Written & Photographed
by Stuart M. Williams*
|Aphalanx of beaters moved slowly through the forest, tapping the tree trunks with long sticks as they went. Out ahead of them a small army of dogs-vizslas and black Labs and yellow Labs-nosed out every nook and cranny of cover, putting to flight even the smallest creature. Out ahead of the dogs and beaters a veritable herd of pheasants raced through the underbrush. They moved towards me in what seemed to be a wave, which grew bigger and bigger as it came closer. Then the first birds took off. They struggled for altitude, climbing straight up towards the treetops. There they leveled off and turned on the afterburners. When they reached terminal velocity they locked their wings and went into a long, gradually descending glide. Then they were high overhead and slightly in front of me, their long tails rippling behind them. I shot the first bird from the air most emphatically, as feathers exploded in all directions.|
I followed up with another hit, folding a great cock bird. Instantly I passed
my gun to the loader at my right, who deftly handed me another gun, which
I mounted and swung in one swift, continuous motion, upending two more magnificent
birds. I missed a hen, then tumbled another hen, exchanged guns, took down
a grand cock to the right and another to the left, exchanged guns again,
missed a very high overhead cock, but redeemed myself by pulling down one
even higher. The shooter to my left, Bob Griffiths, a California construction
magnate, and I put up a wall of fire that let very few birds get through.
Soon the action was over me and all around me and crossing right and left
and straight overhead, far more birds than I could possibly address, even
with two guns and a loader. I was concentrating so intently that after the
drive was over I was trembling. After each exchange of guns the loader broke
the gun open, bright red empties popped straight up and flashed in the morning
sun, and the pungent fragrance of gunsmoke-that most intoxicating of all
perfumes filled the air and exhilarated us. Two German shorthairs dutifully
scrambled to fetch each fallen bird. It came to an end all too soon, and
smoke drifted down the wind and feathers settled to earth. Then the official
scorekeeper made the rounds of the shooters, asking how many birds each man
The action had been so frantic that I had lost count. The astonishing thing about the drive was that I was on stand number 8. Stand number 8 is generally on the outer margin of the action. However, as I walked toward the stand at the beginning of the drive, huntmaster Josef Feher gave me two thumbs up, exclaiming that on this particular drive number 8 was the best stand of all. And he was right. At midmorning we had a most welcome snack break. Hunt impresario par excellence Hannes Stiedl-who had made all the arrangements-and Lotte "The Goulash Girl" and Magda-the interpreters-spread an impromptu feast out on the tailgate of a Range Rover. There were slices of cheese and salami and mortadella, assorted chocolates for those with a sweet tooth, cups of steaming coffee laced with thick cream, and glasses of Rioja and Giro wines. Two drives later I was on stand number four-which is usually right in the thick of the action-and it was for me the highlight of the day, in fact, one of the highlights of my entire international wing shooting career. I was positioned out at the edge of afield that was covered with dense brush. To my right was Jim Duncan, a lumberman from Mississippi, and to my left was Bob Daniel, a tobacco farmer and ex-congressman from Virginia, deadly gunners both. My loader, a thin, academic-looking man elegantly attired in olive green hunting clothing, with a bushy beard and small wire-rimmed spectacles, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and smoked a strong cigarette as he waited for the action.
started out slowly but picked up quickly, and my loader and I worked out a
good rhythm of shooting and loading and shooting and loading and shooting
and loading. Soon, however, the beaters drove a blizzard of birds over us,
and we were absolutely overwhelmed. Even with two guns, we couldn't begin
to deal with so many birds. I started out with a string of eight, consecutive
hits, dropping birds in front and to both sides and far behind, keeping the
air full of fine feathers. Then I missed a bird and started on another streak.
As the pace of shooting picked up and the drill of shooting and exchanging
guns got faster and faster, I was full of that "top-gallant delight" that
Herman Melville wrote about in Moby Dick, It was pure exhilaration to exercise
my shooting skills to their fullest.
lunchtime we retreated to a thatched roof open-air luncheon shelter built
back under large,
old apple trees in an abandoned apple orchard. To whet our appetites we drank
glasses of cold Amstel beer and Spanish Rioja wine while a gypsy quartet (two
violins, a bass fiddle, and a cimbalom, which is a kind of horizontal stringed
instrument that is hammered, not plucked) played. They were wild and enthusiastic,
taking great pleasure in their playing and making everybody want to dance!
But it was time to eat. We feasted on cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and
ground beef and liberally seasoned with paprika; hot noodle soup with big
chunks of roast turkey; a terrific hot goulash that was loaded with paprika
and garlic. The fine lunch and~he wild music put us in high spirits for the
While we drank toasts to the great day with Henkel champagne and
kosher slivovitz and Jagermeister, the beaters laid out the birds in arrow-straight
rows and built big bonfires to the side of them. Then all shooters came to
attention while Hannes Stiedl pronounced a eulogy to the hard-flying, challenging
birds and the deadly shooters. Finally the total bag for the day was announced:
precisely 675 pheasants picked up. That figure was near the high end of the
projected bag for the day. As Hannes Stiedl observed, it was indeed a group
of very exceptional shooters. None of the birds were wasted; all were divided
among the help, saved for future meals at the castle, or sold to the local
The pleasures of the day were not over yet. Back at Bercel Castle-our headquarters for the shoot-we enjoyed a delightful happy hour with plenty of Norwegian smoked salmon and beluga caviar and tiny shrimp in olive oil and garlic. Then we moved to the grand dining room. There shooters and their wives feasted by candlelight amid a rush of silks on an excellent spicy tomato consommé; mushroom caps stuffed with a heavenly puree; grilled breast of turkey with pineapple sauce; a delectable roast loin of pork; scalloped potatoes; and an ultra-rich chocolate walnut layered "Goodbye Cake". We enjoyed all of this accompanied by a very pleasant Villanyi Kekopato Hungarian red wine all while being serenaded by a gypsy quartet who delighted us with wild folk dance tunes, csardas, and legenyes, and verbunks. We topped off the feast with little glasses of Unicum, a Hungarian digestive liqueur. Hannes Stiedl delivered ~ brief encomium, and huntmaster Josef Feher bade us a very emotional farewell and hoped that we would return the next year. And then it was all over.
And so came to an end four of the most keenly pleasurable days of my life.
But let us backtrack to the beginning. On the first three days of shooting we shot pheasants over dogs in the morning, and flighted mallards in the afternoon. The walk-up shooting was not like any walk-up shooting we had ever seen before. When we speak of walk-up shooting over dogs in the States we think of a party of one or two, at the most three, shooters going afield with a couple of dogs. Walk-up shooting in Hungary, however, is a very different kind of affair. Huntmaster Josef Feher arrayed us on a long line about 50 yards apart, with one or two dog handlers between each pair of shooters. Each of these dog handlers had two to four dogs, mostly vizslas. When Josef Feher gave the signal, we marched across fields of sorghum or sunflowers or head-high corn or dense stands of pigweed and ragweed. Occasionally a dog would point and a shooter would move in and flush a bird, but more often the dogs simply flushed the birds. Sometimes they flushed birds in quite close, and sometimes they flushed birds out at the very margin of gunning range, so that every shooter, regardless of his ability, had plenty of shooting opportunities that were commensurate with his level of skill. The action was virtually nonstop for two hours, when we took a mid morning break for a lavish snack. Then it was back at it again until we stopped for lunch. It was walk-up shooting the likes of which none of us had seen before.
It was on small waters like this whereIn the afternoons we shot what the Hungarians called flighted ducks. It was kind of a combination of decoying and pass shooting. Each man was placed in a strategically located blind along the shore or out in the water on small lakes that varied in size from just a few acres to several hundred acres. Each of these lakes was jammed with domestic mallards that were fat from being heavily fed on corn and that were so tame that no amount of shooting would alarm them. These domestic mallards quacked loudly to their wild brethren, saying, in effect: "Come on in, boys! Dinner is being served!" and come in they did, whereupon they were greeted most rudely by a hail of hot number 6s.
we experienced such great duck shooting.
To supplement the numbers of wild birds, keepered birds were released from cages atop a high hill overlooking the lake. These are birds that have been raised on the lake, so they will immediately return there, flying past shooters as they go, dipping and rolling and flaring and executing every kind of evasive maneuver.
The difficulty of the birds depended entirely upon the location of one's blind. In some blinds they were diabolically difficult, in others they were easy. In general, flighting presented ducks in a much more challenging manner than decoying.
As intercepted ducks splashed down, Labs leaped from the shoreline to fetch them. At one time there were so many Labs out on the water hithering and thithering with birds in their mouths that they looked like a flotilla of small boats.
The number of birds one might get depended entirely upon his shooting skill and the location of his blind. The first afternoon I had a poor position and was low gun with only 33 ducks. I was on the back side of the lake, where all the ducks had to fly by all the other shooters before they reached me. I never saw such high and wild ducks in my life, and felt very satisfied to be able to get 33. The high gun for the afternoon, Jim Duncan, got 80. Bob Griffiths was a close second. On the second afternoon Bob Daniel was high gun with 102 ducks, and Jim Duncan was second with 99. He fired precisely 10 boxes of shells, which was excellent shooting in view of the fact that he was shooting from an unstable pontoon blind at very high passing birds.
Shooters who had been to Argentina said that the shooting was as good as any duck shooting they had experienced there, and I certainly had to agree.
This kind of duck shooting is what I call "gentlemen's duck shooting" or "comfortable duck shooting. "There is none of the enlightened madness that constitutes duck shooting in North America: no getting up at insane hours in the middle of the night, no driving long distances in the dark while doped on caffeine to stay awake, no wading in chest-deep mud and icy water, no fumbling with decoys and boats in the darkness and cursing the whole fool's errand, no suffering of ice-edged winds and rain, no shooting under the handicap of steel shot, all for the chance of bagging a few ducks, and some days slinking home with none at all. No, there is none of that arrant nonsense.
Instead, the gentleman gunners arise at a comfortable hour and fortify themselves with a big breakfast of scrambled or fried eggs and ham, toast made with dark whole-grain bread and smeared with raw honey, large platters of fresh fruit, cold cuts and cheese, yogurt and European coffees and refreshing fruit juices. They sally forth to the lake in full daylight and walk to their blinds or reach them by boat, without ever having to wade. The temperatures will be moderate, so much so that some times they can shoot in their shirt sleeves. As for limits, nobody ever heard of limits on these shoots. The very idea of limits on these "gentlemen's shoots" would seem ridiculous to the people who organize them. One is limited only by his ability to pay! We made our headquarters at Bercel Castle in northern Hungary, not far from the border of Slovakia.
Bercel Castle dates from the 1880s, and it has undergone many vicissitudes during its life. During the dark days of Communism it was converted into an elementary school. Under its current owner, Peter Kalman, the castle has been converted into a luxurious hotel. It has all amenities, including sauna, jacuzzi, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Service is solicitous and food is epicurean.
Peter Kalman is something of an opera fanatic; hence all rooms are named after important operatic characters. You can choose to stay in Norma, Gilda, Lohengrin, Oberon, Romeo and Juliet, or Manon. My room was called Parsifal. Actually, "room " is a misnomer, because it was a two-level suite. On the first floor was a large living room with overstuffed chairs and sofa and television and a big balcony that overlooked the swimming pool and tennis courts. On the second level was the bedroom and bathroom.
It was with some sadness that we bade farewell to Peter Kalman and his family, who had made our stay so memorable. The shooting portion of the trip was over, but the other half of the trip was just beginning. We enjoyed a very scenic drive to Vienna, where we had a whirlwind three days of castles and concerts and cathedrals, shopping and gourmet dining. We took in an exhibition of the paintings of two Viennese masters, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt--two of my favorites--and attended unforgettable performance's of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Vienna Staatsoper.
On the final night Hannes Stiedl hosted us for a gala dinner at the elegant Hietzinger Brau Restaurant. This place has a warm, cozy atmosphere that brings out good spirits and camaraderie among the diners, and as such was the perfect place for our Last Supper. We feasted on the Hausspezialitat, boiled beef (it doesn't sound very appealing but it was excellent) with an irresistible applesauce-cum-horseradish dressing, and ended up with that inevitable Viennese dessert, apple strudel with mounds of thick whipped cream.
The rest of the gang went home the next day, but I stayed on. I spent a very special, very memorable day with Felix Neuberger, recently retired Director of European Operations for IBM, lover and collector of fine double guns, world-travelled bird shooter, and a valued contributor to this publication. Felix is rightly proud of his wonderful city, and he wanted to show me some things that few tourists ever get to see and experience. Felix met me at my hotel and we set out walking in a driving rain.
It was on precisely such a day in the glorious film, Amadeus, that Mozart was buried probably not far from where we were. Felix took me to a little restaurant in a narrow passageway behind the St. Stephan's Cathedral, a place that was crowded with charming little shops that sold tea, wine, whiskey, rare books, and handmade dolls among many other things. There we feasted on Tafelspitz and Wienerschnitzel.
The high point of the day was a visit to the world renowned Demel Kafe-Konditorei, a Viennese institution and goal of pilgrimage for dessert-Iovers worldwide. We talked fine guns, reminisced about our birdshooting adventures in Argentina for hours, lamented the passing of the great Viedma goose shoot there and thoroughly enjoyed Sachertorte mit Schlagsahne, that most quintessential of all Viennese desserts. This delightful interlude ended way too soon. The next day I had lunch with Prinz Franz Kinsky-a prominent operator of bird shoots and big game hunts in Argentina, at his palace, then took the train south into Italy to visit several gun makers and shots hell makers. But that is a different story and we will have to wait its turn.
*This Stuart Willams story was modeled after
it's printing in the Spring 2001issue of The Double Gun Journal .
Thanks to Stuart and The Double Gun Journal
All trip arrangements were made by Classic Sports International.