By Brad Fitzpatrick

Before I left for a big wingshooting trip in Argentina, a friend and accomplished sporting clays shooter suggested I spend some time breaking targets at a local shotgun club. I told him it sounded like a good idea, but internally dismissed the notion. I was about to be taking aim at millions of doves in Cordoba-surely burning through thousands of rounds would help get my shooting skills back in shape.

Two weeks later and thousands of miles away, I saw the error of my ways. As a flurry of birds descended, my field assistant loaded shells as fast as he could, heaping praise on my scattered shots and politely ignoring my more frequent misses. He blamed bad luck when I missed, but I knew better. It wasn't bad luck, it was bad shooting.

I learned a valuable lesson in Argentina that year: don't risk ruining a hunt by allowing your shotgunning skills to deteriorate in the off-season. Miss a dove (or 15) in Argentina and more will show up very shortly. Blow an easy shot on a pair of mallards or woodies in a hidden Ohio beaver pond and you might have lost your opportunity to harvest a bird for the rest of the day.

Waterfowlers come up with a myriad of excuses why they miss birds. Shells are frequently blamed for these failures, and shotguns take some of the heat, but the fact remains that most misses are caused by the shooter, not the equipment. The good news is, with a little off-season practice at the trap, skeet, or sporting clays range, you can see your percentages improve quickly.

Here are some of the most common mistakes hunters make and the remedy for each.

Your Target IQ Is Too Low

Never heard of target IQ? It's one of the fastest ways to improve your shotgun skills, and the key is shooting more targets. Breaking clays is no different from driving golf balls in the sense that repetition and exposure help you build muscle memory. As these innate movements develop, the conscious brain has less work to do and can devote more brainpower to the task at hand, whether that's sinking a six-foot putt or dropping a duck from a gray December sky. If you've shot 500 crossing shots at clay targets over the summer, you've increased your target IQ.

You Keep Switching Equipment

Ever hunt with someone who has a new shotgun every year or who swaps out 4s for 2s because he lost a cripple? That's a bad idea. Years ago I was advised by a championship shooter that if I was serious about improving my skills as a hunter, I needed to bring my duck gun to the range. Sure, the best shooters can hit targets with just about any gun, but gun mount, trigger break, length of pull, point of impact, and other characteristics vary from one shotgun to the next. It's important to take these nuances into consideration well before you enter the duck blind.

You're Getting Lost in the Crowd

There's nothing quite as stirring as witnessing a dozen greenheads cupped and slipping down through the treetops. Nor is there anything as embarrassing as watching those same ducks rise back out of the trees because you missed all of them. To avoid finding yourself in this situation, you must learn to kill one bird at a time by improving your focus.

To accomplish this, practice the following drill I picked up from a skilled trap shooter. While most dome clay targets are orange, to help him practice focusing on a single bird, this gentleman would occasionally buy a box of white targets or orange targets with black trim. It was my job to load the targets randomly, mixing the off-colored targets in with the standard orange ones. He'd call for birds, I would throw them in rapid succession, and he would break only the off-colored ones.

Diane Sorantino is one of the most sought-after clays instructors in the country. Sorantino teaches her students to develop a line from the point where you can see the target until the trigger is pulled. In essence, the shooter is identifying the area where the ducks will first appear, the place where they will be the easiest to hit, and figuring out how to get the shotgun mounted and in the correct place for the shot with the least wasted movement. This may sound like a tactic that's exclusive to clay games, but it's a valuable skill for duck and goose hunters. For one thing, it makes hunters aware of their shooting lanes and also encourages proper gun positioning. Duck hunters aren't known for being in prepared shooting positions. I've seen shotguns in a variety of not-prepared-for-action positions - leaning against the blind, resting a bench seat behind them, or worse. Knowing where the bird may appear, where the gun will be positioned, how and when to mount the gun, and where to make the shot are all keys to higher averages. And, if a bird shows up unexpectedly, shooters will be in a better position and frame of mind to make a quick and successful shot.

You're Swinging Behind the Bird

Gil Ash is one of the best-known competitors and shotgunning instructors in the industry. During an interview with Gil, he asked me if I felt like I was chasing ducks. Yes, of course I did. Had Gil ever seen a teal or wood duck whistling past? He then said something that stuck in my mind and changed the way I thought about shooting crossing targets forever.

"Stop starting your swing behind the bird," Ash said. "Swing ahead of them."

Ash explains that shooters will have to break an old habit of mounting the gun, scrambling to catch the bird, and shooting. After becoming comfortable with positioning the muzzle ahead of the target you won't revert back. I didn't. As a shooter who was taught to mount, pass, then shoot, this method seemed counterintuitive and I was skeptical. But after plenty of practice, my sporting clays scores improved, and I was a convert. Shooters who are chronically late to the target need to focus on their swing through practice and time, but it will be worth the effort.

The skeet range is an ideal place to improve a swing method. The majority of skeet targets are crossers, and a trip around the skeet field offers the perfect opportunity to master this swing-ahead maneuver.