Waterfowl guides see a lot of shooting, some of it very good, a lot of it pretty bad. It’s their job to put birds in front of you, but you, the client, has to close the deal. If you can’t hit birds, it can make for a long morning.

Guides are getting ready for the season now, building blinds and training dogs, and they wish you were getting ready, too. I surveyed a number of guides to find out what shooting mistakes their clients make and what shots they need to work on. Their responses boiled down to three key takeaways:

Hunters need to mount the gun properly, to slow way down, and they have to work on leading targets, especially crossers. Here’s what they told me about their clients, along with my suggestions on how to get better.

1) Practice Your Shotgun Mount at Home 

What the Guides Said

“Clients are too slow to raise the gun and react. They also catch their gun on their clothes during the mount”

The Solution

Many hunters don’t practice a mount that gets the gun into action smoothly and efficiently. They are slow to mount the gun and they miss opportunities, or they hang the butt of the gun in the fabric around their armpit. 

Practice your gun mount. We’ve been through this before, but some of the very most valuable shooting practice doesn’t require targets, ammunition, or even stepping outside. Take your gun, be sure it’s unloaded and pick a spot on the opposite wall. I use a print of two wood ducks hanging over my desk as my “target.” 

Starting with the gun at a ready position, butt down around your waist, muzzle slightly above parallel to the floor, and your nose over your front toes, fix your eyes on the target. The first move is to push the muzzle out toward the target, keeping your eyes locked on the bird. As the gun moves out toward the target, bring it up to your face. Use your trigger hand to tuck the buttstock into your shoulder pocket and under your cheekbone. When the mount is complete your eye should be over the rib and the muzzle should be pointing at the target.

Once you have that move down, swing the gun along the seam where the wall meets the ceiling. Practice going in both directions and always remember that the first move is with the muzzle. Do it right and instead of mounting, then swinging, you’re doing both at once.

Finally, crank up the AC, get into your cold-weather hunting coat, and practice your mounts. You should find that if you’ve taught yourself to push the gun to the target before you bring it up, you’ll clear your clothing easily.

Duck hunter peering out of a blind covered in grass.
Learn to take your time on a shot. Mitch Kezar / Design Pics via Getty Images

2) Work on Slowing Down Your Shot 

What the Guides Said

“We see hunters misalign their guns because they hurry. They often rush a shot, and they don’t level the gun before they hit the switch”

The Solution

Most hunters move way too fast. Speed doesn’t kill. It makes you miss. Learning an efficient gun mount, per the unloaded gun drill above, is a big part of the solution to this problem. To make the most of that mount, you have to slow down. Believe me when I tell you that moving quickly doesn’t help. Pellets come out of the gun at 900-plus mph. A duck is flying at 40 mph. You are going to win the race every time. Moving smoothly and slowly is way more effective than jerking the gun into action and swinging fast.

If you have access to a portable trap, have someone throw outgoing or, better, quartering-away targets for you. Start with an unloaded gun and practice mounting the gun and pretending to shoot at the target. Knowing that your gun is unloaded takes all the urgency out of shooting and lets you see how slowly you can move and still get on the bird.

Then, shoot some, calling for the target. Once you’re hitting them consistently, get ready, then let your puller surprise you with a target. If you can practice on a skeet field, get ready, then let the puller throw their choice of high house or low house bird without telling you which it will be or when it’s coming. You’ll learn to react without rushing.

3) Shoot More Crossers at the Clay Range

What the Guides Said 

“Not enough swing. Not enough lead. A lot of our clients stop their swing and shoot behind birds. They also lift their heads.”

The Solution

A lot of hunters struggle with crossing targets because they aim their guns. While hunters worry about how much to lead crossing targets, the truth is, most targets are missed behind by feet, not inches, because the shooter aimed the gun or looked back at the bead at the last instant to double-check and measure lead. Looking at the gun stops it dead and makes you miss behind a bird. As long as you can keep your focus on the target, your eyes will send your hands to the right place. 

If you have a trap with a remote or long cord that lets you set up a crossing target, practice, thinking about three things:

  • Eye on the target, head on the gun
  • Match the target’s speed
  • Keep the muzzle below the bird
Duck hunting at dawn on a hilltop south-east of Minot.
Keep your head on the gun and follow through with each shot. In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

All these apply no matter which method (swing-through, pull-away, maintained lead) you use to shoot crossing birds. Keep your eye on the target and let the gun drift ahead of it. You’ll see it as a blur in your peripheral vision. Trust your eyes and hands. They can do this if you leave them alone and let them figure it out.

Matching the target’s speed lets you synch up with it, and makes it seem to slow down. Moving fast also risks drawing your eye to the fastest moving object in its field of view (the gun) which then stops.

Read Next: A Hunter’s Guide to Summertime Shotgunning

Moving your muzzle below the bird lets you keep your eyes on the target. “Painting the bird out of the sky” as many of us learned from Dad (me included), works, but risks blocking your view of the target with the gun. As soon as the gun blocks your vision, your eye goes to the gun and you miss high and behind. Instead of thinking of your gun as a paintbrush, think of it as a pencil you use to underline the bird.

Once you can hit some clays close up—soft crossers thrown from a portable trap—you can graduate to the skeet field. Although skeet targets fly at fairly close range, they require some long leads. Start with the incoming targets of Low House 2 and High House 6 which only require a sliver of daylight between the muzzle and the bird, then practice on stations 3, 4, and 5. These birds need more lead than you think. You might even have to tell yourself to miss the targets in front in order to get the gun to the right place until you’ve shot enough of these crossers to imprint them on your subconscious. Shoot enough of these targets this summer and crossing ducks are easy.

Finally, finish the shot. Keep your eye on the bird, the butt on your shoulder, and your head on the stock until after the target breaks. If it helps you, shoot the clay, pick the biggest piece, and follow it to the ground with the muzzle to help you learn to “stay in the gun” as the target shooters say. Start working on these drills now and you, and your guide, will be glad you did once the season comes around.