Phil tells us how he writes his hunting features, sometimes against all odds
This month I’m taking a break from my usual hunting feature and writing about making a hunting feature instead. On occasions, I’ve been asked what it’s like to write for a magazine about something I love, that I am extremely passionate about. I also get asked if I ever run out of things to write about, or how I plan what I am going to be doing each time, and who, if anyone, takes the photographs. Well, I have decided to answer some of those questions and more, by telling you exactly how I go about doing what I do each month.
Writing about hunting isn’t always as easy as it seems. Hunting is a challenge in itself, but producing a piece for a magazine on top of that, brings a whole other set of issues into play. First, you have to go out and get something to write about and then document it with photographs, before actually writing about it. It sounds fairly straightforward, I know, but I am yet to meet anyone who can accompany me on a hunt to take photographs, without compromising the hunt itself. Now, don’t get me wrong I have friends who are pretty decent hunters, and great photographers, but adding a second person to a hunt doubles your chances of being seen and doubles the noise you’re likely to make, so no matter how good they might be, if you’re used to hunting alone, like me, they’re more of a hindrance than a help. After all, if you don‘t make any successful kills, you haven’t really got anything to photograph anyway.
First and foremost, you need a successful hunt, which is never guaranteed. I like to head out alone to give me the greatest chance of success, and worry about the photographs and stuff once I know I have something to write about. I usually have a rough idea what I will be doing a couple of weeks in advance; nature dictates which species I will likely be targeting, depending of the time of year and weather patterns. I decided that this month’s piece would be about rabbits. The farmer had seen an explosion in the numbers of new holes dug since spring arrived, along the edge of a grass field, and he asked me to check it out. Hitting them now, whilst they’re in full-on breeding mode makes sense, before they get too out of control.
That was the main quarry species decided, and the place, and I knew that I had a fair chance of success, so the next thing to decide on was what I was going to do about the photographs. Now, as mentioned earlier, I prefer to hunt alone if possible, but in the past I have produced some of my best features when I have had my photographer accompany me on the stalks. The pictures look so much better when you can see a live target in the same frame as me with my rifle, and it really seems to bring the whole thing to life for the reader, but I only have a few friends who used to hunt with me and could do that without making me wait until they got the right angle or focus. I hate losing kills whilst we set up for a photograph, so now I tend either to take the photographs myself, or have my photographer meet up with me a hour or two into the session. That way, I have a head start, and can make sure that I have something in the bag before we dedicate too much time taking pictures for a feature that might never happen, should I fail to bag anything. Luckily, that last scenario rarely happens, but it does sometimes, so I always bear that in mind. I loathe dragging a tripod around with me, so on this occasion I decided to use a photographer – my girlfriend actually – and meet up with her after a couple of hours of hunting, when I should have managed to bag a few things.
I set off on foot and walked to my permission this time. My car was in for some repairs so I travelled as light as I possibly could with just my Weihrauch HW100, gunbag, and a tin of pellets on me
– and my phone, of course. Walking to the area where I had been told the rabbits were causing a lot of damage brought me along the edge of a small piece of woodland, so I took the rifle from its bag, loaded the 14-shot mag’ and slowed to a quiet, more leisurely pace on the off-chance that something might present me with a shot.
When you’re working with the pressure of deadlines, every single shot you miss is a massively wasted opportunity, and could be the difference between a decent feature and a pretty miffed editor, so you learn to have your rifle ready at all times, no matter how unlikely a chance may seem. Unlike regular hunting, when you can forgive yourself the mistake, move on and forget about it, any mistakes a hunting writer makes are forever noted in print, that final ‘bag’ photograph always has one missing, and you never forget it.
Instead of skirting around the wood, I cut through it, mainly to take a short cut, but I was pleased that I had. As soon as I crossed the fence and stepped on to the crunchy fallen leaves, I alerted a rabbit to my presence. Usually, this would have been an error on my part, but in the cover of the woodland floor I’m fairly sure it wasn’t because I wouldn’t have seen the rabbit until it broke cover to run, and by then it would have been too late. Luckily for me, it raised its head and I saw the movement in time to act. I paused and slowly raised the rifle as it sat looking for the source of the noise. I clearly remember thinking, ‘bag this and we’re in business, Phil’ as I brought the rifle to bear and lined up the shot before sending the pellet zipping across the wood and straight into the rabbit’s skull with a loud crack as it arrived.
As the rabbit kicked its last in the leaf litter, I remembered the sense of relief that I get every single time I bag one for a magazine feature because no matter what happens from that moment on, I have something to work with. One rabbit isn’t much, but it’s something to write about. If all else fails, and everything goes wrong from here on in, I still have something.
Of course, we all want to produce the best features possible, so really this was just a good start, and I had no intention of letting this be my only kill, but it was one in the bag, and so far my only one. I didn’t want to carry it all the way around with me, and I didn’t have a bag to put it in, so I left it hanging in the fork of a small tree to collect later, but not before
taking a picture with my phone. I try desperately to avoid using phone pictures, simply due to the quality, but I have lost many kills to scavengers over the years, so I make sure that I get one photograph, at least. Being the cool, hip kinda guy that I am, I decided that a selfie would be the best choice; without a tripod it was either that, or the old ‘rifle and kill lying on the ground’ picture, and I am a sucker for a good selfie.
With that one sorted, I cracked on across the wood, taking a little short cut through the centre, and then out and along the fence line a couple of yards into the field. I had only gone maybe 75 yards from where I’d left the rabbit, when suddenly, in a small clearing, I noticed a grey squirrel, perched on a small, fallen branch. It was illuminated by a ray of sunshine that cut down through a gap in the canopy, almost like a spotlight pointing me toward it. At 30 yards, and forced to take the shot standing due to the terrain and foliage between us, it was anything but simple, but I wound up the magnification on my scope to 12x, took careful aim and fired. The squirrel barrelled off the little branch as it tumbled earthward, and I could tell instantly that I had nailed the shot and it had been an instant kill. I made sure to take another photo and left the squirrel on the branch from which it had fallen. With two in the bag, the pressure was off somewhat and I was free to relax a little.
I sent a text to my girlfriend, Charlotte, asking her to meet me at the edge of the field so that we could stalk the hedgerow together. Short grass that’s regularly grazed tends to be relatively easy to stalk over silently so I thought it would be good practice for her. I led, with her following behind by 10 or 15 yards. If I paused, so did she, and when I moved, she was free to move, always following the path I had taken, and free to snap away with the camera as we went. It was still much earlier than I would have liked, but I had to work to her schedule so we had to try to make do as best we could. There were plenty of signs of rabbits, but not many out and about as we made our way along the yellow gorse bushes that line the edge of the field. I had started to give up, but I soon spotted a large male rabbit further in toward the centre, chasing a smaller female around. I set off to make the stalk, using a small rise in the field to cover me as I sank low and made my approach.
By the time I had made it to within 25 yards, the female had disappeared and the male was sitting very close to the warren entrance, so I had to make sure that I dropped it on the spot, or I risked certainly losing it down the holes. I opted to take the shot prone, which is by far the most stable stance you can use and minimised any risk of me fluffing the shot. No one wants to miss a shot in front of their girlfriend, and last time out I’d missed a sitter of a squirrel at about 15 yards so I was feeling under pressure to perform this time round. Much to my relief, I managed to drop the rabbit where it sat, dead on the spot without so much as a twitch. Feeling like the hero I clearly was, I got up and went over to make the retrieve, Charlotte following and the Nikon clicking away as I picked up and posed with my prize.
We moved on until we reached the other edge of the field. I only saw one young rabbit as we went, but it didn’t hang around. I used the rest of the time to get a good idea of where in the field the rabbits were most active, so that I can hit them with night-vision after dark and maximise the damage I can do to their numbers. We doubled-checked that we had everything we needed, that the photographs were in good focus, and then headed back home so I could look over them on the computer and set about writing this piece. I’d been lucky; today most things went to plan and quite often that isn’t the case, but to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyway, that’s all I have space for this month, I hope you enjoyed this little insight and that it helped to answer a few questions for you all. Until next time, happy hunting!
Above: With the photographer 10 yards behind, I’m free to get on with the hunting.
Above: Load both mag’s before setting off - just in case the action comes thick and fast.
Above: Is that a rabbit, or a mound of earth?
Above: Stalking on grass tends to be silent, but the cover is limited.
Above: Standing shots aren’t the most stable, and best avoided if possible.
Above: Total concentration, minimal tension. It's a good trick if you can do it!
Above: The obligatory ‘trophy pose’.
Above: Shooting prone minimised the risk of me fluffing the shot. Left: No tripod, no photographer? This calls for a hunting selfie!