Many will say that shooting clay-birds can destroy a hunter’s timing or create bad habits. A clay shooter can get locked into the predictable flight paths of targets, causing missed ducks, pheasant and grouse. Sporting clays provides a more lifelike presentation than trap or skeet, but any clay shooting is different than wingshooting. The original goal of shooting clays was to provide practice for hunting. It provides us an opportunity to practice a correct gun mount, to master observation techniques and to shoot more often, and therefore better. My time spent shooting trap and skeet have made a noticeable difference when hunting season arrives. Here are 5 ways to transition your shotgun skills from the shooting clays course to the hunting field.
Practice Shooting on Uneven Ground
When you set yourself up for a shot on the trap or skeet range, you’re setting your whole musculature for that shot and recoil before calling for the target. In the field, whatever position you have to shoot from, your body tightens to make the shot. One foot might be in a hole or on a hill. In hunting situations, you don’t always have the luxury of getting into a perfect shooting stance. Setting yourself up in the perfect stance can cause you to lose the time you need to make a shot on game. One way to practice for this is to enlist the help of a friend and use an automatic trap thrower or hand thrower to alternate releasing and shooting clays. Set the auto-thrower up in an area that has irregularities in terrain, brush and trees for obstructions and practice taking shots while walking through high grass or brush.
Practice Shooting at Game Speed
No practice set up can replicate field-speed. If you shoot moving targets enough, you get a feel for the speed of the bird. The mind does that for you, but you’re not thinking about it. One of the best-known explanations for calculating ballistics for ducks is the garden hose comparison used by Robert Ruark in the classic book, The Old Man and the Boy:
Let’s say you are watering the lawn. Your Cousin Roy runs through the back yard and you got the hose in your hand and all of a sudden you would like to wet down your Cousin Roy. He could probably use a bath, but let’s don’t get personal.
If the kid is running against the wind and you got a hose in your hand and you want to wet him, you got to do several different things. One, you are pointing the hose. Two, you are figuring the wind. Three, you are figuring how fast Roy is running.
So you know that a hose will squirt only so far before it bends backward in the wind. You know that Roy can run only so fast. So if you’re as smart as I think you are, you point the hose somewhere ahead of Roy, let the wind take the water stream backward, and then let Roy and the stream collide at a point you’ve already figured out.
A clay target is not going to replicate a winged-target any better than it could replicate a running boy. Clays have never moved the way teal or geese move, for instance. Sporting clays offers fewer static shooting scenarios than trap or skeet, but another way to practice for the unexpected is to have another person throw targets without calling for them and to set up presentations that are close to those you will experience in your method of hunting – a 50- or 60-yard crosser, a fast rabbit, a following pair or a falling target. It helps to learn something about the size and flight of the birds, as well as the way they will be hunted, in order to work on those situations in practice.
Practice Shooting with Distractions
In competitive clay shooting, you don’t allow outside influences to enter your mind during a shoot. This is true to a lesser extent in amateur clay shooting as well, since the course is designed according to safety requirements and also, the rules of the game provide a shooter with the ability to focus on his or her shooting. On the range, you don’t have to worry about bird identification or the dog. In the field, the outside influences matter. Shooting different colored targets (for example, one color for hens and one color for drakes) and only shooting a designated color will help reconnect the discriminating mind that can be lost in competition shooting. If you shoot with a dog, having the dog with you when you practice can be helpful as long as it does not affect the dog’s training.
Practice Shooting Using the Your Field Gun, Loads and Chokes
I made a mistake in practice of becoming “too much of a trap shooter.” I started out going to the range to practice for bird hunting, but drank the Kool-Aid. I purchased a BT-99 specifically for trap, then a Browning Citori for doubles, and then an entire skeet set. In the field, I used heavier loads or a lighter gun and different chokes. The result of not shooting my field gun showed during the following hunting season – my trap & skeet scores improved, but my wingshooting took a hit. This year, I reviewed the Syren Elos Venti, and took the gun to the field and to the range. It was designed to be as appropriate in the field as it is in the gun club. After the review, I purchased the Elos sent to me on consignment. It’s the perfect choice for me because it allows me to practice with the gun I will be using in the field.
Practice Shooting in Your Field Clothes
In the winter, while shooting clays, I wear a heavy shooting jacket. In the summer, I often shoot in a t-shirt. Neither of these articles of clothing are what I would wear in the field where I need to be either camouflaged or dressed in layers. My game vest is built differently than my shooting vest, and it makes a difference when I practice wearing a game vest. This is especially true when there is weight in the game pouch, which has thrown off my balance on hillsides in the mountains. Before the season starts, it helps to practice wearing exactly what I wear in the field.
The biggest difference between clay-bird shooting and shooting in the field is the mental game. In wingshooting, a bad shot could mean a wounded bird. If you’re a good shooter, you’ve probably put some pellets in a bird. That’s a real dilemma. It’s something that you think about.
Hunting is not about a number of targets hit as much as it is about moments in time. The moment when the bird comes up and you swing the gun is what I think about the day before the opener. Everyone has something about the field they like better than something else. Maybe it’s pressing the trigger. For me it’s reacting to a wild bird, swinging through it … there’s nothing better than that.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham