Renowned high pheasant Shot Dave Carrie recalls the day he shot his first ever pheasant.
I remember my first pheasant well. As a boy, I was always out with a ferret or terrier, roaming the fields around Wombwell, a small mining town near Barnsley where we lived. Our house was 100 yards from the main coal train route to the big coking plants, and there were six mines within walking distance from our doorstep. These industrial giants were our playgrounds where we used to go on rabbiting and ratting expeditions with catapults and borrowed BSA air rifles.
It was on one of these excursions, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, that I came across Zivan Vicentic, an old Hungarian war veteran who still had the concentration camp tattoos on his wrist and forearm. He had escaped during the war and he related in gory detail the hand-to-hand fighting with knife and gun that he had endured. We met on a stretch of land sandwiched between two railway lines on which he had permission to shoot rabbits and partridges for the pot. He had an old side-by-side 12 bore and shot Eley Impax cartridges. In return for use of my ferrets, he lent me an old single-barrelled bolt-action Webley & Scott .410, but I could only use it under his supervision because it had a habit of going off prematurely as you slid the bolt forward. He knew exactly where every rabbit was and where it would appear as his black lab worked the brambles on the railway embankment.
On one occasion, he instructed me to head towards a signal box where he’d seen a black rabbit. While I was waiting with the .410, the dog flushed a pheasant (neither of us could ever remember seeing a pheasant there before – we only ever saw them on the big Wentworth estate). Anyway, in complete panic I shot at this going-away cockbird and to my surprise it dropped into the brambles. I started screaming like a banshee and jumped head-first into the brambles to go and retrieve it. Afterwards, I looked like I had been run over with a lawnmower – I was torn to shreds. But I beat the dog to it and proudly held that pheasant aloft. Well, Zivan had never seen a pheasant in the area before and quickly took it off me and invited me to dinner all in the same breath!
In those days there were plenty of English partridges about and we (Zivan and I) used to wait while they got circled up to roost in the evening and then fire into the centre of the covey in the hope of bagging as many as possible. It was just pot hunting back then – I presume only the well-to-do did it for sport in those days. Anyway, as it turned out, my first pheasant had already been shot in the backside by someone else (it had gangrene, but we still ate it), but it had one pellet of mine in the neck. We never did see another pheasant there again and I can only assume that that particular bird had made its way from the nearby Wentworth estate after being wounded. Zivan, my old friend, died of cancer a few years later and our wondrous excursions came to an end.
The next time I found myself under a pheasant (or holding a shotgun) was some 27 years later when I was invited to a local shoot. I then joined a little gem of a shoot called Denton Park which was run by estate manager George Bush. It is now run by his son James. This was my introduction to formal driven shooting and it cost me about £2,750 for a full year and about a dozen 150–180-bird days. How times have changed! I have many happy memories of Denton.
I suppose it was my competitive nature (by this stage I was shooting in the GB and English FITASC teams) that drew me to the bigger estates offering stratospheric birds. My first experience of really high birds was at Whitfield which was a real baptism of fire. I managed to get a 100-bird day at the right price between four of us – Martin Elworthy (a multiple clay champion), my old pal Mick Harris (a very good natural Shot), a Welshman by the name of John Wainright and myself. The weather was atrocious – blowing a gale and sleeting sideways. I’ll never forget the first drive; the pheasants appeared about 50–60 yards above us, some even higher, and I had about 20 shots before I even hit one. It was the same for Martin and the others. I remember hearing Mick Harris cursing after every shot until he finally brought one down, and Martin gestured with his arms in the surrender position. I did the same. Every time you thought you had worked them out, it was another 20 shots before you hit another one. At the end of the drive I think I had seven birds for about 90 shots. But we were all instantly hooked and my passion for high bird shooting began that very day.
Since then, I have experimented greatly with different guns and loads and, over time, I have worked out how to judge speed and recognise the curl of a bird – these are two of the most important aspects of high bird shooting, coupled, in my opinion, with the right cartridge and gun combination.
When it comes to really high pheasants, I am regularly asked the same question: “How much lead?”, and my answer is always the same: it just has to feel right after you have judged the speed and direction of the bird. And that comes down to practice and experience. Everyone has their bogey bird, and for most it will be a high, sliding cockbird with its wings set. And as a crosser, they always look so thin and long. I find that these birds always need more lead than you think. Even when you have shot at that picture a hundred times, it can be so difficult to get it right, but perseverance and practice are the key.