Why Phil Hardman loves hunting in the summer
PUBLISHED: 16:05 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:06 17 July 2018
Phil Hardman is happy to be out hunting – and now he knows why
Summertime is a hunter’s dream! Well, this hunter’s dream, anyway. I love it, I really do. I get excited about hunting in a way that seems to fade in the winter, only to return at the same rate as the greenery and foliage that springs into life as the budding leaves turn into a thick canopy on every piece of woodland in the country. My enthusiasm really could be measured by the height of the nettles and shrubs, or crops in the field. I always assumed it was simply that I do not like winter – my mood is always low, and quarry numbers are down – but that isn’t the reason, and it’s taken me all these years to work it out, and finally, today, I figured it out.
Hunting with an airgun is a very particular, highly-specialised technique. Forget airgunning as a ‘feeder class’ that introduces people to the world of shooting, before they move on to bigger things. I’m talking about airgun hunting as a sport, an art in itself. Due to the limited power and range that airguns offer us, we have to use skills and techniques that a lot of other shooting disciplines do not require. Forget about marksmanship, all shooting sports require that, what I’m talking about is a concentrated type of fieldcraft that requires us to get so close to the creatures we hunt, that we have to consider things that most other hunting disciplines can often disregard.
We close to within 30 yards, often closer, and at that distance camouflaging yourself, and more importantly your movements, becomes critical, and I’m not talking about your movements as a whole, I mean, a finger, a foot, tilting your head slightly. A shooter using a .17HMR powder burner does not have to worry about such things, trust me. I have friends who shoot them, and we stand quietly chatting whilst hitting rabbits that have no clue we are there, on the opposite side of the field. An airgun simply cannot offer this. We need cover; we need to be able to operate in close proximity to our quarry, without being seen, and summer, with all of the greenery and cover that comes with it, offers us the perfect chance to get the maximum from our techniques.
In the same vein, an HMR shooter would not find himself at home in the thick, closed-in terrain in a summer wood, certainly not the overgrown type that I prefer to hunt in. The .17 HMR is perfect for out in the open fields; the airgun, is not, and that’s a fact we have to face. That’s not to say we can’t hunt in the barren open fields of winter with our airguns, we can, and I’m sure all do exactly that, but we are always working with a huge compromise, playing to the airgun’s weaknesses. In the summer, finally, we get to work in an environment that lets us solely use its strengths, and it is then that we are at our most effective.
So, what is the perfect environment for the airgun? Well, that depends on so many things that it would take a book to answer, but for me, it is a place where the maximum distance the quarry can see, is within the maximum distance I can shoot. Notice that I didn’t say ‘the maximum distance I can see’. Sometimes, in summer I will find myself stalking hedgerows, and I can see 400 yards or more, across two fields, but due to patches of thistles, long grass and other terrain features, the rabbits, being lower to the ground, cannot. They can’t see much past 40 yards, and so if I am crouching, they also cannot see me, and any that can, are already within range of the rifle. Woodland can offer this all year round if it is dense enough, but for me, the denser the better. I like a lot of ground cover, new growth and small, immature trees that provide a secondary canopy about 10-12ft high, with plenty of gaps in it to allow me to see up into the main canopy in the treetop of the mature wood. Hunting in such a closed-in environment makes for slow going, and it can be difficult to move through it silently, but it offers such a great chance to move unseen and get the drop on anything we come across, be it up in the trees, or down on the ground.
This time of year, those conditions can be found all over the place, and it’s for this reason that I find myself out sometimes a couple of times a day, I simply can’t get enough of it. The good thing about being in thick woodland in the summer is that it also tends to be a couple of degrees cooler than out in the open fields, which during the hotter parts of the day is essential really. That tends to be what I do during the summer, daytime hunting is conducted in the cool shade of the trees, whereas early morning or evening hunts, when its cooler, see me out in the fields targeting rabbits.
The particular area I headed for is a small plantation that once upon a time was one of my most productive areas. The trees were thinned out a few years ago, and as a result, most of the creatures that used to use this strip of trees hadn’t bothered anymore. It no longer offered the cover that it once did, and although I still stalked it often, my results have never been the same. That said, last year it finally started to fill out again, and this year it’s more or less looking how it used to, so I’ve been steadily increasing the amount of attention. It’s perfect for mixed bags, which I love. You never know what you’re going to bump into. Even before I entered the strip of trees I could hear woodpigeons ‘cooing’ in the distance, which is always a good sign. I happen to think that the sound of calling pigeons attracts other birds to an area. If the pigeons are calling they are relaxed, and if they are relaxed, there is no danger present, so it’s safe to go there. Of course, on this occasion it wasn’t, I was there, but they hadn’t figure that out yet. I started off by slinking quietly through a gap in the hawthorn that borders the farm drive and the strip of trees. Once inside, I paused for a few minutes, just watching and listening. The pigeons were still busy calling a couple of hundred yards further along, so I decided to head that way slowly. The one downside to summer greenery is the difficulty of spotting things up in the treetops, due to the leaves on the trees. Of course, this is offset by the difficulty things up there have with spotting you, and was perfectly illustrated when a pigeon above me somewhere very close, started to call loudly. I couldn’t see it at all. I narrowed down precisely which tree it was in, but I couldn’t see it, no matter how hard I looked. Even with me moving around underneath, the bird couldn’t see me either, so we were forced to call that one a draw, and I moved on, with it still ‘cooing’ loudly above me.
I had stalked maybe 40 yards and turned back to look at the tree where the pigeon had been, when I spotted a shadow move across the trees in front of me. When I am hunting, I always make a note of where the sun is in the sky, in relation to me, so I know roughly where shadows will fall and the relation to the source of them. This is so helpful when trying to work out where a bird will land in the woods, because instead of using those precious seconds to find out where it is, you can get ready for where it is going to be. I knew that whatever was causing the shadow to form, was coming in close, from behind me and to my right. I paused on the spot and looked for a possible landing site for it in front of me. The shadow was very quickly replaced by a real bird, a jackdaw, and it was roughly where I had anticipated when it came into view from the right, wings out, gliding into the trees. I got my HW100 up on aim ready as it fluttered its wings to land, and fired as soon as it did. The jackdaw just folded up and dropped, perfect!
It’s been a while since I used the HW100, but that time hasn’t made me any less efficient with it, that’s for sure. I collected my kill and moved on, the wood was alive with animals; song birds, pheasants, all kinds of movement to distract and confuse me, as I slowly wove my way through the trees.
My next chance came only a few minutes later in the form of a young rabbit. It was out in the field on the edge of the trees about 40 yards away. It had sensed my approach, and was up on its hind legs and presenting me with the perfect target. I rested against the trunk of a tree and took aim, gave it a tiny bit of holdover and slowly squeezed off the shot. When the pellet hit home, the rabbit just dropped on the spot and disappeared from view in the grass. I knew it was a nice solid hit though, so I re-cocked the rifle and slowly wandered over to retrieve kill number two.
I had to climb out into the field to collect it, which meant I spooked a couple of unseen pigeons which clattered from the trees and headed off loudly. Because I had left the cover of the wood and revealed myself, things were quiet as I continued. I would have to wait another half an hour for another chance, which came in the shape of a 25-yard woodpigeon perched low down in the trees with its back to me, and fell to a textbook shot between the shoulder blades. I headed back toward the farmyard, claiming a magpie on the way with a 15-yard headshot. I finished up the session in the main grain barn, where I managed to drop two rats, which was a nice treat – love shooting them in daylight – both fell to 15-yard headshots as they moved along the back wall and paused next to a beam.
It might have been a while since I had used the HW100, but I felt instantly back at home with it. If anything, I think I actually shot better with it than I had with the HW110 lately, and it made me wonder why it had been so long since I gave it an outing. I love the HW110, but the 100 is MY gun, it’s the one I have had the longest and although both are devastatingly accurate, for me it just feels that much more ‘right’ despite it being longer, and heavier. If I am thinking about it, side by side, I think I’d say I prefer the 110’s handling, but out in the field, when I’m being more instinctive, the 100 definitely edges it. Not that I have to choose, I own both and can use either, anytime I like. For now, at least, I think it will be the HW100 that I pick up. See you all next time.