Monday, November 28, 2016

My First Ducks and My Benelli 828U

Last Saturday was a landmark day for me - I checked another accomplishment off my bucket list. That's the day I became a Waterfowl Shooter.

The occasion was made possible by Calibered Events
and M&M Hunting and Sporting Clays

This Ladies Only event took place on the grounds of M&M Hunting and Sporting Clays in New Jersey - about 30 minutes from Philadelphia. Since I wasn't local, I accepted the invitation of my friend Annette     to lodge near her, so that we could drive over together. I'm so glad we decided to do that. I had never done ducks before, and she had never hunted at all before, so we were our own mutual support group. We started our day with breakfast at a local diner so I could get my scrapple fix,
and then we ventured across the big bridge into New Jersey. 

The M&M Facility was huge and gorgeous. We met our event host Ann Marie Foster in the main building, and filled out our one day New Jersey hunting license papers. After a few introductions to the rest of the ladies, and some organizational housekeeping, we split into golf-cart size groups and hit the sporting clays course to warm up our trigger fingers.

We warmed up with 50 shells of sporting clays. The course was well organized , but our method was a bit unorthodox, as we drove around in our golf carts looking for traps that would send us the crossers and incoming shots that we needed to practice on. We did get a few odd looks from other (mostly male) shooters, but how common IS a group of nine women in camo on a shotgun course in New Jersey? The sun, the blue sky, the falling leaves, and the smell of the spent shells made for a PERFECT fall day.

Link to video 

After our clays practice, we ate a large hearty lunch in the main building at M&M, and got to know eachother a little more. The laughs had started already, and we had some visits with our Labrador partners-to-be as well.

Before we knew it, it was time for the donning of rubber boots, and then off to the marsh release area we went. 

I had not planned on duck hunting in shirt sleeves. In fact, I had sewed-up an entire camo fleece outfit to wear under my outer shell for insulation. I had come prepared for twenty degrees and damp. Fortunately, I had thrown a camo wicking shirt in my suitcase as well, which was originally intended to be my baselayer. That shirt ended up being my "only" layer due to the nearly 70 degree weather. I brought the fleece and shell just in case, but they ended up staying in my daypack. Ah well - better to have and not need, than to need and not have. I am never one to look "gift horse" weather in the mouth!

There were several permanent blinds set up, scattered around the pond/marsh area where the shoot took place. We were to rotate as groups between these blinds during our two hour session. We split up into three groups of three women each, with a guide and dog each per blind.

The first two blind locations weren't very productive for our group of three gals, which consisted of myself, Annette, and Lynn.  We kind of felt bad for the dogs (Trigger, Avery, and Hook). They wanted to jump into the water with every shotgun report - even if it was a miss. ( Yeah, sorry guys)  But Annette saved the day with the first birds for our blind.

For me personally, it took awhile to be able to judge distance. Ducks are bigger than clays, and thus looked "closer" because I wasn't used to the size - if that makes sense. (That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it) Thus, I took some shots that were much too far to be useful. But this was a learning experience, and by the time we got to the third blind I was learning to be patient and wait for a closer shot. I also got some repetitive motion experience in standing up, flicking off the safety and shouldering the gun --- and then reversing the motions to sit back down again, when realizing that the shot was too long. Everything can be a learning experience if you let it. (ALSO my story, and I'm sticking to it!)

Despite trying to stay positive, I admit to getting a little discouraged by the time we got to the third blind rotation. I had still not bagged my first duck, despite a couple shots where I felt I "should" have. But persistence and location were the keys- as well as the aforementioned patience - and I ultimately bagged at least six. It was hard to keep track, as we were taking turns, and all the ducks were just in a pile. I took home seven, because a few of the gals didn't want all of theirs, but I know I hit six. 


It was interesting watching the way the ducks flew. Unlike clays, they could purposefully change direction and respond (or not) to the calls of our guides. They also took advantage of the prevailing winds. Some breezed on past out of range, while others banked and headed over to check out the decoys. Some even came straight at us.  I shot one of those incoming overhead ducks successfully. But as it folded, the momentum dropped it nearly on top of my blind mate's head! Fortunately, she had bent down to get a drink, or it might have hit her square in the face. I wish I'd had a GoPro to record that one!

There were other moments of levity - not all of them G-rated. I remember Lynn wondering aloud if the ducks that successfully landed among the decoys were disappointed to discover that they were plastic. I couldn't quite keep a comment to myself about discovering that your blind date was really a blow-up doll. Yeah, Dignity and Decorum - that's me. 

I managed to provide other comic relief as well. Being the paragon of Grace, Beauty, and Charm that I am, I managed to hit my head on the back roof area of the blind a couple times, while I was standing and shooting - Owwww. (Except "Oww" wasn't what I said - Dignity and Decorum, remember?) Between repetitively bonking my head and shooting a box and a half of high brass, I really needed some Ibuprofen by the time I got back to the hotel - LOL

As far as firepower goes, there were only two of us in the entire group using over/under guns. The rest were shooting semi-autos. There were a few times where I thought a third shot from a semi-auto would have been useful to me, but I'm discovering that I feel the same way about my Benelli 828U as I do about my revolver. Knowing I have limited rounds forces me to change my mindset. Instead of blasting away, I have to slow down, concentrate, and make every shot count. I like the discipline that is coming along with that. It's good for me. 

Some people may wonder about a "released" shoot, and whether that was "sporting" enough. Truthfully, I wondered how I would feel about it myself. But in the end, I didn't feel bad about shooting these animals - even as releases. Plenty of the ducks evaded us and reached freedom, and even though they were raised before release, they had lived a better life than the average factory farm chicken. 

I did have a bit of a "moment" though when I crouched down to stroke the feathers of the birds on the ground.  I had a memory flash of watching my dad clean the day's bag limit in our basement as a child. Part of me was a little sad that I didn't get to share this with him. But I've realized that things happen in their own time. That time just wasn't "for" me. I wasn't ready then. But now IS my time, and I'm so thrilled that it is :-)

This was a great experience, and a great way to get my feet wet with waterfowl. It may not have been a completely "wild" setting, but it allowed someone like me - who will never have her own dogs or her own boat or her own decoys - to get a taste of the experience in a positive way.

Thank you Calibered Events and M&M Preserve for the unforgettable opportunity!

  This bottle of feathers and license is going on my keepsake shelf

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The 828U - My Benelli Family Addition

Those of you who read here regularly know that I am on the shotgun learning curve. You also know that I have an affection for Benelli. My love affair started back when I was first looking to get into 3-Gun, and needed my own shotgun. 

A few years after that, while at SHOT Show, I got to shoot the new Benelli ETHOS. Here was a "classic" looking shotgun that worked and felt exactly like my M2 - meaning that I wouldn't have to learn anything new in order to shoot it. By about a year later, I owned an ETHOS of my own, and started learning to shoot sporting clays.
I even shot my first pheasant with that gun!

Now, this year, I've been shooting more clays than ever before, and have been "jonesing"  for an even more classic shotgun style. Watching some of the other shooters with their over and under guns kept reminding me of my father, and the only one of his guns I ever got to shoot.

What I really wanted was a Benelli 828U - the new design Benelli introduced at SHOT 2015.

But I kept telling myself "Maybe next year", and "You don't need another shotgun". Alas, those of you who know this type of craving, know that there is no such thing as "need" - only "must have".

I fought the craving all summer. But then I signed up for a Ladies Duck Hunt,
and the presidential election turned into a circus side-show. My inner rationalization machine kicked into high gear. My craving heart told my budgeting brain all kinds of whining and wheedling tales, trying to pry open my wallet.

"But the hunt is in JERSEY - wouldn't you have to worry less if you didn't take a semi-auto?"

"But the election - won't guns start flying off the shelves if the election goes badly? And then you won't be able to find one when you want it! - Remember 2013??"

"But it would remind you of your Dad..."

I finally caved to the pressure from within, and made the trip to the big box store three weeks ago - because there were no local shops that carried Benelli.

I LOVE this gun. She really IS beautiful - even with the black anodized receiver. My ETHOS has the gorgeous nickel-plate, and the sales guy tried to steer me in that direction this time as well,  but I decided that if I was going hunting, I didn't want the shiny this time. This was actually a tough decision for my inner girl, because I do like pink and shiny so very much. But learning to appreciate the beautiful woodgrain of the 828U is another homage to my father :-)

My 828U came in a hard case, with padded tartan lining, and included a box with 5 crio  chokes, Benelli oil, and various shims for adjusting drop and cast. I couldn't WAIT to try her out!

Three days after my purchase, I took my new prize on her maiden voyage for three rounds of skeet with some friends. I'm even worse at skeet than I am at sporting clays, but the GUN was awesome! This gun is so light, and so well-balanced, that I could hold it with ONE finger! Despite being lightweight, the 828U didn't seem to have any more recoil than my ETHOS or M2! This had been a concern for me, in switching from semi-auto. But the Progressive-Comfort stock did a spectacular job. 

Another reason I love Benellis - and the 828U was no exception - is that the guns FIT me right out of the box. There are multiple shims with which to adjust drop and cast, but I don't seem to need any of them. The length of pull works for me, and the gun mounts easily.

That isn't to say that I don't have some adjusting to do while I'm working to learn a new "platform".  I have to keep reminding myself to angle the action slightly away from me when breaking it open after taking my shots. The ejectors are brisk, and I almost took a couple hulls to the face the first time - LOL!  But that's just me being used to semi-autos. 

The action itself breaks pretty easily despite being new. (Something that I read is NOT common with other new O/U guns) I'm still learning the workings of shotguns, but I understand that this is due to Benelli's modern redesign, using a steel locking plate, and steel breech block in an aluminum receiver, which changes the stress points and takes some of the stiffness out. I'm not a gunsmith, or engineer, so this is how "I" understood the explanation, but maybe I've got things a bit snarled. In any case, these redesigns make the gun light and easy to break open - even for an O/U newb like me.

The aluminum receiver and carbon fiber rib are also part of Benelli's redesign of this classic shotgun style, and what make the gun so lightweight and pleasant for me to carry around. I'm really going to appreciate this the next time I go on a Ladies Pheasant Hunt.

The safety switch on this gun is in a new location for me. The 828U's safety is located at the top of the receiver - for thumb activation - vs the side button on my ETHOS and M2. I actually kind of like it better on top, if truth be told. The motion on top seems more intuitive to me, and I don't have to do anything else with my trigger finger but be mindful of where it is. The barrel selector switch is incorporated into the safety switch, and is marked in an intuitive way so that even "I" can understand it.

In addition to those first three rounds of skeet, I've since shot two rounds of 100 sporting clays each with the 828U  - with no pain or bruises, and no malfunctions whatsoever. I love the way this gun points, and for some reason I like the way it "sounds" - the solid, satisfying "thunk" when I close the action with shells ready to rock --  and the oddly musical "doop" of the ejected hulls. I don't know if that pleasure means I'm channeling my inner 12 year old's memories, or if there is something genetic about shotguns. Either way, I do know that this gun is DEFINITELY a keeper.
Bring on those ducks!