Pigeons in South Africa
The best pigeon shooting in the world
Just returned from the Dark Continent where we were hunting rock pigeon, speckled rock pigeon, red-eyed dove, cape dove, guinea fowl, ducks, geese and francolin. The country of South Africa is reported to have the very best pigeon shooting in the world. The seven in our group had a great time for the 7 days we were there and can attest to the accuracy of “the best pigeon shooting” statement.
Our great time was almost put out of focus by Delta Airlines. They lost all of our guns (6 gun cases) for four days and the luggage of two of our group was missing for five days. The difference between a good host and a great host came out quickly, in such a situation. Our hosts scraped together guns for us to use and scoured their closets for boots and clothing that would fit each hunter in need. Thanks to the good folks at Grass Land Safaris we never missed a minute of hunting. For myself, this trip was not my first day at the rodeo and it was a good thing I had prior foreign hunt travel experience, as I was one of the unfortunates without guns or luggage. My airline carry on bag has, for the past three international hunting trips, contained a full set of hunting clothes, without boots. My hunting suit in the carry on ditty bag doubles as a rain suit. The suit has a Gortex jacket and Gortex pants. A hunting suit, including a hat and gloves, in the carry on is a little lesson learned from two trips to Argentina. Next trip will see a pair of lightweight, short boots, in the bag as well. Some in our SA group were not as lucky, but our host made it all work out, just fine.
Anyway, we did our level best to lay waste to the pigeons and doves and tried to reduce the guinea and francolin population, as best we could. Rock Pigeons (RP) are large birds, about the size of a small partridge. They sport a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. A mature Rock Pigeon flies about twice the speed of a grey mourning dove. In the air a RP looks and acts like an aerobatic aircraft flown by an expert pilot. They say a 25% ratio on RPs is just about all a real expert bird hunter can expect. Yes, well, 20% might be a better figure. I myself shoot a respectable 70% - 75% recorded ratio on Argentine doves and doubt that I ever came close to 25% on the RPs, the first day’s pigeon shoot. After the first 10 shots and being 60%, I actually thought to myself; “well now this isn’t so hard.” 90 rounds later, I just gave up trying to maintain a decent ratio. It is not uncommon for the best shooters to find themselves relegated to “flock shooting” the RPs, jut to calm the inevitable frustration.
This trip actually started during the summer of 2005 in Argentina, over a cool beverage, one evening. As bird shooters are want to do, we were talking about the very best bird hunting in the world, for various flying species, when the subject of pigeon shooting came up. Two folks that had been, told us about shooting pigeons in the sunflower fields of South Africa the year before and how the numbers of birds were just outstanding. We, the ones that had not gone before, looked around at each other and decided right there and then that we just had to go, next year. One of our group had a standing reservation, for eight hunters, for the last week in April with Carel and his wife Cariel Coetzer of Grass Land Safaris.
Grass Land Safaris is a premier wing-shooting out*****r in South Africa; they are in Bamfort, Free State (old Orange Free State), South Africa. Bamfort is a sleepy little town located about four hours by van, south of Johannesburg. Carel, head honcho and senior Professional Hunter (PH) was in a prior life, a lieutenant in the old South African Army. As a former Recondo in the 101st Airborne, I knew of the re*****tion of the two finest military arms on the continent, the old SAA and the Rhodesian Army. Their long range patrol units were second to none. Carel served in a long range patrol unit officer in Rhodesia and Angola, years ago, during the troubles with the communist rebels. Cariel, a lovely lady, with a great outgoing personality, is a registered nurse who now administers a hunting lodge in the bush, on an 8,000-acre ranch. Cariel also takes care of the bangs and bruises plus sore muscles and joints. She has a very detailed grasp and knowledge of her country’s history. The Coetzers have three children and a steady flow of hunters from all over the world. They both are very dedicated hosts who go out of their way to make everyone feel special and bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of their guests with whom they become friends very quickly.
As things are and always will be, not everyone in the original group of eight could go to SA, so two of us took the places of the poor unfortunates that had to back out of the original arrangements. Their loss was very much our gain.
We took off early in the AM from the Pensacola Airport where the entire group gathered. While on the plane awaiting takeoff, we became alarmed when one of our group saw the baggage handlers remove several of our gun cases, just before leaving the terminal. Later we would all agree that we should have got off the plane right there and then. The next time, should we observe such a debacle starting, we will only continue the flight with the guns. From now on, if we see the guns get off the plane, so do we. Later we were told that the plane was over loaded, this was the excuse for removing the guns. However, removing the gun cases was a violation of just about every security regulation in the US Airline Industry playbook. Not to mention the TSA playbook.
Our hosts met us at the airport, arranged everything and off we went. Our first traveling experience in South Africa was a white-knuckle ride. We found ourselves on the wrong side of the road. The SA drivers drive on the left side, like the British. After a 19-hour plane ride we were a bit delusional, so the oncoming vehicles kept registering as being on our side, at curves, etc. We arrived at the hunting lodge after dark to iced drinks; great South African wines and a wonderful sit down meal of fresh vegetables and grilled Kudu steaks. South Africans like most Europeans, drink their beverages without ice, or without being chilled, so the ice machine was part of our host’s preparation for a US group of visitors. Our chef, a lovely lady, was a culinary professor and registered dietician who taught at the local university. During our entire time at Grass Land, she kept us well fed and always came up with some excellent deserts. All of our meals had an exotic flare, at least for us.
The first hunting day, Monday, we left the lodge well before daylight in what was to become our regular routine. We drove for about 45 minutes to the Dove-Pigeon field, where the sunflowers were brown and ready to harvest. Unlike Argentina, the doves and pigeons in SA have a flight line and rarely stray off the line. You do not see hundreds of doves scattered all over the place like you see in South America. You just see doves in large numbers at or near the fields where they feed and where you go to shoot. The odd thing about the flight line is the birds fly the line in small groups, one group right behind the other, for hours on end. The flight line was so narrow, only about 200 yards wide, that we sat up starting at 40 yards off both sides of the corner of the field. The birds came over the corner and most veered left or right, and then flew down the edge of the field. With an over and under, you shot just about as fast as you could load. We lost three “lodge” guns that first day, to breakage, all of the broken guns were well used Berettas. One O/U started opening by itself when the upper barrel was fired. Another O/U had its hammer actuator snap off from the forearm, after a box of shells, and a side by side decided it was time for it to start doubling. Carel got those guns replaced and everything ran pretty smooth after that.
I cannot go into all of the things our host did to make our trip a success, but let us say, the effort was extraordinary in every sense of the word. Carl did not join us for dinner or for a drink until Friday night. When Carl left with us in the morning Cariel took over the effort. The rest of the time, the couple was improvising, adapting and overcoming. As a business owner myself, I think it needs to be said here that anyone can run a perfectly smooth operation, it is only when the ship hits the sand that the real gems start to sparkle. And sparkle they do at Grass Land Safaris.
Every day, when out hunting, we stopped shooting about 11:00 for a brunch in the field. Fritz, the young Professional Hunter in residency (two years with senior PH is required) was in charge of setting up the field kitchen and dining area. The kitchen and tables were off in the distance and always near some large trees, in the shade. We normally had a field brunch consisting of a grilled whole grain sandwich made of cheese with sliced tomato, grilled wild game strips on a stick, game shish kabobs, boiled eggs, grapes and yogurt. To drink we had soft drinks and bottled water. Carl is a stickler for safety and does not allow any alcohol on his hunts, period. Our entire group, to a man, was very grateful to see Carl take this stand on safety. We had all had bad experiences in other parts of the world and none of us cared to see those things repeated or even come close to happening, again.
The second day, Tuesday, we went back to the field of the first day. When we got to the field just after daybreak we saw that the farm workers were already busy combining the sunflower seedpods. The birds were everywhere, like bees flocking to a press, crushing apples, for apple cider. We sat up our blinds and started a great dove and pigeon shoot. The shoot lasted all day with no shortage of birds. We learned something on the first day that was different about hunting in SA, they adhear to the English methods of hunting. The birds are just not counted and the bird boys are pulled back from the hunter least they interfere with the hunt.
The third day, Wednesday, we drove about 20 minutes from the lodge to a farm where they were harvesting potatoes and sunflowers. This was no dove shoot we were going to. What we saw in the distance, as we arrived, were clouds of big birds, by the thousands. This location is where we were to see a full day of Rock Pigeon shooting, with very few doves in attendance. I would say we saw or shot less than 1% doves. This was where we were to see, for the first time, the true performance of a Rock Pigeon.
I will attempt to describe the flight of a Rock Pigeon; they come by the edge of the field, flying parallel to the edge and out about 200 yards, then make a circle out over an open area. At the end of the circle they make a turn towards you, then they come straight for the edge of the field, flying at full speed, about 50 feet off the ground. Just as they get to the edge of the field, they do a barrel roll, dive for the ground, then make a 90 degree right turn, fly for 10 yards, then a 90 degree left turn and fly across the field at the height of the sunflowers. During this series of maneuvers they reach speeds of near twice that of a mourning dove. The evasive movement starts the moment anyone shoots, moves or stands up. I actually saw one bird do a wings out, hear up, complete stall, from full speed, then it did a hammerhead over into a dive, pulled out at 3 feet above the ground and then flew across the field about a foot below the top of the sunflowers, dodging seed pods as it went. Needless to say, my first shot was where the bird was supposed to be, not where it was.
I had to keep telling myself that missing was part of what was expected. I do not think I have ever shot so much empty air before in my life. But empty air was not the end of the frustration. The birds are so big and so tough that many times, a shot would render a puff of feathers and result in a hunter standing there, after two shots, empty gun in hand, and no bird on the ground. A big day on the RP line, for this shoot, was 100 to 125 birds, on the ground. There was no lack of shooting just a serious lack of bird bodies.
The best part of the third day was that our gun cases arrived in the late afternoon and were awaiting our return to the lodge at day’s end. We did have a couple of guns damaged, a hole in a gun case and one gun case badly scuffed, as if it had been dragged across asphalt for a mile or so. However, we were very happy to get our *****d guns back in hand.
What is the best method of shooting Rock Pigeon? Well the advice I received from Carel was; when you first see the pigeons, duck down behind the camouflage net, pick a single bird coming straight towards you, watch the pigeon through the net until it get about 80-90 yards out. At that point you stand and shoot. The pigeon should be about 70 yards out when you fire. The pigeon will collide with the shot at 35 to 40 yards, due to his flight speed. The method did not work so well on this day, in short sunflowers, but on Saturday, in tall sunflowers, it worked like magic.
The fourth day, Thursday, we left early again and drove for about 15 minutes. Now with our over and under guns we could hunt game birds. We stopped and lined up across a large pasture of waist high, yellow grass that was still soaking wet from the dew. Most of us had never hunted Guinea fowl before, so we were in for a real experience. Guineas like to hide in the tall grass and similar to a New England partridge, will let you walk up to them or go by them, before they come up. Luckily we had two dogs with us. The dogs made short work of pointing the birds up and finding the birds, after the birds were shot. Guinea fowl are bigger than a pheasant and if skinned have white meat that tastes quite a bit like the meat of a domestic chicken, that is slightly tough and a little stringy. The evening of the fourth day we dined on fresh Guinea with vegetables and an excellent South African table wine.
You know what gets your attention while walking through waist high yellow grass, bird hunting? The guy in line, next to you, says; “Two years ago I got my black mane, male lion, over there, about three miles from here.” You then look around and realize that, yes, you are in tall grass, on the plains, in Africa, with your O/U 12ga and #7 ½ shot. Every movie you ever saw with a lion chasing prey flashes by in your memory. Here dog, here dog, stay close dog, find the lion, find the lion first, my buddy the bird dog.
The afternoon of the fourth day I broke off and went plains game hunting with my custom rifle chambered in 300 Winchester Short Mag. Grass Land Safaris offers both wing shooting and plains game hunting. We went out to the range to make sure my rifle was sighted in. I quickly discovered that someone had twisted both of my large tactical adjustment knobs counter clockwise. The first bullet impact was in the upper right hand corner of a piece of 8½ x11 paper at 100 yards. My first thought was, so much for mounting a tactical scope and giving it to customs officials. After 5 rounds we got everything going correctly and off we went. A valuable lesson; never shoot at an animal with a rifle taken on a trip until you test fire the rifle.
We saw a large group of Blaze Buck and got to within 200 yards on the first try. The Blaze Bucks were standing on a slight rise in tall yellow grass with only the upper half of their body exposed. However, just as I got the shooting sticks set up, the wind changed from blowing in our face to blowing dead from our backs. Off all of the Blasé Bucks went with a snort. Several hours later we came upon the heard again, but this time they were milling around in a slight depression. They were right at 200 yards once we finished our hour of stalking, just a big wad of heads and horns sticking out of the tall grass. The grass was so high that all that could be seen when I was standing was the very top of their back, neck and head. Every time a good ram was spotted, he had a ewe in front or behind him. Because of the tall grass I had to stand to get a shot at them. I stood there for over 5 minutes with the rifle on the sticks. I was shooting a 180-grain Sierra Game King bullet at over 3,000 fps and knew for certain that the bullet was going to go right through the animal. Finally the PH called for the truck to move up in an attempt to separate them or spread them out a bit. Unfortunately instead of milling around just a little, they all bolted at once and headed off like a run away freight train, full speed, right out of sight. They were very spooky, which I lay on a zebra stallion that was with the heard. He acted strange, very skittish, every time we saw him. I decided to return to wing shooting the next day rather than spend more time with the antelope.
Three of the other hunters had better luck than me. Between the three of them they bagged a high scoring Kudu, a very good Gem Buck and a very fine Black Wildebeest. The Wildebeest was shot at about 330 yards with a 338 Ultra Mag. Andy, our resident Veterinarian, made a perfect shot. The 338 A Frame bullet entered just inside the right shoulder and exited behind the left shoulder. The Wildebeest dropped like he had been struck by lightning. The Kudu and Gem Buck were shot with a .308 rifle provided by the out*****r.
The next day we were up and out a bit earlier. We drove about 30 minutes to an area where the ground was low and there were what appeared to be small lakes or large ponds. The South Africans call the water filled areas Pans. A Pan is a low area that fills with water in the rainy season and then dries out during the dry season. The pans were the favorite places for spur wing geese, shell ducks, Egyptian Geese and the African red billed teal. We had a nice morning waterfowl hunt, bagging three spur wings, two shell ducks and several red-billed teal. I had the experience of shooting a B-52 bomber with a BB gun. That was a spur wing with a 12ga O/U at about 45 yards. I saw and heard the shot hit, twice. But the big goose never even changed direction or lost a wing beat. Every goose brought down that morning had a broken wing bone or was hit with one pellet in the head. I watched one goose after being hit, run into a pan, and swim across the pan, about 200 yards, then run up a hill before the hunter ran him down.
That afternoon we hunted Guinea fowl again and had a marvelous time shooting guineas, quail and Francolin. The quail in South Africa are quite a challenge due to their size, about 2 ounces total weight. Unfortunately a 2-ounce quail shot with a 12 ga at 10 yards doesn’t leave much to put in the game bag. This particular hunt was great for me as I got a couple of quail and four mature guinea fowl.
The evening of the 5th day Carel announced that we had not returned to the site of the pigeon shoot because the pigeons had moved. Carel and Fritz had found a new place for pigeons and doves and that new place was an hour away, but looked like an excellent spot if we wanted to give it a go.
The sixth day we were off to the new spot, across the street from an operational gold mine, where we set up our blinds in tall green sunflowers. It was a remarkable spot, with high tension power lines in front of the field, a paved road along the left side, high tension lines on the other side of the paved road and the gold mine, with its three huge concrete vent stacks, across the paved road. Early in the morning, before brunch, I had shot 14 boxes of shells, one spot down from the corner of the field. When we returned from brunch, everyone moved one spot, as is the procedure at Grass Lands. I moved down one spot to the corner of the field. It was at this point that the pot came to a hard boil. Fritz left for a few minutes to check on the other hunters and returned to find me sitting, out of ammo, this sequence was repeated three times before the afternoon was up. My Browning Ultra XS 20ga gun was smoking, literally. The metal got so hot that you could not touch it with your bare hands. Fritz came by in the truck as the sun went down, I heard him say to Carel that my stand looked like I declared war on the pigeons, their little bodies were everywhere, littering the ground. I had shot 70 boxes of shells (1750) rounds and the bird boys picked up four 60-gallon nylon bags, full of dead birds. To say that we helped deplete the vermin population would be an appropriate statement.
The next morning we got ready to go and were surprised by a gift from our hosts, a very nice embroidered hunting shirt. The shirt had a Guinea Fowl, in color, topped by the words Grass Land Safaris in an arch above the guinea. The colorful work was embroidered in the front left pocket area. We were sorry to leave and were not looking forward to the long plane ride back to the US.
On our way from the lodge to the Johannesburg Airport, we stopped at a SA version of a roadside truck stop and there was Fritz with his truckload of Danish hunters, on their way to the lodge. I guess I made the list of hunting stories around the campfire. Fritz introduced me to the group of new hunters, as “this is the fellow I was telling you about that shot 1750 shells just yesterday.”
I have saved this portion of the story for last, “the what you need to know:” part of the process. Going to South Africa has its quirks so one needs to pay attention:
1) Hunting in South Africa is not done on Sunday (arrive and leave on Sundays).
2) Doves and Pigeons are considered destructive pests and can be shot anytime with any gun, including a semi-auto shotgun.
3) Game birds, Francolin, quail, Guinea, waterfowl, etc., cannot be hunted with a semi-auto.
4) Semi-auto shotguns are all but impossible to bring into the country unless you get a handicapped persons permit (pretty much requires use of only one arm).
5) Shotgun shells of 12 ga are easy to obtain, 20 ga are available with an up charge, but 28 ga and .410 are not popular or readily available.
6) The agricultural center of South Africa is the Free State.
7) The altitude across the Free State is about 4,200 feet, so the sun burns you to a crisp, without sunscreen.
In the fall (April-May) it might be 32 degrees F at daybreak and 80 degrees F by mid afternoon.
9) Layered clothing is a must due to the change in temperature.
10) Plains game hunting is available at Grass Lands on their 8,000-acre ranch; wing shooting at Grass Lands takes place on their 200,000 acres of leased hunting lands.
11) Recommended rifle for plains game hunting by the PH, I asked, a claw extractor model rifle in 30-06 with 165 to 200 grain bullets.
12) What rifle did the PH have to rent, a Model 98 Mauser in 308 with 165 Sierra GK bullets, hand loaded.
13) Bird boys in SA do not load your shell pouch or count birds. If you want a count, bring a clicker.
14) Shooting over sunflowers requires low shots. Shooters should be at least 70 yards apart, eye protection is a must.