that the shooter hold in front and to the right just a little and, “Boom!” a dead dove.

Next, Gil told the shooters to hold their muzzles straight up and down just to the left of a dove 100 yards out and not to move the gun — just watch the bird and see what happens. While the birds looked like they were flying in a straight line, the wind was definitely pushing them sideways. Having the barrel stationary in the scene made the wind drift obvious.

Wind can have an interesting effect on what you have to do to hit a moving target with a shotgun. The most frequent mistake we see in the field is when shooters mount the gun on the bird (which in essence is behind), and then try to see past the confusion of the gun on the bird and aim the gun ahead of the bird without stopping their swing. This erratic movement increases the potential for the birds to flare and have really crazy lines just as the shot is coming together.

Having a smooth, consistent gun mount greatly aids in staying with one bird as they all begin to go different directions. Gil just reviewed some of the ShotKam footage from Bolivia and there were some spectacular misses where the birds just were in transition during the shot and just faked him out. We can’t wait to get back there and be even more determined to be smoother and move less so as to not give away his presence and give the advantage to the doves!–Gil and Vicki Ash

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