The sky could have been bluer. It had that steel-gray look that in a different setting might have been called ‘sullen’. But, clouds notwithstanding, I experienced nothing sullen during the recent South Fork Hunting Preserve continental pheasant throw.
Not only was this my first ‘throw’, but the event is a driven shoot, making it European-esque and thus a perfect venue for the drop-dead gorgeous, Verney-Carron Azur SD Eloge Grade 20 Gauge Shotgun I would be carrying. Jérôme Lanoue, Ken Buch and the Master Craftsmen at L’Atelier Verney-Carron were the generous providers of my shotgun-for-the-day.
Two common themes characterized the morning’s shoot. 1) I was stopped by everyone who saw the elegant 20 gauge shotgun before, during and after the hunt with comments like, “That is amazing!”, “What a beautiful shotgun!”, “How much does that cost?!” 2) Jacob Nash and Colby Phillips (co-owners of South Fork Hunting Preserve in northeast Georgia), along with their dog-handlers, pheasant skinners, safety monitors, chefs, etc, etc provided a wonderfully fun and relaxed atmosphere.
I’ve never had a more enjoyable day in the field, even with that ‘sullen’ sky.
A great deal of our enjoyment came neither from the shotgun nor the venue, but instead from watching the four-legged members of our entourage. But more about that as the story unfolds.
As usual, I was accompanied by my long-suffering, non-hunter wife and photographer. Don’t get me wrong, Frances is not in the least anti-hunting. So I have no explanation why time and time again I heard her over my gunshots yelling “Go bird!!, go bird!”
But, I digress. Frances and I arrived at the South Fork property around 7:30 am. Registration was due to start at 8, giving us time to take a photo of the hopeful hunter – complete with vest and Verney-Carron shotgun laid (stylishly) over my shoulder – and post a short blurb about the hunt on my Facebook page and blog.
Several months earlier we had been hosted by Colby and Jacob on an upland hunt. The previous hunt predated the purchase of their new property that included the amazing three-story (plus a crow’s nest) ‘clubhouse’.
With three bedrooms on the first floor, each with its own ensuite facilities, full-kitchen, sitting rooms throughout and multiple balconies-cum-decks on the various floors, I was sorry that we had not spent a night or two as guests. After touring the clubhouse, we headed to the field in which stood the pheasant tower.
The South Fork staff would be releasing 260 birds in batches of 10. A bullhorn blast from the throwers in the tower would signal the start of each 10-bird session, and would be sounded again after the 10th bird had been released.
Though pen-raised, the vast majority of the pheasants flew like wild birds I’ve hunted out west. I took most of my shots at birds that had gone straight up, leveled out at extreme altitude and were making a bee-line for the forest that surrounded the field.
Once we had witnessed the loading of all the pheasant cages into the tower . . .
…we made our way back to the clubhouse to collect our firearms, shells, camera equipment along with our initial stand assignment.
Lucky number 20 was where Frances and I would take up residence for the first 10 birds. After that we would move counter-clockwise around the huge field until we came back around to the #19 stand. But, we had a lot of hunting to do before that would occur.
Shortly before the final instructions from Colby and Jacob, the latter spotted the Verney-Carron 20 gauge on my shoulder. Like so many others that day, Jacob asked to take a look at the wood, engraving, checkering and finish of the Eloge Grade V-C. He agreed that it was a work-of-art.
Of course, the unanswered question was whether or not I would be able to live up to the appearance by hitting some of the high-flying birds.
Frances and I took up our position at the #20 stand bordering the combination sunflower and millet field.
Soon, one of the ‘throwers’ stood up with the bull-horn to give reminders of protocol and at the end yelled “Everybody have fun!”
He ducked back down below the height of the tower walls and blew the horn heralding the first bird’s launch. It wasn’t until the sixth pheasant that I had an opportunity to shoot.
Frances caught me set and ready to fire, which I did, with both barrels, while watching the bird proceed on its merry way.
I had just enough time to quietly swear, eject the spent hulls and shove in two more shells before my next chance presented itself.
This time the pheasant shuddered with the impact of the shot from the first barrel and tumbled out of the air from the second. One of the dog handlers released a beautiful chocolate Lab who charged in, snatched up the hen and brought it back to his master.
I was glad that the ice had been broken, but the birds were appearing too regularly and quickly to spend much time congratulating myself. The bullhorn indicating the end of session one came and we sidled our way to the next stand.
In the process of pre-hunt introductions, we had become acquainted with the family group who happened to be assigned to a stand next to ours. The group included an 8-week-old black Lab puppy named Maddie.
Frances and I were smitten. Especially endearing was when Maddie came over during the shoot to comfort me after another missed shot. Plopping herself down at my feet, she was the perfect picture of the role that I am certain she will soon assume – a brilliant and beautiful retriever.
Unfortunately, I was staring at Maddie when the next bird came within shooting distance.
Before long, another Pheasant silhouetted against the battleship-gray sky sailed across our front. Frances captured the shot string streaking toward a collision with the rapidly moving bird.
As the bird tumbled from the air a second dog handler sent his companion into the field. This time my pheasant (another hen) was brought back to field’s edge by a beautiful black lab, a vision of Maddie in the future.
Maddie repeatedly helped ‘her’ boy carry pheasants knocked down by the boy’s Dad.
The day continued to be a delightful mixture of missed shots followed by gentle ribbing from nearby shooters, and hoots of “great shot!” when I [too infrequently] connected with the side-by-side Verney-Carron.
A bit of a surprise to me was the fact that I quickly acclimated to switching between the double triggers. I was concerned that my having previously used only single-trigger shotguns might make the transition to a two-trigger firearm difficult. That was not the case.
Of course my rapid acclimation means that I can’t blame fumbling with the triggers for my score of seven pheasants out of many more than seven opportunities. It wasn’t the fault of the shotgun.
Much too quickly, Frances and I arrived at the final station of the morning. The bullhorn sounded and, as promised a few moments before by the ‘tower guys’, all hell broke loose. Two participants had been no-shows, which meant that there were extra birds left for the final throw.
The two guys in the Tower threw with a vengeance. Birds were barely leveling out before the next singles or doubles were rocketing out of the tower’s open roof. The firing reached a crescendo that reminded us of a battle reenactment.
A delicious home-made meal awaited us at the clubhouse, when all the birds had been shot (or not). It was a great finale to an incredible morning of fellowship around hunting.
The experience reminded me of a Ruark quote: “We had a pretty good morning,” the Old Man said. “I thought you did pretty good for an amateur…”
I was indeed an amateur at hunting continental-style ‘driven’ pheasant. But, boy was it a thrill to see those birds flying against that slate-colored sky, even if quite a few of them escaped with the sound of my two-barrel salute ringing in their ears.