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Finding Your Coach

Once convinced you could use a few lessons, how do you go about finding the right coach? Let me offer some ideas. Obviously, word of mouth is everything. If someone you know is recommending an instructor start there. Perhaps a good hunting buddy has mysteriously become a much better shot. What is the reason for that? Ask! If you have no hot trail to start on, get the Yellow Pages and call the local gun clubs and gun ranges and inquire about lessons. Once you have some names and numbers the real work begins.

First, ask the pro if he hunts. Don’t shoot with someone who doesn’t know and understand hunting. Skeet are fun to shoot but they don’t flush wild and they don’t fly erratically (or taste good). Skeet and sporting clays are great ways to improve your shooting but learning to shoot competition skeet is very different from learning to wingshoot. Make it clear you wingshoot, could not care less about tournaments, and have even less interest in breaking clay pigeons unless it will directly help your wingshooting.

I found my coach with this question. Pete Blakely immediately responded to my question about being a better dove hunter by regaling me with a dove hunting story of his own and then discussing which stations on his sporting clay range he uses to simulate dove shots. I have shot a couple cases of shells under Pete’s watchful eye and never yet had him mention anything about skeet tournaments or proper form. For me, Pete speaks constantly in terms of “these are incoming mallards” and “hold your gun like this as you walk so you will be ready when a pheasant comes up.” Pete hunts and he understands hunters. Your coach must do the same.

Second, you need to find a guy who can teach. Lots of people shoot very well but they have no clue how to teach you to do the same. At my first lesson Pete had a long piece of yellow painted lumber. He set it down out on the skeet field midway between the high and low house. “That,” he announced, “is the distance you need to lead the target. Put your gun on one end of that board and let your eye see the span.” I did and could not believe it. It was too far to lead anything. “Looks too far, doesn’t it? Try it though,” Pete said. The high house threw, I led the target by Pete’s distance represented visually by that board (way too far, of course) and powdered the bird. I cannot make that shot. I have missed zillions of doves flying that angle at that speed. I just made it, and more importantly, now I knew why I had missed before: not nearly enough lead. No one had ever shown me lead like that before. Now I understood lead, how much was required and I could do it. Within a few minutes I was consistently making many shots I wouldn’t normally make, because Pete knew how to show, to explain, and to teach good shooting.

Coaching is as much art as science. Shooting does involve a lot of technical considerations. Your coach has to be able to make the technical understandable. He must explain the math and physics of shooting without putting you to sleep. Doing that can be as simple as Pete’s clay pigeon pointer: a button he glued to the end of a car radio antenna so he can lay it alongside the barrel and show your eye exactly what the sight picture should be. Or it could be diagrams drawn in the dirt, or a trip to the far end of the skeet range to watch how birds rise and drop, but your coach must coach.

That brings me to my third point: one lesson should give you complete confidence that you are in the right place with the right coach. That doesn’t mean you become Annie Oakley but one lesson ought to give you a feel that this guy knows his stuff and can help you. If you don’t leave thinking, “By the time the season starts, look out!” then find someone else.

This confidence issue has two implications. First, to get that kind of confidence means I do the shooting, not the instructor. Watching him break targets with the gun behind his back or blindfolded is very impressive, but how does it help me shoot better? What made me believe in Pete is when I broke targets, not watching someone else do it. Second, finding the right guy means doing what he says — every time. You aren’t spending this kind of money because you are such a brilliant shot and know everything about wingshooting. What you know and what you have been doing got you on the shotgun range with a coach, didn’t it? Check your ego at the door and do what your coach says. If he says you aren’t mounting your gun correctly fix it, and go ahead and do that homework he suggests of fifty gun mounts before bed each night. If he says, you aren’t leading enough lead more. If you do not believe in him enough to follow his suggestions, you do not have the right guy. Find the fellow who could tell you painting your gun bright purple would improve your shooting and your reaction would be “Crazy, but I will try it.” That is your coach.

Finally, time your lessons. Taking lessons in April and May seems like a good idea since we can’t hunt then anyway. However, by September’s dove season you may be out of practice. Take lessons in July and August. Yes, it will be warm on the skeet range but you will be rewarded when you are primed and ready opening morning. Incidentally, with better instructors (the ones you want) that may take some scheduling ahead of time. If you can call a coach in the middle of August and get right in doesn’t that say something about him? Find your coach now and get on his schedule now or you may experience yet another season of on again off again shooting misery.

Last season’s miss haunted me for a year. Opening weekend found me in Kansas again, watching Ranger lock down hard on a pheasant. Out came the rooster. Without panic or fluster I smoothly mounted, led and fired. Once. The bird dropped, felled from a long way out by a single shot. It turned out to be a tough morning that did not deliver many pheasants, but I had one in my bag. What a feeling! That one rooster made it all worthwhile. Yet a lifetime of good shooting is ahead of me now. What is that worth? Thanks, coach!
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