As the days grow shorter and the late-afternoon sun creeps lower in the sky, the hunter’s mind stirs with anticipation. Anxiousness invades our every thought as hunting season is in the back of our minds constantly. Our time is coming, and the anticipation is difficult to contain. Just ask our families and friends.
Things get started on August 15 when squirrel season opens in Indiana. I don’t know very many hunters that go after squirrel, but I am proud to say chasing these elusive rodents around the ridges south of the Wabash River in my hometown is how I got started. It’s been a while since I had biscuits and squirrel gravy. Sounds pretty good, come to think of it.
Big whitetail bucks reveal themselves in the dim evening light throughout the month of August, as they wander through standing soybean fields, giving us hope for the coming season. Our dreams are immediately boosted by the thoughts of one of these studs walking past our tree stand or ground blind. It’s a moment that any deer hunter yearns for annually.
Geese fly regimented sorties to nearby ag fields every morning and evening – young-of-the-year birds no longer content with the meager rations lawns, parks and ball fields provide them. They exercise flight muscles and dine on alfalfa, soybean sprouts, as well as “volunteer” wheat and waste grain. Soon, corn choppers and combines will introduce them to a much more desirable food source.
Prolific mourning doves sit on power lines adjacent to sunflower fields, waiting for the seeds to mature and loosen. For now, they must gorge themselves on the plentiful weed seeds found in fallow fields. Cool breezes from the north push doves further south, while others move in from the north, along with migrating blue-winged teal. Towards the end of the month, “molt-migrant” sub-adult geese that were reared locally last summer, return from their tundra vacation over the past couple of months. This phenomenon is difficult to explain, but it does account for the doubling or tripling of our local flocks of Canada’s virtually overnight.
The other day, my son, RJ, asked if we could shoot some clay targets before the seasons opened. Like any sport, shooting skills are honed by practice and real-time experience. The best shooters possess good hand-eye coordination and the ability to mount a shotgun quickly with proper shooting stance. It should be no surprise that individuals with natural athleticism tend to shoot well, and RJ certainly falls into that category.
While some of us are natural “wing-shooters”, many hunters struggle with a multitude of issues throughout the season. A scatter-gun that fits poorly is something many of us adapt to. When I was a kid, the vast majority of shotguns were one-size-fits-all, but as the sport of sporting clays gained in popularity, shooters demanded better-fitting options. Consequently, most manufacturers offered models that were easily modified for a custom fit. Eventually, this carried over into the models configured for hunting. The only other option is to have a gun truly customized by a pro, which may not be as expensive as one would suspect.
Terms such as length of pull (LOP), comb, cast, drop, pitch, and grip are all important when “fitting” a gun. Thankfully, the modern shotgun is relatively easy to modify as the vast majority of higher-quality waterfowl shotguns come with shim kits to make many of these adjustments. It’s as easy as removing the buttstock and trying different shim configurations. Most shooters would be shocked to find how much better they mount the gun when they find the right combination.
If you have to compensate for poor gun fit, the huge advantage of a natural mount is negated. The best wing-shooters don’t think about the series of actions that lead to the shot, they just do it. They may even say they don’t remember shooting as the process has become innate - nearly sub-conscious. Anyone that shoots a shotgun at a living creature should make this a goal. Some of us are born with better ability in this regard, while others have to practice often to “find” it. Regardless, a tune-up that includes shooting clay targets from different angles should be considered mandatory for all shooters.
When a shotgun comes to the shoulder and the cheek naturally, target acquisition, gun swing and effective shooting are much easier to achieve. Much like when a baseball player goes into a slump at the plate and starts to overthink a messed-up swing, bad things are quickly compounded, exacerbating the issue. When this domino effect of sorts kicks in, ability suffers tremendously. The difference is, striking out never really hurts anybody while a terrible shot on target may in fact wound or maim a living creature. We owe it to the game to do our very best to make ethical shots on target.
This is a fantastic time to grab some cheap shotgun loads and head to the nearest range for a shooting session. Try different shim configurations if you have that option. If you’re struggling, try different guns – perhaps it’s time for a change. While a trap range is better than nothing, 5-Stand and Sporting Clays are much better options. Deer Creek Hunt Club west of nearby Three Oaks, Michigan, for example, offers an array of different target opportunities that behoove the wing shooter. It’s worth every penny to spend a few hours shooting at a diversity of targets.
There are many other aspects to consider, including shotgun patterning and checking point of impact. And of course, while basic trap and skeet loads are fairly consistent in their ability to kill clay targets and doves, it’s common for shotguns to shoot some hunting loads better than others. Generally speaking, the cheapest waterfowl loads are the least consistent. I see it time and again every season as my dogs chase crippled ducks and geese all over the marsh when hunting partners and clients insist on shooting the cheapest ammo they can find. By the time we are done expelling shells swatting wounded birds with clean-up shots, they’d have been much better off spending the money up front on better-quality ammo. This is certainly something to consider when purchasing shotgun shells.
Above all else, practice safe shotgun handling. I’ve experienced some shockingly close calls in recent years and it’s not OK. Mistakes are potentially lethal. Be safe and go practice. I’ll see you in the field this fall.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at email@example.com.