Late season pheasant hunts can test the character of the hunter, his birddog, his resolve, his equipment – and his shotshells. When the temperature at midday refuses to rise above nine degrees, the wind picks up to 15 miles per hour, a mix of crystalline sleet and freezing rain scours a hunter’s face red-raw, and a four-inch accumulation of fresh icy snow clogs the cleats of his boots and packs ice balls between the toes of his dog – those are the times when shotgun actions jam, safeties freeze, triggers are stiff, and the shotshell loads that were “good enough” in the first weeks of the season prove to be not-so-good.
If you do not load your own shotshells for hunting, I offer this advice: buy the best quality factory loads for late season pheasant hunts. By “best quality” I mean shotshells with high-antimony lead shot that is copper or nickel-plated. I recommend standard loads (1 ¼ ounce 12 gauge, 1 1/8 ounce 16 gauge, and 1 ounce 20 gauge). Best quality loads are expensive, $15 to $20 per box. You get what you pay for. You want high performance, you pay for it.
Fiocci Golden Pheasant shotshells with No. 5 shot are a good choice in their “standard” version: 2 ¾ inch hulls, 1 3/8 ounce hot in 12 gauge, 1 1/8 in 16 gauge, 1 ounce in 20 gauge. There are several other good quality loads available from other manufacturers.
I caution you to ignore those ridiculous “magnum” loads packed into 3-inch hulls with 1 5/8 ounces (or even 1 7/8 ounces) of shot in 12 gauge or 1 ¼ ounces in 20 gauge. Do some patterning and muzzle velocity tests with those loads and you’ll discover that what you are getting for your extra money is ragged patterns with gaps you could throw a pheasant through, and reduced velocity compared to standard loads — plus enough recoil to cross your eyes and rattle your teeth if you shoot a lightweight bird gun. If your gun is an elderly double, as mine are, you also run a risk of cracking the stock where it meets the receiver.
Personally, I seldom buy factory loads for bird hunting. Since I have reloaded hulls for clay target shooting games more than forty years, the decision to experiment with loads for hunting was a natural progression of my obsession with shotshell performance. For most game birds – doves, woodcock, quail, ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens – the best 20 gauge hunting loads are the same as target loads, albeit with shot sizes appropriate for the bird, No. 8 for doves and woodcock and quail, No. 7½ or 6 for the grouse. But pheasants require something different, especially late-season pheasants.
A rooster ring-neck, the gaudily colored male of the Phasianus colchicus species, can be a tough old bird. He may weigh two and one-half pounds, has a dense coat of feathers, and late in the season has a layer of subcutaneous fat that not only insulates him against the cold of frigid North Country winters but also protects his innards from damage by shot pellets. He is a worthy quarry because he is smart, elusive, and hardy. To escape, he would rather run than fly, he uses every clump of cover to his best advantage and he induces mental lapses and erratic behaviors in pointing dogs. If all goes well for the dog and hunter, a pheasant is not a difficult bird to shoot on the wing. If anything goes awry, he can be difficult to get a shot at, difficult to hit, and difficult to bring down. An essay on the challenge of retrieving a lightly wounded pheasant would require several thousand words, many of them vulgar.
Therefore, a best quality shotshell load is a necessity. That does not mean the hunter needs to blast the skies with two ounces of double-aught buckshot. Standard loads of No. 5 shot are all that’s required. “Penetration,” “wound channel,” “organ damage,” shock effect” – – these are ballistic terms used by rifle enthusiasts who engage in bird hunting as a sideline and apparently think that a pheasant is an elk covered with feathers and equipped with wings. For the experienced bird shooter, the ballistic objective is for the shot charge to break one bone in a wing and one bone in a leg. If your load does that, the bird will come down and your dog with do the rest.
My favorite bird gun is a 20-gauge double, choked improved cylinder and modified, and in the early season I hunt pheasants with a 7/8 – ounce load of No. 7½ in the right barrel and a 7/8- ounce load of No. 6 in the left barrel. After the first two weeks I increase the charge to a 1-ounce load of No, 6 in both barrels. About Christmastime (or earlier in December if winter weather comes howling down from the Arctic) I switch to copper-plated No. 5 shot. Incongruously, I switch to a lighter, not heavier, charge of this shot.
I have my reasons. I want faster pellet velocity and its consequent higher energy out there at 35-40 yards where a late season pheasant is likely to be when the charge strikes him. I want less recoil and therefore less muzzle-jump in the event I need to fire a follow-up shot. Probably most important, my pet load (see below) tightens the shot patterns by 5-10 percent in the barrels of my 20-gauge gun.
Here is the recipe for my winter pheasant load:
Winchester AA hull
Winchester W209 primer
Winchester WAA20 wad
17 grains of Hodgdon Universal powder
15/16 ounce of Lawrence copper-plated No. 5 shot
I stumbled into this load more or less by accident. I set out to create 1-ounce loads. But although the 502-100 charge bar of my MEC Grabber shotshell reloader will reliably dispense a spot-on 1-ounce charge of No. 8 or No. 7½ lead shot, and will dispense a 1-ounce charge of No. 6 shot if I give the operating handle two upward taps before pulling it down each time, with No. 5 shot the bar will dispense a 15/16 – ounce charge. This would be an annoyance to those who insist on heavy loads for pheasant shooting, but it works perfectly for me, a “less is more” advocate.
I did not discover this discrepancy in the MEC charge bar until I individually weighed the dispensed charges on my powder scale. And I did not do that until I noticed that the first few roosters I shot with these experimental loads were “extremely perforated” – had far more pellet strikes than I expected. My assumption was that the MEC loader was dispensing more than one ounce of shot. The opposite proved to be true. I patterned the loads and found that the high percentage of pellet strikes was due to the full-choke patterns the loads produced in the left barrel of my gun.
That’s how the best quality late season loads for my gun came to be. Sure, shake your head in disbelief and wonder that any sane person, no matter how obsessed by his shotshell loading passion, would invest this much time and energy in something he could buy at any sporting goods store.
But, damn, this load knocks pheasants dead. And it doesn’t cost me $18 per box.
More stories about hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page