A 2 1/2 - Inch Opening Day

Hunting season began long weeks ago, but mine began last Saturday.  
We all walk from our cars, trains or buses to work. Sometimes it’s a short hurried walk. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done, so when I dash from the train to the office I’ve already edited a few columns, sent a pile of e-mails and such. It’s not a relaxing sprint through Union Station, grabbing a styrofoam cup of oatmeal and a tall coffee.  But that’s not how I felt walking the upland fields near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on Saturday.
An hour’s drive from the house to the shooting club was spent talking — what else? — politics with my pals Paul and Dave.  But the minute we buzzed through the gate and climbed out into the cool Pennsylvania air, the mood changed.  
A little coffee and off to the clays course for a little warm-up. My Browning Cynergy is my goose gun.  It’s too heavy to walk with for miles and miles, but it broke everything the trapper threw. Well, almost everything. That fast and low quartering incomer just fell to earth untouched.  About ten times.
We rode back to the lodge to put on our statutory orange, and then I turned to a labor of love.  There’s only one inanimate object I love in this life. It’s my William Evans 12-bore side-by-side.
It’s an English sidelock, number 2 of a pair made in 1929 for a British Army officer whose name I should remember but don’t.  When I wrote to ask its provenance, the company was glad to hear it was safe.  The number 1 gun was last heard of in South Africa decades ago. The gun is light — only about six and a half pounds — and though it’s been rechambered for 2 3/4 inch loads, I only feed it the 2 1/2’s, the ammunition it was designed for.  
It went together smoothly, as it always does, and I slipped the extra leather grip over the barrels in front of the short forearm.  It wasn’t going to be the kind of shoot I’d need it for — upland shooting isn’t going to heat the barrels — but a little extra traction for my left glove is always a good idea. I grabbed a couple of boxes of RST 2 1/2s (with number 7 1/2 shot) and we headed out to meet our guide.
This guide was new to me. I’ve hunted with some of the best and some of the worst, so I’m always a bit skeptical. A new guide and new dogs is always a little bit of a gamble.  Clarence seemed calm and confident, his labs medium-sized and really full of energy, as labs usually are.
We started walking and all my tension — and lingering doubt — evaporated quickly.  Cool air, one of the dogs dashing out and back in front of us.  And three of us walking abreast through the cover.  Lots of other hunts are just as good, but it doesn’t get better than this.
The sorghum fields had been hunted many times, but the club releases so many birds in the spring — pheasant, chukar and huns, supplemented constantly — that there’s always more to shoot.  And so there were.  Strong, fast pheasants.  And the chukar and huns were even faster.
The dogs were great.  Labs are usually typecast as waterfowl dogs, and they do that job with skill and great cheer.  I’ve hunted upland game over Brittanys, working cockers and German shorthairs, and loved ’em all.  (Well, all but that one stubborn German shorthair in North Carolina who sat there with my bird in his mouth, looking at me with defiance.  He then — never breaking eye contact — chewed and swallowed my quail in one gulp.)
None of that from Clarence’s dogs.  One — a tawny lab named Gunther who almost could have passed for a Golden — was the class of the outfit. Not quite three years old, he still had a lot of puppy power and was a riot to watch. His good nose flushed birds just at the edge of shooting range, never too close or too far. You can’t ask for more. I didn’t. Clarence’s three other dogs — each of which got a turn or two — were just as good.
After only the first hundred yards or so, a chukar broke in front of Dave. He was carrying a Franchi over-under that was new out of the box, and the bird startled him a little. But not enough to escape. One shot, one in the bag. And so we went, mile after mile.
Paul’s Beretta autogun worked as well on upland birds as it does on geese.  And, ahem, there were a few times when that third shot came in handy.
We bagged quite a few, missed a few easy shots and were soon several years younger than when we’d started. (Have you ever figured out why the easy ones are missed and the hard ones are hit? Neither have I.)  
All too soon, it was getting to the end of the day. Two more passes through the lower fields and it’d be over.  But I felt as if I could walk another twenty miles.
The Evans still felt light in my hands.  I’d made a snap shot earlier that took a chukar cleanly, so I was feeling pretty good. Those 2 1/2 inch loads are more than enough if the shooter is on. And then, just as we were finishing the next-to-last pass, another broke cover.
The bird rose about twenty yards out and hit the afterburners, going right to left and away. I didn’t even feel the Evans as it willed itself to my shoulder in a fraction of a second.  It swung itself quickly just as its designers intended. The Brits who taught me pheasant shooting say to swing the gun to match the speed of the bird: "butt, belly, beak, bang" is their mantra. The barrels swept through the bird’s arc and the first barrel fired.  About forty yards away, the bird tumbled to the ground and Gunther was on it in a flash.
And a few minutes later, we were done.
Back to the lodge — more coffee for me, the driver, and a couple of beers for Paul and Dave.  There were no frowns in the car on the trip home.  Opening day is over for me this season.  Lots of pheasant and chukar in the freezer. Now it’s time to tune up for Canada geese.  
I guess I can’t practice my goose calling on the train going to work tomorrow morning.  It’d be too much for the Blackberry crowd.   If only they understood how it would make them all less tense and irritable.  Pity.