It's conventional wisdom to do a few things prior to bird hunting season. Wax your cotton chaps, clean your guns, road your dogs, and drop a few hard-earned pounds from summer BBQ's. Other items need tending, but getting ready for the season by shooting clays is a whole lot of fun.
Shotgunning is like riding a bicycle in that it's a skill that is difficult to forget. But like any sport, it's easy to get rusty. Several rounds of skeet, trap or sporting clays prior to hunting season reawakens your muscle memory. It syncs up your hand/eye coordination, smoothes out your gun mount and swing, and speeds up your target acquisition. Any type of clay target game sharpens your shooting skills, but I try to match some shooting games with the kind of birds I'll be hunting.
When it comes to upland bird hunting, I head to a skeet field. In the 1920's, C.E. Davies and William Harden Foster developed the game in Andover, MA to practice the various angles in which a grouse typically flies. The high house resembles a bird flushing from a tree while the low house imitates a bird flushing from the ground. The eight stations spread in a half circle represent the grouse's common flight paths, with swing through, sustained lead, and pull away being the common shooting techniques.
Skeet typically is shot from a high-gun position where the shotgun is mounted before the clay is thrown. To get ready for the hunting season, try these variations:
- Shoot low gun. Unmounted shotguns are referred to as low gun. The position more closely resembles a natural hunting situation.
- Practice your methods. If you're starting your season with an early season goose hunt, then a high gun mount matched with sustained lead or pull away will get you ready for the goose pit. If you're headed to South Dakota for a pheasant hunt, then match a low gun mount with swing through.
- Modern skeet. Some ranges offer modern skeet which offers oscillating traps in both high and low houses. The traps run up and down randomly, so the shooter never knows exactly if the clay will be ascending or descending. That varying flight paths challenges reaction time, sharpens focus, improves target concentration, and keeps all shooters on their toes... just like wild birds.
Trap shooting is a much older game with its roots in England during the late 1700's followed by a debut in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1831. Originally, live pigeons were released from under hats or traps and later on were replaced by glass balls and then discs made from clay. One house with an oscillating trap launches clay pigeons in one varying degree of ascending and going away targets. It's a perfect warm-up for many upland hunting conditions for the shots are either straight-aways, quartering, or hard-angles. Like skeet, trap is typically a high gun mount, but shoot it with a low gun for additional practice.
Sporting clays courses vary, with some offering numerous technical shots while others focus on shots a hunter is likely to find in the woods. Shooting standards, midi's, mini's, battue's and ZZ birds are challenging and fun. Many of the shots do not resemble what you'll see in front of a dog, but they awaken thoughts of gun mount, lead, and where to take the bird. If you're looking for practical shots, look for a course set for Hunter's Clays. Most of the target presentations resemble a mix of upland and waterfowl shots. Shoot 'em both, for practice makes perfect. Clays can be somewhat predictable, but here's a trick. When the shooter is in the hut he calls 'ready.' The trapper launches the targets whenever he is ready which removes some of the formality and predictability.
If you're shy on time, then a quick round of 5-Stand is better than not shooting at all. You'll whip through a box of shells in short order all the while seeing a variety of incomers, going-aways, and crossing shots.
And don't forget heading to a gravel pit with a portable trap and simple hand thrower. Mount one trap on your truck's hitch and position a trapper with the hand thrower on a different angle. For a varying flight plane place some of the clays in your thrower upside down or better yet knock out the center from the clay with a pop of your finger. It's a good way to keep shooters on their toes. As with sporting clays, let the trappers throw the clays when they're ready. That forces the shooter to be reactionary instead of anticipatory.
This summer, beat the heat with a few rounds of clays. Not only will it reawaken your skills but it'll also help pass the time until Opening Day.