Doug, I don’t remember a time when you missed so many birds, said good friend Don Helm as the last bird of the day sailed safely out of sight. Yet another chance to make a good shot, and yet another clean miss. Had those words come from anyone else, I might have been offended, but Don and I have shot together long enough for me to know that was not his intention. He was simply making an observation and said out loud what I was thinking.
No matter which direction the birds flew — left, right or straight away — I couldn’t connect. At least not often, and it didn’t seem to matter whether the clay pigeons flew low or high. To put it mildly, my shooting stunk and the ground broke a lot more birds than I did. Luckily, we were shooting for fun and not depending on my ability to put food on the table or win a tournament.
My guess is that I was aiming my shotgun rather than pointing it and focusing on the clay bird. Through the years, that usually has been the culprit whenever my shooting is off.
As a result, I tend to stop my follow-through and shoot behind or under everything.
For me, the key always has been to focus on my target and let my body do the rest. My theory is that you don’t have to aim a key to put it into a lock; all you have to do is focus on the lock and your body will line up the key with the intended target. Likewise, if you focus on your target rather than on your shotgun barrel, your body will take care of the rest.
There might be some successful competitive shooters who think I’m out to lunch, but I don’t mind. Through the years, this approach has worked well for me and put more than a few birds on the table. Of course, the technique only works when I use it.
The fact that I wasn’t shooting well was not lost on Calli, my outspoken 15-year-old who is adept at recognizing and exploiting every opportunity to boost her dad’s self-esteem.
Don had spent an hour or so teaching Calli how to shoot a shotgun and working on her technique. She always has been a little intimidated by shotguns, but I knew if anyone could help her off to a good start, it was Don. Besides, sometimes it’s a good idea to involve a neutral party in the learning process, especially with teenagers.
By the time I made it to the shooting line, Calli was shooting quite well. While I seemed to miss nearly everything that came out of the trap house, she connected about 25 percent of the time. Not bad for a first-timer.
“I can’t believe I’m shooting better than you are,” Calli exclaimed with feigned innocence as she pointed out the obvious. I was in for a drubbing, and each time she broke a bird came the question, “Am I doing good, Dad?” Naturally, that question was timed to coincide with yet another miss on my part.
Teenagers have no compassion.
There I was stewing about my terrible shooting display, and the neophyte wanted me to stop and give her a compliment. Why not just pour a whole box of salt in the gaping wounds where my pride used to be?
That Calli had a ready-made audience didn’t help. We were at the annual gathering of volunteer Hunter Education instructors at the old Las Vegas Gun Club. I have known many of the instructors for about 15 years, and each time I stopped to visit with one of them, Calli managed to work something into the conversation about her newly found shooting prowess.
Naturally, she felt compelled to point out my rather dismal performance for comparison. I made a feeble attempt to shoot back, but didn’t do much better than I had on the clay pigeons. Of course, it didn’t help that many of my friends joined in on the razzing. Pass the salt.
When all is said and done, I suppose it’s time to spend a few dollars on shells and clay birds. After all, I wouldn’t want to give Calli any more ammunition than she already has. I’m just glad Calli hasn’t been around to see when I really messed up. Between her and my friends, I would never live it down, and they would be out of salt.
Doug Nielsen is an award-winning freelance writer and a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column is published Thursday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.