Aside from wanting to be the best bowhunter the planet had ever seen, the other thing I wanted to do when I was a young boy was be a pheasant hunter. My father and uncle hunted pheasants with my uncle's Labrador nearly every day of the season. Rebel was an absolute hunting machine and he put up a pile of southern Minnesota roosters in his day.
I caught the tail-end of Rebel's reign of rooster terror, and what I remember about my first hunts with my dad and uncle is the very first flush in front of me. Now nearly 30 years later, I can still recall the rooster in the air, larger than life, and the amount of feathers he shed when I touched off my dad's pump 20-gauge.
It was as if I'd merely tickled him and I was too much in awe to even think of pumping another shell into the chamber and giving him another go. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for that rooster, my dad and uncle busted him in the way they did so many roosters, which was by both shooting at exactly the same time and both immediately thinking they'd gone solo on the bird.
We shot a lot of birds then, and I shot even more when I figured out I could skip school and make it to Iowa in less than an hour to hunt the peaking bird numbers there. At the time we took it as a given then that we'd hit plenty of birds and lose a few of them, even with a good dog. Today, thankfully, that's not the case.
In my formative pheasant years, aside from shot size you pretty much had lead or steel. Since no one with the common sense god gave a toad would hunt upland birds with steel shot unless they had to, we shot lead. For grouse, it was usually sixes. For pheasants, we shot anything ranging from sixes to fours. That was it.
Today, I think about the variety and types of shotshells available and it feels like we've come out of the dark ages. We can shoot shells stuffed with shot made of alloys that are denser than lead and hold their shape much better upon impact. We can shoot loads designed for high-flying birds, or for crunching close flyers.
This may not seem like a big deal, especially when you look at the price of some of those ammo boxes, but everything changes when the first late-season flush gets up, absorbs a load of shot, and keeps winging it into the next county. At that moment, shot consideration is always at the forefront of your mind.
Just Spend Up
The thing about expensive shells is that unless you're retired and live in an upland paradise, you're probably not going to be in danger of going broke from shooting too much. Most of us might burn through a couple of boxes each fall, and that's it. The price between run-of-the-mill target loads and better ammo that is actually designed for hunting might cost you $15 to $30 for the entire season. If that's not worth it, I don't know what is.
And here's the thing about the price — you're buying a better product. That should be obvious, but it's easy to believe that all shot and gunpowder and materials are created equal, and built to similar specs, but they aren't. Quality costs more, but it promises better performance. In that capacity, it's hard to argue with dropping some extra coin on the good stuff.
Up-Size It, Please
A few years ago a buddy and I drove to Nebraska to hunt upland birds of several varieties. In the process of loading my stuff into his vehicle, I forgot my guns. I didn't figure that out until we had set up camp eight hours from my house, so I was forced to shoot his 20-gauge all week. Even with a long history of boneheaded moves, that one ranked way up near the top.
I love a 20-gauge for early-season hunts as well as for quail-sized birds, but when I'm dealing with late-season sharptails, prairie chickens, and roosters, I'm a fan of the 12-gauge. Without that option, I shot three-inch loads out of the 20-gauge that were designed to knock down birds. I was amazed at how well they performed, and even more pleased when I got home to my 12-gauge and started experimenting with upsizing my loads in that as well.
The first real test was on ruffed grouse in the northwoods of Wisconsin and it took two days of public land grouse to convince me that I was making the right choice by going a bit heavier. The simple switch from 2.75-inch to 3-inch offerings ups your odds of getting through the brush and into the bird, and it can buy you some distance when birds get up at the edge of your range. This is elementary stuff, I know, but we often think of shotshell choice only as it pertains to the type of bird we'll be hunting and not what type of shots we're likely to encounter when it comes to that bird.
For example, if you've got six inches of fresh snow and a CRP field that hasn't been hunted all fall, you've probably got roosters that will sit tight and give you excellent shot opportunities. If that same field was on public land and the conditions were still and dry (crunchy), you're going to deal with runners that will do their best to lift off well away from you. Same bird — very, very different shotshell requirements.
Shop around, and consider your specific hunting situations. The shells you load into your shotgun, especially as the calendar turns to the last month or two of the season, will make a difference on how many birds you end up bagging and the types of retrieves you'll have to ask your dog to make. Choose right, and make it easy for him, and yourself.