After hunting chukar for the past 17 years I decided it was about time to take my first shooting lesson. The irony is not at all lost on me, I assure you. As a teacher who tries to espouse and model lifelong learning to my students, not because it will necessarily translate into wads of cash but because it will absolutely make your life better (and who doesn’t think that’s a good thing?), the fact that I’ve followed my dogs into the field for 17 seasons while never having attempted to learn anything to improve my shooting just seems stupid. And I admit that I probably would have gone another 17 or more years doing the same thing had Leslie not decided she wanted to carry and use a gun this season. This scenario has given me some things to think about in terms of the importance of motivation in learning: I think one reason I never tried to learn to shoot better was that I already loved chukar hunting and it was good enough fun for me; I killed enough birds, and my dogs hunted well enough to suit me. Of course I always wished I would make more of the shots, and wondered how other hunters always seemed to bag more birds than I, but that’s pretty much where it stopped. The thing was enough fun that I lacked the motivation to improve on it.
A kind reader of this blog (thanks, Mark) suggested we check out the new Rock Creek Shooting facility above Horseshoe Bend, and try to get a lesson with Joel Loftis. So I pulled the trigger (ha ha) and set up a lesson and we drove down there. I haven’t been to many ranges, and have never shot sporting clays, so I don’t really have anything to compare Rock Creek Shooting to, but I was impressed. It’s on a 300+ acres chunk of land that looks like good chukar and Hungarian partridge habitat. Their 14 stations replicate a wide variety of “typical” chukar shot opportunities, with a bunch of below-the-feet presentations. The course appears to have been designed primarily with chukar hunting in mind. I wish it were closer to us (it’s a 5-hour round-trip drive). The clubhouse is simple but cozy, with a big outside covered deck overlooking the course (with the afternoon sun to your back), and the folks who run the place are very friendly.
And then there’s their instructor, Joel. He’s intense. We had a two-hour lesson (it actually went a bit over that), and it was all business. No chit-chat, small-talk, or off-topic stuff. Some of my students criticize me for being this way in class, but — maybe because I feel every moment needs to be useful and there’s never enough time — I appreciated this right off the bat. He worked every second of that lesson to have each of us learn as much as we could, and we ran out of time before we covered all the things on his agenda. It was not an inexpensive outing, however, so we can’t afford to do this very often. But we got plenty to work on and practice, and I’m confident that from this one lesson I’ll make many more shots than usual, and — more importantly — increase my enjoyment of chukar hunting. Leslie said as we drove away, “It’s good that I did this at the beginning so I don’t have to undo any bad habits.” Yeah, I should have done this a long time ago. But, better late than never.
My key take-aways from the lesson are:
- Eye dominance: I’m not exactly cross-dominant (left-eye dominant/right-handed shooter), but mixed. He did a more elaborate vision test on us than the simple one I did on myself a couple years ago. On right-to-left crossing shots (by far my toughest shot), Joel had me closing my left eye; this will take practice to fix and improve.
- Vision: the transition from peripheral to specific focus vision is important. He demonstrated this very dramatically by first having us trace with our left hand a clay pigeon from the thrower to the kill zone, which was nearly impossible because of the sudden acceleration of the target (just like a covey of chukar flushing ten yards away), and instilled a visceral sense of panic in us. Then he had us soft-focus on a general area in the anticipated flight path of the target from the same thrower, and then trace its path to where we should trigger the shot. It seemed as though we had twice the time to lock onto the “bird” with this approach. When dogs are on point and a flush is imminent, and you don’t know where the birds are precisely, you have to soft-focus on the area you think they’ll jump into and be ready to transition to hard-focus on the one bird you select to shoot. This eliminated the panic and allowed an easy kill. Of course, when 20 birds flush instead of one clay pigeon coming from the same place every time, it’s a tougher task, but the idea’s the same.
- Focus: I’ve known for a long time that flock-shooting almost never results in any mortal shots, and so I’ve always tried to remind myself before the flush to pick out one bird, and often I’m unsuccessful at doing that one “simple” thing; I have a much higher percentage on singles or doubles as opposed to large coveys. Joel emphasized not just picking one bird, but focusing on a “dime-sized area on the beak.” At our last stand, a below-the-feet left-to-right crossing shot (probably the most archetypal chukar presentation) I was missing everything despite feeling like I was correctly doing all the stuff we’d worked on. He reminded me about the beak, and then I was able to focus on the leading edge of the clay and hit four in a row. There’s more to this, though (see next one)…
- Trust: because of the brain and its complexity it’s easy to allow distracting information to interfere with trusting your vision and triggering the shot when it’s optimal. For me, knowing my eye dominance is a bit screwy often makes me want to perfect the alignment after I’ve passed through the optimal shot spot. One of Joel’s mantras was, “Eyes, movement, trust.” On that low, right-to-left shot I was really struggling with confirming the alignment and consistently missed; I’d get on the target and then close my left eye to verify I was on it, not trusting my initial impression, and letting the bird get out of the optimal place to kill it. Once I started trusting my gun mount and vision I couldn’t miss. Doubt is a bitch.
- Gun mount: this might be the biggest take-away for me. I have never known how to mount the gun properly. The first thing we did in the parking lot was mount the gun. I’m sure what Joel saw horrified him. So we worked on this first, and at the end of the lesson I realized that when a flush is imminent, consistent mounting of the gun is key to properly getting on birds. Since I began hunting 17 years ago, the extent of my preparation for a flush has been, “I hope I hit something when they fly.” Really. I can’t even tell you what my body or gun would do once I’d spot the dogs locked on point. I’d walk up, try to get in front of them so when the birds flew I’d have a chance at a shot before the dogs got in the way. Now, just from one lesson, I have some things to normalize that preparation for the flush into what Joel referred to as “field craft.” There’s a proper ready position for above- or below-the-feet presentations that I can get in which — because I know how my dogs work — should apply to more than half my exposure to birds in the field. It’ll be interesting to look at videos from last year when the dogs are pointing and see how I prepared for the shot. I’m sure I’ll see lots of jerking the gun around (and lots of misses). The mantra for this part of the lesson came from a British instructor of Joel’s: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” (I think I remembered that correctly); the idea is that mounting the gun should be one smooth movement from the ready position to the shooting position, and if it’s slow and smooth you’ll be fast at locking onto the target and hit more birds. Joel also determined there was too much drop on my gun, so I just this morning adjusted that quickly with the shim kit that came with my Benelli Ultra Light. We didn’t get into gun fit too extensively, partly because until a shooter has a fairly well established gun mount (which neither Leslie nor I do), it’s tough to determine a precise fit. At this point, Leslie’s new Montefeltro seems to fit her quite well.
After the lesson, we chatted for a while over a beer in the air-conditioned clubhouse, and learned that Joel — a long-time chukar hunter — also knows a hell of a lot about these birds, their history here, and has some first-hand knowledge of where they came from. If you’re a chukar hunter and want to learn more about how to shoot them more proficiently from someone who gets it, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than this guy.
I could go on but realize this is a pretty long post. The bottom line, I think, is that it’s never too late to learn something new and make doing what you love even better. The test will come when the season opens in a couple of weeks, but I’m more excited than usual because of what I learned yesterday. Stay tuned.