By Phil Bourjaily

There are a lot of ways to miss a duck or goose. As a service to my readers, I have field-tested almost all of them over the years. I may even discover some new ones this season. What they all seem to boil down to is one of the following five major mistakes. Correct these and you'll eliminate the majority of your biggest head-scratching misses in the field.

Head Lifting

Lifting your head off the stock almost guarantees a miss over the top of the target. Hunters often make this mistake because they want to get a better view of the bird falling. The irony is that when you lift your head, the bird usually keeps flying. Other causes of head lifting include improper gun fit and flinching from too much recoil.

Check to make sure that your stock doesn't have too much drop, which could cause you to lift your head to see the bird over the barrel. If recoil is a problem, try shooting lighter loads. Otherwise, to overcome this tendency, practice keeping your head on the stock when shooting clay targets. After you break a target, follow a piece of it all the way to the ground with the muzzle of the gun.

Stopping Your Swing

Taking your eye off the bird to look at the bead on the end of the barrel will usually make you check your swing and miss behind the target. As long as your eye stays on the target, the gun will go where it needs to. The bead is there not to be looked at. Instead, it's supposed to serve as a reference point in your peripheral vision.

To keep your barrel moving, avoid trying to measure lead so precisely. The width of your pattern gives you enough margin for error. Following through means keeping your eye on the target and your head on the stock during the entire shot sequence. If your bead continues to be a distraction, take it off your gun.

Bad Gun Mount

Whipping the gun to your shoulder, pressing your face against the stock, then finding the target is not the best way to mount a shotgun. Such sloppy gun handling is slow, inefficient, and counterproductive to developing a consistent shooting technique.

To perfect the gun mount sequence, practice at home with an unloaded shotgun by following an imaginary target along the line between the wall and the ceiling of your living room. The first move in a gun mount is to push the muzzle out and toward the target. That will help you get the gun to your shoulder without snagging the gunstock on your coat. As the muzzle goes to the target, bring the gun to your face first, then to your shoulder.

Blocking Out the Bird

The instant you block a bird out with your barrel, you can't see it anymore. Your eye goes to the gun, the barrel stops, and you miss high and behind. You can't hit what you can't see.

The best way to avoid this habit is to keep the muzzle of the gun below the target as you swing. If you were taught to "paint the bird out of the sky" with the muzzle, try drawing a line below the target.

Moving the Gun Too Fast

Speed is overrated in shotgun shooting. Quick-draw gun mounts are sloppy, and swinging the gun fast attracts your eye to the gun, which puts you out of sync with the target. Moving too fast can lead to mysterious misses. Everything may look good, but the bird doesn't fall.

Slow down. Watch the good shooters at trap, skeet, or sporting clays courses. The muzzles of their guns move slowly as they go to the target. When you practice, make "eyes to the bird, hands to the bird" your mantra. That means see the target clearly, then move the gun to it instead of trying to do both at once. Swinging in time with the target actually seems to make the bird fly slower and makes it easier to hit what you're shooting at. Remember that pellets leaving the muzzle at 1,000 miles an hour will win the race with a duck or goose flying at 35, as long you put the gun in the right place.