Hard­man’s Hunt­ing

Phil Hard­man delivers a les­son ev­ery hunter needs

Airgun World - - Contents -

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.


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.

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