Few things can persuade me to abandon a hunting trip – and it may surprise other airgunners to learn that a windy day certainly isn’t one of them.
In my opinion, too many shooters leave their airguns locked away when there’s a stiff breeze pushing across the countryside.
While I acknowledge that windy conditions make our shooting more difficult – not least through the effect that wind-drift can have on shot placement – there’s still good sport to be had when gusts are battering the treetops.
And, given the weather we’ve had lately, I’ve had to resign myself to taking what I’m given. Actually, I reckon my outings would have been reduced by half if I’d limited myself to days with nothing more than a gentle breeze.
Back in the summer, I shared some tips on cheating the wind when targeting rabbits. Those tactics revolved around setting up a close-range ambush and keeping low to the ground to keep your shots beneath the worst of the gusts.
While those methods work well during the warmer months when there’s an abundance of young rabbits to target, they’re not really suited to winter woodland.
One of my recent trips to the woods got off to a less than perfect start weather-wise. While I’m prepared to hunt in a stiff breeze, I still prefer calmer conditions – so I wasn’t exactly thrilled to wake up to the sound of a strong wind bumping against the bedroom window.
Still, a bad day’s shooting is better than no shooting at all, so I carried on regardless.
Out on the estate, I planned my route to take me along the sheltered side of a long strip of woodland.
I thought I might encounter woodpigeons taking advantage of a place where they wouldn’t get blown from their perches, and maybe a squirrel or two raiding pheasant feeders while protected from the elements. As it happened, I saw neither – but I did see a rabbit.
Sheltered by the trees and a hedge which ran down at a 90-degree angle from the woods, the bunny was nibbling away at a patch of grass just a few feet from its burrow. While I was rather exposed, the woodland offered me a fairly solid backdrop and the wind was actually working in my favour.
Although the breeze could barely be felt at ground level in this sheltered spot, it was clattering through the treetops and no doubt rattling through the top of the hedge behind the rabbit.
All that background noise rendered my approach virtually inaudible. I stalked as slowly and carefully as ever, but I could safely assume that this bunny was not going to hear me coming.
Sure enough, the rabbit carried on feeding, and by way of soft footfall, I managed to get within 30 metres before I took the shot. Scattered tufts of sedge prevented me from shooting prone, but a kneeling stance gave me stability and enough height to clear their leafy tops.
The corner was so sheltered that I didn’t need to make any allowance for wind drift, either – and the pellet struck the rabbit neatly between eye and ear to get the session off to a flying start.
Moving into the woods, things became noticeably trickier. Most shooters know all too well how the wind can push a pellet off aim, but the effect it has on your senses is often neglected.
On a calm day, I’ll spend a lot of time just watching and listening. Tune-in to the sounds and movements of the woods and little clues like the click of claws on bark or the flick of a bouncing branch will draw your eye to a squirrel making its way through the treetops.
Not today, though. All of the branches were bashing about causing an almost deafening din and a constant blur of movement. Ironically, the chaos that had enabled me to creep within striking distance of that rabbit was now hampering my hunting senses.
When wind is causing this sort of turmoil, the usual look-and-listen tactics are unlikely to work from any great distance.
The chances of opportunistic sightings of quarry are greatly reduced, so my advice is to concentrate on the hot-spots. On days like this, they’re most likely to be around more sheltered areas.
However, just because it’s harder to spot quarry when the branches are heaving in the wind, I don’t give up altogether.
As I approach a promising place, I’ll often pause for a scan through the binoculars before I close in. Peering through the bins, you’ll often spot woodpigeons clinging to their rocking perches.
Concentrate carefully on the lower branches, because birds tend to settle closer to the ground to avoid the worst of the wind. Indeed, it’s also well worth scanning the ground when you’re targeting squirrels as they’ll be scuttling about, foraging for food.
I’d been in the woods for more than an hour when I managed my first sighting: a squirrel pinching grain from beneath a pheasant feeder.
Spotting the bushy-tail through the binoculars swayed the odds in my favour as I could creep carefully through the undergrowth, again using the wind to mask the sound of my approach and push my scent away from my quarry.
The squirrel was so distracted by the nutritious kernels of corn that the stalk wasn’t particularly challenging. And, as it was on the ground, I didn’t have to contend with a swaying target.
Suffice to say, the bushy-tail ended up in the bag with the bunny.
Where one squirrel is found feeding, others are likely to follow, so I decided to settle into the undergrowth and see what turned up.
Ground feeding stations like this can be great places to target on windy days.
Not only can you get quite close, but squirrels are so much easier to shoot on the deck than in the treetops, when the branches are being snatched and shaken by a gusting wind.
Even if bushy-tails don’t keep still when they’re on the ground, there’s often the chance of a static shot as they cling to tree trunks on their way down or back up.
No more squirrels ventured out to dine – partly because I cut my vigil short after watching a string of woodpigeons drop into the woods about 200 metres away.
The temptation was too much for me to resist and I broke cover to see whether or not I could add a woody to the bag.
By and large, I tend to write off ‘stalking’ woodpigeons as a dead loss. Wild woodies are wary birds and all those staring pairs of eyes will usually spot a hunter creeping through the undergrowth a mile off – and that’s if they don’t hear your feet crunching through the leaves first!
But the tables were turned this time. The pigeons that had flighted-in to roost in a sheltered corner of the woods probably couldn’t hear anything over the noise of the wind bashing through the branches above them.
And all the movement caused by gusts shaking through the boughs meant I was unlikely to catch their eye as I skulked slowly through the woods beneath the pandemonium.
As I reached what I guessed to be the halfway point, I stopped for a recce through the binoculars. Through the evening gloom, I could see the blobs of the roosting woodies dotted against the greying sky.
The birds were facing into the wind with their backs to me, and several were on very low branches.
I slipped the binoculars back into my bag and continued to ghost through the trees until I was about 25 metres from the nearest birds.
Stalking woodpigeons like that would have been seriously impressive in normal conditions but, thanks to the chaos caused by the wind, I’m happy to admit that it really wasn’t very difficult at all.
Settling myself into a kneeling position, I shifted the scope from bird to bird as I tried to pick the easiest shot.
Fortunately, and no doubt because of the wind, several woodies had dropped right down to the understorey to find sheltered perches.
Although these low birds didn’t have to wrestle with the wind, they’d inadvertently pitched on branches that offered me a relatively still target – one stable enough for me to drop one with a well-placed head shot.
The report from the muzzle was barely distinguishable over the wind whistling through the treetops but, sadly, the sound of the pellet smacking home was enough to send the rest of the flock clattering off.
With evening drawing in, I was tempted to hang on another half-hour in the hope of ambushing one or two more woodies at the roost, but the wind was so fierce that things were starting to get a bit dicey.
Although it was sheltered in the understorey, the tops of the trees were getting a real battering, and chunks of deadwood were now showering down around me!
While this windfall comprised little more than twigs and chunks of bark, I felt the chance of a branch coming down in the strengthening gusts was too great a risk.
But at least I’d been out and bagged up despite the windy conditions – which wouldn’t have been the case if I’d shied away from the conditions.
Indeed, the wind had very much proved an asset on this particular foray, serving as a good reminder that low-powered air rifles are perfectly capable pest control tools… even when those isobars are tightly packed together.