Four-for-Four on Blackpowder Birds

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

The dogs bumped the first pheasant near the fence before we had our guns loaded. Jeremy called the pointers back and we watched the rooster set his wings and scribe a half-circle in the sky to land in the tall grass near the barn.

We were on Wild Winds Ranch, a preserve near Grass Valley. I carried my new muzzleloader shotgun, Austin & Halleck's 520. It's a single-shot scattergun with a vent-ribbed 26-inch barrel, an adjustable Bold match-grade trigger and a satin-luster maple stock with Boyd's rubber inlays instead of checkering.

This was the gun's second time in the field. Today my recipe consisted of 90 grains of loose Hodgdon Triple 7 poured down the barrel. A wad to hold it down and a pre-measured 1-1/4 ounces of No. 6 lead shot and another fiber wad to hold it in.

Jeff carried an over/under 20 gauge, Aldrich a Benelli 12 and Lee a Remington 11/87. Ron used his Ithaca pump. Since I was the oddball with the front-stuffer, I was given first crack at a bird. If for no other reason than that the group would have someone to heckle.

Jeremy, handling the dogs, gave the signal and the dogs started to hunt. Before we'd walked 50 yards, the English pointer locked up in the tall grass. "Cael's on point," Jeremy said. He'd found that first bird again.

I slipped a 209 primer on the nipple and closed the bolt. Here, with everyone watching, I'd get to try shooting a bird on the wing with the smokepole. Swinging wide around the dog, I approached, watching his eyes. The pheasant was on the move and the dog's head turned slightly. There. The rooster broke from the cover with a cackle and a rattle of his wings. I covered it with the barrel and squeezed the trigger. When the smoke cleared, the bird was on the ground.

One for one, I told myself. Better quit while you're ahead.

The next bird fell to Aldrich and the next to Lee. The 12 gauge guys were doing a lot of shooting and bending over to pick up and fill their pockets with the empty hulls. 

But my plan to stay at a hundred percent with one shot came to the test when another pheasant got up right in front of me and headed straight away. The muzzleloader came up and I felt the wood against my cheek, thumbed the safety forward, swung and squeezed. Through the cloud of white Triple 7 vapor, I saw the bird fold and hit the ground.

We turned out of the canyon and walked the side hill to flush chukar in ones, twos and threes.

One bird escaped because it flew too close to the ground. A shot would have endangered the dog. Two other chukar flew toward our group at eye level and went between us. I can still see one bird coming straight at me and Lee calling off the shot.

I'm usually not such a good wing-shot, but I bagged four birds (two pheasants and two chukars) in four tries. And the heckling stopped before it started. 

I think the fact that it takes 30 seconds to load and that you don't get a follow-up shot, makes a person tend to wait for the best opportunities. This muzzleloader might end up being my favorite upland bird gun.

Muzzleloading shotguns are nothing new, but they offer a different flavor to the hunt. There are a number of guns to choose from if you're inclined toward blackpowder guns. For 2006, CVA introduced the Optima Pro, a 26-inch barreled ambidextrous shotgun with screw-in chokes and a weaver rail if you want to add a scope for a turkey hunt.

For the traditional hunter or for someone who wants the option of a quick follow-up shot, Cabela's 

offers a double barrel exposed hammer Pedersoli shotgun available in 10-, 12- and 20-gauge.

Whatever gun you choose, hunting upland birds is most glorious for what returns in the memories. Good friends, a hard-working dog, long-tailed birds, sunlight on steel barrels and a big cloud of white smoke with a few pinfeathers floating down out of a winter sky.

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