By Phil Bourjaily

Almost everything I know about shooting ducks and geese, I learned in shooting school. Like many hunters, I was a self-taught shot, decent enough on the close-in birds, but almost clueless about how to deal with crossing, flaring, or overhead targets. Shooting school changed that.

Shooting lessons can typically be as short as a one-hour tune-up or as long as a three-day program. Rates vary, but figure on paying $400 to $500 per day plus the cost of targets and ammo. Although you can take individual lessons, most often you'll be in a group of no more than four or five shotgunners, and you'll learn by shooting and watching others shoot. The environment at every school I've attended has been fun, supportive, and never competitive. I've been to a dozen or so schools, and learned something new every time.

These are the top five lessons I've learned from my time with professional shooting instructors.

1. Gun Mount

I had been hunting for several years and doing a little target shooting when I first went for lessons, but the instructor took one look at my shooting form and had me start all the way back at the beginning. He spent most of the morning teaching me to mount the gun properly, and I am forever grateful that he did.

Like most self-taught shooters, I brought the gun to my shoulder, squished my face onto the stock, then aimed at the target. In school, I learned to keep my eyes on the bird while raising the gun to my face, confident that the gun would shoot where I was looking. It made a huge difference. I became a smoother, better, faster shot. And during waterfowl season, my newfound ability to properly mount the shotgun made it much easier to avoid snagging the gun butt on my bulky hunting clothes.

2. Shooting Styles

Having started out as an upland hunter, I swung through targets from behind, as a lot of people do. The swing-through method works well for flushing birds, but it's the most difficult way to handle the longer shots and leads that are common to waterfowling. Shooting school taught me the maintained-lead and pull-away styles of shooting, which are favored by target shooters but also apply perfectly to ducks and geese. When you start your gun ahead of the target instead of swinging to catch it from behind, the bird seems to fly much slower, and you're in much better position from the get-go. Shots that require long leads become easier to make.

3. Move in Time with the Target

The most puzzling of mystery misses comes from moving the gun too fast. Swinging too fast pulls your eyes from the target to the gun, where it doesn't belong. It takes you out of sync with the bird, destroying your feel for the target, which is the key to instinctive shooting. You could shoot for a lifetime and never figure out for yourself that too much gun speed is making you miss. But it's easy for an instructor watching your muzzle to see when you're rushing the shot.

4. Know Why You Missed

The most valuable takeaway from a shooting lesson is the ability to diagnose your own misses. As your instructor helps you break bad habits and develop good ones, you'll learn why you miss and how to make corrections on your own. Once you can do that, your post-school practice sessions become much more valuable.

5. Use It or Lose It

About those post-school practice sessions: If you don't practice what you've learned, you're wasting your money. A dozen years ago I went on assignment to Gunsite Academy to take a centerfire rifle class. At the end of those two days, I could not miss any target-near, far, stationary, or moving. I came home, went back to shooting shotguns, and am now only a slightly better rifle shot than I was before I took the class. As with any other learning experience, you get the most out of shooting school when you do your homework.