Airgun hunter Philip Siddell explains the value of reconnaissance, and shares some tips and tricks that’ll help you find more quarry.
For the first few years of my airgun hunting career I worked the same 30 acres – this was ground I’d grown up on and knew every inch of. Before I was even old enough to own my first air rifle I could’ve told you where to find rabbits purely by virtue of familiarity.
I shot, ferreted and coursed that land for several years before it even occurred to me to seek ground elsewhere. When I did finally acquire my first proper permission on someone else’s ground I didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same success there as I did on my home turf.
It took me years to realise that the chink in my armour that led to this failure was that I’d never learned how to scout for game properly; after all I hadn’t needed to.
Scouting, or reconnaissance, isn’t something I hear discussed as a standalone topic much, but it is just that. Not having a good grasp of scouting skills and techniques is like setting out on a wilderness expedition without first learning how to read a map or use a compass.
It is the preparatory work that helps to ensure success. The good news is you can practise your game scouting skills almost anywhere; but more on that later.
My first piece of advice for those who want to find more game is to put the rifle to one side for a moment. It is tempting upon acquiring a new permission to rush out and start shooting straight away. But this is a real ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’ situation.
One can see a lot more through binoculars than a rifle scope due to the wider field of view offered. Without that rifle nagging away at you, you’ll find yourself gathering a fuller picture of the environment. I’ve noticed too that we don’t actually learn very much about the behaviour of our quarry when we’re shooting them as soon as they appear!
I suppose what I’m alluding to here is best described as observation. Observation should be physically sedentary, but with lots of activity in the grey matter. You need to sit still long enough to blend into the environment and allow the wildlife to become active, but be actively processing the things you’re seeing.
In essence, you’re trying to answer the questions your observations are raising. Questions that might include: What time of day am I seeing the most rabbits?
When I see squirrels moving through a certain section of woodland, are they leaving or returning to their dreys? What time in the evening do the woodpigeons arrive to roost; and how early do I need to arrive to get to my hide without them seeing me?
In my younger days, I found it quite challenging to sit in the undergrowth observing the comings and goings for a couple of hours. I found it much easier to engage in some roving reconnaissance. This kind of scouting can be as simple as going for an evening stroll across your permission and making some notes on what you see.
You will see game doing this, usually just the hind quarters as it dashes for cover, but it’ll only tell you what species are about and a vague indication of where they are resident. The ‘thoughtful wander’ is much more useful for getting to grips with the lie of the land; you should be looking for natural hides and cover to stalk behind, just as much as for quarry.
Be mindful too of elements such as prevailing wind, ground cover and leaf litter that might make a stealthy stalk difficult and any areas that present opportunities for a nice safe shot.
If allowed to do so, I’d even recommend taking your dog along (if you have one of course). A dog’s nose is a formidable tool and it can be helpful to make a mental note of any areas your pooch takes a particular interest in as possible habitat hotspots.
Reading sign is something I’ve worked especially hard at over the last five years, and it’s paying off. It’s great to have good ‘game eyes’ that help you spot bunnies an age before your mates, but it’s even better if you can tell where the animals have been even hours after they’ve gone.
Sign can be faeces, scent (yes, I have been known to stick my own nose to the ground too!), hair, food scraps, footprints, damage to plants and trees, runs, sounds and calls, warrens, nests and the like. The comings and goings of our wildlife are writ large across the landscape; you just have to learn how to read and interpret the evidence.
The best way to build your own sign-reading and tracking skills is through a mixture of both the observational and roving reconnaissance mentioned earlier, although some good books on the subject are a worthwhile investment to help you along (just make sure they are specific to Europe or the British Isles if you’re a UK hunter).
Seeing as I’m encouraging you to treat your scouting activities as a standalone activity I’ll also take the opportunity to encourage you to add a couple of things to your kit that should prove useful. First and foremost, I’d recommend buying some decent 8×42 binoculars if you don’t have some already.
Pay as much as you would for a scope; after all you’re getting twice as much glass. Find a way to stabilise them if you’re glassing for longer periods of time; either with a tripod or your sticks. Grab a notebook, or at least a notes app on your phone, and get into the habit of recording your observations – it’ll encourage you to mull over what you see and draw some actionable conclusions.
Taking a camera along can give you something else to do while out and about, and will somewhat make up for the absence of your rifle. Finally, I’d encourage you to look into some of the books available that focus on the natural history of the quarry we hunt.
I have a couple that have proved invaluable in developing some killer hunting strategies; they have also served to deepen my understanding of the natural world and enrich my hunting experiences.
The best piece of advice I can give you is to develop a habit of scouting everywhere you go. It doesn’t have to be on your permissions, or even just in the countryside. You can learn a lot about Mr Bushy Tail just from watching squirrels in your local park.
I try to discover some form of wildlife almost everywhere I go, and I have fun observing their behaviour and theorising about their motivations for my own amusement. The more you look for wildlife the more you will find (or at least evidence that it has been there).
Before long you’ll find yourself wandering off down game trails and examining droppings to see if they’re fresh, much to the surprise and disgust of friends and family; but worry not, you’ll find you’re a much better hunter for it!
More on hunting from Airgun Shooter
- 10 Tips for conservation-savvy rabbit hunting
- Hunting with a springer – going back to basics
- Rabbit hunting with Richard Saunders
- Summer rabbit stalking – The Countryman
- Woodland pigeon shooting w/ Kev Hawker