By Chris BathaConsidering that my job as a shooting instructor, guide and outfitter has taken me around the world, I have been lucky in life. I’ve been able to shoot birds in 14 countries on three continents. Along the way I’ve made a few mistakes and learned valuable lessons—some painful, but all character building! If your dream wingshooting adventure is about to become a reality, the following tips will help you avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve learned from.
So how do you begin to plan this experience of a lifetime?
Pick Your Place, Pick Your Quarry
Do you want to visit Argentina and experience the doves, ducks or perdiz—or all three in one trip? How about driven pheasants in England, pigeons in Paraguay, partridge in Spain or the many species in Africa? Domestically, the possibilities are endless—like pheasants in the Dakotas, grouse and woodcock in New England, and bobwhite quail in the South. The variety of species, hunting styles and landscapes are practically unlimited.
Once you choose your quarry and region, you can begin researching. Check out the advertisements and websites of the destinations and/or sporting agents offering the hunts you’re interested in. Find and read articles and reviews from reputable sources. Contact booking agents or lodges with questions. Use online resources to get feedback from sportsmen who have hunted with particular outfitters, and ask agents and outfitters for references—both good and less so. Time spent researching is worthwhile and will help you make an informed decision.
Consider Your Budget
I am often guilty of having champagne tastes but only beer money. Knowing exactly what you are comfortable spending is a priority. Try to factor in all possible costs so you won’t be surprised at the end. Examples of costs that often go overlooked are hunting licenses, gun permits, tips for guides and lodge staff, shipping birds home and ammunition. The latter is especially important on high-volume shoots where you will be relying on your host for shells. A box of 28-gauge loads may cost $12 to $14, for example, so if you shoot 20 to 40 boxes a day, this can start looking like real money. When you’ve gone through the trouble of getting somewhere and you’re standing under a perpetual stream of doves, that’s a tough time to have a rude awakening about costs and try to stick to a budget.
The best lodges and estates fill fast every season, so I recommend booking a minimum of six to nine months in advance unless you can take advantage of last-minute openings. But whether you are a single Gun looking to join a group or a member of a full team, you still need to decide your “date window” and plan ahead.
It is obviously critical that you know the dates of a particular season, but you also will want to know how the weather and shooting change throughout. Ask about peak shooting times, multi-species overlaps, weather during the shoulder seasons and so on.
This first phase of planning should include determining if you want to bring your own guns and how difficult and expensive that may be. Certainly for the shooter with a well-fitted gun or even a bespoke pair, the prospect of shooting a rented autoloader makes a trip less appealing. Check on laws, the import process, permits and fees, and whether your host can arrange for any specialty shells.
Booking, Transport & Permits
I strongly advise that you book airline tickets at the same time you book your hunt. If you are the appointed shoot captain, find out if there are group booking rates available.
If you are going straight to the lodge on arrival, transport is usually part of the package. If you are arriving early or leaving late, hotels and additional transport costs need to be taken into account.
Passports should be valid for six months after your departure date. Early application is strongly suggested for any visitors’ permits or firearms insurance required to take your shotguns to the country of your choice. The outfitter can help you with this as well.
Travel Clothing & Kit
Wise shooters give careful consideration to their clothing and kit, as the clothes worn and accessories used can have a huge impact on comfort as well as shooting performance.
From the ground up. On every hunt, no matter what the terrain or quarry, you spend hours on your feet. Good socks keep your feet dry, prevent blisters and help manage perspiration. Synthetic materials, fine wool and often a combination of both will keep feet warm in the cold and cool in the heat and can help avoid blisters through good fit and shaped construction. Socks treated with an insect repellant like Insect Shield are a good idea in tick country.
A good pair of socks requires a good pair of boots to work well. Boots should provide traction, support, comfort and stability. Buy the best pair of boots you can afford. Modern materials like Gore-Tex and Thinsulate combined with light leathers and synthetics give modern boots the essential qualities that hunters need.
If you are waterfowling, you may need to pack or rent waders. It’s worth considering how bulky waders are and testing them in your intended luggage to see how much space they occupy. When you expect near-continuous rain, mud, and wet grass and brush, the footwear of choice may be rubber boots. Snug-fitting, knee-high boots can offer everything from insulation to a leather lining, all with excellent stability and waterproof protection.
Dressing for comfort and success. You need clothing appropriate for the quarry, country and climate in which you will be shooting. This, too, can best be determined through consultation with local experts. For example, though many choose to wear camouflage clothing for dove shooting in Argentina, it is not essential. Comfortable tan or khaki clothing suitable to the time of year works just as well.
Tweeds are traditional and often “expected” on driven shoots in the UK and Europe, but the weight of the cloth should match the weather—just as upland hunting in the US requires a range of clothing for layering and to match various seasons. Today’s materials designed for professional athletes and sportsmen offer lightweight insulation, breathability, UV protection and fibers that help regulate body temperature in various conditions.
Clothing should allow freedom of movement, but it should not be so baggy that it snags or bunches and impedes your gun mount. Several layers are usually best, as you can add or remove them as necessary.
Get a grip. When it comes to gloves, there is no one pair that does it all. You will need several pairs to match what, where and when you will be shooting. While choices have to match the type of shooting and weather conditions, you always will need gloves that allow good feeling and control for operating a gun safely (e.g., loading, handling, working the safety and pulling the trigger). Even when wearing insulated gloves, you must be able to “feel” the gun and have a good grip for control. Many specialty brands offer a variety of soft-leather and synthetic options. (I like the Mac-Wet line of gloves.)
Top it all off. Though a simple clothing item, a good hat is an essential bit of kit. The proper hat keeps your head warm or cool, keeps rain or snow off of your shooting glasses, and protects your eyes from strong sunlight. (Looking from shade into light also enhances your vision.) There are as many choices of hats as there are boots, but never venture afield without one.
Seeing for shooting. Shooting glasses should be compulsory in the field. An errant pellet or other sharp object could hit your eye, especially when hunting in cover, and there is always the danger of being struck by shot fall. So the lens material in a pair of shooting glasses must be able to resist pellet strikes. Glasses must also offer protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. And finally, shooting glasses enhance your vision—and the better you see, the better you shoot.
There are a bewildering number of shooting glasses on the market. Deciding which lens color is appropriate depends on light conditions, types and colors of targets, and the backgrounds against which you are shooting. Choose the lens tint that allows as much light as possible to enter your eyes without causing you to squint. If you are shooting in a murky gloom, then a clear or light lens would be a good choice; if there is bright, blue sky, a medium/dark lens would work better.
Birds fly against varying backgrounds, and you need to choose the lens color and degree of tint that offer the best contrast. The color needs to enhance the birds’ plumage and suppress the background. Purple and vermillion, for example, suppress the background, making the birds pop against a bright sky; yellow and orange lenses block blue light, improving contrast and brightening overcast conditions. Grey is a neutral color that blocks glare while letting you see the birds in their true colors.
To avoid carrying several pairs of glasses, a frame with interchangeable lenses is the best option. The frame should sit high on your face, so that when your head is lowered in the correct shooting position, your eyes are looking through the centers of the lenses. Contemporary frameless glasses allow an unlimited field of view, with no frame to restrict your vision or block or obscure the target. The arms of the frame should have spring temples and curled, cushioned arms to keep the glasses from slipping. An adjustable bridge allows for proper positioning—encouraging airflow and preventing fogging.
Most shooting glasses are available with prescription lenses or inserts, and I recommend shooting glasses made with single vision for seeing clearly at distance.
Hearing the hunt. I write this with the buzz of tinnitus in my ears, the result of shooting at a young age without hearing protection. Long-term, unprotected exposure to shotgun blasts will cause permanent hearing damage.
With the range and variety of modern hearing protection devices, there is no excuse for not protecting your hearing. Choices range from simple foam plugs to custom-fitted electronic digital plugs that allow normal hearing but block out or compress sound above a set maximum. Muffs range from a simple format of complete suppression to the same technology as digital plugs. Many shooters believe that muffs offer better protection, because the muff cushion fully encloses the ear and suppresses the bone vibration that can transfer noise.
I like the freedom that custom electronic plugs allow. I can hear and converse normally with fellow shooters, have enhanced hearing in the field and still enjoy full protection. Such plugs are expensive, but I shoot a lot, and wearing them nearly every day allows me to preserve what’s left of my hearing. (I also have a pair of digital muffs, which double as ear warmers when I’m sitting in a duck blind in a whistling wind and freezing temperatures.)
Storing stuff. There is a great variety of equipment needed in the field, and a suitable bag for ancillary kit and cartridges keeps things readily accessible. This can be anything from a waterproof, zippered Cordura tote to a leather field bag. It should be waterproof, durable and roomy but not too big.
Gun slips and cases. A gun slip is essential for transporting a shotgun in a vehicle. When you are traveling from a lodge to the field, for example, you can use a lightweight canvas case that can be rolled up and occupies little room in your bag. The traditional British slip is made of leather or canvas and has a leather-blocked end to resist the muzzles wearing through and the gun slipping out. Still reasonably easy to pack, a canvas slip that carries a gun broken down may be preferable for extensive car or truck travel, as it is compact and there is no question about safety when the gun is broken down.
For airline travel, though, you need the most rugged, baggage-handler-proof case you can afford. It needs to be lockable with padlocks or TSA-approved locks, and the interior needs to be divided and padded in such a way that guns can be blocked in and prevented from moving. Negrini and Americase make a great variety of models that offer excellent protection.
Care kit. Whether traveling at home or abroad, you need to have a personal first-aid kit. If you are taking prescribed medications, be sure you have a sufficient amount for the duration of your trip. I would advise taking Imodium in case of an attack of “Dehli Belly” as well as bandages and ointments to treat minor cuts, abrasions and blisters. Be sure to include sunblock and insect repellent too. Skin moisturizer can offer protection in the field and restoration for chapped skin afterward.
A multi-tool or pocketknife and pliers are essential, and a gun-cleaning-and-maintenance kit should complete the equipment you will need. A simple gun-cleaning kit can consist of a BoreSnake of the correct gauge, small plastic bottles of solvent and gun oil, a small tube of grease, a silicone cloth and something in which to carry it all. You can find a variety of gun-care travel kits that make a complete and compact package.Prior planning prevents poor per-formance. Choose a destination, do the research, make a list and put together the essential gear, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your hassle-free dream hunt.
Photograph by Mark Fleming