Choking Up for Upland Game
When I began hunting, I was gifted an old Remington 870 Wingmaster by my father, who had used it extensively in his younger days for pheasants and grouse, and the occasional waterfowling trip for ducks and geese. The gun was well worn, with the scratches in the stock and slight mottling of the barrel’s blue sheen that come with seasons of use and memorable adventures. The barrel was 30 inches long with a fixed full choke. For my first five hunting seasons, it was the only scattergun I owned, and I employed it for everything in the uplands, from partridge and sharpies in September, to pheasants and ruffies in October. With that tight barrel it shined in the late season, when birds would get up far away, though it may have been the cause of a few hamburger moments, when a closer-flushing bird took the brunt of its payload.
Over time though, I came into new guns; and found some notable over-unders and semiautomatics which allowed me to switch out the choke based on species and season, providing me a greater advantage in the field, and adding a little bit of physics to my preparations. Making the transition from wandering with no dog, during the heydays of CRP when one could simply walk and flush pheasants, to working behind a borrowed flushing dog, to hunting behind my own pointing labs as I have for the last 15 years, adjusting my chokes, and my view of what’s important in each of them, has been a major factor in better uplanding success.
A Wide Array
Chokes help hunters deliver the most effective payload of shot from a shell, fine-tuning the way in which the pellets travel out from the gun and expand in the air toward the target. Going up the scale, from most open to tightest, five primary chokes can be found for most shotguns: skeet, improved cylinder, modified, improved modified, and full. Notches or stars on each choke delineate the type and how tight it is, with a skeet choke having five, improved cylinder four, modified three, improved modified two and full choke having a single notch.
While the effective range of each choke depends on the shot shell and shot type in each one, a good guideline for looking at and selecting each choke for its related upland hunting quarries and methods is as follows:
Skeet: 5-20 yards; close flushing birds like ruffed grouse and quail.
Improved Cylinder: 15-30 yards; close birds like ruffies, or pheasants and sharpies behind a pointer.
Modified: 20-35 yards; doves, pheasants, sharptailed grouse, partridge; a good all-around choke.
Improved Modified: 25-40 yards; pheasants, sharptailed grouse, late season birds or a follow-up barrel on an over-under or side-by-side.
Full: 30-45 yards; bigger upland game birds like pheasants and grouse flushed at a distance, particularly in late season.
Style and Season
I have found that hunting style and the type of dog used has been a big determining factor in choke selection. For example, when hunting pheasants with flushing dogs, or those young pups that are learning the ropes and finding the right distance to maintain between themselves and their owners, a tighter choke, such as improved modified or even full is the best choice, as birds tend to get up further away. The tighter chokes deliver a denser payload downfield, allowing for a longer but still ethical shot.
Behind a pointing dog, however, which produces some exhilarating and very close flushes, a more open choke is a better choice, and improved cylinder is a good bet followed with a modified choke on the backup barrel for a second shot, if necessary, as the bird gets further out.
Season also dictates choke selection, as early season and less-pressured birds tend to rise closer to a hunter. In those stretches of the calendar, an improved cylinder or modified choke works well. As the fall wears on and pheasants and grouse group together, become jumpier and flush further out, tightening the choke, such as moving from improved cylinder to modified, or modified to full, can make the difference to connect on a going-away shot at a distance.
Beyond becoming familiar with upland game species, their habitats and escape tactics, and putting in some practice time with a shotgun to ensure an on-target shot, adjusting chokes is the final piece that helps cement success in the field. Take the time to address how changing a choke tube impacts pattern and ethical range in the field, and ultimately can lead to more success this autumn after any bird that might flush.