When it comes to hunting I’ve always said that if there’s a season for it, the chances are that I hunt it.
This is especially true in the fall during duck season. Generally a 60-day season (more if you include early teal season) in Missouri, there is always plenty of opportunity to get out in the marsh and put my Mossberg 835 to work.
From November to January I am completely ate-up with ducks, like a junkie feverishly pursuing his next fix. Every year I learn one valuable lesson: I seem to be a better shot late in the late season than I am at the beginning of the season. A lot of this has to do with the repetition, the consistently getting out and slinging steel, learning how to lead birds and understanding my gun’s patterning.
Most duck hunters, I think it is fair to say, are just like me when it comes to shooting. We go all-out for 60 days, hunting as much as we can, putting a multitude of rounds through our guns, but then between the end of one season and the beginning of the next our guns sit in their respective places in the safe.
My duck gun being the only shotgun I have, it also gets used for spring turkey season. After turkey season though, Ole Red as I’ve affectionately dubbed her, doesn’t see much action prior to that next fall. We trade in our shotguns for fishing rods or golf clubs during the warmer parts of the year, and honestly there isn’t a whole lot in season other than squirrels and coyotes. For the most part we turn to other tools for those critters, primarily our rifles.
You know the old saying, ‘practice makes perfect’ right? Shooting a shotgun is certainly no exception to that rule, and it is absolutely imperative to get in quality practice shooting even during what I like to call Silly Season. That’s the time between the end of the previous duck season and the start of the next duck season.
Surviving Silly Season
I call it Silly Season because most duck hunters go silly stupid, eagerly awaiting the next chance to get out in the marsh and dance with the greenheads. Professional baseball players also understand the importance of keeping a sharp edge on their skills during the off-season, and many of them participate in international and winter ball leagues around the world in between MLB seasons. For most of them, the competition may not be as stiff and the audience may not be as large, but it allows them to keep doing what they love while keeping themselves in peak performing shape both physically and mentally. We have a lot to learn from that kind of driven attitude as wing shooters.
Another comparison that fits really well, almost purely because it coincides with duck season, is football. During the fall when most of the country is in season for ducks, the NFL is in full swing. The regular season runs from September into the early part of January, much like duck season does. But before the regular season comes pre-season, and before that, training camp.
Rookie camp and OTA’s take place throughout the summer as well, which is generally a good time for duck hunters to get out and do some practicing of their own. Once the season ends in January or February (depending on how far your team makes it in the playoffs) players take a couple months off to rest and recuperate from a long season.
Much like football players, this is a good time for duck hunters to relax their shoulders and rest their guns. As the weather warms up, both football players and duck hunters should be thinking about getting back out and working on their respective skills and starting to prepare for the upcoming seasons.
Busting Clays for Practice
The simplest, most effective way for any shooter to keep that edge on their shooting comes in the form of trap and skeet.
It is good to get out every few weeks and bust some clays in order to keep your reaction time, your hand-eye coordination, and your shooting accuracy up to par for duck season. By no means am I suggesting going out and freezing your buns off in March just to keep your shooting skills sharp. But as the weather warms up in April and May, you might give serious consideration to breaking out that duck gun and putting a few shells through it.
There are many different ways to test your skills and get in valuable practice when it comes to trapshooting. If you have access to a local gun range that has trap and skeet fields, those can be a useful tool. If not, or if you’d rather use your own thrower, be it a mechanical thrower or a hand thrower, those can be just as effective.
I would also suggest getting together with a group of other hunters, perhaps the guys you hunt with, so that you can keep each other sharp and perhaps even work on some of the communication you use in the blind in the fall.
Playing ‘Annie Oakley’
One way to really put your skills to the test is through a shooting game called Annie Oakley.
At least that’s the name I’ve come to learn it by, although I understand that there are several other names for it. Essentially it is knockout with shotguns. The rules of the game are simple; everyone stands along a line side-by-side and spaced out evenly. If you have several shooters, you may want to put shooters on either side of the thrower. When the first person in line is ready, he calls for the clay bird, which is then released or thrown by the designated thrower.
The shooter that calls it gets first crack at it. If the first shooter hits the target, he stays in the game and the call goes to the next guy in line. If he or she misses, then the next shooter gets a chance at it. If that shooter hits the target, then the first shooter is eliminated.
The game continues until there is one shooter left standing. This is a great way to test both speed and accuracy as you try to stay in the game as long as you can while simultaneously eliminating other contenders.
Of course, shooting clays can only get you so far in getting ready for duck season. Much unlike the birds you will be shooting at all season long, clay birds tend to follow a singular flight path at a fairly consistent speed. In other words, they’re fairly easy to shoot. To quote Sergeant Major Choozoo in Heartbreak Ridge, “sure does help knowing when and where you’re gonna get hit, sir!”
Anybody who has ever duck hunted can attest that ducks are fairly difficult to predict when it comes to what they’re going to do in the air. They could fall straight in with a heavy splash right in the middle of the decoys or they could flare just as you break out of your blind to fire, or make one last big swing around behind you and then disappear completely, only to come screaming in from a completely different direction.
So shooting at straight-flying and steady moving clays really doesn’t adequately prepare you for live action. Luckily there is a solution, and as a bonus, they’re delicious when wrapped in bacon.
Dove Shooting, Anyone?
I’m talking about doves, of course.
In Missouri, Dove Season kicks off on September 1st and is regarded by many as a national holiday. With teal season and archery season starting just a couple weeks later, followed by early goose, rifle season for deer, duck season, goose season, and even fall turkey season, dove season symbolizes the beginning of roughly four months of nonstop hunting action in the Show-me State.
It’s also a popular quarry for the casual hunter, given that the weather is usually still fairly decent and there isn’t a whole lot required to pursue doves. Many of my friends don’t even do any other hunting except maybe deer season with the rifle, but even they get out in the sunflower fields for a chance to shoot doves.
Much like pre-season in football, dove season signifies that the hunting season is upon us, even if it’s not really the season we want. This is a perfect opportunity for duck hunters to really fine-tune their shooting skills and better themselves before duck season starts. For that reason, I always refer to dove season as the pre-season of duck hunting.
This brings us back to the football analogy. If trap shooting and Annie Oakley rounds during the summer are OTA’s and training camp, then dove season is pre-season. This is when you can afford to make the mistakes you intend to learn from, you don’t have to invest a lot into it, and you still get to have fun and do what you love without too many repercussions. This is the time where you get to really get in some “game speed” live action as opposed to the “walk-throughs” of trap shooting.
Communication is Important!
I mentioned earlier the idea of practicing your communication with your hunting buddies, and this is another good time for that. It’s always good to know who is going to call the shots, who shoots at what birds based on how you are arranged, and how you’re going to react to any confusion.
Football players work a lot on their communication during pre-season as well, familiarizing themselves with both the playbook and audibles made at the line of scrimmage. A football team that can diagnose mistakes and breakdowns in communication during the preseason, and then work to improve on them, tend to fare better during the regular season!
Doves are fickle fliers to say the least. The way they cut and dart across the sky can frustrate a hunter no end. I know, because they have repeatedly frustrated me to the point where I just want to throw my gun and call it quits.
Doves move with a speed comparable to teal, which I like to call little fighter jets. They are also extremely agile fliers, able to turn seemingly on a dime in mid-flight, or dive under your shot. Being much smaller than ducks, they present a much smaller target to hit, just to make things worse. For these reasons, dove season is a crucial and often an overlooked part of the training process in getting ready for duck season. They will test your eyes, reaction time, accuracy, and consistency vigorously.
A Dove-Shooting Anecdote
On opening day of dove season last year, I didn’t get out until about 3 in the afternoon because of work. But once I was set up and ready to go, I had no shortage of shooting opportunities. I found myself missing shots one after the other on birds that I know I should have been hitting. My adrenaline was pumping and my heart was racing, so naturally every time a bird came within range I was panicking and getting my gun up and shooting as fast as I could, not wanting to waste any time and give them a chance to slip out of range on me.
This meant that most of my shots were coming from the sitting position. On my tiny little stool I was struggling to get myself balanced as I pulled the trigger, and I wasn’t lending enough time to fixing my eyes on the target and getting out in front of it. After I managed to harvest five birds rather sporadically, I recognized that I needed to change my approach.
After several consecutive misses, I decided to try standing up to shoot. When I saw a bird coming in, I would stand up, get my feet in a good shooter-ready stance, and shoulder my 835—all while never taking my eyes off the target. Doing all of these things with my body, while focusing my eyes on the bird, allowed me to gain my balance and bring the gun up as I followed the bird across my shooting lane, all without overthinking the shot itself.
Perfecting Your Wing-Shooting Technique
One thing I noticed about my early shots was that I was trying to put the gun in front of where I thought the bird was going to be, and stopping on that point as I squeezed the trigger. Because I was devoting some of my time to getting my body ready to shoot, I wasn’t thinking so hard about the shot itself.
As a result, I was able to train my eyes on the bird and shoulder my gun at the same time, doing a much better job of following through with my shots. In the last hour or so of shooting light, I went a perfect five for five on my targets, finishing the night with ten birds in total.
I really noticed the payoff this had for me during duck season, especially when I’d relapse and try to shoot from a seated position. Every time I did that, my shots were routinely behind because I’d stop my gun as I fired. Following through with your shot is one of the fundamentals of wing shooting, as any hunter will tell you.
The best way to make sure you’re doing it right is to keep your eyes on your target while you bring your gun up to your shoulder, instead of bringing the gun up and then trying to get on the target.
Unlike dealing with stationary targets, the goal isn’t really to aim at a moving target. You want to follow the target, shooting once you’re on, and continue following it after the shot. Realizing this and understanding it before duck season starts is always instrumental in my success during duck season. That’s why I am grateful for dove season, as it allows me to knock the rust off both Ole Red herself and my wing shooting skills.
So as the weather warms up, get on the horn and challenge your hunting buddies to a few rounds of Annie Oakley, then set your eyes on the sunflowers come September. Happy hunting!