One of the skills a good hunter eventually must master is shooting. That may sound obvious but it's far from all there is. To hunt well is to master patience, vision, stealth, the ability to listen, fortitude in cold and damp and endurance to hike all day.
In the end, however, the proper hunter has to be able to point a gun or rifle, or bow and arrow, straight and deliver the payload with precision.
After five years of hunting, I've finally come to grips with shooting. I've missed ducks so close I could have swatted them down with a paddle; grouse that exploded from between my feet; pheasants that all but landed on the end of the gun.
One of my hunting partners is Dr. Jack Scanlon from Kensington, who can really swing a shotgun. We've had pretty bad luck in our hunting forays and if I ever even fired the gun I don't remember it.
But on four occasions birds have zoomed close enough for Scanlon to shoot. All four times, he shouldered his 12-gauge, swung along the flight path of the bird, fired once and sent his dog off to retrieve. Four shots, four birds. I'd finally found my guru.
Being a bad shot is acceptable for a while. Then all of a sudden it gets unbearable. Scanlon, I was relieved to hear, had been through the same troubles I was going through.
"When I first started hunting," he said, "I would go out with my friends and enjoy the day whether we got shooting or not." Then one cold day he was with some colleagues in a marsh in Massachusetts.Ducks were flying well. One by one, his friends filled out their limits and headed for warmth and brandy.
Scanlon had been shooting all along but hadn't bagged his first duck. "I got really frustrated," he said, "sitting out there in the cold, missing ducks. I promised myself to figure out what I was doing wrong; and as soon as I got back home I found some books and started reading them."
The books he selected, wisely, were treatises on skeet and trap shooting published by the Remington Sportsmen's Library. While skeet and trap are sports in themselves, they set the groundwork for basic gun-handling skills that carry over into the field.
Scanlon started reading and shooting and searching for his flaws. He discovered two that appear to be almost universal among people who don't shoot straight. He found he wasn't getting his face up tight against the stock of his shotgun and that his feet often were tangled up one way or another.
The first problem kept him from properly lining up on his target. "A rifle has rear and front sights," said Scanlon, "but a shotgun has no rear sight. The rear sight is your eye, and if it isn't level with the barrel it won't work," He learned to force himself to nestle his cheek solidly against the gun stock.
His second problem was harder to spot. "I found that when I was in the field I'd be swinging on a bird but I'd come to the end of the swing before I was ready to shoot." The problem was that his feet were splayed out, or one was against an obstacle or he had the wrong foot forward.
Listening to Scanlon and watching him shoot gave me insights into my own problems. I noticed that when he shouldered his gun his whole body seemed to be locked onto the target, his torso leaning into the shot like a pitcher delivering a baseball.
Also, he took his time. If a bird jumped up in a rush of noise, Scanlon let it get 30 yards out or so before firing, which gave the birdshot room to spread out into a broader circle, improving his chances of hitting the bird.
Armed with these hints, I set out on my next hunting adventure with renewed confidence. I promised to say the letters "C.O.G." before I shot at anything, as a reminder to get my Cheek On Gun. And I tried to take my time, lean into the shot, lead the bird and keep track of my feet.
Sure enough, when I shot things started to fall out of the sky.
Frankly (knock wood), I'm afraid I'm getting too good. Since my little lesson, I've been hunting twice and both times limited out within an hour, once on ducks and once on Canada geese.
The problem is that while I hated the frustrations of being a bad shot, I liked the fact that bad shooting increased my time in the field and gave me more opportunities to watch the birds fly.
Scanlon has suggested that I start loading birdshot into .22-caliber bullet shells and go duck hunting with a "Saturday night special" to increase the challenge. Another one of my wise-guy pals says I should load only one out of three shells with real pellets and have the rest blanks, "like Russian roulette."
I think a more sensible solution is just to not try to hit things so much. So if you see me out there in the duck marsh this fall, banging away and hitting nothing, save your pity.
I'm trying to miss.