The Science Behind Hot Streaks and Slumps in the Pheasant Field

The Science Behind Hot Streaks and Slumps in the Pheasant Field

Because confidence gets shooters into the zone—and the zone is a real place.

My cousin sent me a note the other day saying he had gone nine for nine so far during pheasant season, and he asked for advice and sympathy in advance of the inevitable slump. I congratulated him on his hot streak and told him not to worry about it when he did finally miss. The important thing is not to get too high about hitting or too low about missing but to take it in all stride.

Shortly thereafter, I learned that the “hot hand fallacy” has finally been debunked. It has always been an article of faith in basketball that you feed the hot shooter. In the ’80s, three behavioral economists conducted a study of the “hot hand” theory of shooting and hitting streaks, based on the hits and misses of the 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers over 48 games. According to their analysis, there were no streaks that couldn’t explained by the laws of probability. Whether you made or missed a shot had nothing to do with what happened on previous shots. There were no hot hands, according to their data. The hot hand was just one more example of people seeing patterns in randomness. In practical terms, it meant there was no reason to give the ball to the hot shooter, because he wasn’t truly hot. Coaches and athletes protested, but the hot hand fallacy gained wide acceptance and has been applied to many endeavors beyond hoops.

In a recent study, Professor of Decision Sciences Joshua Miller and economist Adam Sanjuro, recrunched the statistics and found that the hot hand does exist. Making a shot increases the probability of making the next. They found the players on the 1980-81 Sixers actually had an 11 percent greater chance of making the next shot (and they think it may be even higher) when they were on a hot streak. That makes a lot more sense. Your confidence grows when you see the ball drop through the basket—or watch birds fall from the sky. Confidence gets shooters into the zone, and the zone is a real place.

It’s about time. The hot hand fallacy never made sense to me, because mental state has so much to do with hitting and missing. In fact, I’d like to see Miller and Sanjuro apply their method to missing. Just as hot streaks are real, so are slumps. If you let it, missing feeds on itself and can become a negative feedback loop that begets more missing. It’s been a few years since it’s happened to me in the field, as I’ve gotten better at letting go of misses, but I remember an afternoon field hunt in Alberta years ago when I was in a bad mood and let myself sink into a funk. The more I missed, the more upset I got, the more upset I got, the more I continued to miss. The downward spiral into futility and despair lasted into the next day’s hunt. I didn’t come out of it until I got back home.

Enjoy the hits, learn from the misses and put them behind you. That’s the way to get hot, and the way to keep from going cold.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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How to Choose the Best Gun and Load for Late-Season Waterfowl

How to Choose the Best Gun and Load for Late-Season Waterfowl

Late-season waterfowl hunting presents a pair of good-news/bad-news scenarios, depending on the weather. On mild winter days, any gun should do the job. That’s the good news. The bad news is that wary ducks and geese don’t fly as much or decoy as well in warmer weather. That means your chances are fewer, and your shots may be long.

On bitterly cold and windy days, ducks and geese trade caution for the need to feed. That’s great. But some guns turn balky in the cold and can also be difficult to run when your fingers are frozen and gloved. It’s frustrating when birds work and your gun won’t.

You need a gun-and-load combo that’s equal to both situations. It needs to hit hard and function reliably.

How to Choose the Right Shotgun Gauge and Choke

Late season is the time for big guns. Because winter birds tend to be tougher to kill, it’s a good idea to go to bigger shot, which hits harder. In order to do that and keep the pellet count up, you need to go with a 3- or 3½-inch 12-gauge, or even a 10-gauge.

I keep a 10-gauge gun handy for days when I want to send a lot of shot into the air, but the versatile 3½-inch 12 is far more popular than the fading 10. You can handload 3½-inch 12-gauge shells that are even more potent than factory 10-gauge ammo, and the 12-gauge guns are handier in the field. Plus, you can make or buy lighter 12-gauge loads for when you don’t need the extra range, or to shoot targets in the off-season so you can hit what you shoot at when the late-season comes.

If you expect birds to be skittish, you may want to tighten up your choke too. This gives you more range, and the tighter choke also compensates somewhat for the added density of cold air that makes patterns open more quickly. If you normally shoot Improved Cylinder or Light Modified over decoys, for example, switch to Modified or Improved Modified.

How to Choose the Right Shotgun Action

A late-season gun has to function in the cold. That’s why pump guns are a good choice now; they put follow-up shots on target as fast or almost as fast (depending on your skills) as an autoloader, and being hand-powered, they’re more reliable. O/Us and side-by-sides are the most reliable of all, since it’s difficult to get snow and ice inside their closed actions.

Gas-operated semi-autos seem to have the most trouble in the cold. How you clean and lube one can have a lot to do with how it performs in winter weather, but no matter how much or how little lube I use on my favorite gas gun, it turns sluggish any time the temperature gets below 15 degrees. There are exceptions to this rule; I’ve been impressed with the gas-operated Remington V3, for example, for late-season hunting. But generally speaking, inertia and recoil-operated autoloaders do better in the cold.

The enlarged bolt release on a Browning A5 Wicked Wing is easier to work with gloved hands.
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How to Choose the Best Shotgun Ergonomics

Enlarged bolt handles, safeties, and bolt releases used to be aftermarket accessories. Increasingly, they are standard equipment on semi-autos intended for waterfowl. Enlarged loading ports, inspired by three-gun competition and its need for speed, are finding their way onto waterfowl guns too. All these features make a gun easier to handle in the cold. As one who suffers from numb, weak fingers on late-season hunts, I like a gun with a fairly soft magazine spring as well, so long as it doesn’t impair the gun’s function.

How to Pick the Right Late-Season Shotgun Loads

Switching to bigger and/or faster shot is also a good idea now. Bigger shot hits harder, bucks cold and wind better, reaches farther, and patterns tighter than smaller pellets. If you have a supply of bismuth or premium tungsten-iron squirreled away, the late season is the time to break it out. Here are suggestions for the most popular winter birds:

Big Ducks: Go with 3- or 3-1/2-inch No. 2 steel at 1450 fps, or No. 3 or 4 bismuth.

What I like: Kent Bismuth or Kent Fasteel 2s to save a little money.

Canada Geese: Use 3-inch tungsten-iron 2s or BBs, 3-inch steel BBs over decoys, or 3½-inch steel BBBs for pass shooting or wary birds.

What I like: Winchester DryLok Super Steel 3-inch 1¼-ounce BBs and 3 ½-inch 10 gauge DryLok Super Steel 1-3/8-ounce BBBs.

Divers: Go with 3 or 3½-inch steel 2 or 3 shot, or a steel/tungsten or bismuth duplex load.

What I like: Federal SpeedShok 3 or 3½-inch 2 or 3 shot, or Federal Black Cloud 3×9 TSS.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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6 First-Aid Items That Could Save Your Hunting Dog

6 First-Aid Items That Could Save Your Hunting Dog

Gun dogs are bred to work hard under tough conditions. That’s why a good first-aid kit for your hunting dog is important. Kristina Mott is a central Wisconsin veterinarian who is also a serious hunter and dog breeder. Consequently, she’s aware of just what can happen to dogs while in the field. “Going without any preparation is not a good option,” she said. “It’s good to have a full-service kit in the truck or car, then maybe a smaller option to take into the field.”

You can purchase first-aid kids designed for gun dogs—but you will want to add a few extra essentials. That’s where this list comes in to help. Here is the must-have gear that Mott recommends adding to your hunting dog’s first-aid kit.

Eye Ointment

Eye ointment can be a safe treatment for many eye issues your dog may suffer in the field.
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“An antibiotic ophthalmic ointment is safe to use for pretty much any eye problem,” Mott said. “It will treat things like corneal ulcers, mild conjunctivitis, and that sort of thing. It might not always be the right answer, but definitely the safe answer.” Mott warns against using leftover human eye medications since many contain steroids. “The thing you want to avoid for sure is any kind of steroid eye medication on the eye without having a veterinary diagnosis first.”

You’ll need a prescription for the eye ointment, so consult your veterinarian to stock it in your gun dog first-aid kit.

Saline Solution

Use saline solution to remove debris from your gun dog’s eyes.
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Another good eye-related item to have is saline solution, which you can us to wash debris out of your dog’s eyes after hunts. Inexpensive saline solution like contact-lens solution works fine.

“This is good used post-hunt up on the tailgate to flush their eyes out and get any seed heads or grass pieces or anything like that out of their eyes to avoid foreign bodies in their eyes,” Mott said. Saline solution is also handy to have around to clean cuts, scrapes, or punctures. “Those big bottles of saline flush have a nozzle top that you can actually squeeze the bottle and get some pressure,” she said. “So, you can use that to flush out a wound to get any dirt or debris out of it.”

Battery-Powered Clippers

If your dog is wounded during a hunt, use clippers to shave the hair around the area so you can properly clean the wound.
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“On hairy dogs, the first thing that we do when a wound or puncture comes in is shave the hair away and clean the wound,” Mott said. “The last thing you need is all the hair and debris acting like a wick and getting stuck in there, causing more infection.”

Since there’s obviously no place to plug in clippers in the field, a battery-powered beard trimmer is the perfect tool. “Sometimes you just see one big puncture and if you don’t get rid of the hair around it,” Mott added, “you miss the little one next to it and it never gets cleaned.”

Nail Trimmers and Cauterizing Powder

Pack toenail clippers and cauterizing powder to treat toe injuries in the field.
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“Toe injuries are one of the more common problems in the field,” Mott said. “Sometimes they’ll split up the side so a big chunk is hanging or break off the whole toenail.” Simply clip off whatever excess toenail might be hanging on and use a clotting powder like Quick Stop or others to stop the bleeding. “In a pinch, if you don’t have Quick Stop powder, corn starch will also work on a toenail if you pack it into the nail bed to help clot it.”

Cheap Reading Glasses

If you rely on eye glasses to read a book, you’ll need them to treat a wound on your dog.
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If you can’t see a wound, you can’t treat it correctly. “I always tell people, if you need to put cheaters on to read a menu in a restaurant, throwing an extra set in the first-aid kit is important,” Mott said. “Knowing what you’re looking at and being able to get a good assessment so you can make the best choice for your dog is critical. She admits this might seem like a strange object to include in such a list. “It sounds like a foolish thing, but everybody who has put them in their kit has thanked me.”

Honey or Karo Syrup

Small packs of honey can boost a dog’s low blood-sugar level.
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Sometimes hunting dogs will have seizures from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. It’s a good idea to keep some honey or Karo syrup on hand in case that occurs. “If a dog is having a seizure and it is from hypoglycemia, the sugar could help by being absorbed across the gums or the mucus membranes,” Mott said. “The nice thing about that is if the seizure was caused from something else, you’re not going to hurt them by giving them that. It may not help if that’s not the reason for the seizure, but it won’t hurt them.”

Written by Mark Chesnut for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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8 Tips for bagging more late-season pheasants

8 Tips for bagging more late-season pheasants

A late-season pheasant is an entirely different bird than those found early on or even in the middle of the season. Hunting them is similar to trying to tag a wary old whitetail buck. They’re paranoid, jumpy, and just plain difficult to get close to.

Depending on which state you live in, pheasant season may run until the end of January. Not only do you need a good dose of luck to connect with birds that have been continually harassed for nearly three months, but you also need to hunt much smarter than you did on opening day. Here are a few ways to outsmart one of the smartest game birds on the planet—the late-season rooster pheasant.

1. Hunt Early Mornings and Afternoons

While late-morning hunts can be good in the middle of the season, you should get up early during the late season. Wary birds often like to fly out and feed before shooting time and right at first light. You’ll want to be in the field before daybreak to catch any stragglers. Just make sure that when you shoot, there’s enough light to differentiate between hens and roosters.

Morning hunts are even better on exceptionally cold days when pheasants may be tempted to sleep in a little and feed at daybreak or a little after. You may be tempted to sleep in, too, but don’t. Bundle up and get out there. Roosters are more likely to hold tight when the weather is cold too.

The author's dogs, Phantom and Komet pose with the rewards of an afternoon hunt.
The author's dogs, Phantom and Komet pose with the rewards of an afternoon hunt. Field & Stream

Likewise, afternoon hunts can be productive in the late season. Hit the field a few hours before sunset, after pheasants have had time to feed and return to their loafing/roosting areas. Just be sure to quit well before the sun goes down to give birds time to settle for the evening.

2. Hunt After Fresh Powder

A fresh skiff of snow may be all it takes to get late-season roosters to hunker down and hold for the dog. The snow doesn’t need to be too deep, either, just enough for pheasants to burrow into, but not enough to make walking overly difficult for them. Best of all, you can track pheasants in fresh snow, because it’s much quieter than refrozen, crunchy snow.

3. Pay Attention to Cover

When hunting pheasants during the late season, keep a close eye on the cover. Try lying down in a CRP field on a cold winter day. You’ll immediately notice how much warmer it feels at ground level out of the wind. Whether there’s a bunch of snow on the ground, or bitter low temperatures, or both, pheasants prefer tall, thick cover to protect themselves from the elements. Also, pay attention to areas in a field that have slight depressions or pockets that are noticeably warmer than the surrounding area. Pheasants love these spots, especially early in the morning or late in the day.

4. Hunt Waterfowl Production Areas

Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) and wetland habitats are great places to find late-season pheasants. The uplands surrounding wetlands often have good stands of grass, while cattails on the edges of the water provide cover all season long. What’s more, parts of the area that were previously inaccessible due to high water during the early season should now be frozen and easier to walk on. Lastly, during the winter, there are fewer hunters in these areas, making it easier to hunt on weekends, whenever the weather allows it.

Waterfowl Production Areas are great places to find late-season roosters, especially after the crowds have thinned and the water has frozen.
Waterfowl Production Areas are great places to find late-season roosters, especially after the crowds have thinned and the water has frozen. Field & Stream

Regulations on WPAs may require you to use non-toxic shot. Waterfowl loads will work for pheasants, but consider using a premium non-toxic load such as Winchester’s Blind Side Pheasant, Federal’s Prairie Storm steel, or Hevi-Shot’s Hevi-Metal Pheasant. All are designed specifically for knocking roosters down. Earlier this season, I shot a young rooster with Hevi-Hammer, a devastating new duplex load from Hevi-Shot that contains both steel and bismuth.

5. Use Enough Gun

Late-season roosters are big, heavily-feathered birds, and while smaller-gauge shotguns may be sufficient early on, you’re better off hunting with a 12-gauge now. However, that 12-gauge should be lightweight, because you’ll be carrying it way more than you’ll be shooting it.

My favorite lightweight late-season scatterguns typically weigh around or under 7 pounds. The new Browning A5 and Winchester SX4 are both great options, along with the Franchi Affinity and the Remington Wingmaster.

Bigger roosters also require heavier payloads. For a 12-gauge, that means at least 1 ¼ ounces in 2-¾-inch shells and 1 ⅜ ounces (or even 1 ½ ounces) in 3-inch shells. If you absolutely must use a 20-gauge, consider upsizing to 3-inch shells with 1 ¼ ounces of shot. Also consider using copper or nickel-plated shot instead of just lead to better penetrate all those feathers.

A lightweight 12-gauge and a heavy pheasant load with plated shot are key tools for late-season success.
A lightweight 12-gauge and a heavy pheasant load with plated shot are key tools for late-season success. Field & Stream

6. Tighten Chokes

While you don’t want to over-choke when hunting pheasants during the middle of the season, now is the time to tighten up your patterns. This isn’t to say you can’t shoot pheasants in January with more open chokes (especially while quail hunting). If you’re hunting over a pointing dog, you may be able to get by with a Modified or even Light Modified tube, depending on how staunch the dog is. But as a general rule, if pheasants are the main course on the menu, tighten chokes up by one or two constrictions in the late season. A full choke works well, especially if hunting with a flusher, and most aftermarket chokes labeled as “late season” are actually Improved Modified tubes.

7. Be Prepared for Quail

Speaking of quail, bobwhites and pheasants often inhabit the same areas. If you’re choked tight and loaded for roosters, that’s fine. Shoot what’s in your gun at the covey rise, but bring a few spreader loads along for going after the singles.

Pheasants and quail often inhabit the same areas, so keep a few spreader rounds handy, like Poly-Wad's Spred-R, to open up patterns from tight chokes in case quail show up.
Pheasants and quail often inhabit the same areas, so keep a few spreader rounds handy, like Poly-Wad's Spred-R, to open up patterns from tight chokes in case quail show up. Field & Stream

Spreader loads use a specialized wad that causes the shot to quickly disperse after leaving the muzzle. The result is a wide-open pattern at close range, and they will open up patterns a couple constriction sizes without requiring a choke swap.

My go-to spreader load is Poly-Wad’s Spred-R, but Kent also offers a neat new spreader load in its Elite Pro Target line. I usually carry three or four in my vest pocket throughout the season in case quail show up.

8. Listen to Your Dog

A couple of seasons ago, bobwhite numbers were high in my area, and we’d enjoyed a record quail season. However, pheasants were a little harder to come by. All that changed one mid-January morning when my dog, Phantom suddenly went on point. She’d pinned down a small group of pheasants, and as I approached, two hens rose on either side of a rooster. I aimed for the middle bird and hit him, despite having a cylinder choke in my gun.

The rooster pheasant, missing a few tail feathers, and Phantom after the retrieve.
The rooster pheasant, missing a few tail feathers, and Phantom after the retrieve. Field & Stream

I directed Phantom to the where the rooster fell, and she ran around in circles before trying to run back the way we’d come. I reined her in and made her re-search the area, but she tried backtracking again. This time I let her go.

As I followed her out of the grass and across a cut cornfield, I spotted bloody pheasant tracks in the snow. I followed the tracks across the cornfield and called again for her. This time Phantom came bounding back with a very much still alive rooster in her mouth, but with no tailfeathers. The two lessons I learned that day were simple: Always trust your dog, and don’t give up on a bird, especially in the late season.

Written by Jarrod Spilger for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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How to shoot fast flying birds

How to shoot fast flying birds

Most hunters move too quickly when a bird flushes.

A friend once emptied an unplugged Benelli at a ringneck pheasant that had jumped up at our feet. The rooster was still in range when his gun spit out the last smoking hull. So, I mounted my gun and shot the bird.

Take a deep breath and do the math: A flying pheasant—one of the faster upland birds—might hit 40 mph. That’s 58 feet (19.3 yards) per second, which means almost any gamebird that flushes at your feet will take at least two seconds to fly out of range. Even a bird that flushes 15 or 20 yards ahead gives you a full second to work with. That’s plenty of time if you learn to use it wisely. The trick is to move neither too quickly nor too slowly—to learn how to mount the gun and shoot with a rhythm and timing that gives you the best chance to connect. Here’s how.

Ready for Your Close-Up

It should probably go without saying that when you’re hunting birds, you should expect to see some. Yet upland hunters are often startled by a flush, which is an excellent first step toward a rushed shot and a miss.

You might walk all day for only a couple of chances, and you never know when they’ll come. You have to be ready, but you can’t remain in a state of white­knuckle alertness for hours. Remember the first time you drove a car? If you were like me, your forearms hurt after­ward from squeezing the wheel. Now when you drive, you’re relaxed, but your eyes are looking far down the road, and one small part of you is ready to react. That’s what walking in the uplands should be like. Cultivate that state of casual alertness, and you’ll be ready when the time comes.

Not So Fast

Being ready buys you time, so use it. If you mount your shotgun as quickly as possible the moment a bird flushes, you won’t consistently hit where you’re looking. This is simple enough to prove to yourself if you’ve got a dirt bank handy. Set a target on the bank 20 yards away, and then mount your gun and shoot at it as fast as you can. Chances are, you’ll spray shot every­where except where you intend.

When I tried this drill several years ago at a clinic, my shots went all over a 3-by-3-foot metal pattern plate at 20 yards; one shot missed the plate entirely. The instructor told me to slow down just enough to be sure I hit the center of the plate without aiming. I hit the center every time, and the difference in mount speed from my fast, erratic shots to the more deliberate ones was 0.256 second. A bird can fly only about 5 yards in that time. Work on your mount at home (we’ve discussed this) until it’s consistent, and don’t fret about speed. Pellets moving 900 mph catch up to a 40 mph bird ­every time.

Find the Time

Exactly how fast is too fast or too slow? I can’t tell you. Or at least, I can’t be precise because it’s different for everyone. Too fast is the point at which proper gun mounting breaks down. Too slow is when you start thinking and looking back at the barrel. Find the sweet spot in between, and you’ll shoot your best.

Recently, I used a trapshooting traininer to check my own timing. Combining a camera with radar, it tells you how long it took you to shoot, how far away the target was when you shot, and exactly where your shot went.

Using a trap that throws a 40 to 45 mph target, my shooting was a mess when I tried mounting and firing as fast as I could, which took between 0.5 and 0.6 second from a low-gun start. My breaks came at 14 yards, but even on the hits, my point of impact shifted, and I missed over the tops of two birds by a foot and a half because my head wasn’t fully on the stock.

When I slowed way down, into the 1-second range, I shot better but still had misses. Then I found my sweet spot—between 0.7 and 0.8 second—and I couldn’t miss. Every bird broke at 19 yards, and virtually every shot was centered within a few inches of the clay. Taking just an extra 0.2 or so of a second put me in perfect rhythm. They say slow is smooth and smooth is fast. But that’s not exactly the case. Smooth isn’t as fast as fast, but it’s more accurate and more than fast enough.

And now, because this is my column, I get to contradict myself: If a lot of your hunting features birds flushing at 20 or 25 yards, not at your feet, you might have to speed up—a little. There’s a simple way to do this, but it’s completely counterintuitive: Shoot a heavier gun. A few years ago, I timed five shooters on straightaway targets from a low-gun start. We used a 6¾-pound 20-gauge Remington 870, a 7¾-pound 12-gauge 870, and that same 12-gauge with 15 ounces added to the butt and magazine cap. The average times per hit, from lightest gun to heaviest, were 0.98 second, 0.91 second, and 0.77 second. I also recorded hit percentages, which, in the same order, were 63 percent, 71 percent, and 72 percent. In other words, the heavier the gun, the faster and more accurate it turned out to be. S0, save your ultralight gun for the grouse woods, and pack something heftier for late-­season, open-country hunts.

You can also learn to get a little faster. Using a trainer, or a buddy with a stopwatch, can help. Use either to track your progress, and be sure you’re still on target as you work on making a faster yet still deliberate move to the bird.

For everyone else, finding your perfect timing can be as simple as just getting on the range and shooting at targets fast, slow, and in between while watching your hits and misses. It’s not about hitting a precise number, like 0.7 or 0.8; it’s about finding a rhythm that feels right and puts more pellets on the mark. Then bring that to the field.

Written by Phil Bourjaily for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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