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Upping Your Game: Deliberate Shotgun Practice

By Todd J. Helms

If you’re anything like me there are moments from last season that haunt you. Mine mostly revolve around missed birds. One in particular stands out; it was while filming the trailer for Wingmen that recently aired on the Outdoor channel at the end of Dan Pickar’s archery bear hunt. The shot in question thankfully did not make the cut but it had me cussing myself all day and pondering what I’d done wrong. The scenario in question involved a coasting left to right greenhead over the decoys a scant 15 yards away. With every shot, and subsequent miss, the bird sped up and the video shows the sparks from my steel payload slamming off the rock wall behind the drake. Argh!!

Upon reflection I know that I simply was pulling my head off the gun wanting to see the bird fold up and therefore my cheek weld was improper and I was shooting behind the initially loafing mallard. Simple fix, keep my head down and on the gun. However, I wish I could say that this was the only “slam-dunk” I caromed off the iron last season, there were lots! Many more than in seasons past, especially while shooting at Huns and Chukars. Frustration seems a mild emotion to sum up many moments of my season last year. But why? Why was I missing so many more birds than in years past? I was shooting the same tried and true shotguns and loads, my eyesight had not declined, I was in excellent physical condition; what was the culprit?

After much reflection the answer became obvious; I had not prepared in the off season. My normal shotgun regimen of year’s past had been replaced with a fervent focus on a new bow and a blue-chip archery elk tag. Simply put, I had not touched my shotguns since cleaning them and putting them away the previous winter. Big mistake! While I’m not old by any means I am approaching middle-age and rust seems to accumulate more readily now than it did while in my twenties.

I’ve never been a great shooter. Good? Yes. Great? Not hardly. However, I have not struggled with the shotgun as badly as I did last season since I was a wet behind the ears adolescent still figuring out the wingshooting game. I needed practice, badly!

Now as a coach I have always been a proponent of the adage, “perfect practice makes perfect.” But what does perfect practice with a shotgun involve? Three things – time, shells and birds, each in copious quantities. This can take many forms from joining a trap, skeet or sporting clays league to simple hand thrown birds in a gravel pit. Let’s take a look at each.

Trap, skeet and sporting clays leagues – most if not all of us have sportsman’s clubs or gun clubs within a short distance of our homes. Doing a bit of digging will unearth these gems of fraternity, practice and recreation. Until recently I have always been an active participant in weekly league shoots of all three disciplines and I have a penchant for skeet and sporting clays.

While I like a good round of trap as much as the next shooter I opine that for the waterfowler trap does not accurately simulate duck and goose hunting scenarios. Birds going away at varying degrees from the shooter simply does not recreate high and low incoming angles, crossing shots or climbing shots. Therefore, I have always spent more time on the skeet and sporting clays ranges than the trap fields.

Getting serious and setting goals for your shooting, 20 out of 25 for example will tap into your competitive side and drive you to improve. Stay focused on growth and improvement and have fun! When you find yourself getting stressed you will find that your scores will suffer. Take a break! Maybe for the night or the next week. Shotgunning is much like golf and is best done in a relaxed and focused mindset. Frustration leads to anger and anger leads to missed birds and bad habits. If you find yourself in a slump, seriously consider taking a few lessons from a professional. Feedback and instruction go a long way when taken and implemented correctly. Remember, you are not competing against other shooters at this point, only yourself but beating yourself up will not lead to improvement.

Obviously, there are other ways to practice and sometimes a less structured and more casual practice mode is just what the wingshooting doctor ordered. For example, getting together with some buddies and practicing varying angles with hand thrown birds is a great way to have fun and sharpen the old shooting eye.

One of my favorite ways to do this is to “play” Annie Oakley with a couple friends. The game is simple. Two or more shooters and one thrower in a horizontal line with the thrower behind or well to the side of the shooters for safety. Flip a coin to see who “calls” for the bird, once thrown if the caller breaks the bird then the squad holds fire and the call for the bird rotates to the next in line. However, if the caller misses the bird then the number two shooter can try to break it. If successful, the call for the bird goes to the next shooter but if the number two shooter misses the next shooter in line can try to break it. If a miss occurs and the subsequent shooter breaks the bird the person who missed is eliminated and becomes the thrower. Obviously, this is a lot of fun and can lead to some friendly competition and pressure, subsequently, improving the skills of all involved.

Remember, shotgunning is supposed to be fun! When it’s not then you’re frame of mind is wrong and you need a break to come back refreshed and focused.

So, if you struggled last season or even if you didn’t and just enjoy shooting your shotgun like me, get a membership to a trap, skeet, or sporting clays league, get some instruction if needed and or just get out and bust some birds with your hunting partners. There is no better way that I know to put a keen edge on your shooting eye than time behind the gun. Have fun and be safe out there and may your practice lead to limits with fewer shots next season.


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