Simon Perkins hunts in Montana.
I reached down to press the “Locate” button on my Dogtra controller. I saw Stella, the English Setter, off to my right, but I hadn’t seen Fern, a three-year-old English pointer, for several minutes. Fern finds a lot of birds, in part because she’s a big runner and loves covering the wide-open country of central Montana. Fern’s collar beeped to the northeast, over the edge of a gradual decline. I beeped her again. It sounded as though she hadn’t moved.
“I think Fern might be locked up on birds,” I said to Joel and Paul, my two clients. I motioned downhill and the three of us picked up the pace as we started our descent.
I scanned the top of the knee-high tan grass, looking for Fern’s head or her rigid tail. After a few minutes, I saw her on point, just beyond a green patch of snowberries. She held perfectly still. As we got closer, I saw her raise her lips, tasting the scent upwind. Stella trotted in from the right, saw Fern and crouched, stopping to back about thirty yards behind. I made Anneli, my black lab, sit and wait as the three of us walked in on the point. Joel was slightly ahead of me. He cradled his 20-gauge with the barrels pointed up, relaxed but focused. Joel was fairly new to the upland game, but he had come out to hunt with us (PRO Outfitters) the year before and knew what to expect. To my right, Paul gripped his gun in front of him, staring intently at the ground in front of Fern.
Twenty yards past Fern, the covey of Hungarian Partridge burst into the air, screeching in unison. Joel fired twice, knocking down a bird that Anneli raced out to retrieve. Paul swung on a bird that arched to his right and fanned with both barrels. He broke his gun open and both empty cartridges ejected into his cupped palm. He smiled at me and raised his eyebrows.
“Those birds are fast,” he said.
I nodded. I knew what had happened—Paul had psyched himself out. Hunters from all over the country book trips with us in order to experience the thrill of hunting wild birds exclusively. The rush that comes from hunting wild upland birds (in our case Huns, sharptail grouse, and ring-necked pheasant) stems from encountering these species in their raw, primitive state. The flight speed, craftiness, and unpredictability of these birds is spectacular, and anyone that has hunted both wild and released game will tell you that there is no comparison. Paul had grown up hunting wild quail in Texas, so he was more than qualified. But staying relaxed and keeping one’s composure in a foreign and untamed setting is easier said than done.
“I think you were trying to get on those birds too quickly,” I said to Paul. “You were trying to jump on them right out of the gate. They’re fast, but take the time to find one with your eyes, and then let the gun mount and everything else fall into place.”
Paul nodded, agreeing as Anneli brought Joel’s Hun to my hand, that he had rushed his shots. I turned the bird on its back and ran my hand through the salt-and-pepper breast feathers. Then I flipped it and fanned out its tail, revealing the rich amber hue that stands out to shooters during the covey rise.
We turned and walked back uphill, working our way up a wide draw to the southwest. Just as we reached a barbwire fence, Paul stopped and pointed. Fern was on point three hundred yards away at the top of a steep incline. Joel, having had recent knee surgery, encouraged us to pursue the climb without him. Paul and I hurried through the fence and walked briskly up toward Fern. Halfway there, we stopped to catch our breath, and I reminded Paul to stay relaxed. We continued on, trying to regulate our heavy breathing as we approached Fern. Paul walked past her on the left and eight Huns jumped up at his feet and scattered to his left. He mounted on the closest bird, fired two shots and lowered his gun as the bird flew down into the bottom of the valley, untouched.
“Man,” he said, exhaling quickly. He shook his head and pressed his lips together. He had rushed his shots again.
I didn’t want him to lose confidence. Shooting is like golf—you can be totally in the zone one day and then completely out of sync the next. At that point, you tend to get in your head and start over-thinking, over-correcting, tightening up, and everything falls out of place. The best thing to do is to try to stop over-analyzing, completely wipe the slate clean and return to the natural technique you have practiced over time.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” I said. He swallowed and looked down at Fern who had circled back to us. “Sorry, girl.” He exhaled again and looked out across the valley.
We waited for several minutes as Joel climbed up to us. He smiled and told us about the perfect view he had of the pointed covey rise. We stood around for several seconds, then I called to the dogs and we continued south.