As I moved through the dense, young growth consisting of aspens, birch, and cherry with one of my English cockers last fall, my new hunting client from California hollered to me from just out of sight.
“What kind of bird has a long beak?” he asked.
“Why do you ask?” I replied.
“Cause two of them just flew across the trail in front of me.”
As a lodge owner, Master Maine Guide and hunter for more than 35 years, you can only imagine what I have seen in the woods. Mostly good, and almost always entertaining. One of my favorite things to do as a guide is to introduce people to hunting grouse and woodcock, and hunt with these clients over my dogs.
Novice hunters are eager, nervous, excited and have no expectation whatsoever that they will actually shoot a grouse or woodcock. After all, it is a tough sport even for the best of us. After the misidentification of the woodcock outlined above, I decided to ask my guides what they hear for excuses from their clients as to why they miss the shot or do not take the shot after the guide and dog work hard to put them onto the bird.
At first, they gave me what they perceived to be the real reasons the clients missed — not the excuses the clients came up with. From a technical shooting standpoint, most of our people miss birds because they lack follow through on the shot, meaning they stop the gun and shoot rather than pull through the bird before shooting.
But given the fact that we are hunting in overhead thickets with blackberry thorns that require you to carry a suture kit and are on uneven ground that would stop an Abrams tank, all while trying to keep track of the guide, dogs, listen for a flush and then try to find an opening in which you might be able to get your gun up to with the hope that the bird might actually fly through it, it is not surprising that people miss.
There are many variations on this theme of why people miss the shot, which includes not ever catching up with the bird before shooting, being too slow in getting the gun up, not having the gun mounted properly before shooting and even shooting too quickly when the bird is actually too close. This is a dynamic game with many variables.
As one of my guides put it, upland hunting is a series of mistakes, missteps and blunders that occasionally intersect at a moment in time, allowing a hunter to occasionally kill a bird. Even in the best-case scenario, 10 percent success is average for most hunters shooting in the Maine woods. Experienced hunters can do better, but not always. So rather than get caught up on the real, technical reasons people miss birds, let’s focus on some of the excuses people come up with for missing.
11. I couldn’t see it. It is quite possible the shooter could not see the bird, but more importantly to the shooter, whether they saw it or not, it cannot be verified, thereby offering an “out” for the shooter. This goes along with “too many leaves,” “too thick” and “the sun was in my eyes.”
10. I wasn’t ready. Even after you were told by the guide to be ready — the dog is on point. And after the guide told you exactly where to stand. This happens a lot. Birds move quickly, and usually from a location that was not anticipated and fly in a direction that was not believed possible. It is difficult for one to believe that a relaxed stance is best while approaching a point, allowing the shooter to react to the unexpected, which it always is.
9. I haven’t shot in a while. So what? Neither have I. The best practice for hunting is hunting, understanding most people don’t get to do it a lot.
8. Sporting clays are nothing like real birds. No kidding. Although the more familiar you are with your firearm and more practice you have catching up with your target helps, nothing you can do ahead of time prepares you for upland hunting in the woods of Maine — except upland hunting in the woods of Maine.
7. I didn’t want to shoot the dog so I aimed high. Well, this is a good excuse, even if it might not be true. We preach safety as guides and we love our dogs. You don’t want to shoot the guide’s dog. Aim high or better yet, don’t take the shot at all.
6. I forgot to reload after I missed the first one. Whether grouse or woodcock, there are often multiple birds in close proximity. With grouse in particular, you can find family groups of 10 or more. Most people will dump both barrels on the first flush, missing “because the sun was in my eyes.” In the next 10 seconds while sulking about the miss, seven more birds flush one at a time and the shotgun is unloaded. Reload quickly. Know where your shells are and which hand you will grab them with. And always pick up your empty shells. Not only are they trash, but it can tell the next guy that walks through that there are in fact birds there. I pick up empty shells all season long from other hunters.
5. I couldn’t find the safety. Again, safety is the game. We hunt with safety ON. So, when the bird flies, you need to know where your safety is. Common mistake. But better than hunting with it off.
4. The birds won’t hold and they flush wild. Usually we hear this when we have client dogs on the ground that do not hunt wild birds very often. Basically, the dogs get too close and flush the bird before the shooter is in range. Never the dog’s fault. We all love our dogs. Even the bad ones. Although in the dog’s defense, many often do not get the opportunity to hunt wild birds. As guides, it’s all we do.
3. I didn’t hear the flush. Often, we hunt with mature adults that realistically have shot thousands of rounds of ammo through their gun over the years without hearing protection. It can be a real excuse for some, again difficult to verify without an audiologist. I have been hunting with a client many times that really could not hear the flush, so I would walk behind him and when the dog flushed a bird I would holler “bird up.” He would invariably turn around and say “where” as the bird presented itself in an open crossing shot in front of him.
2. It (a grouse) looked like a hawk, so I didn’t shoot. Well, conservation of birds of prey is always the best approach and of course the only legal way to go, so better to be safe than sorry. Know your quarry. At least you didn’t waste a shell.
The top excuse – I forgot to load my gun. I must admit, it has happened to me. We are in and out of the truck so many times during the day that sometimes you just forget. You can do everything right. Mount the gun, follow through, pull the trigger. But if you don’t have a shell in your gun, you’re going to miss your shot. Make sure to load your gun.
In the end, hunting is not about killing your limit, but rather about running the dogs and spending time in the woods with your friends. I remember one day after hunting with the late Bill Tapply, Jr. and his Brittany spaniel, Burt (named after author and grouse-hunting expert Burton Spiller). Tapply said, “What a great day in the woods! I got to see Burt point a bunch of woodcock, I got to shoot my gun and I didn’t have to hurt any of those wonderfully entertaining birds.”
Jeff McEvoy is a registered Maine guide and owns Weatherby’s, a fishing and hunting lodge in Grand Lake Stream.