A sage old wingshooter once said that the success of any dove hunt should be measured in the lightness of the heart rather than by the weight of a full bird bag.
The fun factor makes up a major part of one of the Lone Star State’s most popular hunting activities. It is what drives many shooters to eagerly embrace the fall heat or winter cold while testing their shooting skills against the aerial acrobats known as mourning and white-winged doves.
“I would rather be dove hunting – pass shooting high-flying, wind-driven birds on a day like today – than doing about anything I can imagine,’’ said Gene McKendrick of Laredo, who was a veteran of more than five decades of dove seasons in both the United States and Mexico before passing away at the age of 78.
“Each time I fire a shot, I am in direct competition between me and that bird in the air. Making a great shot doesn’t just make me a winner, it makes me feel young again,” he said on one of his last dove hunts.
McKendrick was arguably one of the best long-ball shooters to cast his shadow across a dove field or a live pigeon ring. If a bird stayed in shotgun range long enough – 60-70 yard crossing shots were not uncommon – he could pluck it from the sky with smooth, practiced skill.
Unfortunately, most Texas dove hunters do not possess the shooting skills that can make nearly every shot in the field a fond moment in the memory bank.
Much to the delight of ammunition manufacturers, the average number of shots required by the average hunter to down one dove is about 7-9. Some shooters are better than that average, but a lot of people enjoying quality time in the field are a lot worse.
About 250,000 Lone Star State hunters bag about 6 million mourning and white-winged doves each year, which is about 20-25 percent of the annual harvest across the country. That means there is tons of shot in the air each fall and winter harmlessly passing by birds in the sky.
What helped McKendrick become a master at bringing down birds was practice, practice and more practice; much of it spent on clay target fields.
Skeet, trap and sporting clays were all elements of a foundation for the high quality wingshooting skills he put into play on birds in the field.
Each of the clay target disciplines can be helpful in developing a shooter’s basic skills.
On the skeet field, where clays are thrown from a high house and a low house all within 22 yards of shooters at eight different stations in a semi-circle, developing mechanics is the key.
Skeet shooters can fine-tune muscle memory and implant leads into their subconscious by using the same form to break targets that are the same presentation every time at every shooting range in the world.
A little unpredictable factor is tossed in at the trap ranges, where shooters at five stations 16 yards in front of a trap house attempt to break clays thrown either straight away or at right or left angles. The shooters do not know which direction each target will fly, forcing them to adjust their lead for each target presentation as it leaves the trap house.
Learning to move a shotgun into climbing and angling clays can help develop bird-bagging instincts as the shooter’s subconscious mind directs the shotgun movement and tells the trigger finger when to touch off a shot.
Probably the best practice for bird hunters can be found on sporting clays courses where targets thrown at all angles and speeds can closely simulate actual bird-hunting situations.
Moving from station to station spread out in the woods or across open areas, sporting clays has been described as golf with a shotgun because every course is different and target presentations vary from range to range.
For those shooters focusing on the fun factor rather than the hard work required to become an award-seeking competitor, many ranges regularly set up what is commonly called a corporate or charity course. The targets are designed to offer easy to moderately hard targets similar to birds in flight.
The key items to practice on sporting clays are proper gun mount and maintaining the shotgun barrel on the target line; in addition to focusing on the front of the target rather than back of the target.
The old adage of “Shoot them where they eat and not where they seat” applies to most dove hunting situations. By focusing on the leading edge of a clay target, shooters can develop the shooting technique necessary to successfully knock down more challenging birds – hitting a target is always more fun than missing a target.
Bob Gregory of the National Shooting Complex in western Bexar County has set hundreds of corporate and charity courses during the past few years and said he likes to lean toward easy targets with a few testers thrown in as separator stations.
“We like to make it fun, with just a couple stations that will test the shooters’ skills,’’ he said.
Gregory helped set the Texas Dove Hunters Association Shooting for Scholarships sporting clays event in 2015 and will be on hand to share his target-setting expertise at this year’s event scheduled for March 5. Further information on the shoot is available from Susan Thornton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY RALPH WINNINGHAM