I make the annual pilgrimage to Kansas to reunite with old
friends and family. It reminds me of where my passion for
bird hunting was first kindled. Because this year was no
exception to the rule, Kansas seemed like the right place to
bring together our young Jornada Llewellin Rio
with our veteran flusher Wyatt for their first joint
On the third morning of this 10-day hunt the phone rings. My Aunt Pat, dad’s sister, suffered a heart attack and was undergoing a cardiac cath which would reveal the severity and next steps. We were 1,000 miles away. There’s not much to do but prepare to make the drive to Ohio. But until we get the results of the procedure we’re in limbo. Depending on what they find this may be our last hunt of the year.
Some memories are sneaky and weasel their way into stories recounted year over year. But this is a memory that I know immediately will become a part of our hunting legend. These roosters, this hunt will be remembered as part of a miraculous bountiful field in a year of depressed numbers. A hunt where distraction was desperately needed and nature heeded the call. We often give nicknames to locations where we hunt and this new spot has become Aunt Pat’s Place.
More importantly this hunt reminds me that all our days afield are a gift that lend perspective to the other events of life. There’s not a day in the field where I want to take this for granted. Cherish the moments chasing birds with family, friends and dogs.
I often see bird hunters profess that they hunt for food. But when I think about my days afield, meat is often the last thing that comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Sharptail Fajitas and my Pheasant Chowder but eating game birds has always been one of the bonuses of being a passionate bird hunter.
With the current costs of licenses, gear, shot shells and dogs I had a strong suspicion that meat hunting just didn’t add up. But I wanted to put pencil to paper to find out exactly what a pound of upland bird actually costs the average bird hunter.
Since I have a number of birds in the fridge and have just returned from the field, I have some real world data of exact weights for birds (using multiple birds to get an average weight).
Woodcock, breast meat = 1.67 oz
Quail, whole bird = 4.375 oz
Ruffed Grouse, breast meat = 7 oz
Pheasant, breast and thigh meat = 12 oz
Sharptail Grouse, whole bird = 1 lb 4 oz
Pheasant, whole bird = 1 lb 6 oz
There are tons of choices for shotgun shells. If you take a broad look at shell prices you can shoot lead alternatives for over $25 per box or you can shoot target loads for around $7 per box – good luck knocking down tough birds with these. But the average cost of a box of hunting shells is right around $15 per box, or .60¢ per shell.
I know a lot of good shooters, but the average bird hunter would be lucky to match Ted Williams lifetime baseball batting average of .344 on wild birds. So let’s assume that hunters harvest one bird for every three shells fired making the ammo cost per bird $1.80.
Now to the issue of licenses. I’ve averaged the cost of annual small-game licenses across 50 states. The resident license average is $21.32 and the non-resident license is $99.68. And for our analysis let’s assume that the average bird hunter will take one trip out of state to hunt birds and will also hunt in their home state. So the annual license expenditure average for a bird hunter is $121.
Factoring the cost of a shotgun is a bit interesting, especially when gun prices have such a broad range. But a modest average would be $600. Sure you can get a cheaper shooting stick, but there are many more priced much higher. And of course you intend to use that same shotgun for multiple years – let’s factor you’ll only own that one bird gun for 15 years making the annual cost just $40.
A quick assessment of basic gear that nearly all upland hunters own: game vest ($50), brush pants ($50), hunting boots ($100). And when we first purchase these items we hope it will last forever. But let’s be realistic and give them a 7-year lifespan which makes the annual expense $28.57.
And now to the big line item, the bird dog. Consumer Reports estimates that the 2011 monthly cost of dog food averages $36 per canine ($432 annually). Add to this annual veterinary costs — flea and tick meds, vaccines and boosters, worming, occasional injuries with resulting antibiotics and painkillers. Based on my own bills from multiple dogs a modest yearly vet bill per dog is $520. So the total annual veterinary and food cost per bird dog is $952.
The annual expense for the average bird hunter is $1,141.57. If you own more than one bird dog, one gun, or hunt in more than two states the costs go up very quickly.
Below is the chart of how these costs then translate to the price per pound of specific upland bird. These prices assume the total number of birds harvested at 3 levels with the fixed cost of shells being $1.80 per bird. (Not many bird hunters actually harvest 20 birds per year, let alone 80.)
If you have hung around through all the math, you can now see what I’ve long suspected; hunting birds for food is just not a winning equation. To all the meathunters who aim to fill a freezer, do yourself a favor; go to the grocery store, buy some grass fed organic tenderloin and live Maine lobster and save yourself a ton of money. Leave the game birds to the true Ultimate Uplanders who value the pursuit beyond the heft of the game bag.
The bird hunting season never seems long enough. This first full year of Ultimate Upland was filled with great moments that helped define our mission to be the best resource in the country for bird hunting enthusiasts. We've got a dedicated following and nearly 1,000 new members joined the the Ultimate Upland Lodge last year. With additional focus on social media we managed to expand our fan base to over 4,500. One look at our online footprint combining our site visits, members and social media confirms that we have become one of the largest dedicated bird hunting presence online.
With the emphasis on the digital world and technology, it's easy to click past the real world accomplishments. But Ultimate Uplanders are firmly rooted in the outdoors, and though the forecasts and bragging appear online, the real passion starts in the field. We have members from all 50 states, at all levels of experience hunting with every breed of dog imaginable. They carry all sorts of guns chasing every species of upland bird. The collective knowledge of our group is formidable and extensive. And the willingness of Ultimate Uplanders to share experiences is what makes the site a true joy to oversee.
In April after a long battle with both kidney and thyroid problems I lost Finn, my GSP and the matriarch of my bird chasing. A true punch to the gut that only other bird hunters can honestly understand. These dogs are more than pets, they are partners in our obsessive pursuit. And Ultimate Uplanders were there to commiserate and to share. And over the course of 2011 we saw it again and again as canine hunting partners were lost our community gathered round to soften the blow and offer support.
Over the remaining Spring I worked to fill the void by focusing on our lab Wyatt, trying to hone his obedience and retrieving.
But when Summer scorches into the South the bird hunting and training pretty much shuts down. Luckily these are the months that most state DNRs elect to update their upland regulations. Consolidating all these regs into one place is one of the pillars of Ultimate Upland which keeps us busy along with the planning for the Fall hunting trip.
In late Summer we also managed to put the final touches on the online store. Members and fans who'd been requesting shirts and decals finally had a place to purchase. One of the most fun items we released was the Rooster Ruler® which coincided with our first annual Longest Pheasant Tournament. We're the only organization in the country that found a way to run a nationwide bird hunting competition. The tournament ends on February 20 with the close of the last pheasant season. We'll crown the 2011-12 winner then (the lead is a monster 41.25" tip-to-tip which will be very difficult to beat).
In early September we embarked on our bird hunting odyssey to the upper Midwest. First stop was North Dakota and Teddy Roosevelt's old stomping grounds. This was Wyatt's third year in the field and with three months of hunting ahead and just a single dog, he had a big load to carry. It took a few days to really get back in the swing of hunting for both of us, but chasing the native Sharptail over the infinite rolling acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands proved a good refresher.
After getting back into bird hunting shape, we allowed our Facebook fans to select the next state to target and they pointed us to Montana. We spent the better part of our 10-day license trying to locate the Hungarian Partridge in this visually stunning big country. Unfortunately bird numbers had been negatively impacted by successive harsh Winters and a wet Spring, and though the Sharptail still could be found the non-native Hun proved elusive. With some good fortune and some bird hunting Kharma on one unseasonably hot afternoon Wyatt and I were able to bring our first Hun to hand.
Next we headed to our first South Dakota rooster opener, considered by many to be the Mecca of bird hunting. We embedded with the Double K Guides of Gregory, SD to witness the Orange Army descend upon the area. And the pheasant did not disappoint. Even in a down year the shear number of birds was a site to behold. After the SD opening weekend we trekked to the northern part of the state and met up with a couple Ultimate Uplanders where Wyatt got his first serious hunting with pointers and setters. Watching different styles of dog work and run together is a treat that most single breed purists miss out on.
When our Dakota ticket expired it was on to Nebraska to meet up with the good folks at Breed Sponsor Bluestem Kennels for the Husker state pheasant opener. And their trio of Wirehaired Griffons combined with some superb shooting made for a memorable time. Wyatt and I also made our return to the sandhills of Nebraska National Forest where we pitted ourselves against the late season sharptail that had thoroughly beaten us the previous season. But armed with experience from earlier in the season we managed to level the score. Fans and members got to take part in the chase vicariously with one of the new features that got a lot of attention this season, the Ultimate Upland Blast Cam.
And we finished the western swing with the return to our happy hunting grounds in north central Kansas. My dad joined us again testing out his new bionic knee replacement as we reunited with the folks of this area who have become such a fixture in our brains. The knee was a large improvement to last year's hunt, but it still did not improve the luck with our decade long quest of pass shooting Kansas Prairie Chicken without success. At the conclusion of Kansas we reunited with family for the Thanksgiving holiday and were welcomed by the addition of Rio, the next generation of bird dog newly arrived from Jornada Setters in New Mexico. And so the off season will be filled with getting the young Llewellin in tune with her bird hunting genes.
The 2011 season was marred by depressed upland populations across the midwest; in some cases we were faced with record low surveys. But the friends and memories forged in the fires of gunpowder burned brighter than the dimmest forecast. And though the seasons are winding down, Ultimate upland has been firmly established by passionate bird hunters across the country. We're going to continue to elevate our upland agenda, offering windows into original bird hunting experiences across the country while promoting the sport at every opportunity. Plans are already underway for next season's hunts and we're looking forward to sharing the journey with you.
My dad has joined this leg of the hunt which centers around a small town where the residents and the public hunting grounds have become familiar friends. For the last five years this has been where dad and I reunite and share the love of the outdoors and hunting which he sparked in me as a youngster. I have hunted in this part of the state for over 15 years either solo and with other hunting buddies.
We are in the north central part of the state and contrary to the predictions, pheasant numbers are low this year. So hunters chasing forecasts who selected this area will likely be sorely disappointed.
The locals have been convinced that pheasant numbers are down due to the thriving coon population. Last year the pheasant numbers were low due to the "damn redtail hawks" if you buy the area gossip. But if you ask a few questions of local farmers a much more likely scenario becomes obvious. There was an extremely wet Spring . The rains started the beginning of May and according to most National Weather Service reporting stations in the area they received nine or more inches of precipitation for the month. So declare war on raccoons if you must, but the truth is the nests were flooded, abandoned or just generally soaked.
A bright spot is that the Bobwhite have made a small comeback from previous years. Why did quail nests not get sogged? I believe they choose to lay in areas less susceptible to the rain, under trees and in better shelter.
So the bulk of the Roosters in the area are the educated two-year olds. Hunting has been challenging but we've seen our share of birds. Our black lab Wyatt continues to work really well and give us opportunities, albeit less frequent than years past.
The cooler won't be full when we leave the state, but the memory bank certainly will be: we've gotten an assist from hawk, dad has gone ass over elbows in a hole with his untested knee replacement, he had safety "issues" and missed a gimme rooster at 10 yards, we located and patterned a big new covey of Prairie Chicken, more safety fumbling when he stumbled into a covey of quail, nearly crapped his pants when stepping on a hen this morning, AND there still are six days left to hunt.
It's gonna be a great week and no amount of coons or rain can change that.
Nearly a week ago I ran into a dry spell. Wyatt, my black lab hunting partner and I had not flushed a bird in three days. We had driven over 900 miles and walked through dozens of fields and had not seen a single gamebird. We've had tough hunting before, but this was the driest of spells in recent memory.
In the hope that we could get back on birds, we moved camp (Wyatt doesn't really help much with the moving process, but he gives me someone to talk to while I break down the gear).
The following morning I selected a section to hunt sight unseen. I just wanted to get in the field and walk until Wyatt flushed something besides Meadow Larks.
Not long after 8 AM we started hiking a typical prairie grass section, into the sun and with the wind hoping that when we made the turn hunting into the wind we'd get on the birds. About a half-mile from the car at the top of a hill Wyatt began to get interested. Despite his upwind position he was working well. At least we were back on bird scent. We walked another 250 yards, the entire time he was working birds. He was to my left, upwind, when I flushed a single Sharptail at less than 10 steps. I pulled up on that bird, put the bead in front of its head, and let it sail off untouched. Wyatt saw the bird after it swung in front of him and gave me an inquisitive look. After not seeing a bird for three days, I did not shoot a bird in the wheelhouse because my dog didn't flush it. Is that a written rule? No. That is a sportsman's rule. And when you are hunting especially with a flushing dog, they need to believe that they are part of the game. Shoot too many birds that they don't flush and they will begin to get the idea that their job is something else.
We continued hunting in the same area with Wyatt performing like a champ both up and downwind. In the next 45 minutes I had shot our limit, bringing four spectacular birds to hand, one a blind retrieve, and one a 55 yard shot that made me look over my shoulder to see if somebody else was shooting backup.
Karma. Still doubting, stick with me, you'll be a believer.
Fast forward a few days. We arrive at first light at a block to begin the day's hunt. Record high temps are forecast so we want to get an early start. In a few hours it's going to be too hot for the black dog to run. On the way to the section we intend to hunt we rouse Sharptail right from the road, so the prospects are good that we are in the right spot. I sign in at the permission box and then figure I'll drive over the hill to the south just to see what we are in for. As I crest a knoll I look east and there is a big mule deer buck silhouetted in the morning sun. I'm just about to pull out the binoculars when a red pickup pulls along side. The window comes down and a young man in camo head-to-toe asks simply "you going after those?". Nope, I'm a birdhunter.
We discuss matters for a few more minutes. I know that the wind is favorable for a sneak on these deer. I weigh my options. The property is big, I could certainly hunt north of these deer and give this youngster a chance at arrowing one of these five bucks gathered on this hillside. But that doesn't sit right with me. I signed in before this guy, I have every right to hunt this property... but it just didn't seem right. Trying to stalk a mule deer with a stick and string is a tough game. So I told him to go ahead and hunt. I would move along to other blocks north of our location. Upon that word, he showed me on a map three additional places to bird hunt. He was a local, he knows the area.
I drive north to the area I intended to hunt in lieu of giving up my previous spot. I open the permission box to sign in and am greeted with a "no bird hunting" note. You have got to be kidding me! The next possible area to hunt was 10+ miles up the road and the temperatures are already climbing to a point where Wyatt was going to be challenged. But Ok, we drive on.
We arrive and sign in at the next box, it is a monstrous ranch, over 19,000 acres. The one caveat, written permission is needed to drive the lane through the property, otherwise you are hunting from the fringes. Guess what? I have no cell service. I proceed up the hill, get one bar, jump out and stand on the car to get a second bar. Rang the owner on a second number, he happens to be at the house and if I show up in the next little bit he would permit me to drive his property.
I get to the house- it was a three mile lane from the mailbox- and am greeted by an old rancher fueling up one of those farm trucks, the kind that's rusted to the skeleton but is somehow still kicking. He signs our permission slip, but asks if I might be willing to help him out. It's 10 AM by now, the temperature already pushing 80. We had another hour before Wyatt would be out of the game.
But of course I'm helping out, this guy reminds me of my grandpa. And I wouldn't trade any kind of hunting for just a minute more with him. So over the next hour I help him jump start a tractor with the farm truck that has no brakes left and a bungie cord for a door latch, I take a gander at his plane that he's flown for the last 55 years around his ranch. And we talk about his wife who has Parkinson's and is in full-time care, dying. Years ago my granddad died of Parkinson's. The words he shares of his wife's condition bring back memories. This disease is ugly.
When I finally start to hunt, it's already too hot. 15 minutes out of the truck and Wyatt is looking for water. We soldier on. As we turn into the wind the black lab gets birdy right where the old rancher has told us to go. I see some long flushing Sharptail. We continue on and within 100 yards, a covey of Huns jumps. Still out of range, but we have been searching for partridge for a month with no luck. I mark them down and we continue pursuit. We flush another covey of Huns, once again long. Wyatt and I keep working into the wind but these partridge have us running in circles. He is at the edge of overheating, so I decide to turn back toward the car, with the wind and away from the quarry.
Just seeing Huns is a big moment for us. As we proceed to the vehicle, I angle us for where the first covey lost us. Wyatt picks up their scent right where I expect although his tongue is now dragging the ground. Somehow the birds are still there, and although they flush at the edge of range, I pull up on the last flushing bird and manage to scratch it down. Wyatt brings it to hand with some coaxing.
It is 90 degrees and I have the chills.
I meet the rancher on the way out of his property and I tell him of my adventures. This is my first Hun, ever.
He's going to visit his wife tomorrow, but I have permission to hunt his property as I choose. He tells me where I might find some Sage Grouse on his land.
I will never forget this day. I drive away feeling so fortunate. I hope that young fellow arrowed his mule deer this morning. And I hope another young fellow finds a cure for Parkinson's. Bird hunting karma. Believe.
At 3:00 a.m. there are very few things I am enthusiastically rolling out of bed for. The opener of Sage Grouse season is among them though. A special blend of preparation, anticipation and exhaustion are brought together in a sparkling cocktail of bird hunting elation.
It's 6:00 a.m. and I've arrived at my hunting grounds well before sunrise, no longer lamenting the long drive, lack of sleep or trepidation with having a hood altering moment with a mule deer, elk or moose wandering too close to the roadside in the predawn hours. I'm singularly focused on enjoying the experience as if it could be my last. My senses are tuned to an environment of vast expanse, the kind that affords me the opportunity to walk in any direction as far as I'm physically able, my hopes high that I will raise a covey of airplanes.
I stare into the blackness through my windshield. There, I can see the topography only in my mind, that which comes from familiarity of haunting this stretch of ground every year. I poor a cup of coffee while I wait for my friend to arrive, the truck jiggling back and forth from the anticipation of kenneled dogs anxious to hit the ground running.
If the day ended here, I would be grateful. But it didn't. It improved significantly. The rest I'll lend to your imagination.
Many hunters familiar with the fame and media coverage lavished on bird hunting in South Dakota cast a skeptical eye to the sister state of the North. We headed there this year to evaluate the hunting prospects and see just how the Roughrider State stacks up.
Weather is always a consideration for early Fall trips. Heat is the biggest challenge when relying on the canine nose to get you into the game. One of our hopes by starting so far North this season was avoiding sweltering temps which put an early end to the hunting days. According to locals, the first snowfall of western North Dakota occurred on September 19th last year. Over the course of our two week stay we experienced a grab bag of weather: nighttime temps as low as 28 degrees, daytime highs reaching 85, no snow but torrential rains lasting over 16 hours and of course the wind which rarely stops in the West, giving us gusts to 45 mph. But the average day actually worked to a hunting plan pretty well: morning temperatures in the mid 40s, partly cloudy skies, winds 5-15 mph and afternoon highs making it to 70.
The other main reason for selecting North Dakota as our first bird hunting stop of the year is species availability. The state is right in the heart of Hungarian Partridge and Sharptailed Grouse range, both opening the second week of September. Also Ruffed Grouse can be found in a tiny northeast corner of the state, and of course pheasant opens a month later.
Millions of acres are available to hunt via national forest lands, state trust lands and private property enrolled in their public access program. We elected to focus mainly on the western side of the state in the Little Missouri National Grasslands which were Teddy Roosevelt's stomping grounds when he tried his hand at western ranching. We were relying on the million plus acre size of this national resource to mitigate any hunting pressure we encountered. This land is open to grazing, so one must contend with the cattle. Because of the wet Spring this year, there was still plenty of cover around regardless the bovine buffet.
To our surprise, hunting pressure was non-existent. Opening weekend which is such a melee in so many other states came and went with barely a notice. Our entire two week visit, we came across five other hunters: two at a gas station, one local working on a back road with a dog box in the truck, and two orange dots on a distant horizon. We never bumped into another individual while hunting a section. This fact alone puts North Dakota at the top of the return visit list.
The unfortunate news for North Dakota upland hunting is that a couple of severe Winters coupled with an extremely wet Spring has negatively impacted bird numbers. The one bright spot is the native Sharptails are tough little birds and accustomed to harsh winters. The Huns and Ringneck being introduced species have a bit rougher go of it.
We were never able to locate a partridge, although admittedly we were a bit west of what is considered the prime Hun territory of the state. The Sharpy though, we found again and again. And these grouse are a wonderful early season foe. The Sharptail like to have a view and most often reside on the tallest hill in sight. And nothing strengthens the early season legs and lungs on both dog and hunter than scaling hill after hill on a quest for flushing grouse.
These early season birds tend to hold for dogs, normally a staggered flush with the smartest birds waiting until guns are empty before taking to the air. Groups of seven to 12 were fairly common. After an initial flush one can often mark down the escapees and continue pursuit, which is great for seeing how young dogs work in areas where birds are known to be. If this sounds a bit genteel for your liking then just wait a month. Once these grouse get educated and shot over, they get evil. As you approach they will flush from hilltops hundreds of yards away and will fly to the next county.
We hunted most mornings with lots of opportunity to refine rusty dog work and rusty shooting skills. And Sharptail prefer BFE so the abundance of hiking gets hunting legs back under all involved. If you need more shooting entertainment in the afternoons the dove are everywhere and jump shooting seemed viable in about every draw with scrub trees or shrubs.
North Dakota has a lot going for it. They also have an oil boom, the effects of which can already be seen. Hopefully this new economic engine doesn't cost the area it's upland oasis.
In our free time we tend to think in terms of upland birds, and this leads us down many paths, most of which are somewhat insane hence we don't share. But, sometimes it's just too good to ignore. This is one of those times, so follow along.
The Breeding Bird Survey is a government collaboration between the USGS and the Canadian Wildlife Service which is used to provide a perspective on bird populations throughout the continent. A lot of the details are boring, but one of the interesting results of these surveys is that for 13 of our venerable upland bird species, a little map showing population densities throughout the country in generated. Ultimate Upland, as honest taxpaying citizens, has taken the liberty of displaying these maps prominently throughout the Bird section of our site.
|Flat gray, a reflection of the day, raw, chilly, and wonderful|
Vast country is an impressive pull in my life. In no uncertain terms it's the reason I moved to Colorado. Every time I stand before it ready for another adventure, unintended, I follow the same routine. I run through a mental checklist of what's needed to carry with me in the event I bump into troubles, organize my belongings, make sure I'm carrying plenty of water, and check to make sure my truck keys are secured a minimum of three to five times. Then, I stand before nature and all of it's awesome size, smile at my own insignificance, breath in deeply, and then take a step forward.
Space. An openness with liberty to stretch my legs and not be burdened with having to engage in conversation. Time. A passing in which I allow myself an opportunity to evaluate my life and determine what's next, or remorse over the mistakes I've made. Connection. The inspiration I take in from the world around me and the reparation I receive from watching my dog go about his duty without knowing or even caring why. Solitude. It's good to spend time alone every so often.
This was such a day:
|The first of the day's quarry|
|The idiot in between romping|
|Bristlegrass seeds, preferred food of scaled quail|
|All old wood tells a story, I wish they were all recorded|
|Blood on the tailgate|
|He has a few moments of elegance, not many, but a few|
|A miscalculation in my wanderings. That white spec is my truck. Can't see it? Neither could I. Scamp, I thought immediately of you when I stepped onto this road and truly felt the gravity of Eight More Miles.|
It's difficult to comprehend what it would be like to grow up without a gun in your hand. I naturally assume my formative years were much like most boys growing up in the heartland; watching and idolizing characters on tv who were proficient marksmen. We pretended to be cowboys or GI Joes while running around with our toy guns. We envied dad's return home from successful hunting trips. When we got to be the age our parents determined was appropriate, we were given a BB gun to expend all of our energy on unsafe activities and harebrained ideas. Once we were done shooting out windows, ricocheting BBs and performing stupid acts of boyhood with our peashooter, dad decided to move us up to the big leagues with a gun that went 'BANG'. With any luck this was accompanied by Hunters' Safety Class as mine was. Once we graduated to the fields, we were free to progress up the gunzel ladder until we became fully obsessed and unable to picture life without firearms. Now we are caught counting the minutes between our trips afield. Guns pretty much become an extension of our being, an extra appendage with which we have a full level of comfort.
So a few months back, when I was relaying a bird hunting story to my acupuncturist, Marston --- I see you rolling your eyes, but I'm telling you, that needle stuff works -- I noticed a flicker of interest in her response and succeeding line of questioning. She even expressed a desire to try her hand at bird hunting one day. Over the course of the next few treatments I learned that she had never shot a gun in her life. Beyond this, she had never held a gun in her life. Yet, she's interested in bird hunting? This started my mind racing. Suddenly, I was given a golden opportunity to retrace the steps that turned me into a bird blasting fanatic and see if those same steps could transform a professional woman who has never touched a gun into an upland huntress.
Even though she is a bit younger than me, I thought it best to forgo the obligatory childhood ritual of watching GI Joe and jump ahead to the next step. I acquired the same BB gun that I first started with, the good old lever action Red Ryder. Not much has changed in over 30 years to this little beauty. It has more plastic parts, it loads a little differently, it has a safety which is sort of a buzz kill, but it pretty much looks exactly the same. The biggest difference between Marston's first gun and mine is that Daisy has been kind enough to doll up that little rifle with a bright pink stock. This is a bit stereotypical for a girl's first gun, but at the same time I find it highly entertaining.
I know shotguns and rifles are different, and we'll get to all that. There are professional instructors that probably find this a laughable way to learn. But this technique worked on me. I can think of no better way to learn gun safety and shooting principles than by wielding a BB gun that shoots a single small projectile 350 fps, if you believe the claims on the box.
I probably shot 25,000 rounds through my Red Ryder while growing up. I targeted numerous birds, always wondering why they didn't drop when I was sure I was hitting them. (This trait seems to have followed me to adulthood too). All those bruised sparrows can thank non-lethal force. But, I assure you the rattle of those BBs in that little rifle's tube was enough to scatter every cat and bird within a mile of my boyhood homestead.
I scheduled a morning with Marston as her initial foray into the dark art of shooting sports. Pulling that little fluorescent Daisy out of the box flashes back to lessons my dad took so much care to instill in me. And although this gun is toylike, the principles are quite similar to it's more powerful ballistic cousins.
I initially go over the fundamentals of sight picture, drawing a quick diagram to show Marston what she's looking for since her eye has never focused down the barrel of anything. We had already determined she was right eye dominant, thankfully, because as a remedial instructor having to invert everything could have challenged my skill levels.
Next, we went over loading the feed tube full of hours of copper plated fun using my preferred method of crafting a crude funnel from the nearest available scrap of paper.
After placing a paper target downrange, and the requisite aluminum can, we settled in to a discussion about safe muzzle directions, and the general operations of the safety, lever action and trigger. There's a comical awkwardness to watching a greenhorn try and handle a gun. It is so foreign to my new pupil, and a true eye opener of the things I take for granted.
Marston is a details person, highly perceptive, so she wants to know everything down to the last micrometer. We go over hand placement on both the forend and aft. I emphasize that her finger should not touch the trigger until she is truly ready to shoot. I demonstrate where her cheek should be on the the stock so that she is able to properly site. She's unsure of this technique for fear that the recoil will smack her in the face; refreshing naivete´ that makes me chuckle out loud. But this leads to valuable further discussion about bigger weapons and why she'll want to keep the stock tucked tightly against her shoulder and her face comfortably planted.
Once we've thoroughly reviewed all the details, we reach the moment of truth. Marston cocks the lever, shoulders the Pink Plinker, takes aim at the Cheerwine hull 12 yards down range and I watch as she nervously squeezes off her first round ever. There's no report. Over the next few attempts I alternate between watching her technique and watching the BB's flight. She's doing everything right, except she's shooting consistently low and left of the can. I do a little fiddling with the rear sight, another upgrade from my boyhood version. With every pump of the action she is gaining confidence, and somewhere around 10 or 11 shots she finally hits metal. This new Daisy has a bit more power than I recall my Red ever having because it is a complete pass-through of the Cheerwine vitals. There's nothing more satisfying than the sound of that plink, it's the hook for both student and teacher. After a few more reaffirming aluminum volleys we move to the paper target.
I go over shot grouping, explaining the merits of consistency. As Marston continues to fire at will, we talk about minute of angle, breathing and what teeny movements of the barrel translate into on the target.
This brings us to shooting positions. After demonstrating prone, kneeling and offhand, I suggest she alter from sitting to improve her accuracy on the target. She makes an effort at prone, but she's unable to flatten for stability. You see, Marston is pregnant, a solid 5 months, and prone shooting just isn't gonna happen. Of course, bird hunting this season probably is not really in the cards either. The good news is that I feel like I'm teaching the next generation to shoot at the same time that Marston is learning. It's a double.
This baby is gonna be born with a gun in his/her hand. Now that Marston's hooked, I will start lobbying for good sporting names: Annie O, Wild Bill, Daisy, Parker? Oh the possibilities are endless. She has continued her target practice and the next lesson is upcoming. I know secretly her goal is to become a better shot than me, and I have little doubt it will happen. I've always found women to be superior marksMEN, probably due to their attention to detail and focus. My only consolation once she eclipses my skill level is that kid's name. I guess I'll also be comforted knowing that my passion for shooting has been passed on to at least one and a half others. But if you have a good baby name, let me know anyways.