In my state, the season opener for pheasant and quail is still a week away. I’ll miss opening weekend, as I always do. There’s an annual convention for college newspapers that is usually scheduled in conflict with my favorite fall activity.
Still, I’m preparing for my belated opening day. It begins with what has now become my fall ritual: checking to make sure my shotgun is still where I left it at the end of last season.
I vowed some time ago that I had to end my historic practice of firing my gun for the first time since the previous winter when a bird flushes before me in the current season. My practice of taking the off-season off has cost me countless birds as it usually takes a week or two before I get my wits about me.
My problem isn’t so much that I’m a lousy shot, but that I forget my best shooting comes when I take my time. That first rooster of the fall is an adrenaline rush and when we’re excited we usually fall back on habit.
For me that means failing to fully mount my gun, then squeezing off both rounds before I’ve allowed the bird to put a little distance between us.
Failing to mount the gun generally means you’re going to miss anything you try to shoot. I rush and usually fail to bring the gun up to my cheek and shoulder. I think I’ve covered the target, and I have, only instead of aiming at the bird I’ve instead aimed a few feet higher.
I’ve only covered the sky.
After a few misses that otherwise seemed easily makeable shots, I’ll look down and note I’ve buried the stock in my armpit rather than my shoulder. And when your gun is that low on your chest, it’s impossible to get your cheek on the stock and take proper aim.
I often miss my first few shots of the new season doing exactly this. I scold myself afterward and determine that next time, I’ll do it right. Then another pheasant takes flight and I do it wrong all over again.
If I spent the time in the offseason, shooting clay birds on the range, maybe with a bit of instruction from a good coach, I might actually be a decent shot. I’ve the potential for it, at least. But I hunt with a few guys who know how to shoot, and even at my best I’m a long way off from them.
If you don’t mount your gun properly, it doesn’t matter if you do everything else right. You can’t hit a target when you’re not aiming at it. You’ll get lucky, rarely, but most of the time you’re just gonna miss.
Once I’ve worked out my mounting kinks I then go to work on patience. Shotgunners know that once beyond the muzzle, your shot pattern spreads and might be 25- to 30-inches wide for a 25-yard shot, depending on choke selection. Try to hit that target at 15 yards and your spread might be half that wide and you’ve little margin for error.
You can’t wait forever to pull the trigger, of course. Quail are particularly smart about finding a tree or shrub and putting it between them and the hunter as quickly as possible. But a close-range, poorly mounted shot is almost a guaranteed miss.
When I’m missing a lot the thing I finally do to correct myself is slow down. I concentrate on mounting my gun and I make myself wait a beat or two until I get antsy the bird might fly out of range, then pull the trigger.
Someday I’ll put in a serious offseason of practice, teaching myself some productive habits. Someday.
Until then I’ll try to live by the old John Wooden mantra: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
There’s no rush, right?
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