By Will Brantley
Few would have been envious of my duck-shooting ability as a teenager. My dad thought this was hilarious. He limited his waterfowling to one or two trips per year, but he quail hunted most days during the season and was a deadly shot. "I don't see how you can miss a mallard," he'd say. "It's like shooting at a boxcar sailing into the decoys."
Of course, the shooting styles for quail and ducks are much different. Ducks are a lot bigger, but they are also faster and apt to be crossing left or right, flying overhead, appearing from behind you, settling into a decoy spread, or springing off the water. Duck hunters typically shoot while hiding in brush, standing in waist-deep water, or stretched out in a layout blind. Approaching dogs on point in an open field isn't part of the equation.
Dad knows all these things. But even now, he enjoys debates on quail shooting versus duck shooting. I'm still at a disadvantage in these debates, because when he does join me for a duck hunt, he shoots as well on ducks as he does on quail. He's just a naturally talented wingshooter. But he's also burned through untold cases of shotgun shells in his lifetime. Great shotgunners like exhibition shooters Tom Knapp and Patrick Flanigan will tell you that practice, however you can get it, is the only way to become a better wingshooter.
Practice at home
Be creative with backyard clays
If you have access to an open area where you can do some shooting, re-creating various hunting shots with a couple of clay-target throwers is great practice. "One shot I like to practice at home is 'trailing doubles,'" Knapp says. "A common scenario when duck hunting is for several birds to drop into the decoys and then rapidly climb after the first shot. This presents fast, rising shots at a steep angle and is a good scenario to practice with clay targets. To practice hitting these rising birds, I like to shoot the trailing target first and then keep swinging until I acquire the lead bird."
Practice with your hunting gun
"Proper gun mount and dry-firing practice are important," Knapp says. "But if you spend some time at the range, you should have those techniques down. It's more important for me to be completely familiar with my gun, so I like to practice and hunt with the same gun. The safety and operational buttons should be second nature. This all makes you a safer and more confident hunter."
Shoot from field positions
"You need to practice the way you hunt," Flanigan says. "If you're going to be in a layout blind but have never shot your gun from one, you may miss many of the birds you shoot at. You can put a layout blind on your floor at home and practice sitting up and mounting your gun (unloaded, of course). Another thing you can do is put a laser pointer on the end of your barrel, put a circle target on the wall, and practice mounting your gun so the red dot naturally hits that circle."
Work on weaknesses
"If a shot gives me significant trouble, I try to improve my skill through repetitive practice at the range," Flanigan says. "But it needs to be positive repetition. It doesn't do any good to stand there and miss the same shot 100 times. It's helpful to have a second set of eyes to help spot mistakes, but if that's not possible, bring along a video camera and record yourself. When you're actually shooting, you generally can't see what you're doing wrong, but if a friend can spot your mistakes or you can watch yourself later, problems are often easy to identify."
Ask for help
"No matter who you are, there's probably someone at the range who is a better shot than you are," Flanigan says. "You can't be too proud to ask for help. Instructors often watch your mount and positioning more than anything else. If your posture isn't right, you're going to miss. But it doesn't have to be a professional instructor who helps you; it can be any highly experienced shooter."
Flanigan emphasizes the importance of an "aggressive" mindset when acquiring targets. "I always start with a low mount when I'm practicing because it forces me to be more aggressive and shoot faster once the target is acquired," he says. "Plus, a low mount is more natural for hunting practice. You don't walk into the field with your gun already on your shoulder."
Go to a dove shoot
There's really no substitute for experience on game birds to improve your wingshooting. A hot dove or pigeon shoot can reveal weaknesses in your shooting form or specific shots that need improvement. "Dove hunting can be good experience for upcoming waterfowl hunts because of the deceiving size and speed of the smaller birds," Knapp says. "Most shooters tend to under-lead their targets. A dove or pigeon with the wind at its tail is traveling at high speed. Once you find the correct lead, you may be surprised at how excessive it seems."
It may be old advice, but every waterfowler should pattern his or her shotgun before opening day. It's a good idea to shoot your gun at different ranges with various choke tubes and several different waterfowl loads. If nothing else, patterning your gun can reassure you that it shoots where you point it.
Ron Walker, inventor of Wad Wizard choke tubes, spends a significant amount of time patterning shotguns. "When patterning a waterfowl gun, I like to have a target the size of the bird I'm hunting with about three feet of cardboard backstop on each side of it," Walker says. "I don't shoot from a bench; I just stand up, mount my gun, and shoot at the target as if I were hunting."
What you're looking for is an even pattern with a sufficient number of hits on the target. Some authorities say five pellet strikes with No. 2 steel pellets are ideal, but the goal is an evenly distributed pattern with no large gaps.