Practice clays make perfect birds
These few hunting shots are relatively easy to closely duplicate on a sporting clays course or skeet field, and those who practice them will do better in real-world hunting situations.
“Oh no,” my partner commented with a sound of lament in his voice. We had both just watched a Michigan Upper Peninsula ruffed grouse fly into the midway branches of a big saw-toothed aspen. Its leaves were essentially gone.
I kne what Greg was lamenting as soon as I heard him speak. A grouse flushing out of a tree, even when Greg knew the bird was there, and could watch his quarry flush-well, let’s just say this shot wasn’t one of Greg’s strong suits with a shotgun.
Similar situation. This time I’m in a duck blind with Vance. Four mallards have circled the blind twice. On their third swing it appears the birds are committed. What next ensues is classic, picture– book. Wings cupped, their big orange feet come down when they’re still 15 yds. above the water. I smoke the two on my side. Vance’s birds both fly off unscathed, despite his smoking gun.
His three-shot autoloader now empty, my partner starts crying the blues. “What an easy shot.” He gives the front of the blind a kick in disgust.
The two shots described are relatively easy to duplicate in a clay target situation. Unfortunately, many shots we encounter in the field and on the water are not. But if we seek out the real-bird shots that we can practice via clay birds-it can’t be anything but a positive experience.
Let’s take that grouse-flushing-outof-a-tree shot first. Frankly, I missed so many of those early on in my grouse hunting career that at one time I simply gave up trying that shot; I just carefully watched the out-of-the-tree bird’s departure in hopes I’d better my chances with a reflush. Serious skeet shooters seldom have trouble with a grouse coming out of a tree, especially if they know the bird is there to begin with.
That’s because of the very first sho they take on a skeet field, High One. The natural inclination for a tyro is to shoot right at the grouse coming out of a tree and flying straight away. Invariably, with that sight picture, the shot is going to be over the target. Actually, you might say this is the classic case of shooting behind, even though the shot pattern went “over.”
This is one clay target shot where it probably doesn’t matter as much whether or not you go with a mounted gun or start from the gun-down position. What you want to accomplish is the right sight picture. In serious skeet, some top competitors take this shot with a “dead gun,” i.e. with little or no gun movement. This technique isn’t going to work with a real grouse coming out of a tree because (1) you don’t know which direction the bird is going to take, and (2) there has to be some muzzle movement to reach the bird’s general departure location.
Consequently, try setting up on a High One skeet shot with the muzzle positioned a little higher than need be. When the bird comes out, try to shoot at its legs because that’s where the lead has to be.Yes, you have to shoot below this clay (grouse) if you’re going to break (kill) it. Practice this shot often. If you do, your problems with grouse flushing out of trees will be history.
Let’s move to a sporting clays course to figure out how to kill those decaying ducks with their feet extended for the decoy spread. Seek out a station with a dropping clay. The slower the bird is moving horizontally (i.e., near the end of its flight path), the more the clay is dropping, the better to duplicate this shot. It’s tough to exactly duplicate the real thing here– as dropping clays will be going down faster than a duck with its wings outstretched or even back-pedaling.
Always start this shot from the gun-down position. The idea is to fix your eyes on the forward edge of this slowing and dropping clay. If it’s coming from right to left think of your lead at about 7:30. If the bird is coming from the left to right, think of your lead at about 4:30. If this fake duck is coming right at you, think of your lead at 6. As with the grouse-comingout-of-a-tree shot, leads here should be unnatural. Our brains are programmed to be ahead-not under, nor under and ahead. But this sporting course experience can be a major help. Try to keep the muzzle ahead of the bird throughout the swing in this situation. If your swing doesn’t maintain that “ahead” path you’re going to lose sight of the bird because it will disappear under the barrel(s). For that same reason this is one shot that doesn’t usually lend itself well to a swing-through method. Obviously, you have to have some daylight ahead and under-or simply under-the bird as you pull the trigger. How much daylight you need will vary with target (bird) speed. Don’t neglect your proper follow through. Also, it’s very common to lift your head on this type of shot because doing that will give you a better view of the bird. But concentrate on keeping your face glued to the wood.
One of the most common shots encountered in wingshooting of any type is the going-away type shot, and the one that’s going away but at a slight angle, i.e., a very slight quartering shot. Most every sporting clays layout will offer one or more of these. Ask club management if you can shoot, say, 25 to 50 shots at this one station.You would also make that request to practice the dropping duck shot just covered. Another excellent place to practice this going-away shot would be from the Low Seven station on a skeet field, shooting the low bird. To increase the angle of the shot a bit, just move slightly left of the Station Seven pad. If it’s safe and management permits, you can move slightly to the right of the Low House-to practice the slightly angling going-away shot that goes left to right. If this move isn’t safe or permitted, don’t fret. You can get all the slightly quartering practice you need by moving several steps left of the Station Seven pad.
Start with the gun comfortable but down-maybe with the buttstock just about belt level. Train yourself not to rush this shot. In contrast, work on smoothness instead of quickness. The entire gun should move just a hair forward as you begin to mount on the straightaway. This will ensure you’ll encounter no stock hang-up problem with clothing. If you have continual stock/clothing hang-up dilemmas on this shot, you have one of two problems. One-your gun-mounting technique needs work, or two–your clothing is too loose or ill-fitting. Do you have these same problems in actual ringneck, grouse, quail or other flushing situations? If so, work out which of the two problems you have, then fix it!
If you’re an upland bird hunter working with pointers or flushers, this is the type of shot you’re going to encounter a very high percentage of the time: the straightaway or the slightly angling straightaway. So you probably can’t practice this shot enough. Many of us are reluctant to practice these two shots because they’re relatively easy. And they are. But what we’re trying to refine with practice is our technique, making sure our gun mounts are perfect, working especially hard on our smoothness of move.
On the dead straightaway, try shooting right at the bird. Most shotguns will shoot a little high, which will naturally provide a little lead for this slightly rising bird. Make height adjustments to the trap occasionally, practicing flatter clay-bird presentations on the Station Seven Low House bird (or similar shot on a sporting clays station), as well as higher trap adjustments. Get a feel for the sight picture, which will be slightly different every time you make a “height” change in the target.
Move off to the left of the Station Seven pad (or the sporting course straightaway station) to provide a slight going-away angle. Move farther left from time to time to increase the angle even more. If you’re a typical sustained– lead type of shooter, it will be natural for you to want to keep the muzzle ahead of the bird throughout. However, in most real hunting situations the bird is going to be ahead of the muzzle as you bring your shotgun into play. Consequently, duplicate the real hunting situation by keeping your muzzle back-so the bird starts off ahead of your muzzle. Now you’re going to have to swing through-which is good practice. If you have to do it on a real quail, why not practice exactly what you have to do on a real clay bird? For natural sustained-lead type shooters this might feel uncomfortable. But that feeling won’t last long. Bust 25 to 50 clays standing say half-way between Station Seven and Station Six on a skeet field (or a similar position on a going-away target on a sporting station) and you’ll quickly agree.
As we encounter this slight angle we have to “lead” the bird. Shooting right at it won’t work. How much lead you’ll need will vary with the degree of angle and the bird’s speed. Again, vary the bird’s height often to more nearly duplicate various real bird flushes. With even the slightest angle to the shot, you’ll find the need to get the gun’s muzzle(s) started along the target line. Do this first. The tyro tendency is to want to mount the gun first.You can blend the two together, starting the swing and the mount at the same time, but many shotgunners are programmed to start the mount first, and then get the swing going. Do that and your muzzle(s) ends up being too far behind. So you have to race to catch up. Smoothness is lost. At the finish, make certain you follow through, keeping your face glued to the wood throughout the shot. Some like to watch the largest clay target piece fall, their head stuck on the stock throughout.
Finally, let’s practice the hard crossing shot. These can be encountered in any type of bird shooting, but especially with doves, ducks, geese and even upland birds-the latter is especially true if hunting with three or more shooters-where the bird’s escape path from one hunter takes it in front of and across one or more hunting partner(s).
The middle stations on a skeet field are ideal for this. Any sporting clays course can show you a hard crosser-usually several of them-so you can probably practice this one at varying distances. If it’s safe, and you have management’s permission, you can move back farther from the middie skeet station to practice the longer crossing shots. What you’ll find here is that as distance increases, so do leads. Once you’re shooting at 35 yds., and more, leads become dramatically long. But this clay target practice is the perfect place to become comfortable with those somewhat unnatural lead pictures.
Start with the gun down. If you typically take these shots via sustained lead, use that technique on this shot. Both pull away and swing through can easily be used on hard crossers, too. With this type of shot, starting the muzzle moving along the target line first becomes even more important-as opposed to starting the gun mount first. So work on not rushing and being smoother with your move. Start the muzzle(s) swinging. Next, blend in the mount, and then hit the trigger quickly once the stock nestles against your shoulder. Some like to track a crossing dove for a bit, and I’m one of those shooters. But tracking most birds very long, clay or feathered, can be the recipe for a miss, especially a slowed or stopped swing. Success will come only if you follow through and keep your head tight to the full finish.
I’m the first to admit that many of the clay targets we see have little or nothing to do with real hunting situations. Also, it’s impossible to use clay targets as a practice session for every shot you’re going to encounter in the field. But the shots covered here are relatively easy to nearly duplicate on a sporting clays and/or a skeet course. Those who practice these shots religiously are going to encounter a lot more luck in real hunting situations-guaranteed!
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2002
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