In the upland world, pheasants are regarded as the easiest bird to shoot. Their profile is larger than most upland quarry and their flight plan is measured and predictable. And because they prefer grass over trees, line of sight usually isn’t as much of an issue as with other winged game.
But hunters young and old still miss pheasants all the time. If you suck at connecting with roosters, your problems are likely rooted in flawed shooting mechanics. Here are three of the most common issues and how to fix them.
You’re Standing Wrong
The adrenaline rush created by a flushing rooster is one of the main reasons upland hunters keep going back to the field. However, it’s also a primary reason why hunters miss. It’s easy to literally start off on the wrong foot by not orienting correctly when a bird takes flight.
To increase your chances of a connected shot, point your front foot in the direction the bird is going, not where it was. This helps your weight stay over your front foot as you swing with the pheasant. If your front foot is out of position or you are otherwise unbalanced, your weight shifts to your back foot as you track the bird. As a result, your head automatically climbs the stock, leading to misses that are consistently high and behind.
Keeping your weight forward in any kind of wingshooting scenario is imperative, as it enables your front hand to move and control the gun. Imagine steering a car with the rear wheels instead of the front wheels—it can be done, but it would be inefficient, awkward, and difficult. Much like a vehicle where there’s more weight on the front tires, positioning your weight over your front foot gives you greater control and enables you to match your gun barrel’s speed to the bird’s speed. At the shot, it also ensures you follow through instead of stopping short and lifting your head to see if you actually hit the bird.
Make sure of your footing, too. There are a ton of literal pitfalls in pheasant country, and it’s easy to step on uneven ground. Not having your balance not only leads to inaccuracy, it’s also unsafe.
All that said, don’t rush the shot—take the time to anchor your front foot in the direction the bird’s travel. The extra second or two it takes to establish a firm foundation will lead to more hits than misses, and today’s hard-hitting, high-velocity loads like Federal’s Prairie Storm afford hunters the luxury of time, as they’re designed to be more effective at long ranges and pattern evenly.
You’re “Shouldering” the Gun
The phrase “shoulder your gun” is misleading. If you ram the butt into your shoulder, drop your head on the stock, and then raise the barrel toward the target, you’re setting yourself up to fail before you ever squeeze the trigger.
To properly mount a shotgun, point your front foot in the same direction the bird is moving, and then bring the end of the barrel into your line of vision while marrying your cheek to the stock. Doing these steps in the same motion keeps your head moving forward with your gun, all while lining up your eye with the barrel and target. If your head is moving forward with your cheek on the stock, it’s harder to move it sideways.
In other words, don’t mount the gun to your shoulder, drop your head to the stock, and then move the sight to catch up to the bird. It’s rare to shoulder the gun in the same exact spot every time, so forget your shoulder and touch the stock to your cheek instead. Moving the barrel out toward the target and then raising the butt to meet your cheek also helps position the gun on your shoulder in the same spot every time without hanging up on your vest.
Dropping your head onto the stock after the butt is glued to your shoulder means your head will likely rest higher or more on top of the comb, forcing your field of vision to include more of the gun’s barrel, rib, and sight than it should. If that’s the case, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll miss high.
Also, if your weight is too far back, with your head too high on the stock, the gun swings you and felt recoil is amplified, bruising your cheek and beating the crap out of your shoulder. Pretty soon, you’ll start flinching as you pull the trigger—voluntarily or otherwise.
To hit more birds, forget your shoulder. Instead, try raising the barrel first, and as you extend it toward the target, touch the stock to your cheek, and then lean into the gun.
You’re Covering the Bird
A couple years ago I sat in on a hunter’s education class for my son. The instructor was fantastic, and he was able to hold the attention of every kid in the classroom for two separate three-hour sessions. It was better than I could’ve imagined.
However, once we went to the range to shoot for the field portion of the course, I was surprised to hear him encourage kids in the class to “cover the bird” with the shotgun barrel as they aimed at clay pigeons. It was the same advice I remember being taught when I took the course in 1990. Problem is, it’s a flawed approach that took me years to overcome.
Think of it this way: Many parents yell at their kids to keep their eye on the ball and to not pull their head when swinging a baseball or softball bat. The same basic principles apply to shooting, because it’s hard to hit what you can’t see.
Covering a fleeing rooster with a shotgun barrel can work in the rare event the bird is flying straight away. However, in most other cases when you cover up a bird with the barrel you can’t see where it’s going, which leads to pulling your head and peeking. Result? High and behind.
Also, if you cover a bird, it ultimately means you’re shooting where a bird is and not where it’s going to be. And failing to lead a bird traveling over 40 miles per hour is never a good thing.
Leading a bird is important, but what’s equally important is ensuring the gun stays below the bird. If you cover up the bird, your eyes will automatically drift to the end your barrel and cause a high shot. Remember, a shotgun sight is for peripheral reference only, and focusing on a brass bead or fiber-optic sight instead of the target often results in a miss. Keeping the barrel below a bird, not covering it, increases the odds you’ll be able to see where the barrel needs to go and keep it in front of birds as they rocket toward safety.
With upland seasons only a few weeks away, there’s no better time to head to the range and brush up on some shooting mechanics. Regardless of where or how you practice, pay close attention to where your front foot is pointing, how you mount your gun, and see if your focus stays on target or drifts to your bead. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about yourself in a controlled environment, and you’ll be rewarded this fall with more hits than misses.
Feature image via John Hafner.