Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Season To Remember, Part 3; The Sticky Toffee Pudding Massacre

My last driven shooting day in England would be back at Watton. The day started like it always had, with a sausage sandwich and a tea from the farm stand while everyone gathered at the farm yard and the day's plan was played out. This day would be different. Not because the decision had been made to shoot the drives in reverse order, but because some quality shenanigans were in the works.

I've said it before, and I'll say again; driven bird shooting, like most bird shooting isn't about the shooting. It's about a good day spent in the countryside, camaraderie, and the craic. Sometimes it's more about the craic than other times. This was one of those days. And your's truly was the target. I brought it on, myself. And I was relatively certain there would be some pay back for my off season offering.

To make this story complete, the back story is in order. Last year, a photo of two of my mates, in matching tweeds, surfaced. I couldn't let that go, and knew what I'd have to do. So, a screen capture, a bit of cropping, and an internet search later, and I was packing and shipping a pair of custom, nesting coffee mugs with heart shaped handles. Presented at the syndicate's season end dinner it not only got a laugh, but set in motion the events of my last day at Watton.

SL and CC

Now, it is important to know that I full well expected pay back. And I will say that after a days of shooting with the guys, and there yet to have been even an attempt, I was beginning to get a little worried. Surely these  guys were up to the challenge. Well, they didn't disappoint. Last year I'd shown my Achilles heel, when I made my enthusiasm for sticky toffee pudding (with a dollop of clotted cream) known. Sticky toffee pudding is a most excellent dessert seldom found in the US. I liked STP, and that was not lost on them. 

So, as the day began to take shape, I was approached by a member of the syndicate. He came bearing a two pack of microwavable sticky toffee pudding. He'd remembered I had a fondness for the dessert, and had found them at the grocery store, and thought I would enjoy eating them at home. How thoughtful. I was truly pleased and impressed. A couple minutes later another member approached and handed me a two pack of sticky toffee pudding, thinking I would enjoy taking a few home. Wow! How thoughtful, and coincidental, I thought. I do like sticky toffee pudding, so.... A few minutes later I third member of the syndicate approached bearing a two pack of sticky toffee pudding.  Oh! I get it. Looking across the barn yard I saw CC standing by his truck smirking. 

     "I know what you've done!" I hollered. "Well done!" 

Retribution was been handed out,.... all day. Even after the lunch break I was still being gifted sticky toffee pudding. Unbeknownst to me, the sticky toffee pudding I had stowed in the truck was being snuck out and given to others to give to me. They just seemed to be coming, and coming. By days end, I was the lucky recipient of 16 sticky toffee puddings, and a sticker toffee pudding ale.

The Sticky toffee pudding wasn't exactly the end of it, however. The syndicate has a shaming system.  Commit an offense of any kind, and the next weekend you'd be made to carry your gun in a pink gun slip. Well, the week earlier I'd forgotten a few empty hulls on my peg after a drive. I'd alerted a member of the syndicate of my mistake, but the damage was done, and I would be awarded the pink gun slip. 

So this,.....

became this.

As for the day's shooting? Well, I lucked out and found myself with warm barrels on hot pegs, and got in some great shooting. In fact, I'd say it was my best shooting day of the trip.

And as for the sticky toffee pudding, and the craic,.......

...I won.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Season To Remember; Woodcock flights and England Flights. Part 2

England Bound

     A couple weeks after my last trip north, with my banner woodcock day still fresh in my mind I found myself sitting onboard an Aer Lingus flight to England. Last year when I was in England it was suggested that I spend a bit more time, and get in a few more shooting days. So arrangements were made, and I was off for a 2 week shooting adventure. The trip was scheduled to have me fly the red eye a Wednesday, and depart 2 weeks later on a Wednesday. This gave me a few days of acclimation before my first shoot day, and a few recovery days after my last, with 4 shooting days scheduled from Saturday to the following Saturday. The days in-between shoots would be spent driving the countryside, and exploring outfitters and businesses catering to the shooting community.


     My first shooting day was with the Watton-Carrs Syndicate in the Driffield area of east Yorkshire. My host PP and I were on the road to the shoot early, watching the shy brighten through the windshield of his truck. In what has become a bit of a tradition, just prior to arriving at the shoot we stopped at the farm stand for what may be the best sausage sandwich in England.

     Arriving at the farm I made the rounds, catching up with those I'd shot with before, and meeting new members I'd not.  As the cold was stamped out of toes, dogs allowed to run out a bit of energy, and pie money collected the day began to take shape. Pegs were drawn, and we headed out.  Coincidentally, a guest gun, T,  who I'd met last year was shooting with the syndicate again, adding  yet another level of familiarity to my trip.

     I don't remember which number I drew, but I was stood out in a field facing a wood. There was a hedge and a ditch to my right with PP on the next peg over the hedge. To my left other guns lined out through the field. Soon the shooting began. I've been on somewhat of a quest to shoot a European Woodcock, and late November, and December are when the Woodcock are in Yorkshire. As fate would have it the cry of "Woodcock!" could be heard down the line, a shot rang out, and PP tumbled a good woodcock that had flown the hedge between us. A second woodcock flew the hedge, but I held back, it flying just above the height of the hedge. Not high enough or safe enough to be of my liking.  I mightn't have killed a woodcock, but I would be carrying one out after the drive, PP's woodcock having fallen my side of the hedge.

     The day would have it's moments, and it was the second drive I was to shoot on that I remember the best. It started out all wrong when syndicate member Bubbles tumbled down a steep embankment into a wet ditch. Somehow he managed to keep gun, cartridges, and cell phone out of the 6" of water at the bottom. It is remarkable the protection from the elements a good set of tweeds can provide, Bubbles only a bit damp in a few areas. After hauling Bubbles up the bank we proceeded to our pegs and continued shooting.  On this drive I was stood on a ride between a wood to my left, and "Bubbles Brook" and a hedge to my right. The shooting was much quicker, snap shooting, and at some point I got a good look at nicely presented cock pheasant which I folded with my first shot. The bird tumbled into the wood hitting every branch on the way down, before bouncing off a plastic drum feeder ringing it like a bell, which got a chuckle out of those who witnessed it. After the drive had ended, as we collected our birds and made our way out of the wood Bubbles emerged with a fox that had been pushed right to him by the beating line. A bonus, indeed.

    Like always we all stood 3, and beat 3, and had several memorable moments. Like can happen, I'd not drawn the best pegs, and I don't recall how many birds I killed, but I'd killed the one's I'd felt I should have, and had a great day. Shooting with a walk 1- stand 1 syndicate is about much more than just killing birds. The time spent beating and putting good birds over the line, and the craic are equally important.


     On Wednesday I found my self again in tattersall and tie, this time heading out to shoot with another walk 1- stand 1 syndicate in Cropton where I was able to fill in for a regular member show couldn't attend.  Cropton is a bit different from Watton. Watson shoots over fields, with the birds being driven from woods and hedges. Cropton is a woodland shoot. Some birds are driven over fields, but many drives are also out over breaks in the woods. the topography is very much like where I hunt grouse and woodcock in northern New England, and some of the woods I saw at Cropton I would have been more than happy to rough shoot for woodcock over a spaniel. Another difference is that Cropton employs the use of a shoot trailer to shuttle people around.

     Cropton was interesting in many ways. Again, and I wouldn't know this until the day had ended, I didn't draw good pegs, from a shooting stand point, but from a spectators point of view they were pretty damned good. The first drive of the day was awesome. I was part of the beating team, but the wood didn't require all of us, so I was stood behind the line of guns and tasked with marking and picking up shot birds. The guns were stood in a line in the bottom os a steep valley with a stream just in front of them. The beaters pushing birds from high on top of the opposite side, which had been logged. The birds came high and fast, some curling on set wings, and descending slightly to make for tricky shooting. Sometimes coming in small flushes, and at other times coming in singles and pairs this drive was exciting to watch.

     My first drive was like none I'd seen before. I was stood in a somewhat marshy area that looked more like somewhere one would hunt moose. Surrounded by tall pines the birds came by in singles and pairs. The shooting was quick, snap type shooting, but with more of a window than when I was stood on the ride at Watton.  I got in a fair amount of shooting at marginal birds a bit far, or crossing in front, which I didn't mind missing very much because they were marginal, but when I good cock pheasant came over, trying to get past between me and the gun to my right I was happy to fold him into the baby pines and thick underbrush behind us. Fittingly, it was PP's cocker, Snitch, who was on pick up duty in my area and picked my bird.

The walk in to the first drive I would shoot at Cropton.

     As the day progressed I was on a peg in the middle of the line, in a field looking at another wood I was certain would hold woodcock. On this drive PP and snitch stood at the ready to load and pick if needed. Neither was to be, and the same 2 cartridges I dropped in to my 20g Browning O/U made it back into my pocket after the drive. The drive, however, proved to be great to see some good high birds killed. The second and third guns down the line to my left, closest to the bordering high pines were on hot pegs, were shooting with some efficiency. I've seen some nice YouTube videos of good high birds being killed, but there is nothing like watching it as it unfolds. Were these towering birds? No, but they were consistently right around the 50 yard mark. It was a pleasure to watch.

Myself and Snitch on The Spectator Drive. The gun stood next to the treelike behind me in the picture has some awesome birds come over him. It was a thrill to see some high birds killed.

     Later I would have the pleasure of watching Snitch in the beating line as we beat a big brushy cut towards a swath of pines, the guns stood on the farm road on the other side. The beating line produced plenty of good birds for the guns, but it was at the bottom when twice Snitch turned on the wind, and drove in on tight sitting birds making good hard flushes.

The cut we pushed where Snitch did some great work.

     The day concluded with everyone making their way to the Blacksmiths Arms for a post shoot drink and a full dinner. While I had not drawn a hot peg, and had only killed one bird, I was happy with the way the day played out.  got to see some spectacular shooting, some sporting birds, mouth watering drives, good dog work, and met some great people. Like I said, it's not about killing birds, but about a day in the countryside with good friend and good people.


     We would pick up the shooting again 2 days after Cropton with a visit to the Escrick Park Estate just south of York. In planning my trip I was presented with the possibility of being part of a team of guns being assembled for a day at the estate. I had never been on an estate shoot, nor even taken part on a fully driven day. Until this point all of my driven shooting had been walk 1- stand 1, but now I would experience nothing but unadulterated shooting for 5 drives on a 150 bird day.

     The day began before sunrise as the team of 10 guns dressed in their finest tweeds assembled at the shoot lodge for a full English breakfast before heading out for the first drive. Over sausage, beans, toast and coffee the day's craic began to get going. The shoot manager arrived as we were finishing off our coffee, gave us the ground rules, and we drew pegs. Escrick uses an old method of moving up and down pegs on successive drives; Odd numbers move up, even numbers move down. This means on each drive you will have different neighbors. I drew peg 2 for the first drive. This would mean on the second drive I'd drop to peg 1, then 3, 5, and 7 respectively. I didn't know it at the time, but my poor peg slump was over, and I'd be on some hot pegs.

An Escrick Park estate dog.

     The first drive had the line of guns in a field facing a tall hedge about 75 yards forward, other about the same distance behind. Standing on my peg I was doing all I could to try to ignore the numbing cold in my fingers. The weather had turned and a bitter cold had settled on the area, and the wind was howling. My the numbness and tingling made me begin to doubt whether I'd be able to slip off the safety, and pull the trigger. I'd soon find out when a good cock pheasant came over to my left. The cold forgotten about I turned, and swung the gun on the bird. Well, not only had I forgotten about the cold, but I also forgot about the safety, and my gun remained silent. It was only minutes later that partridge began streaming over the hedge in small coveys, and while none actually came my way I got to warm my barrels a bit trying to secure a few my neighboring gun had missed as they went out the backdoor. I hadn't expected to be shooting partridge, and it was a welcome addition to my species list. I can also attest to how exciting they are when they come streaming over a hedge.

     On the second drive I was assigned to peg 1, which was a walking gun. This drive was similar to the first with the guns facing a hedge, but much further away this time. The beating line moved roughly perpendicular to the line of guns on the other side of the hedge. That was where I came in. the walking gun is responsible for birds that try to break back over the beaters. And they did. No sooner than the drive had begun, 2 partridge tried to break over the hedge and back away from the line. They failed, both being brought down by my bottom barrel. As the drive progressed others, both partridge and pheasant tried to exit stage left where I was waiting. Some made it through, some fell on my second shot, and a few were exactly the kind of challenging connections we hope for. About a third of the way through the drive a hen pheasant, broke back over the beating line, high and well over the hedge. Swinging through I secured the hen with a single pull of the trigger, and getting a rousing cheer from the beating line who'd seen it, appreciating that their hard work was not wasted. A few minutes later a cock pheasant tried the same escape route, and like the hen, was brought down with a single shot, again making the beating line happy. The shoot manager, who had been walking with me remarked that its a good thing when the beaters like your shooting. "Make sure they know it was the Yankee doing that shooting" was my reply. At the drives end I'd killed 6 or 7. I was happy. Off for a bit of elevensie.

A happy gun? Or trying to catch a ride on the wind?

Mixed bag at Escrick

     After elevensie we lined out in front of a game crop which was pushed towards us. I was stood with a hedge and a ditch to my left, with a tree straight in front at the edge of the game crop. While the tree was well ahead of me it shielded my view of incoming birds making the shooting a bit tricky. Unfortunately the birds had the wind to their back which did 2 things; make them fast, but put them on us before they had much height. By the drive's end I'd passed on a number of low birds, missed some good birds, and put pellets in 2 others. The added speed meant I'd need added lead, which I hadn't quite gotten my head wrapped around. That said, I'd pricked hard both a partridge and a pheasant which sailed to where the pickers-up were waiting.

The line of guns to my right on the 3rd drive.

     The fourth drive was interesting. I was stood on a ride in the wood with some of the guns lined in the field to my left, and others in the wood to my right. The shooting was snap shooting, with only a small window. The birds were coming over me, but in the shade, with the sun low in the sky my eyes were playing tricks on my. I was having a tough time judging distance, and many times birds were over me quicker than I'd expected. But the cry of "Woodcock!" kept me alert, and twice I had opportunities, though fleeting. The first woodcock passed low, left to right, but climbed as it went over my neighboring gun. A tree between us blocked a bit of my view, but the woodcock quickly emerged high over my neighbor before making it through without a shot fired. The next woodcock did almost the same thing, but passing right to left, gaining elevation. As the woodcock rose I began to swing and mount but the bird made it through a small strip of trees and out over the gun to my left, who made a fantastic shot on the now quite high woodcock. That was not the only woodcock killed on that drive, with J N nearly, but for a technicality, getting a left and a right on woodcock. A good woodcock came over, which he killed. He then took the gun out of his shoulder just before a second woodcock appeared. He then brought the gun up again, and killed woodcock number 2 with the unfired cartridge in his second barrel. Here in the US, killing 2 birds in flight, each with a successive shot is called a double (L & R in the UK). If the report of the gun is what puts the second bird in the air, and it is then killed, we call it a scotch double. J N, not sure if both birds were in the air at the same time, I'd credit with a scotch double.   I, however, would only have but a few spectacular misses on this drive.

JN with his 2 woodcock.

     The fifth and final drive had the guns lined out along 3 sides of a wooded outcrop of tall thick pines. As the beaters approached birds began to filter out, but it was clear that many of these birds had seen a line of guns before. Most of the pheasant  curled around and flew back in to the woods over tree top height before a shot could be fired, the partridge coming out low, many flushing not from in the woods, but when they reached the end. Still, some birds flew nicely, and I was able to kill a few good partridge.

A couple of the pickers-up,....

..and the fruits of their labor.

     The day at Escrick ended much the way it had begun, with the gun team sitting down for a good meal at the shoot lodge. While it was supposed to be a 150 bird day it didn't quite turn out that way. We ended up a bit short with a bag of 104; 36 pheasant, 63 partridge, 4 woodcock, and 1 pigeon. We racked up this bag with 406 shots, for a pretty good ratio. I had finally gotten some good peg, and had some quality birds, and I added another species to my list, having killed my first Red-Leg Partridge. Could the day have been better? Well, I was happy, but I could see why some of the others weren't thrilled. The bag was 1/3rd short, and while we were shown enough birds to have met the bag, a lot of those birds just weren't sporting. Some, as in the case of the last drive, just weren't even shots. I know it is hard to manage a shoot, but I would expect there to be contingency plans for days when the wind, or weather, is a factor. Surely there are drives that show better in such conditions. Anyway, Escrick shall not be judged on just one shoot. Conditions were tough, and given the opportunity I would shoot there again. just hopefully on a sunny, warm, still day.

Have you ever seen a better looking team of guns?

Part 3, The Sticky Toffee Pudding Massacre, coming soon.