Secrets of Successful Shooters

Five experts offer on-target advice for improving your wingshooting skills

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Photo © Chris Jennings

By Phil Bourjaily

Great waterfowl shots are made, not born. It often takes thousands of rounds fired at clay targets and game birds to master the art of wingshooting. While there is no substitute for experience, good advice can save you from common mistakes that separate average shooters from experts. Recently I interviewed five of the nation's most accomplished shotgunners for their advice on how waterfowlers can improve their shooting skills. Here's what they had to say.

Tip #1
Keep Getting Better

Gary Goodpaster is a lifelong duck hunter who pursues waterfowl each season from the Dakotas to Arkansas. He's also a trap, skeet, and sporting clays competitor. Though he's a crack wingshot, he doesn't believe that there are any shortcuts to developing keen shooting skills. "If you are in this for the long run, keep at it," Goodpaster advises. "It takes time. Shooting a shotgun is like any other athletic endeavor. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus all devoted themselves to becoming the best. It took time for them, too."

Goodpaster had humble beginnings as a wingshooter. He got his start shooting aluminum cans with a single-shot 20-gauge and scanning outdoor magazines for tips to improve his shooting. Later Goodpaster honed his skills in the Air Force, where he shot skeet competitively. From skeet he gravitated to trap, then to sporting clays when he worked for Winchester and Ducks Unlimited. Through it all he never stopped learning. "I read Bob Brister's Shotgunning: The Art and the Science and I learned a lot of what I know about shotguns from that book. I also learned that no matter how good I thought I was, I could always get better," he says.

In terms of practical advice, Goodpaster is a big believer in figuring things out for yourself. "Learn the fundamentals," he says. "Glue your eyes to the target, and stay in the gun [meaning keep your head on the stock and your eyes on the bird all the way through the shot]. As you amass experience, you'll get better. Take tips from people, but listen to your own body and mind and incorporate only what works for you."

Tip #2
Perfect Your Gun Mount

Gil Ash, who along with his wife, Vicki, runs the OSP shooting school, has taught thousands of people how to shoot over the past 23 years. For Ash, field shooting always comes back to the basics. "Practice mounting your shotgun until you don't have to think about it," he says. "Mounting a shotgun is what's known as a 'threshold concept.' In basketball, the threshold concept is being able to dribble the ball without looking at it while moving. In hockey, it's being able to skate. Until you master the threshold concept and can do it without thinking, you can't play the game."

In Ash's view, any part of your attention that you have to direct to mounting the gun is attention you can't pay to your target and what it's doing. "Think about it," he says. "Someone calls the shot, you put the gun to your shoulder and place your face down on the stock. Then you look up and try to find the bird. Ninety percent of the time, you're off the bird's line of flight. Better to be able to keep your eye on the target and bring the gun up, knowing it will shoot where you look."

You can practice gun mounts at home with an unloaded shotgun. Simply stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, with just enough weight forward to put your nose over your front toes. Pick a target on the opposite wall. Holding the gun more or less parallel to the floor with the butt tucked lightly under your arm, push the muzzle toward the target while bringing the gun up to your face first, and then into your shoulder. Smoothness, not speed, matters in drills and in the field. Ash recommends taping a Mini Maglite into the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun as you practice gun mounting. Keep the beam on the target from the start of the mount to the end. Practice until the mount is automatic. "Until you can mount your shotgun consistently, you will never be a consistent shot," Ash says.

Once you perfect your gun mount, don't clutter your mind with thoughts of lead. Ash says you should think in terms of focusing on the target, reading the bird's line of flight, and moving the gun at the same speed as the target. "Your brain knows the lead, but you have to move the gun at the same speed as the target or the lead will be wrong," he says, noting that most people move the gun too fast. Quoting Vicki, he adds: "Remember, whenever you are having a problem with a shotgun, a big part of the solution is to slow down."

Tip #3
Handle the Pressure

Corey Cogdell-Unrein medaled in the demanding sport of bunker trap at the 2008 Olympics and continues to shoot for Team USA. Living and training in Colorado Springs for the past 10 years has given her access to great waterfowl hunting along the Arkansas and Platte Rivers. She says there is pressure in waterfowl hunting just as there is in the heat of target competition. "If you spend a long time working a flock of ducks into range and they circle and circle, you can get pretty excited and flustered when they finally come in to the decoys," she explains. "Besides, my husband and his friends like to razz me when I miss because I'm an Olympic shooter, so there's extra pressure on me!" 

Like many top-level competitive shooters, Cogdell-Unrein thrives on routine. "I have prematch and preshot routines I follow in competition, and I try to do the same when I'm hunting," she says. "When I get into the blind I make sure my footing is good. I also make sure that my gear and shells are in reach so I don't have anything to worry about or to distract me when birds come into range. It builds confidence when I know I'm prepared."

While it's not always possible to run through an entire routine when you're hunting, a "trigger thought" right before you shoot is a huge help in making a good shot under pressure. Cogdell-Unrein recommends keeping it positive. "In competition, I tell myself to look at the target right before I call for it," she says. "When I'm hunting, I tell myself to look at the bird's bill or eye. If you shoot at the whole bird, you'll empty your gun and wonder 'How could I miss something that big three times?'"

Cogdell-Unrein further boosts her confidence in the blind by shooting either the over/under she uses in competition or her trusty semiauto, the first shotgun she ever owned. She has put thousands of rounds through both. "They are a part of me by now," she says. She makes time for preseason practice at sporting clays, too. "I shoot targets moving at different speeds to build muscle memory. Mallards, teal, and Canadas all fly at different speeds. I am a pass-through shooter. I start behind the bird and swing through it. I need to learn to move my gun just one mile-per-hour faster than the target when I swing."

Tip #4
Get Your Gun Right

Mike Matarese hunts ducks 0n Delaware Bay while helping to run the family business, M&M Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays in Pennsville, New Jersey. His brother, Anthony Matarese Jr., is one of the nation's top sporting clays shooters.

Although Mike competed successfully at sporting clays for eight years, he is most at home in a duck blind. "I am more of an instinctive shooter, and that's better for waterfowl because you never know where birds are coming from," he explains. In his view, instinctive shooters need to spend time with a gunsmith to get a gun that fits perfectly. "You need to have complete confidence that the gun will shoot where you're looking," he says.

According to Matarese, hunters should keep in mind that a gun that fits when the outdoor temperature is 60 degrees will be too long when it's 25 and you're wearing heavy clothing. "I want my gun to be a little short when it's warm to accommodate extra clothes during hunting season," he says. "Also, I always wear a tight jacket for my outer layer to keep from getting my gun tangled up." He adds that another important part of getting your gun right is choosing the correct choke. "Most people don't realize how tightly steel loads pattern," he says. "It's hard to hit birds at close range with a tiny pattern. I hardly ever put in anything tighter than light-modified, though I'll tighten up to modified for snow geese."

Matarese recommends sporting clays as the best practice for waterfowling, especially if you make the game more like real hunting. "Go with a friend, and when there are two traps at a station, have him pull one bird or the other without telling you which one it will be," he says. "That way you'll have to react instinctively."

Tip #5
Find the Right Combination

Avery pro-staffer Josh Noble grew up hunting Utah's Great Salt Lake and still hunts there today. He has a number of state sporting clays championships to his credit and several other titles as well. He believes that shooting proficiency often comes down to three things. "You need a gun that fits, you need to pattern it, and you need to go out and shoot it," he says. "You can't leave your gun in the closet all year and expect to be a good shot." 

For Noble, consistent shooting involves finding the load that patterns best for your gun and choke, and then sticking with it. "A lot of people buy shells that are on sale or because they want to try something new. This means they might be shooting 1,375-fps shells one weekend and 1,550-fps shells the next. But you won't ever be consistent if you switch shells all the time," he says.

To find the optimal load, Noble recommends testing several on the patterning board at 35 yards. "You want a load that gives you good center density, but also has evenly distributed pellets to the edge of a 30-inch circle," he says. Shoot more than one pattern because shells can vary quite a bit, even from the same box. 

"I haven't patterned my gun in five years, but that's because I found a load that really works in it and I haven't switched," Noble says. He also sticks with one choke. "I used to bring my extra chokes to the marsh. That was a carryover from sporting clays, but now I just use light-modified all the time," he adds.

Noble uses the pull-away method for most of his duck shooting, matching the bird's speed and then pulling ahead to get the right lead. He cautions that while this technique works for him, it may not work for every shooter. "Everyone sees lead differently. If I see two feet in front of a bird, you might see four feet. What works for me may not work for you. The best way to find out is to go to the gun club and try different shooting methods," he explains. 

As a sporting clays shooter, Noble is adept at shooting doubles. The biggest mistake he sees hunters make when attempting a double is shooting the wrong bird first. "Most people shoot the easy bird first, and by the time they shoot it, the second bird is an even harder shot," he says. "Shoot the farther-away bird first then the closer one, and your average on doubles will go way up."

Finally, Noble points out that one way to raise your percentage on birds is to take good shots. Close shots are usually easier than faraway shots. "Out here on the Great Salt Lake you can see birds coming for miles," he explains. "When they're 100 yards away they look like they're 50; when they're 50 they look like 25. If birds are coming and doing what you want, the only person who can mess it up is you. Take a deep breath and let them come in. Enjoy the sight-that's what you came for."