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10 Hard Lessons to Become a Better Wingshooter

These tips learned the hard way will help you add more birds to your bag this fall.

10 Hard Lessons to Become a Better Wingshooter

We owe it to our dogs to become better shots. They put in a lot of work not to be rewarded with the occasional retrieve. (Shutterstock image)

The setter quivered, side-eyeing me as I narrated to the camera, waxing eloquently about the primeval surroundings, the previous night’s camaraderie, earnest dogs and wily birds. Another cameraman crept toward the trembling woodcock to get the final, dramatic, Emmy-worthy close-up as I droned on.

Bird up! Bang! Trophy in hand. Bagged years ago, that splintered alder limb still occupies a place of honor on my office wall. It’s a daily reminder of how a lack of focus can booger one’s shooting. To help you put birds in the bag on your next upland hunt (instead of a shattered, leafless twig) here are 10 lessons I’ve learned after hundreds—OK, thousands—of misses.

1. TAKE CHARGE

First of all, assert yourself. Both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. This is the time to show you are in charge.

bird hunters in field with hunting dog
In open areas, wait a beat after a bird flushes and before you pull the trigger. Doing so allows the shot pattern to open up a bit. (Shutterstock image)
2. CUT 'EM OFF

When approaching a bird, swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of its escape routes. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt holes for a cunning bird more inclined to sprint than fly. The dog is staunch, muscles quivering and eyes bulging. He’s done his part, and so far you haven’t bollixed things with your approach. The bird is still somewhere under that sumac, right? Now let’s do our darndest to hit it when we pull the trigger.

3. PREDICT THE FLUSH

Reconnoiter the area as you approach your dog and there’s a better chance you’ll be looking in the right direction when wings whir and your adrenaline flows. A flushed, frightened bird often heads for a ridge, a thick copse of trees or brush, a rocky point or a high spot of some sort, frantically trying to put that barrier between itself and a cloud of pellets.

4. MIND YOUR FOOTWORK

On a related note, good clay shooters anticipate a target’s trajectory and set their feet for it. I’m no slouch when it comes to stealing great ideas, and neither should you be. Simply knowing a ruffie’s destination will help you set your feet for the shot, whatever stance you’ve practiced.

5. CLEAR YOUR VIEW

Are you ready to flush the bird? Almost. It’s time to get your head in the game but not your hat. Push your cap brim high on your forehead or you’ll raise your cheek off the stock to see the bird as it rises, almost certainly leading to a missed shot.

6. MAKE EYE CONTACT

On point, my dog is totally focused on the bird as if he has blinders on, drilling it with eyes like laser beams. It’s a relentless gaze that says “gotcha!” You should develop it, too. Shooting instructor Buzz Fawcett called it “shooting like a predator”—a physical and mental single-mindedness that eliminates distractions and puts birds on the ground for the dog. The key is keeping your eye on the bird’s eye as it flies. Focus completely. It keeps your face on the gunstock, creating an accurate sight picture until the bird tumbles. See it, don’t just look at it. Ignore your friends, tree trunks, the dog and other flushing birds. Focus solely on the bird you are going to kill. Once you pull the trigger, watch it fall with your gun still to your shoulder. It will keep your cheek on the gunstock where it belongs, ensuring good follow-through.

Man and dog bird hunting
When possible, maintaining eye contact with a grouse before, during and after a flush will lead to greater focus and follow-through. (Shutterstock image)
7. MOUNT UP

I’m always looking for excuses for my bad shooting. Among my favorites are “tripped over a rock,” “bird flew out of its scent” and “the moon got in my eyes.” One I try to avoid, though, is “bad gun mount.” To do that, I bring my gun to the “ready” position for the last couple steps as I move to the bird. That is, buttstock in my armpit, muzzle at about the height I expect to begin my gun swing (I try to swing from below the bird, pulling the trigger as my muzzle passes through it).

Put your lead hand in the correct place on the forearm to pull the gun forward and then push it into the cup created by your shoulder with minimal up-and-down movement of the muzzle. To most of us, this means “choking up”—bringing that hand a bit closer to the receiver and our body. Use your trigger hand only to pull the trigger. It shouldn’t be carrying much of the gun weight as you mount it, otherwise you might impart up-and-down movement, which leads to missed shots.

8. BE PATIENT

In the days of silk fly lines, English fly anglers would utter “God save the queen” before setting the hook. This gave the trout time to take the fly in his mouth and turn, setting the hook itself rather than the angler pulling it away too soon. I’m convinced it’s good advice for bird hunters too.

Most shots on birds connect at 25 yards, maybe 30 tops. If you’ve patterned your shotgun, you know an improved cylinder choke at 30 yards makes a pattern only about 3 feet in diameter. At 20 yards, it’s even smaller. With that condensed shot cloud, there’s little chance of actually hitting something. It’s why we can flock-shoot and still miss every bird—the holes between birds can be bigger than a shot cloud. So, when birds fly, take a moment to focus your head. Your pattern will open, tilting the odds in your favor.

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9. CHECK YOUR EYES

Still not hitting them? You might be cross-dominant, meaning your “off” eye might be stronger than the one looking down your gun barrel. Here’s a simple test: Keep both eyes open and extend the arm that normally holds the forearm of your gun with the index finger pointing upwards at an object across the room. Close the eye that normally looks down your gun barrel (your right eye if you shoot right-handed). If your finger jumps to one side, you are shooting with your gun on the correct shoulder. If the object stays on top of your finger, you’re cross dominant.

Depending on your motivation and self-discipline, take your pick of these solutions to cross dominance: 1. Learn to shoot with your gun mounted on the other shoulder; 2. Shut your dominant eye while shooting (not advised; see No. 10 below); 3. Wear shooting glasses and put a patch over your dominant eye. The patch method eliminates a summer’s worth of frustration spent learning to shoot all over again (or in my case, two summers’ worth). It also lets you focus on the bird.

The key is careful placement of your patch. Use a one-inch piece of transparent (i.e., Scotch) tape. Put it on the dominant-eye lens of your shooting glasses so that when you mount your gun, the muzzle is obscured by the patch. It’s not the perfect solution, mind you—hard crossers from your dominant-eye side will still be tough—but it beats the alternatives.

Hunter with dog
The first step to connecting with a shot on a flushing grouse is to approach any point with conviction and poise. (Shutterstock image)
10. EYES FORWARD

Whether you are cross-dominant or not, try to keep both eyes open when shooting at a bird. Shotgunning is a pointing skill, not an aiming skill. Unlike rifle shooting, we don’t line up the back sight and the front sight—there is no back sight. Ideally, we’re focusing on the bird, not the gun muzzle or any beads on our barrel.

Remember your dog’s primary motivation? My dogs and I get along best when I hit the birds they produce for me. That’s their ultimate payback. Putting the odds in my favor is the least I can do. When I need a reminder, I just look up at that darn alder branch.




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