By James Card
In 1969, the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published the five stages of grief, a process that people go through when faced with a terminal illness. Since then, the model is now applied to all of life's troubles and trials. If these five stages were applied to a waterfowler experiencing a season of miserable shooting, the process might evolve as follows:
1. Denial: "My shooting is a little off today, but did you see how fast that duck was moving?"
2. Anger and Blame: "Aargh! Why am I missing? I can't believe I bought this piece-of-junk shotgun."
3. Bargaining "Just let me hit a duck, any duck, please ... just one duck. Is that a coot over there?"
4. Depression: "I'm such a loser. I'm never going to hit anything. My shooting is so poor a mallard drake threw his loose change into my duck blind."
5. Acceptance: "I've got to get some help. Practice more. Deal with my shooting so I can get back in the game."
Chances are most waterfowlers have been through this process at some point in their hunting career and can easily fall back into denial, blame games, and the rankled dejection from missing familiar shots. If missing is like a chronic disease, then it's prudent to practice some preventive medicine and see if you have any of the following symptoms that might be bringing your shooting down ... and not the ducks.
A Case of the Gun Fits
"If the gun doesn't fit you, you're not going to shoot it well."
"There is no alternative to proper gun fit," says Gary Goodpaster, a retired DU regional director and lifelong wingshooter. "If the gun doesn't fit you, you're not going to shoot it well. It's as simple as that. You can overcome poor gun fit to some degree with practice, but you're never going to be as good a shot as you could be.
"If the stock is too high for you, you will continually shoot over targets," Goodpaster continues. "If the stock is too low, you'll consistently shoot under targets. If the stock is too long, you'll mount the gun incorrectly time after time. A good gunsmith can make most adjustments to stocks. Most stock adjustments on field guns entail changing the length of the stock or raising or lowering the comb. Most hunters should be able to find a gunsmith who will make these adjustments at a reasonable cost."
Even with a properly fitted stock, some shooters fail to make the essential cheek-to-stock connection. "If you are missing chronically, then it's a pretty good chance that you're lifting your head," Goodpaster says. "Raising your head is bad news and will almost guarantee a miss.
"There is a tremendous tendency for shooters to raise their head instead of keeping it glued to the stock," he continues. "If you are keeping your head down, the shotgun will shoot where you're looking. If you raise your head, you'll shoot high. The proper way to mount a gun is to bring the gun up to your cheek, but most shooters bring their face down to the gun. It's a common reason for missing. Many hunters are occasionally tempted to raise their head when they are looking at ducks over their gun barrel, but the best way to avoid the problem is to practice at the range."
Flinching of the Subliminal Mind
Flinching is a subconscious behavior that can sneak up on an experienced wingshooter or plague a timid beginner. The traditional flinch is a mind-body connection that anticipates the punishing recoil of shoulder-bruising loads, but flinching may also result from purely mental causes such as performance anxiety or a fear of missing. Its manifestation can take the form of a twitch, blink, tremble, or a seizing of the nerves.
The problem with flinching is that it can be difficult to diagnose alone. "Being overstrained, mind and nerves go on a strike, quit temporarily, making no further records until after the discharge takes place," wrote the legendary Charles Askins in his 1921 book The American Shotgun. "Of whatever happens during this interim the shooter has no knowledge, though another man standing near can observe perfectly and tell him, generally much to the gunner's surprise and often little to his conviction." One solution is to have a friend videotape a shooting session and later play it back as a slow motion reality check to determine if you are flinching.
"Flinching can cause stopping or slowing of the swing, closing of eyes, and at its worst, failure to pull the trigger," says Ben Berka, shooting coach of Double A Shooting Instruction (aashooting.com). "Flinches are almost always associated with high-recoil guns and ammo. The solution is to shoot the lightest load possible that still gives you effective patterns. Use recoil-reduction devices or gas-operated semiautomatics, and then practice dry-firing the gun."
A Lapse in Judgment
"Misjudging yardage and calling the shot when the birds are not close enough," Berka notes, "is another frequent cause of missing. Remember, once the shot is called, the birds will often flare as you rise to shoot and may gain distance and altitude before you can pull the trigger. Practice estimating yardage or use decoys on the perimeter of your spread to help judge when birds are in range. Know your maximum effective range and only take shots inside that range."
Tom Knapp, the shotgunning virtuoso of Benelli fame (tomknapp.net), also thinks many hunters miss because they misjudge the distance to the target. He uses the shotgun's sight as a measuring stick. "Place two life-size decoys at your closest and farthest expected shooting distances," Knapp explains. "Then raise your gun and see the size relationship between the front bead and the decoy. On the closest decoy, perhaps 20 yards away, the bead may cover the decoy's head, whereas on the farthest one, maybe 40 or 45 yards away, the bead may cover half the entire decoy," Knapp says.
"Know your maximum effective range and only take shots inside that range."
"On a bird over the closest decoy, simply aim at its head. The length of the bird's neck will be enough lead. On a bird over the farthest decoy, your front bead will cover the lion's share of the duck's body, and you'll know immediately to extend your lead. Importantly, if you miss, add more forward lead on the second try. All too often, hunters will miss three consecutive shots because they thought they had the correct lead on the first shot. Make sure to try something different on the subsequent shots."
Mind Games of the Muzzle
Gil Ash of OSP Shooting School (ospschool.com) coaches more than 2,000 shotgunners a year, and the majority of them are wingshooters. He notices that many hunters miss at the brief moment when focusing on the target and mounting the gun. The problem is a combination of visual concentration, American history, and muscle memory.
"The most dreaded phrase in a duck blind is: 'Okay, here's a single—he's all yours.' The duck is spotted 300 yards out and you miss him, but on a dove hunt, your buddy yells at you suddenly with a dove flying over your head, and you instantly drop it," Ash says. The difference between the two shots is that the shooter had too much time to stare down the barrel as the duck was coming in, and as a result, he choked.
"Excessive muzzle awareness causes everything to stop and makes people miss 99 percent of the time, and 99 percent of the people are trying to line everything up," Ash says. He believes this problem results from America's rifle-shooting heritage. Many American hunters grew up with air rifles and .22s and graduated to deer rifles. Ash believes this causes many American hunters to want to aim a shotgun like a rifle, but shooting a rifle and a shotgun are as different as casting dry flies and crankbaits.
Focus comes first. Ash once coached a hunter who was having trouble hitting fast-flying teal. There were plenty of birds, and they were flying everywhere. "His eyes were like ping-pong balls bouncing around in the back of a truck," Ash recalls. The man was simply unable to focus on a single bird. Ash instructed him not to shoot but to watch one bird at a time, concentrating on that bird. After this lesson, the man said later that the teal weren't flying as fast as he originally perceived them, and he proved it by shooting two doubles.
Much of what Ash advocates is to have complete focus on the target, which is then followed by a careful and controlled automatic gun mount. He cites studies that it takes 3,000 repetitions for an athletic motion to be ingrained in one's subconscious mind. Consider how many times a professional basketball player practices free throws or a golfer repeats putts, and it's not surprising that a seasonal shotgunner might have a less than perfect gun mount.
Ash recommends an indoor exercise that hunters can use to build muscle memory so the gun mount becomes automatic, confident, and fluid. All one needs is a small, tight-beamed flashlight that can be inserted into the barrel of an unloaded shotgun and taped around the muzzle. In a dimly lit room, imagine the seam of the wall and ceiling is the flight path of a crossing target. The goal is to smoothly mount the gun and swing the beam along the ceiling seam without it dipping over or under. "It doesn't have to be fast, but it must be perfect," Ash says.
Make the Toughest Shot by Not Taking It
"I think for most people, the most difficult waterfowling shot is the incoming overhead," Gary Goodpaster says. "It's difficult because you lose sight of the target. You start behind the bird, and as you move the gun to the front of the bird, you lose sight of it. There's a limit to how far you can move your body without falling over backwards, and it's worse if the sun is in your eyes. What I do is turn around and take the bird as a high going-away shot, and that way, you don't lose sight of him. All you do is put the sight underneath him as your lead, and you can still see the target."