Practice holds key to success out in the field

Two words for people who plan to master the sport of wingshooting between now and Sept. 1:  Forget it.  If you don't already have it, you won't get it by dove season, teal season or even quail season. With practice and a lesson or two, however, anyone's skill level can be turned up a notch.  The overwhelming majority of bird hunters who take the field come September will do so without having fired a single round ahead of the event.  Time rushes by, other business takes priority, and that advance trip to the range goes up in smoke. The first box of shells for most dove hunters is pretty much a throwaway, and the first dozen birds down each of their barrels might as well be handed a free pass.  That makes as much sense as Jeff Bagwell facing Greg Maddux in the playoffs without swinging a bat since spring training, like Mark O'Meara teeing it up for British Open with out hitting a ball since the Masters.   Doves are doves; fast and erratic, all year. No matter how great a shot you think you were last year, that sharp eye and hot hand have grown dull and cold through the layoff. Denying that truth won't change it.  With practice, reflexes quicken. The hand rekindles its relationship with the eye. The more you shoot, the better you shoot - within boundaries. Three rounds of sporting clays every day is neither practical nor necessary; we're not going for world-class marksmanship here. A more rational goal for local dove hunters would be simply to improve upon the half- dozen shells per bird national average among contemporaries.  Sporting clays offer the best target simulation of actual hunting conditions and situations. The variety of target angles and speeds presented over a typical course preps the shooter's mind for the unpredictability of bird hunting. Also, if there are any major weak points, a round of sporting clays will bring them to the fore.  Any station that causes trouble should be repeated until the problem is uncovered and corrected. Carry some extra shells for just such humbling occasions, and be willing to pay for the extra targets if asked. Money well spent.   The popular 5-Stand setup, in which shooters rotate through as many stations and see a variety of target angles from each, is a reasonable alternative for hunting preparation.  By design, however, 5-Stand is fairly predictable. Experienced shooters can "groove" those layouts and shatter targets all day, but that doesn't necessarily make them good field gunners.  The same goes double for trap and skeet. Both disciplines are extremely mechanical and callable, skeet more so than trap. Get locked into the proper swing and lead on a skeet station, and you can obliterate that target all day.  Before you shoot too many warm-up rounds, however, it is advisable to have some qualified person take a look at your technique. Practice doesn't make perfect, as a golf instructor once told me, practice makes permanent.  I am a new cheerleader for shooting lessons. I once fancied myself a pretty capable shotgun shooter and had the trophies to prove it. Shooting lessons, as I saw it, were for people who didn't hunt enough to get any good at it.  As good as my scores were, though, they were rarely high enough to win an event outright. The men who beat me consistently had a different air about them, something almost telestic.  We talked the same talk and walked the same walk away from competition. On the shooting line or in a dove field, though, they were calm, and I was a bundle of nerves. Their shooting seemed smooth and effortless, while mine was snappy and frantic.  An invitation two years ago from respected instructor Gil Ash changed my entire view of the sport and its teachers. First inclination was to decline his offer of a day's instruction. Then again, a few pictures of him schooling all those amateurs might make a good story. Count me in.  About half a dozen hopefuls listened closely to Ash that morning as he explained the subtleties of shooting a shotgun. I stood on the sidelines and didn't pay much attention, to be honest. What could he possibly tell me about shotguns?  When my turn in the box finally came, however, it was accompanied by the same rush of anxiety I'd felt through those years of competition. Ash's first words of advice were to relax, to let some circulation back into my knuckles.  Novel concept, but how could anyone relax when that target -; or dove or quail or duck -; comes and goes so quickly?  As he trained and my thick head finally absorbed, there is ample time to visually acquire a flying target, mount the gun correctly and make a good shot. In a couple of hours, Ash pinpointed several critical errors in my technique and corrected each of them.  Any time I'm missing more than hitting now, whether it's targets or birds, I've got a mental checklist to identi1~ the problems and technical "triggers" to correct them.  Like any other lessons, shooting instruction is only as good as the student. Fuds like me sometimes find it difficult to abandon decades- old moves and replace them permanently with new ones.  First-timers don't bring any bad habits to the table, on the other hand, and make excellent pupils.  "I'm seeing more and more young professionals coming into recreational shooting," said teacher Jim Harris of American Shooting Centers in far west Houston.  Shooting sports are gaining popularity, he said, both as year-around recreation and as alternatives to golf tournaments as charity fund- raising events. As increasing numbers of both men and women be come interested in shotgunning, Harris said, they should seriously consider at least a couple of lessons to build a proper foundation.  "We start the lesson wherever the individual is (in skill and experience)," said Harris. "I see a lot of people who have never fired a shot gun. We take them through all aspects of the sport -; gun mounting, sight picture, how to shoot a moving target from all directions."  ASC offers a "pre-dove season" lesson for $110, including shells and targets. Harris said that he and fellow instructor Bill Bacon can accommodate small groups but won't take more than four or five students per session.  "It takes at least an hour with each individual," Harris said. "You can't accomplish anything ~ less time. We try to start e~ the morning. If we have too people, we can't get through the weather gets too hot."   Those times and prices a par for the shotgun instruct course. Be aware that shoo pros are no different than or golf pros; they all have different teaching styles and personal Also, women aren't put to the same as men, in case a missed the memo, and instruction should vary accordingly. No teacher comprehends those differences and how they importance.  If the range nearest to you no formal instruction, at lea a couple of sporting clays r on your own. Pay attention.  Stand directly behind other shooters in the group to get a feel for the proper swing and lead, much golfers watch another player's putt to get a feel for speed and line.  Many books have been the subject; Bob Brister's Shotgunning: The Art and Science a favorite of mine and does terful job of explaining the words. There also are several ou ing shotgunning videos on ket; split screens and slow go even farther to reveal e how and why a shot string way to a moving target. Soliciting basic pointers friend or stranger who is a good shot isn't an altogeth idea. Most skilled shooters mind sharing what they kn be sure that person really stands shooting and isn't t snappy, frantic type. Doug Pike covers the out the Chronicle. His column a on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.


Where to go:

Barely three weeks remain before dove season opens. Here's where to get your mount and swing back in shape.

American Shooting Centers -; Sporting clays, trap, skeet, 5-stand. Costs vary. Phone: 281-556-8086.

Bailey's Rifle & Pistol -; Trap range. Cost: $5 per gun. Hours: 9 am. to 6 p.m. daily, except closed on Mondays. Phone: 713-433-2475.

Carter's Country -; Trap, skeet and country clays. Hours: Weekdays 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., weekends9a.m.to6 p.m. Cost: $5.50 per 25-target round of trap or skeet, $7 for country clays. Phone: 281-443-8393.

Clear Creek Gun Range -; Trap, skeet, sporting clays. Hours: Tuesday through Thurs day 1-8 p.m., weekends 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Monday and Friday. Phone: 281-337-1722.

Hot Wells Shooting Range -; Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: 373-0232.