Two braces, one pair of pointers and another pair of setters, carved up the field like there was no tomorrow. They all arrived at the same place at slightly different times. A pointer locked up followed by a setter's honor followed by a pointer's honor and then the back by the final setter. This covey was likely to be a hatblower, a term I learned from long-time bird doggers Ed and Sheila Hart. Hatblowers are big coveys, with some ranging between 50 and 75 birds strong. When they flush all a once there is a rush of air so strong that it nearly blows your hat off of your head.
Also See: The Beginning Wingshooter
Let's try this again a little differently.
The marsh was a cold and solitary place that day. The edges of the pond carried skim ice, and the northerly winds made the 35-degree temperature feel like it was in the single digits. Our pit blind was surrounded by goose candy in the form of 15 acres of thick winter rye. We first heard the clucks and double clucks from far off in the distance, and when the geese dropped below the cloud ceiling for their final approach, we saw too many to count. Our conservative estimate was best described by several strings of phrases containing nothing but four-letter words. Loosely translated that's short-handle for upwards of 250.
Singles or coveys for bird hunting, singles or flocks for waterfowling, all have the same effect on hunters: usually a lot of misses. One would figure that with so many birds around it'd be easy to knock down one or two but it's not. In fact, it can be challenging. Here's how to overcome the tendency to miss in "can't miss" situations.
Calm your nerves.
If your heart doesn't race at the presence of lots of birds, then you might want to take up another sport. Since you don't, you'll need to get a grip. I keep from coming unglued by imagining the best case scenario which is a flock of 1000 geese or 100 quail. Then I take a deep breath or two, consider their flight paths, and think about what type of swing to use. Then I get ready to focus on picking out just one, single bird.
Single birds offer easy target acquisition; multiples are challenging.
Proper shotgunning means concentrating on your target. One bird means one target, so it's easy to connect when just one bird is in your sight window. Your vision is keen and sharp, and there isn't a sensory overload causing poor gun mounts or bogus swings. Problems start when there are multiple birds, many of which seem to be going in a different direction. In those instances, gunners tend to look at all of the different birds and then flock shoot. Few birds drop while many are injured. When you have lots of birds around the best course of action comes from picking one, focusing on it, and staying with it until it's falling from the sky. Complete the process by marking that downed bird before moving on to another.
Resist the urge to rush.
A covey of flushed quail makes us believe that we need to shoot quickly. With so many birds flying around our vision moves from the left to the right to the center and all around. It's dizzying, to say the least, and that frenetic pace results in quick rushed shots. Slow it down by studying your birds.
Watch what your birds do and draw a connection.
I remember when there were four of us on one quail hunt, and that meant that we took turns walking in on points. I sat out the first covey rise and learned more from watching than from shooting. What I noticed was that when busted up, about a third of the covey flew from the right to the left. A third flew straight away. The remaining third flew from the left to the right. Think about it; isn't that the same flights found on a skeet and trap field? It sure is, and if you can break clays on them then you can shoot these birds, right? It was my turn on the next covey, and once I saw how the birds behaved I was ready. I took my first bird on a right to left. Rather than move to a different direction and take one flying straight away, I continued on in the same field. Ultimately I caught up with a bird flying in the same direction I was already swinging and dropped it, too. It's usually a mistake to take one bird from one direction and then change gears to find one moving in a totally different direction. It's more difficult, and increases misses coming from poor target acquisition, confusion of a shooting style, miscues in lead, and an erratic swing. Keep it simple, and after harvesting one bird move on to a second bird flying in the same direction.
We spend all off-season dreaming of birds and lots of 'em. When they're in front of you keep composed and focused. After all, you don't want to spend the next offseason reliving the time when a thousand geese dropped into your spread and you didn't hit one, do you? Keep calm and carry on.