By Phil Bourjaily
Shooting, unlike riding a bicycle, is a perishable skill. In other words, if you don't use it, you lose it. Think of your shooting eye as a knife in need of sharpening, and add shooting practice to your list of off-season chores, along with working the retriever and painting decoys. These 20 tips will help you stay focused and organized as you work toward improving your shooting during the off-season.
1. Clean Your Gun
If you didn't clean your gun thoroughly at the end of last season, do it now. Disassemble it and take out the magazine and recoil springs. Inspect the springs and clean them and their tubes. Remove the choke tube, clean both the tube and the threads in the muzzle, and then grease the choke tube and put it back in. Make sure any piston rings are present and properly installed. Apply oil in the appropriate areas, keeping in mind that less is more. Remove the packing grease from new guns and put a drop of CLP (cleaner lubricant preservative) down the firing-pin hole.
2. Check Your Point of Impact
To check your gun's point of impact (POI), put in a tight choke, rest the gun on sandbags, and aim it like a rifle at a sheet of paper at 16 yards. Fire three or four shots without correcting aim. If the center of the pattern covers the target or is slightly above, you're good to go. If it's too high, low, left, or right, you might have to adjust the gun's POI. Many guns come with shims that allow anyone to achieve a customized gun fit. Every 1/8-inch adjustment should move the POI two inches at 16 yards. If your gun is shooting low, raise the comb. If it shoots to the left or right, adjust the cast.
3. Test Your Pattern
It's always a good idea to pattern your gun during the off-season, especially if you plan to switch ammo or chokes. Shoot at least five patterns with each shell-and-choke combination at the ranges at which you expect to shoot birds in the field. Not all waterfowl loads pattern the same way. Some loads contain more out-of-round pellets that spread more quickly, which can be good for first shots or timber hunting. Although “even distribution” is a myth, you want a pattern that's neither too dense in the center and patchy on the fringes nor too thin all over.
4. Learn to Aim Below the Target
The off-season is the perfect time to address any weaknesses in your shooting technique. The next time you visit the shooting range, consciously keep the muzzle just below the target, especially on crossing birds, instead of pointing it directly at the target. As long as you can see the target clearly, your eyes know where to send your hands to make the shot. Blocking out the bird with the muzzle leads to looking at the gun, which can stop your swing. That usually results in a miss that's high and behind the target.
5. Learn to Trust, Not Measure
You've heard the saying “measure twice, cut once”? You don't measure with a shotgun; you just cut. Gauging leads by looking back and forth between the target and the gun all but guarantees you'll stop swinging and miss behind, even though you'll swear you were ahead of the bird when you fired. Remember that the width of your pattern gives you almost two feet of leeway in lead estimation. Keep your eye on the bird and shoot when the lead feels right.
6. Lose the Bead or Supersize It
It's a trend among sporting clays shooters to remove the front bead from a shotgun. I started out with an Auto-5 that was missing its bead, which helped me learn to look at the target, not the sight. On the other hand, a big, bright fiber-optic sight helps some shooters keep track of the gun in their peripheral vision. For some, a larger bead can help correct a gun that shoots high.
7. Add a Pad
Invest in a slip-on recoil pad or a thicker aftermarket pad to lengthen your gun stock for a better fit over light clothes in the early season. Once you add layers of clothes later in the season you can remove the pad or switch to a thinner one to maintain the same fit.
8. Take a Lesson
A shooting lesson is one of the best ways to improve your shooting, provided you follow up by practicing what you learned. You can take lessons by the hour, the day, or at two- or three-day camps, and you'll benefit from as much teaching as you can afford. Make sure your instructor knows that you are interested in becoming a better waterfowl shot so he or she can tailor the lesson to your needs.
9. Learn to Focus
When you shoot clays, try to see every detail on the target. The more precisely you can focus on the bird, the better the information you send to your hands. Zero in on the front edge of the target, not the whole disk. If you can train yourself to do that with clay birds, it's easy to do it with real ones, which have bills, eyes, cheek patches, and green heads to look at.
10. Count Pieces
A good drill for keeping your eyes on the target and away from the gun is to pay attention to the break. How many pieces does the target break into? Which way did the biggest piece fly? If you can answer those two questions after each shot, you were looking at the bird and not the gun.
11. Load Your Own
Reloading nontoxic ammunition requires a scale, specific bushings and charge bars, common safety sense, and strict adherence to published loads and data. Putting together high-velocity loads that pattern well is tricky. It's much easier to come up with standard-speed loads once you find components you like. While I did find a load that patterns extremely well from my gun, the real value of reloading for me is purely the satisfaction of making my own ammunition.
12. Learn to Shoot in a Ghillie Suit
Ghillie suits let you be the blind, and they are a very effective way to hide. But shooting in a ghillie suit takes practice and forethought. First, you'll need to keep the camo material from the hood out of your eyes, either by trimming it, tucking it up under a hat, or tying it off. Second, even if you have a good gun mount that keeps you from tangling the butt of the gun in your clothes, it may not be enough when you're wearing a bulky ghillie suit. I'll wait for birds with the butt held loosely against my shoulder, almost as if I'm turkey hunting. When it's time to take the shot, I just raise the gun to my face.
13. Work on Your Mental Game
Even if you're not a target shooter, cultivate a competitor's mindset when you practice. Be confident in your abilities. Enjoy your successes. Learn from your misses and put them behind you. If you can't let go of a miss, you're likely to keep missing, especially if your thoughts turn negative and you begin doubting your ability. Learn to keep your thinking positive and stay focused on what you have to do to hit the target.
14. Play the Field
Set up your own practice field if you have a place to do it. Decent electric traps are very affordable, and equipping one with a remote control or a long cord allows you to set up crossing, overhead, and incoming targets that simulate the shots you'll take while hunting. Some people feel more confident if they have a chance to shoot a few clays with their hunting loads. Most gun clubs won't let you shoot shot larger than 7 1/2 lead or 6 steel, so if you want to break clays with 2s, you'll have to do it at your own place.
15. Check Your Eyesight
You shoot only as well as you see. Get an eye exam. It's especially important as you get into your 40s, when vision changes for many. Check your eye dominance as well. Dominance can shift as you age, and it's not a question of purely left or right. Some of the shifts are subtle and may require squinting your offside eye or placing a piece of tape on your glasses.
16. Exercise Your Eyes
Olympic shooters and ball-sport athletes do eye exercises to sharpen their focus with some very low-tech equipment, such as balls with numbers printed on them. Someone stands behind you and throws a ball over your shoulder while you try to read the numbers, or you hang the ball from a string and swing it. You can put dots on a ceiling fan and follow them with your eyes. You can also make your own Brock string, consisting of colored beads on a 10-foot string. Tie one end of the string to an object and hold the other end to your nose. Your eyes learn to work together as you switch focus from one bead to the next.
17. Get in Shape
Shooting waterfowl often requires some contortion. If you're flexible and not carrying too much extra weight, it's easier to twist around when your feet are stuck in the mud or you're on your back in a layout blind. You don't have to be in great shape, but time spent stretching, strengthening, and maybe losing a few pounds can only help.
18. Film Your Form
Nothing makes bad habits easier to spot than watching a video of yourself shooting. Have a friend film you. Don't worry about trying to get the target in the frame. What you need to see is closeups of your shooting form. Shoot from two angles. To analyze foot position and weight distribution, put the camera to the right of a right-handed shooter and far enough away so that the shooter's whole body is in the frame, head to toe. To study gun mount and head movement, put the camera one step behind the shooter and one step to the right.
19. Join a League
Shooting in competition, where every shot counts, teaches you to perform under pressure and improves your mental game. You learn that the best way to shoot a good score is to not worry about your score. You learn how to focus, when to think, and when to clear your mind and let your reflexes take over. There's no need to travel the tournament circuit; just join a trap, skeet, or sporting clays league. Or, if you'd rather, play golf. Golfing and shotgunning are remarkably similar from a mental standpoint.
20. Hunt Doves
Dove hunting is the very best warm-up for duck hunting, and it takes place before the season opens. You'll get every shot that you are likely to see when duck hunting, including lots of tricky decoying shots you'll get if you use a dove spinner. Shoot your waterfowl gun and steel 6 or 7 shot to build confidence and familiarity with your equipment.