Hypocrisy is everywhere, but no where in fieldsports is it more prevalent than in the wingshooting community. Why is it that we expect the bowhunter and the rifle hunter to be proficient with their weapon, yet so many bird hunters (both uplands, and waterfowlers) get a pass on not practicing and only blowing the dust off their shogun once the season opens? Why is it big game hunters (who are expected to be proficient with their weapon) are chastised for shooting at running game, but bird hunters (who seldom practice) are chastised when they shoot birds sitting on the side of the road or a limb? Aren't we supposed to do all we can to assure we cleanly and quickly kill our prey? Why is this? There are many standard answers, and one I hear the most is the "sporting" answer. Shooting birds on a limb is just not sporting. True, but isn't it then more sporting to shoot at running big game? Or do we somehow value the life of big game more than the life of small game by insisting they are only killed when motionless? If you think I have the answers, I don't. If you think you will find them later in this post, you won't. There may not even be an answer to these questions, but I believe anyone who goes afield and takes a life should occasionally let these thoughts tumble around in their head.
Because I like shooting birds on the wing I have taken steps to assure that I do all I can to minimize the suffering of any bird I shoot. I practice regularly, shooting skeet weekly, and sporting clays occasionally. I also spend a lot of time training my dogs and making sure they are proficient retrievers. I want any bird not killed in the air quickly retrieved so I can quickly end it's suffering. Do I think all bird hunters should follow my routine? No. But I do think they should have some type of a practice routine. One should consider, too, that our sport is constantly being scrutinized, and that every one of us is a representative of the sport. We have a responsibility to put it in the best light we can, and a bit of improved marksmanship will help do that.
I did not always enjoy shooting clays. I enjoyed hunting, and shooting birds but I wasn't very good at it, so I began to practice. It was through this practice that I grew to love shooting clays. Will every bird hunter learn to love clay shooting? I doubt it, but I will guarantee that with a bit of quality practice on a skeet field they will learn something, and improve their wingshooting.
Practicing wingshooting should not be just going to skeet and shooting a few rounds. Bird hunting is much more dynamic, and how you practice is more important than getting in high volume shooting. Practice like you play. Some of the practice techniques I use can even be done at home. The things I have done to become a better wingshooter have been to add the dynamics of the hunt to my skeet shooting. I developed a smooth gun mount, and shoot skeet low gun, not premounted like a competitive skeet shooter. This is practicing like I play. One can develop, and work on building a smooth gun mount at home. With an empty gun, practice smoothly mounting and pointing at a spot on a wall. Don't rush the mount. Make it smooth and perfect every time, and before you know it you'll have a good gun mount. This alone will improve your shooting, but couple it with a few rounds of skeet, and you'll really be moving forward. Want to take it to the next level? There are a few other options that can make skeet more hunting like and dynamic, and for many of you, less boring. Sometimes I will shoot the round with a delayed call. That is, when I say pull, the trapper does not actually pull, but waits between 1-5 seconds before sending the clay. One can also go "trapper's choice" allowing the trapper to decide which clay to throw, the shooter needing to find it in the air and break it. Of course not everyone has access to a skeet field, but trap, sporting clays, and even hand thrown clays will all allow one to build their hand-eye-gun mount coordination.
Another issue I have, which some will no doubt take exception to, is the use of the .410 for wingshooting. There are some very proficient shooters who wield a .410 with great efficiency. They are few and far between. Why do I feel this way? My experiences on the skeet field have show that even the best shooters have issues with the .410. I'm not talking scores. I'm talking about the quality of the breaks. Of course many of the .410 shooters suffer the loss of a few clays they'd have broken with any other gauge, but the number of clays they split or chip, rather than smash is what has caused me to draw my conclusion. Every split or chipped clay is a wounded bird that may not get retrieved. Unfortunately as it may be, we wing shooters do often put pellets in to birds without knowing it. Thinking it's a miss we often hunt on while a pricked bird, which has managed to fly 150 yards now suffers. Even as a 20 gauge shooter I have my fair share of live, broken winged birds retrieved to me, leaving me with no doubt that I've hit birds and not known it. That is something I'd like to minimize. The .410 no doubt increases the odds of that happening. Couple the inferiority of the .410 with the inconsistency of a hunter who doesn't practice, and...?
So? What is the answer? Well, I believe that every hunter, including bird hunters, has a responsibility to practice with their weapon. If you can't consistently break clays (where every flight line is know) you are not shooting as well as you could in the field (where every flight line is a mystery). I know that practicing and shooting clays has improved my shooting. I also know that it can improve yours, too. Do we all need to shoot lots clays every weekend? No. Quality is much more important than quantity. I believe anyone who buys a case of shotgun shells in August will learn enough about their shooting to buy another case before October.