Thinking of Hunting?
With the opening of bird-hunting seasons rapidly approaching, instead of my usual contributions to Dog News, I’m offering up some practical information for a change. Information, incidentally, that has been acquired over a lifetime of hunting upland birds and waterfowl.
If the number of entries I’m seeing in hunt tests this year is an accurate indication, and not just “backlog” from all the tests cancelled last year due to COVID-19, a significant number of Sporting dog people – plus some Airedalers and Standard and Miniature Poodle owners – have decided to see if their dogs can do what they were meant to do. And a lot who are trying hunt tests are rookies. What’s more, many of these folks have likely never actually hunted, something they will eventually try if they want to have the full experience of working with their dogs in the field.
So this will give those people some idea of what they’ll need to acquire and do in order to have quality time hunting with their dogs.
The first bit of equipment needed – and the most expensive – is a shotgun. When you start to talk about shotguns with hunters, religion and politics become non-controversial subjects by comparison. Every hunter I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot of them) has had a set-in-concrete opinion as to what brand or model was the perfect shotgun. What’s more, all of them were absolutely right. A good shotgun is the one with which you can consistently hit birds and that feels comfortable when you shoulder it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bargain single-shot or one with a price tag that looks like it should be hanging on an F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft.
A good shotgun is the one with which you can consistently hit birds and that feels comfortable when you shoulder it. (Krista Smude, photo)
For you who are asking what I shoot, my personal preference happens to be Browning shotguns because they fit me best. But Winchester, Remington, Benelli, Beretta, Mossberg and dozens of other manufacturers also have their devotees within the hunting fraternity/sorority, and all are fine firearms. Any of them can be the perfect shotgun for you if it’s one with which you can hit birds.
So, how do you find the illusive “perfect” shotgun or shotguns for you?
First, you need to narrow your possible selections by deciding what sort of action the gun has that will best fit your needs, and, quite frankly, your body, your shooting skills and your personality.
When it comes to your choice of action, you have four options: single shot, pump action, semi-automatic or double-barrel.
Single shots, as the name implies, only hold one shell at a time, which means you have to open the breech and insert a new shell every time you fire a round. This definitely slows down the number of shots you can take and requires you to be a pretty good wingshot if you are going to get anything on the ground for your dog to fetch. However, they are the least expensive.
Pumps, which require you to “pump” or pull a slide to load a live round and eject the spent shells, are the most common. They are relatively inexpensive, reliable and easy to use.
Semi-automatics don’t have a pump. They use gas blowback to work the action, although Browning still makes the A5, which ejects the spent shells by recoil action. Gas autos are the kindest to your shoulder in terms of easing the recoil. They let you fire quicker than a pump because all you have to do is pull the trigger. But they are also more expensive and are not as reliable as a pump. Plus they require more maintenance – a major issue if, like me, you hate gun-cleaning chores and can’t con someone else into doing that task for you. Every now and then I have been unable to get off a second or third shot at a flock of geese because the spent shell from the first round I fired has not been fully ejected, something that very rarely happens with a pump.
Aside from the frustration this creates, it also means I’m going to get “THE LOOK” from the dog because I failed to get birds on the ground for him to fetch. He’s impatient enough when I flat out miss shots, but he’s hunted enough with me to know that I’m far from a champion wingshooter and he’s well acquainted with the words, “No bird.” But failing to expend all three rounds in the gun at birds in range means to him that I’m not trying, and that is a mortal sin in his book.
After you’ve hunted a few times with your dog, you’ll get “THE LOOK” from him/her when you fail to measure up as a wingshot. (Krista Smude, photo)
Now, don’t laugh or accuse me of anthropomorphizing. After you’ve hunted a few times with your dog, you’ll get “THE LOOK” from him/her when you fail to measure up as a wingshot, and you’ll recognize it for exactly what it is: at best reproach or – if the dog is really disgusted – a silent chewing-out. Some of mine, in fact, haven’t been so silent about it either as they accompanied their icy stares with angry barking making me grateful, for once, that I couldn’t understand “dog.”
The fourth shotgun option is a double-barrel. These come with the barrels either side by side or with one barrel over the other. These are extremely reliable, but they are also very expensive – plus you only get two shots. I shoot an over/under when hunting upland birds because that presents virtually the same sight picture as the shotgun I use to hunt waterfowl – something to keep in mind if you are going to use different shotguns for waterfowl and for upland birds.
Once you’ve decided on the type of action that best suits you, the next decision is gauge. The two most common gauges are 12 and 20, although there are hunters that swear by their 16 gauges. Some goose hunters I know who wouldn’t be caught dead in the blind with anything other than a 10 gauge, and still others hunt very successfully with a 28 gauge or even a 410. With the higher numbers – 20, 28 or 410 – the main drawback is the higher the number, the fewer the pellets in the shell. The advantage is that the recoil is considerably less than you’ll get from a 12 or 10 gauge shell.
Your next step is to go to a gun store that has a wide variety of shotguns available. You’ll need to handle a number of shotguns to find one that fits you. Make sure the stock fits comfortably with your shoulder and you can easily swing the barrel. A good gun-store owner or clerk can help you a lot in finding a shotgun that fits you physically.
Then you need to find one that fits in your price range. Shotguns, like all firearms these days, are not cheap. The two that I use the most sell for around $1,500 for the semi-auto and $2,500 for the over/under. But you can buy a really good pump shotgun for $500 or less.
Then, if you haven’t already done so, find the nearest gun club that has a qualified shooting instructor and take lessons. Also, even if your state doesn’t require it, by all means take your state’s department of natural resources’ firearms safety training course. If nothing else, it will reinforce many of the safety points your firearms instructor has made as well as help provide some practical knowledge, like how to safely go through fences or get in and out of a boat with your shotgun.
Actually, taking your state DNR’s gun-safety course is a good idea even if all you ever plan to do is run hunt tests. I can’t count the number of times during the 15 years I was judging the tests that someone swung a shotgun across me or pointed one at my head because they’d never handled a shotgun for real and had never been taught both the importance of and the need for gun safety even with an unloaded gun — it’s usually the “unloaded” gun that kills you! Even though my brain knew the guns weren’t loaded, my adrenal glands didn’t, and I’m sure that sort of “rush” isn’t good for a person. Besides, it’s just good manners, old fashioned as that concept may be, to handle a firearm safely around other people and their dogs.
Two notes of caution for budding women hunters: The first is find an instructor who has had experience teaching women how to shoot. The National Rifle Association, for example, has a course titled “Women on Target” that is superb. Number two is DON’T let your husband or boyfriend teach you how to shoot. They’ll no doubt have developed a lot of bad habits with a shotgun that you don’t need, and, even more importantly, gun safety is literally a matter of life and death. With you and your husband/boyfriend, in addition to the safety issues, there are also likely instructional issues and emotional issues. In other words, having your husband/boyfriend teach you how to shoot is a really bad idea.
Two notes of caution for budding women hunters: Find a shooting instructor who has had experience teaching women, and DON’T let your husband or boyfriend teach you how.
When hunting ducks and geese you need to stay warm, dry and concealed, so that means pants, jacket and hat in one of the many different camouflage patterns.
The next issue is clothing. You need different clothing for waterfowl hunting than you’ll need for upland hunts. First of all, you need to stay warm, dry and hidden hunting ducks and geese, so that means pants, jacket and hat in one of the many different camouflage patterns. Mossy Oak Duck Blind or Mossy Oak Shadow Grass might be the best, but most of the other patterns work just fine, too. Pick the one that blends the best with the foliage/plants where you do most of your hunting. For example, when hunting geese on the wheat fields in Saskatchewan, I use a khaki military field jacket because it’s a near-perfect match for the stubble. You’ll likely want one set for early season hunting that isn’t insulated and one for the late season hunts that is.
You also need good-quality rain gear, meaning a suit that has minimal leaks – none of them are perfect despite what the manufacturers say – and either hip boots or chest waders if you are hunting over water. Spend the extra money and get insulated boots. You’ll be thankful at least once every hunting season that you did. If you are hunting from a boat, be sure your gear also includes either a flotation coat or life vest. Again, literally a life and death matter. Thermal long underwear is also a necessity. I like to start with silk and build outward in layers from there.
If you are doing a field shoot, you won’t need rubber boots unless the field is really muddy. So let’s get to all-purpose boots. I have two pair of leather boots that I use every fall. One is insulated and the other isn’t. I also have several pair with rubber feet, both insulated and uninsulated, from LL Bean that I use all the time when the fields are wet. One thing I really like about Bean’s boots with rubber feet, aside from keeping my feet dry, is that the tread doesn’t seem to collect mud like that on my leather boots. Whatever boot you select, however, make sure it fits really well. You will be doing a lot of walking if you are hunting waterfowl in a field or upland birds, so you need comfortable boots. Be sure you have them well broken in before the season opens.
If you are hunting upland birds, you need different clothing. When upland hunting you want to be seen, so a blaze-orange vest and cap are musts. Be sure the vest has both a game pouch and some pockets. Another bit of advice: Keep your shotgun shells in one pocket – always the same one – or in the shell loops, and your rolls of candy and lip ice in a different pocket, again always the same one. That’s so when you need to do a hasty reload, such as when half the quail covey waits to rise until after you’ve expended all your ammo on the first covey rise, you don’t try to reload with lip ice or a candy roll. If that sounds like the voice of experience, it’s because it is.
If you hunt open country, lightweight nylon-faced brush pants are plenty good. But if you hunt brush country, you’ll need something stouter. Brush is where game lives. Theoretically the dog is supposed to do almost all of the brush busting, but, like most theories, this one has some pretty big holes in it: Sooner or later, you’ll have to follow the dog into the brush, either because they are on point or, if a flushing breed, because he/she is telling you that there are birds in there and you’d better move into the cover if you want to get a decent shot.
Theoretically the dog is supposed to do almost all of the brush busting, but like most theories, this one has some pretty big holes in it. (Chris Halvorson, photo)
The places I’ve hunted, it seems as though every bit of flora wears spurs or has needles. Various conifers, plum trees, prickly ash, wild blackberry or raspberry patches, wild roses – and probably some stuff that hasn’t even been named because no one can get close enough to figure out what to call it – are all waiting to make you bleed. So, you need something made of heavy duck fabric or denim to ward off the briars and needles.
Various thorny and prickly plants and trees are all waiting to make you bleed. (Krista Smude, photo)
Absolutely essential are good shooting glasses. They’re expensive, but what are your eyes worth? Shooters are particularly prone to eye damage, as even dust from clay birds on the skeet field can blow back into your eyes, and it smarts. Also, trust me when I say that brush always tries to attack your eyes. I was stung several times before I wised up and started wearing shooting glasses hunting upland birds. They’re also important if you happen to be “posting” on the end of a field to discourage running pheasants from hightailing it into the next county. No matter how safe your hunting partners are, there can be pellets from shots that don’t stay in the pattern, even when the gun barrel is pointed 45 degrees away from you. Even a nearly spent pellet can damage an eye.
Shooting glasses are absolutely essential, although expensive. But then, what are your eyes worth?
As long as the subject is protection, it’s also important to take care of your ears. The best ear protection shields your hearing from the shotgun but lets you hear other things like conversation and the sounds of the woods or the field when you are hunting. These are also quite expensive but are worth the investment. However, almost any ear protection is better than nothing. Soon enough the aging process will creep up on you and mess with your hearing. You don’t need to give Mother Nature a head start by exposing your ears to unprotected blasts from a shotgun.
So far, all of this information has been for the hunter’s benefit, comfort or protection. But what about the dogs? Their comfort and protection also need to be addressed. After all, when you get right down to it, they’re doing most of the work. So, here’s what the well-dressed hunting dog wears. For a waterfowl dog a neoprene vest is a major plus. Not only does it help keep the dog warm on frigid days, but it also provides enough flotation to make swimming less arduous, which makes a big difference if the water is choppy or if you shoot a lot of birds.
A neoprene vest is a big plus for a waterfowl dog.
For upland hunting, if the going is tough and strewn with briars, use a vest that protects the dog’s chest and belly, preferably in blaze orange. If you hunt areas with a lot of prickly pear or sandburrs, you might also want to invest in protective boots for the dog. Sand and dust can be tough on a dog’s eyes. So, if you hunt areas that are prone to blowing sand or dust, protect your dog’s eyes with Doggles, the comfortable dog goggles used by the Navy’s SEALs for their war dogs in desert environments. If you hunt in areas where heat is an issue, you might want to invest in a cooling vest to help prevent overheating. Keep in mind, however, that these vests work better in dry air than they do when the humidity is high.
If you hunt areas that are prone to blowing sand or dust, protect your dog’s eyes with Doggles, the comfortable dog goggles used by the Navy’s SEALs for their war dogs in desert environments.
So, these are the basics. It’s by no means a complete list because, with more experience hunting, you’ll find dozens of things you’ll convince yourself that you can’t live without. Same as with the dogs: You never seem to have everything you think you need until one day you find you have accumulated enough to open a used dog-stuff store. So, what’s outlined here is really a bare minimum.
Now go shoot some birds. You’ll see then what makes Scout or Dixie happier than he or she has ever been – plus you get the bonus of some very tasty table fare.