By Nick Simonson
Hunting upland birds behind a pointing dog can provide some of the biggest thrills in the outdoors. Few moments stand out in the fall like a quivering tail on a rock-solid dog holding just inches from an unseen bird buried in the grass. The tension and anticipation coming from those memorable seconds over fifteen years behind two pointing labs has not waned for me, and my heart still jumps into my throat as the word “steady” works its way out in as calm and low of a voice as I can muster to reassure my dog that I am on my way to see what he’s pinned down. However, connecting on a pointed and flushed bird can be more challenging than it seems, and even a decade and a half down the road, a miss or two still makes it into my hunting journal when recapping what seemed like a sure thing.
Know How It Ends
The end result is often fifty-fifty on hens or roosters flushing (though it may seem like hens are the primary offering some days), or sometimes it’s a group of birds like grouse, partridge or young of the year pheasants that are bunched up at the end of an area of cover. Whatever the situation, the moment of pause that points provide gives hunters a chance to get set up for the shot and to convert whatever is being held in check. Some pointers are trained to allow the hunter to flush the bird and some, like my dogs, have been trained to release on a command and send their quarry into the sky. Knowing your dog – or the dog you may be hunting with – and how they release the bird from their point is as important as what comes after the flush.
In the time leading up to that moment, getting in position is crucial, knowing that a skittish pheasant may burst from cover at any time on the approach. Move quickly, but calmly, reassuring the dog only as needed and doing so in a hushed voice if possible or necessary. While the field mount pattern I have developed over the years does not release the safety on the gun until the stock hits my shoulder, and I don’t raise the gun until the bird hits the skyline and is clear of the dog and any obstructions in the distance, I have seen many others be fully or partially mounted as they come up behind their pointer. Find the pattern that works for you, and continue to develop it this fall and in the seasons to come. Continue to keep safety and awareness of your surroundings while you prepare for the shot, and be aware of the behaviors of the dog holding nearby, which may jump or pursue the bird after the flush, depending on age, breed or training level. If the dog isn’t yours or you’re not familiar with it, it is important to ask the owner about what to expect on a point before entering the field, so you can be ready and safe.
Know the Shot
With all the excitement and anticipation building up to the flush, it’s possible to rush the shot, prematurely fire and miss the bird entirely. Remember to breathe on approach to the point, taking a deep calming breath and thinking about what’s to come in a manner that relies on previous experience and a positive mindset of converting the point to a flush, to a mounted gun, to a shot, to a bird in the bag. While the visualized ideal scenario is rarely what results, something similar to it often does, and the chain of events may not differ much from what actually happens. Positivity and mental preparation, even in just that second or two before the moment of truth, goes a long way toward converting in any situation, including hunting.
Additionally, as part of that preparation, knowing your shotgun, choke tubes and the load you’re shooting is important in connecting with a pointed and flushed bird. In my younger days, when I shot a single-barreled pump gun, I usually utilized a modified choke in early fall and a full choke later in the season. I could take down far-flushing birds in December, and often did. However, having hunted behind a pointing dog and enjoying those moments even more as what I seek from my hunting experience has changed over time, even if some birds flush wild, I’ll often hold off on rangy roosters and wait for a point, or a closer-flushing bird, and utilize an improved cylinder in my first barrel and modified choke in the second pipe of my over-under. I know that this more open combination provides a wider pattern which helps me connect better with pointed pheasants which even in late season flush closer to me.
Even with those close-flushing birds, it’s important to let the shot set up to the pattern of the shell and choke tubes being used. A rooster shot at 5 yards with any gun is often turned into hamburger if it gets hit, but more often is missed as the pattern is too narrow. With many specialty upland loads designed to carry out to effective ranges of 40 or 50 yards, it may take longer and seem counter-intuitive to let the bird get out, but it’s likely you have a second or two to let the situation develop and the bird to wing it into the ideal shooting range. Having this factor covered in your point-to-shot itinerary comes down to patterning your shotgun ahead of the hunt and learning to judge distance effectively. The former takes about 15 minutes at a shooting range, the latter may take months or years, and certainly can be affected by adrenaline and excitement on any given day. Prepare for the point with knowledge of the dog, your firearm and load, and with the mindset that each shot presents a chance that you can and will convert on.