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.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

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.
Field & Stream

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.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

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.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream