BOLD PREDICTION: YOU'LL MISS BIRDS THIS YEAR
Even the sharpest wing-shooters don't go 100 percent in the marsh. But if you want to fling box upon box of steel skyward to kill only one or two ducks, follow these instructions.
DON'T PREPARE YOURSELF
Some folks have a natural aptitude for shooting flying objects. Most of us need to work at it. The more you shoot during the off-season, the better you'll likely become. This is much easier if you have a group of hunting buddies or like-minded acquaintances with whom you can shoot.
Arrange regular trips to the trap, skeet, or sporting clays range. Join a weekly league. If those scenarios aren't realistic, pick up a hand-thrower and have a buddy toss a few clays for you now and then.
How much is enough? More is almost always better, especially when you're starting out. A veteran skeet shooter once told me the only way to master the game is to tote a bucket full of shells to the range every morning and shoot till they are gone. After you learn your chops and refine your skills, you probably won't need as much practice. Thing is, you won't want to cut back. You'll realize the benefits and enjoyment derived from clay-target shooting.
DON'T PRACTICE WITH A LOW GUN
This drives me crazy. Most target shooters pre-mount their gun since it gets you on target quicker and lets you focus solely on the bird, eliminating a precarious step that can lead to misses. And yes, pre-mounting your gun will generally increase your scores a bit.
However, ducks rarely let you pre-mount your gun. Even the easiest decoying shots require you to shoulder the firearm while tracking the target. That process won't be as natural if you don't practice it.
I don't go through the entire pre-mount/mount ritual of grasping the fore-end, standing, taking off the safety and shouldering the gun. When shooting clays, I leave the gun in a pre-mount position, with the stock just below my armpit. Then I call for the clay and shoulder the gun while simultaneously tracking the bird and moving my body and the shotgun into position for a shot. If I'm on my game, I swing through the target and slap the trigger almost immediately after the stock plants into my shoulder and cheek. I believe this practice better prepares me for field shooting.
One more note: It pays to shoot a few low-gun rounds in clothing similar to garments you'll wear afield. Shouldering your gun is much different in a T-shirt than a heavy waterfowl parka. You must make sure the stock clears the clothing and naturally finds your cheek and shoulder.
DON'T SIMULATE REALISTIC SITUATIONS
How nice it would be if we could stand with gun ready as ducks bomb our spread. In reality, though, we usually have to sit, crouch in a skiff, kneel in muck, or lie on our backs while hiding from sharp-eyed birds. Common sense suggests we should practice some of these shots in the off-season.
Some sporting clays ranges offer stations with such realistic scenarios, requiring that shooters sit in a boat or on a stool. Otherwise, if no one at a gun club objects, you can shoot a few rounds of skeet from odd positions, such as sitting or even lying down. As with shooting without pre-mounting your gun, this adds a realistic challenge to shooting and forces you to practice what can be difficult movements.
Likewise, don't neglect realistic targets. Any shooter feels good if he breaks 50 consecutive straightaways or quartering birds, but you won't get too many of those in the marsh. Mix in hard left- and right-hand crossing targets, clays that zip over your head from behind, and deceptively tricky overhead or incoming birds. Trust me, you'll experience those shots in the marsh. Be ready for them.
FORGET YOUR FORM IN THE FIELD
I make this mistake all the time. Remember: It's just an extension of your practice. Clay-target shooters learn early the importance of proper foot placement. For right-handers, your left foot should point toward where you plan to break the bird. Your right foot should be about shoulder width from your left, and you should have most of your weight (some say 70 percent) on your left foot.
It's easy to do that at the trap range but tough in a boat or skiff. Still, you should focus on doing your best. If you're standing while looking for ducks, try to position your feet correctly for the most likely shot. When hunting from a boat or skiff, shift your body and feet as birds approach to ensure you'll be in good position when you shoot. It's difficult to prepare much when hunting from a field blind or layout boat, but do what you can. Even shifting your body slightly to the side from which birds are approaching can help.
Similarly, remind yourself about good form while hunting. If you've shot enough during the off-season, muscle memory will carry you through most field situations. Still, I find myself lapsing into bad habits now and then. It never hurts to practice shouldering your gun or remind yourself about proper technique during the heat of battle.
MAKE POOR SHOT CHOICES
Let me guess: If you hunted opening weekend this past year, you witnessed guys sky-busting or sailing birds deep into the marsh with no hope of recovering them. Yeah, me too. In fact, I'd bet most American duck hunters saw that opening day—and it's a shame.
Learn to identify solid, high-percentage shots at ducks. Strive to avoid wild, desperate, off-balance shots. I'd rather let five iffy opportunities pass than take one dumb shot that results in a lost or crippled duck.
Practice judging distance with various duck species. A greenhead at 40 yards might appear closer than a green-winged teal at 35. Know the difference. Avoid long shot opportunities. I don't care what you saw on TV; you won't consistently kill and recover ducks at 70 yards.
Also, think about where ducks will fall when you shoot them dead. I have a nasty habit of waiting till birds are directly overhead until shooting. It's an easier shot, but moving birds — even those shot dead — carry many yards downrange, making it more difficult for you and your dog to mark, locate, and retrieve. Let approaching birds get in range, but try to shoot them so they fall closer.
Above all, think when you're shooting at ducks. Yes, shooting is about instinctive reaction, but your brain tells your body when to shoot and whether to pull the trigger or hold fire. You'll feel better about yourself in the long run.