It’s not popular to say with friends and some family members, but in my opinion if you want a dependable bird hunting experience carry a dependable shotgun.
Ed. Note: Tom Cappell is a veteran shooter, hunter and writer from Missouri whose views on the outdoors and the outdoors industry are thought-provoking and always responsible. His columns have previously appeared on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
It was the last week of the 2015 upland season in Nebraska and I had promised both my sons, Casey and Cary, a long-awaited late-season pheasant hunt on private land in Nebraska. Some would have called it…the hunt of a lifetime!
Anticipating the trip for the better part of a year, the boys spent a considerable amount in time and equipment to prepare themselves for every conceivable possibility – from shotguns, to clothes, boots, hand warmers, etc. They were, in the vernacular of this day, tricked out!
Son Casey is a advertising executive in Columbia, Missouri, and Cary is a pharmacist in Little Rock, Arkansas. Both grew up with their dad’s affinity for the outdoors and hunting, except, at some point along the way both became ‘modernized’ relative to what it takes to actually go hunting. This has long been a point of contention between us, from the old Suburban I drive (with 220,000 miles) to my well-worn Redwing boots, (almost as many miles), and right on down the line, including shotguns.
The boys grew up with their choice of just about anything in my well-stocked gun cabinet – Remingtons, Winchesters, Marlin lever actions for deer season, a couple of old Fox double-barrels, and one very highly prized Parker ‘D’ grade. Mainly they used them because they were free and convenient. But as soon as they were out on their own and loose with their own money, both developed a taste for state-of-the-art, meaning lighter, more firepower, and far more expensive.
Auto-loaders became their passion. Casey does a lot of duck hunting on the Mississippi flyways and insists that you cannot maximize on time and the experience without some fire-belching import from Italy that shoots 3 1/2 shells that look and sound like howitzer rounds.
Likewise, Cary hunts waterfowl in Arkansas, and has told me for years that doubles and pump guns simply aren’t done down there. Berettas, Benellis, and in a pinch a Remington Versamax or a Winchester SuperX3 is absolutely essential if you don’t want to be shunned.
So you can imagine their disdain when we pulled into a friend’s thousand-acre farm on the Nebraska panhandle two days after Christmas and I started unpacking my gear. My gun of choice for ‘winter’ pheasants is a Winchester Special Field Model 12 pump in 12 gauge that I’ve shot for so long there’s no longer any varnish on the stock and forend; and the receiver blueing is faint from years of handling.
“Too heavy, and too inefficient,” said the boys, taking turns at turning up their noses as we settled in for a three-day hunt. And for the fact of the late season, birds harder to kill, and increased firepower needed, I did concede that a repeating shotgun is the better option over guns in October and November when I prefer double-barrels for their balance and ease of handling. My favorite is an old Fox Sterlingworth, bored improved cylinder and full, without any frills at all, not even ejectors.
Our host property featured 500 acres of cut corn and nearly 200 acres of CRP cover, and at nightfall on the 27th of December a predicted cold front moved in, dumping six inches of snow and plummeting temperatures overnight. Warm and cozy by the fire, and stoked with enough human anti-freeze to make a person’s internal and external equally comfortable, no one gave a second thought to what was taking place outside. We found out soon enough.
When we rolled out in the morning the thermometer on the back porch read a brisk 2 below. A stiff wind was blowing from the northwest, making the chill factor feel somewhere in the vicinity of 20 below, miserable conditions for men, dogs and equipment. The boys were well fortified, as was I, in Under-Armour and Thinsulate tested to 20 below. On the worst weather weekend of the winter, we were ready to go.
After a hearty breakfast of black coffee, eggs, and corned-beef hash, we hit some creek bottoms adjacent to a corn field filled with snow and started hunting into the wind. Our shorthair pointer, Prince, is a veteran to these kind of conditions and immediately oriented himself into the wind for maximum smelling advantage. It didn’t take him long to hit scent.
With Prince locked onto a classic point, Casey walked up behind him and kicked at some toppled-over reeds cloaked with a canopy of new snow. Immediately an unhappy rooster pheasant blew out in a shower of white, fighting to gain altitude. Casey was on him right now, and when his Benelli spoke the bird fell in a shower of feathers. Young Casey is a good shot, and Prince is a veteran at finding and retrieving downed birds.
But something else was wrong.
As I walked over to congratulate him on the first bird of the day, Casey was tugging at the handle on the bolt, trying to get the spent shell from the chamber of his gun. I knew in a moment…his Benelli had frozen in the sub-zero air and wouldn’t cycle on its own. Reloaded and confident that the malfunction was simply a fluke, we moved on.
Prince pointed again and this time I connected with another bright cockbird against an overcast sky at 30 yards; an easy shot and my old Model 12 ejected flawlessly for a second opportunity as a second rooster flushed late – a double!
The wind picked up, making faces red, hands near to numb, and the steel barrels of our guns felt colder than ice. We walked nearly a mile before Prince got interested again. This time it was Cary who walked in on the point and it didn’t take long. I think he actually stepped on the bird, a hen, that finally got herself situated and blew out at his feet. Moments later, the creek cattails around us exploded.
There could have been a dozen; there could have been twenty. We didn’t know. All we did know was that the air was suddenly full of flushing birds and at least half of them appeared to be roosters. Cary leveled and I heard him swear. Expecting his shot, I was training on a bird of my own and dropped it on the embankment that had sheltered the huddled-in birds from the biting wind.
I heard a second shotgun, a second shot, but then nothing. Silence.
“All those birds and we only got one?” I asked when the excitement was over. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Cary. “But my Beretta didn’t fire. You think it’s too cold?”
Checking with Casey, he had gotten off a hurried, startled shot at a bird that got up literally in his face, but never got leveled on it. It was out of range before he could get a second chance.
But there was no second chance. His auto, after firing the first shell, was too cold to cycle the empty shell and reload. Again!
“Can I suggest we get out of this wind and double back to the house?” I said to them both. “I’ve got a surprise for you both when we get there.”
Sure enough, within minutes of being inside with warmer temps, both guns relaxed to work without incident. Only, the birds we wanted to hunt were outside in the wind and zero fahrenheit.
“So what do we do now?” asked Casey, his face as red from embarrassment as from the stinging cold.
“I thought you might ask,” I said, pulling a couple of gun cases out of the closet. “Hey boys, old guns are always the best guns. Have a pump, or a double. I always travel with backups.”
Grudgingly, they picked out the same guns they had hunted with as teenagers; Casey picked up the old Sterlingworth and Cary another Model 12 that I hunted with when I was a teenager.
“Now if you can stand not being state-of-the-art I suggest we get back to hunting and shoot some birds,” I offered. “After all, they’re not going to know the difference.”
By noon we had our birds and the boys had a new-found respect for the simplicity and balance of old-school engineering and metallurgy.
“You’re loving this, aren’t you?” said Casey, warming by the fire.
“Old guns are the best guns.” I chuckled.
“And wise old dads are best, too,” offered Cary, with his best diplomacy. “Otherwise we’d be up a creek without a paddle – or ten hours from home without a gun.”
“Exactly,” I reassured.
Exactly, I thought to myself, with a smile of an experienced veteran.
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