Phil Hardman delivers a lesson every hunter needs
Phill explains how to train your mind to hone your hunting skills
Hunting is so much more than going out and shooting vermin. Actually, I’d say that is about 10% of what makes up hunting – the rest we do away from the fields. Like a sports person who spends months training before taking part in a competition, we must also train before taking part in a hunt. Most people will think I mean with the rifle here – right? Wrong! You only need marksmanship should you actually get within range of a shot, and if you can’t, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you will come home empty handed. Your priority skills must be the ones to get you into that position in the first place, and so need the most thought and practice. Marksmanship can come later.
Firstly, your brain is the most valuable hunting tool you will ever possess, and as with any tool, you need to learn to use it to maximum effectiveness. You wouldn’t take out a bent rifle or a blunt knife, would you? Well, your brain needs to be the first tool you learn to use, or you won’t be able to get the maximum out of any of the others. Why can I stand next to two people and see things that they can’t? Do I have better eyes? Not necessarily, and although I might have, that isn’t the reason they can’t see it. Our eyes take in light and our brain interprets that to form an image. The images that we have just received are identical, and all contain a woodpigeon on an open branch, standing side on – the perfect silhouette. At around the same time, all three of our brains access our memory and recall that shape and colour as being a woodpigeon. Easy, and we didn’t have to even think about it. Unfortunately, life isn’t like that and woodpigeons rarely present a full image. If we’re lucky, we might see a wing, or some tail feathers, and this is where a sharply trained brain can really help as a hunter.
In a repeat of the same scenario, we all receive the same image, but this time the bird is only showing us its tail feathers, the rest is obscured behind a clump of leaves. We have all seen it, light has bounced off it and entered our eyes, but whilst my companions’ brains didn’t manage to connect the shape and colours with anything in their memory banks and so overlooked it, my brain did. I hadn’t consciously seen it initially, but after scanning every part of the image it received and then comparing that to stored memories, my brain makes a match and a split second later sends a signal to my consciousness alerting me, and suddenly, bang, there it is – obvious to me.
My brain assigned that image to being the tail of a woodpigeon, by accessing memories I have built up. It’s like looking at a jigsaw piece and knowing the whole picture. The more you practise, the better your brain becomes at it. The really great thing is, it happens automatically, so all you have to do is look at things as you walk to the shop, or take your kids to the park. I suppose you could even do it on the Internet. Google different species in their wild native environment and look at how they position themselves, the angles they rest at, the shapes you can see; look into trees, look at how light effects branches and creates
shadows on them. Assign those images and shapes mentally so that your brain knows they are to be expected, and it won’t need to flag up every dark patch on every branch. This is the hunter’s greatest weapon – detecting your quarry before it detects you enables you to plan an approach, and take a shot without alerting it to your presence.
Many other mental exercises can be done without ever entering the hunting field, and another is a simple animal identification technique. Most quarry species you will encounter in the countryside can also be found in town and gardens, or even local parks in the city. Woodpigeons, collared doves, rooks, crows, jackdaws and jays all have very individual looks, and silhouettes. Away from the hunting field where they feel safer, you can often take a good amount of time studying them, how they look and how they sit. Most rooftop, or similar perches, offer the same silhouetted view of these birds as you’re likely to encounter when you see them at a distance in the field, so you can learn which is which, and confirm it with a close-up view.
Another thing that separates the different avian quarry species is their flight characteristics. Wing beats vary tremendously within the flying vermin species, as they do amongst all birds, and are often the first glimpse you will get. Knowing how it flies will tell you if it is a target or not.
A blackbird, low along the ground near a hedge, and a magpie can easily be told apart at hundreds of yards away if you know what you’re looking for. This can be done anywhere, and again takes very little effort. Study their calls, too, because after your brain and eyes, your ears are the third most important tool in the hunter’s inventory. Sound will often reveal opportunities before they actually present themselves, and will allow you to pre-empt it and act accordingly. A woodpigeon cracks its wings before dropping in to land, so if you hear it, you know to get down low and watch the trees to see where it lands. A squirrel scratching on a tree trunk will often be the only warning you will have before it pops around a branch in front of you, and getting that rifle ready might be the difference between a kill, and a frustrating shake of the head.
Take these lessons everywhere with you. If you’re at work or school, use your breaks to look around you. If you’re at the supermarket, do the same. That woman who just dropped a tin of beans – where is she? How far away was that sound? Now have a look – were you close? You need to think of your brain as a muscle, and this is the hunting gym, the more exercise you give it, the stronger it will become. You might only end up hunting on weekends due to time constraints or other commitments, maybe it’ll be once a month, but the hunter in you goes everywhere, so any skills you can keep sharp between hunting trips or before you even begin, will be a huge advantage when you eventually apply them in the hunting field.
These are lessons that you need to learn early on because they are the foundations of everything you will build upon later, and you need to perfect them if you want to reach your true hunting potential. Luckily, all they really
take is time, and once you have them you will keep them sharp without any effort at all. You don’t even need to own a rifle, and being a good shot is useless if you cannot get these fundamental skills right early on.
If you can’t see it, you cannot shoot it. You are a human and evolution’s most potent predator, but you are up against animals that have evolved for millions of years to survive such predation, and time has not been kind to you. Your instincts are not as sharp as theirs, they need to be unlocked and honed. Your eyes are simply visible detection systems; your ears like radar, effective because they can detect movement from behind, or through cover providing it makes a sound, and if you listen, most movement does.
STOP AND LOOK
Your brain is the central computer that processes it all and tells your body what action to take, and it all happens constantly so you need to practise and learn from it; which sounds to filter, which images need further exploration, at what distances those sounds are. I cannot hear a magpie squawk and not stop and look, it doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing, it triggers something in me that takes over and I instantly stop and look, estimating range, and comparing it to what distance I had estimated the sound to be. Once I have compared it to my mental note, it is logged and I go back about my day.
I don’t really notice I am doing it, but when I first saw myself doing a piece to camera on a hunting DVD a few years ago, I noticed I kept on looking around. At first, I thought I was simply distracted or needed more practice to become comfortable in front of the camera, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop. I was still just as bad as the first time and no matter what, I couldn’t stop myself from constantly scanning the area around me, from woodland floor to treetops and every place in between.
What I was seeing wasn’t nerves in front of the camera, it was a hunter out in his native environment, constantly alert and searching for the next opportunity and no matter how hard I tried to stop it, I couldn’t. These days I don’t try to, I accept it, it’s how I am – once a hunter, always a hunter.
Taking the shot is no more than 10% of the whole hunting deal.
Closing in. Now I really need to have done my homework.
That crow sees all, and it knows what it’s looking at. You need to do the same.
The pigeon veered off, so what did it see?
Scanning the treetops for clues.
Always watching, always taking mental notes.
Think like a rat - and you’ll shoot more rats.
The shot will be a formality, but what led up to it is a lifetime’s work in progress.