By Phil Bourjaily

Recently, a well-known basketball coach told a rookie player to practice only the shots he would take during games. The coach's point was that not all practice is equal. The same advice holds true for waterfowlers wanting to sharpen their shotgunning skills in the off-season. The closer you mimic actual hunting conditions, the more you'll get from your time on the skeet range or sporting clays course. Here's how.

Shoot Low Gun

Most people shoot clay targets with a premounted gun. This is fine for learning how to lead targets and follow through with your shot, but it's not a sensible way to hunt waterfowl. "Practice like you play" applies even to the gun mount.

Call for the target with the gun in the ready position, muzzle level or slightly upraised. When you mount the gun, concentrate on pushing the muzzle out and toward the target. Learn to do that now, and you won't catch the gun butt in your hunting clothes when you're bundled up in layers come December.

Shoot from a Bucket

When you're hunting from a layout blind or layout boat, you don't have the benefit of footwork. This can make shooting difficult. To accustom yourself to such situations, practice shooting while seated on a five-gallon bucket. Start with simple outgoing or incoming targets and work your way to crossers. When you swing at a crossing shot from a seated position, you'll tend to move the gun in an arc instead of in a straight line to the target. To overcome this tendency, focus on keeping the gun and your shoulders level. Even though you're seated, you'll be able to use your feet to shift your weight as you swing the gun. This will help you stay on the line of the target.

Race to the Target

Here's a fun drill that involves a little friendly competition. You'll need a shooting partner and an outgoing clay target. When the target is launched, the race is on to see who can be the first to get the barrel on the bird and break it. The goal of this exercise is to cure yourself of being too deliberate and overthinking or aiming the shot. When there's no time to aim or think, you will let your natural eye-hand coordination take over. The results will surprise you.

Station Train for Crossers

Many hunters struggle with crossing targets. One way to master crossers is to do what target shooters call "station training." A skeet range is the best place to do this, but you can also set it up yourself with a target thrower. Start with a quartering-away target that you can break consistently. Increase the angle by working your way around the trap in an arc until you reach the point where the target becomes a 20-yard crosser. Stop every few steps along the way to practice shots at different angles. When you can break six of eight birds from one angle, move on to the next. Do this until you're standing at a 90-degree angle to the target. Once you can break six out of eight crossers at 20 yards, try the same drill at 30 yards. When you can do that, you'll be way ahead of all those hunters who spent the summer playing golf instead of shooting.