By Curtis Niedermier
Good wing shooting is instinctual, but true talent with a shotgun stems from effective practice. So if there’s any doubt about your skills with a shotgun, now’s the time to get to the range and work on some of the most common difficult shots that upland hunters face each season.
To help you get started, we asked a few experienced sportsmen to share advice on how they handle their most challenging shots, as well as practice strategies you can use to better prepare yourself.
Heed their advice and practice your shooting now, or be prepared to practice your excuses later.
1. The Crosser
The right-to-left crosser (for a right-handed shooter; opposite for a lefty) is a common shot in quail and pheasant hunting, and it occurs at various ranges depending on the situation and terrain.
The Expert: Ross Grothe, Pheasants Forever member from Northfield, Minn.
Credentials: A professional walleye angler and avid hunter, Grothe spends about 25 days each year hunting pheasants in the Dakotas and on his farm in Minnesota with a pair of Labs and a Brittany.
Why We Miss: Poor vision and chasing from behind are the primary culprits here. It happens because shooters tend to look straight down the barrel, while the proper method is to look across the barrel. Visualize it like this: As the bird travels right to left, the gun should be in front of the bird, while the eyes should be on the bird. Make sense? If you look down the barrel to see the bird, you’re probably already set up to miss behind.
The Fix: Remember, it’s difficult to miss in front, but it’s easy to miss behind. So to hit this crosser, get the gun out in front where the bird is going. Try to mount in front in the first place (shooting instructor Gil Ash calls this “inserting” into the lead.) and sync gun speed to bird speed. If you do mount behind, swing all the way through until you see daylight.
“If you are leading the bird and feel like you need to get in front a little farther, it’s probably more favorable to get ahead of the bird than behind,” Grothe adds. “If you’re only hitting it with a few shot pellets; it’s better that it be in the head than the butt.”
How to Practice: Skeet and sporting clays courses offer plenty of crossing shots. The key is to avoid the bad habit of looking at the gun and “checking” the lead. Instead, let your subconscious put the gun where it needs to be. Try shooting this one with a low gun.
Concentrate on swinging in sync with the bird as you mount and “inserting” the barrel out in front. If you mount behind and try to overtake the bird, there’s a much higher level of risk. When you learn to mount in front, your focus can be entirely on the bird.
2. The Incoming, Overhead Shot
Pheasant hunters encounter the incoming, straight-overhead shot when blocking a field in a group-hunting situation. Typically, the bird is traveling quickly, and it might be as much as 30 yards overhead.
The Expert: Dave Ciani, Owner of High Prairie Lodge and Outfitters
Credentials: Ciani has been guiding bird hunters in the U.S. and Canada for more than 40 years.
Why We Miss: For a going-away shot like this typical in trapshooting, or when presented with a flushing pheasant, we need to see the bird above the barrel in order to shoot it. But with the same sight picture of bird-above-gun on an incoming pheasant – a common mistake – you’ll miss behind almost every time.
The Fix: Making this shot depends somewhat on the angle. If the bird is coming directly overhead, which is rare, use the old method of “butt-belly-beak” to swing the gun up through the bird from behind? Pull the trigger when the barrel blots out the bird.
The more common scenario is that the bird is quartering slightly, in which case, there needs to be daylight between the bird and the barrel.
“The critical thing is to swing the gun and get ahead of the bird, and get ahead of the bird even farther than you think you need to be,” Ciani says. “If the bird is 12 feet over your head or 30 yards over your head, be in front. Keep the gun moving through the shot.”
A final note is to try and sense the distance of the shot. If the bird is low enough, shoot it out in front – this shot requires less perceived lead. However, if it’s high, as it often will be, Ciani suggests letting it get directly above you to shorten the distance.
How to Practice:
Hit the skeet field. Station eight, which is in the center of the field, presents the shooter with an incoming, overhead shot. Visualize the target’s path, start with the gun in front, move when you see the target and never let it overtake the barrel. It should almost feel as if you’re trapping it. Soon you’ll be able to break this target with very little barrel movement.
3. The Straight-Away
The straight-away is a common shot in upland hunting, and one that many hunters take for granted.
The Expert: Steve Grossman, Owner of Double Gun Bird Hunts
Credentials: Grossman has guided grouse and woodcock hunters in Minnesota for three decades, but he also operates trips for pheasants in South Dakota and quail near the Kansas-Oklahoma border.
Why We Miss: This shot is missed for several reasons. Quail hunters miss because they flock shoot. Pheasant hunters often miss because they rush the shot. But the most common culprits, according to Grossman, are lack of concentration and overconfidence. Hunters think of it as a simple shot and never get the gun up to the face or bear down on the bird.
The Fix: The simplest suggestion is to “focus harder.” There’s very little swing involved in making this shot, so you have to mount the gun in just the right place right off the bat.
“The key for hunters is to get their gun mounted so their head is on the stock, concentrate and follow through,” Grossman says. “If it’s a straight-away bird, you have to bear down on it that much more. I’m not one that raises the gun and comes up from the bottom of the bird,” he continues. “It’s a shot that should be taken on instinct – a snap shot. Find the bird, and cover it with the bead.”
How to Practice: You can practice this shot anywhere that clay targets are thrown. But Grossman suggests a couple of other preparatory measures: Find a gun that fits you, make sure your shooting hand matches your dominant eye and pattern your gun. It’s easy to miss a straight-away if one of these critical pieces of the puzzle is missing.
4. The Flusher Back Overhead
This shot is most encountered by quail hunters hunting behind pointing dogs. When the covey flushes, a bird will sometimes turn and fly back over the hunters.
The Expert: Reid Bryant, Orvis Wingshooting Services Manager
Credentials: Bryant hunts grouse and woodcock near his Vermont home but also travels extensively in the fall hunting pheasants and quail on “business trips.”
Why We Miss: This shot requires executing a safe 180-degree turn. Many hunters rush the move, even though there’s plenty of time. The result is poor footwork and a poor gun mount on the backside.
The Fix: Step one is to practice safe gun handling. If you’re hunting with more than two hunters, let this bird go. In that situation, you should never swing outside your safe zone. If you’re hunting with one other partner, and perhaps with a dog handler, as is common on many Southern quail plantations, always turn away from your fellow hunter. Do not mount before turning. Instead, keep the gun pointed up in a safe direction, step back with the back leg then follow with the front.
When you make the turn, locate the bird and reset your feet. A second short step with the front leg in the direction the bird is heading can help get you in balance and provide a full range of motion.
“Remember that you have time to reestablish your balance and your foot position,” says Bryant. “The move is more of a couple of steps than a pivot, so don’t worry about taking the steps you need. Use an economy of motion to make your turn, but take the second step with the front foot to get repositioned. The time that it takes to make it happen isn’t too much. There’s still time to make the shot.”
How to Practice: Practice this move in the backyard with an unloaded gun. Concentrate on turning safely in each direction, focusing on an object – your imaginary target – in front of you after you make the move. Then incorporate the gun mount after the turn. Now you’re ready.