Back-up plan: Organise your hunt into Plan A and Plan B with Mat Manning

I’ve often said it, but it’s true: successful hunting depends very much on being in the right place at the right time. It’s hardly surprising when you think about it. Even with an expensive airgun/scope combo, the latest camouflage clothing and great marksmanship skills, none of them will matter one jot if there’s no quarry around to apply them to. And I’ve just returned from a session that proved the point quite clearly – I went out with the plan to target grey squirrels… but came home with four woodpigeons and not a single bushy-tail.

002_BUplanning copyThe outing was to a block of woodland that’s somewhat further from home than most of my hunting permissions. Consequently, I can’t keep as close an eye on it as I’d really like – so it often throws up the odd surprise when I do venture there. During a previous visit, I’d discovered an area that appeared to be crawling with the greys. The spot is quite an open patch of woodland, with a couple of large, dead ashes fl anked by trees draped in dense tangles of ivy. Their hollowed-out trunks and thick cover of the ivy are perfect squirrel habitat – I’d spotted at least half-a-dozen last time out, and managed to bag a brace before nightfall brought the session to a close.

When I arrived for my latest foray, I found quite a different scene – particularly in the large, flat fields surrounding the woods. They’d clearly had a recent drilling of seed and there were more than a few pigeons flapping around. Many landowners in my locality struggled to harvest last year’s crops and found it equally difficult to make winter sowings because the ground was saturated by seemingly endless heavy rainfall – and although this farmer had managed to grab a brief window of opportunity to get his winter barley in, the latest thing to affect his livelihood had arrived in the shape of a flock of hungry woodies. The dull thud of a gas gun indicated that he was aware of the problem and attempting to keep the birds as bay, but as is so often the case, they didn’t appear to be discouraged by the noisy scarer.

I was annoyed at not having any decoys or hide-building gear to control the pigeons over these fields; usually I keep a few deeks and a hide net in the car’s boot, but had taken them out for a spring clean and left them in the shed this time. While it generally pays to have a plan when you set off on a hunting trip, my single-mindedness had seriously reduced my options on this occasion. I didn’t expect to need a hide or decoys for a squirrel shooting session, and now I was unable to make the best of an opportunity to keep the pigeons off the crops.

Once I’d arrived at the dead trees, there was no sign of any squirrels – but I still felt confident that they’d venture out once peace returned to the woods. I wanted to keep disturbance to a minimum, so I quickly settled into a spot where I hoped an ivy-clad tree would provide sufficient cover along with my head-to-toe camouflage. But after a good 30 minutes of inactivity, I was starting to get fidgety. I had not seen hide nor hair of a squirrel, but I was alert to the pigeons flitting along the edge of the woods as they swooped in and out of the freshly-drilled field. Typical!

The reason for my predicament didn’t take long to dawn on me. I’d seen a lot of squirrels in a very short period during the previous visit because it was late in the day. There’s usually a sudden flurry of squirrely activity as the greedy rodents scamper around in search of food before nightfall. I had no doubt that this was an area that held plenty of bushy-tails – but the problem was that it was mid-afternoon, and I was unlikely to see much action from them for an hour or two. Put simply, I was in the right place… at the wrong time.

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It occurred to me that the next couple of hours would be put to better use pursuing the woodies – there were clearly a few about and all I had to do was fi nd the best way of targeting them without my usual paraphernalia. I trundled across to the outskirts of the woods where I’d seen pigeons skimming past, and put up even more birds when I got there… Although there weren’t vast flocks of pigeons around, I reckon at least 20 clattered out from the boughs at my lumbering arrival. It appeared that the birds were dropping in either to sit and digest their food or to check that the coast was clear before they swooped down into the field to gorge. Either way, it certainly appeared that this area warranted some attention.

I crouched down and studied the trees. Although there was plenty of low cover to keep me hidden, this spot didn’t  provide a particularly good shooting angle towards the branches where I expected the woodies to land. Tangles of fine twigs stretched between me and the boughs, threatening to clip my pellet off course before it reached its mark. Moving along a few metres, I found a place from where I could take clear shots into several promising trees – only the cover was sparse at this point.

004_BUplanning copyKnowing that passing pigeons would be looking down on me, I reckoned that the backdrop provided by a thick tree trunk would probably be adequate. However, my main concern was that the movement of lifting and pointing the gun could attract unwanted attention in such an open position, so I propped a few windfall branches and dried out stems against the trunk to create some natural lines that I hoped would help to disrupt the outline of the gun.

It wasn’t the greatest hide I’d ever built by any stretch of the imagination, but I managed to construct it in about two minutes. Best of all, I felt that both timing and positioning were now about as good as they could be. Woodies were still flitting past and my confidence was restored as I settled down onto my beanbag seat.

The first chance came quickly, too; a group of five or six birds passed by and then swung back to pitch in the trees above  me just moments after I’d got into position. Two of the birds were very close (little more than 20 metres away) and clearly presented. The view through my scope offered an unobstructed shot to the highest of the pair and I toppled it with a head shot that sent it crashing down onto the carpet of dry leaves. The remaining birds took flight, their wings clapping as they beat a hasty retreat – but at least there was one less seed-gobbler among their ranks. The pigeon was definitely dead, so I left it where it fell. There’s no point in breaking cover and causing additional disturbance unless you have to – but I did carefully ‘mark’ it so I would have an easy retrieve later on.

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Shortly, another group of half-a-dozen or so woodies circled down to land in the trees to the left of my hiding place. The birds all had their backs to me, but I still took care to shoulder the gun very, very slowly, bearing in mind that my hiding place was relatively exposed. The woodpigeons sat tight and another soon fell to a head shot to make it a brace.

As the light started to fade, I wondered whether I should head back to the squirrelly hotspot in the hope of nailing one or two bushy-tails when they became active at sunset. However, the pigeon sport was just too promising to drag myself away from. Besides, protecting the freshly-drilled crop seemed to be the best way to spend the remaining time, especially as the service came with the added bonus of some rich, tasty meat for the table. My decision appeared to be the right one, too. Although I didn’t see a single squirrel, I managed to bag a total of four woodpigeons before nightfall. So while the session had got off to a slow start – and certainly didn’t unfold anything like I had expected it to – it proved the value of making good decisions in the fi eld and, more importantly, being prepared for unexpectedly finding yourself in the right place at the right time.

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100_BUplanning copyI added the Jack Pyke Countryman Jumper to my hunting attire at the start of the winter and so far it’s performed brilliantly. Billed as windproof and waterproof, although I’ve not properly tested it in the rain (as I’ve usually had a camouflage jacket over the top), I can certainly vouch for the fact that it keeps draughts out. Fleece-lined and reversible (though I think the olivegreen knitted outer with suede elbow and shoulder padding looks too good to pull inside out), this zip-up jumper boasts a high collar and stretch-knitted cuffs that have provided excellent insulation during the coldest of hunts. There are also spacious zipped pockets inside and out to keep things like your car keys and mobile phone secure – and I’d say it’s well worth the asking price.

SRP: £65


200_BUplanning copyI’ve been trying out Air Arms Field Plus in my FAC-rated Daystate Mk4 over recent weeks, and early findings look promising. Anyone who uses a high-powered air rifle will probably agree that ammunition choice  is far from straightforward. Mine is .22 calibre and that has meant choosing between flatshooting, lightweight pellets, that tend to get a little unstable at long range, or heavier ‘magnum’ ammo that weighs 20 grains or more and holds tighter groups… but which obviously has a more curved trajectory.

At just under 30ft/lb, my Daystate shoots brilliantly with standard 16-grain, 5.52mm Air Arms Field pellets out to about 50 metres, but beyond that range, it’s the heavyweight ammo that groups tighter – so in a bid to improve long range performance while maintaining a relatively flat trajectory, I’m experimenting with the slightly heavier 18.1-grain Plus variant.

SRP: £6.84 per tin of 250.

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