Peter Brookes: High on pheasants

Peter Brookes

She gave me a skeptical up and down look and proclaimed, “Not too shabby, but you look a lot more like ‘Downtown’ Abbey than ‘Downton’ Abbey,” referring to the popular British series that recently concluded its fifth season on PBS.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I sighed, “I probably look like an over-the-hill, Orvis-catalog model … perhaps more Lord Grantham’s footman than Lord Grantham.”

Her nod in agreement wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Indeed, it did feel a little odd wearing a shirt and tie under a longish tweed shooting vest, replete with a flat cap — rather than some sort of brown and green camouflage for a turkey hunt in the woods or blaze orange for some wingshooting in the field. But I was off to do a Continental-style high pheasant hunt, a European (particularly British) form of shotgun sport that isn’t that well-known or popular here — yet.

While a high pheasant hunt can take different forms, the event usually starts with the guns choosing a numbered wooden “peg.” The number indicates a hunter’s initial position on the gunline.

Pegs will rotate between drives to address unforeseen challenges such as a crosswind that may push the birds down the gunline away from you. That’s the good news. The bad news is you have one less excuse for poor performance!

After drawing pegs, the guns will move to the hunting venue and assemble on the gunline, accompanied by a “loader.” Since the sport is optimized with two (similar gauge) shotguns, the shooter passes his empty 12 (or 20) gauge to the loader for reloading after emptying the barrels — minimizing the chances of missing any of the action, which can be fast and furious.

That’s important because once the pheasant drives start — often with the blare of a horn, since a gunline might include 8-10 guns spaced a safe distance apart — the skies can become dark with pheasants gliding over the pegs.

Depending on the shooting grounds’ topography, traditionally the pheasant are driven off of a bluff high above the gunline by “beaters” walking through the brush (or other means), where they will soar over the shooters at a heights of 20 to 50-plus yards.

This sort of shooting takes skill, but provides some superb sport, especially if you’re keener on the shotgunning challenge than the number of birds in the bag. Depending on the difficulty of the shoot, I’d suggest — unscientifically — that the shell to kill ratios range from 2-3:1 to 8-10:1.

If you’re a clays shooter, think of this shoot as a series of very high “incomer” presentations. Unfortunately, these aren’t found on many sporting clays courses due to the challenges of erecting and maintaining a trap on a tower.

The guy with the short straw gets to refill the clays on that trap.

The other consideration, of course, is that unlike a clay pigeon which decelerates after it is slung from a trap, a live bird accelerates after becoming airborne. In this case, you’re facing roosters and hens hurtling earthward on locked wings at a good clip from altitudes well above the shooters.

The event can consist of any number of birds or even types (e.g., chukar partridge). But depending on the number of guns and venues, drives can consist of tens of birds (or more) while shoots may include hundreds of colorful, careening “ring-necks” on half-day, full-day or multi-day hunts.

While high pheasant hunts are a bit scarce here, you can find them without catching a flight across the “Pond” to the Continent — or watching Downton Abbey reruns.

For instance, Primland (“http://www.primland.com”>www.primland.com) in Meadows of Dan in southern Virginia runs a top-notch, traditional high bird hunt. Rose Hill Game Preserve in Culpeper (www.rosehillgamepreserve.com) holds a “European Tower Shoot.”

Hunts vary. Not all shoots are dressy affairs, allowing you to leave the shirt and tie at home in the closet. You may even have to be your own loader — shudder the thought! Some blaze orange may be required, depending on the shooting grounds.

When you think of it, we’ve pinched a lot of things from the Brits over the years: the talent show “American Idol,” the television comedy “The Office,” the political drama “House of Cards,” the button down shirt — and, of course, the 13 Colonies.

Next to the Colonies, this is certainly one of the best in my book.

Peter Brookes has a home in Fort Valley and scribbles about the great outdoors whenever he can. Email: brookesoutdoors@gmail.com.