One year, shortly after the break of dawn on the opening day of Maine’s upland bird season, my English setter had just started working in front of me when a hunting partner, Harry Vanderweide of Augusta, bumped a ruffed grouse from a tree 25 yards to my right.

The bird flew straight over my head and away, a high-house one shot on a skeet range, a shot I seldom miss (I’ll explain why later). Pellets from both barrels of a new Winchester Model 101 20-gauge flew harmlessly past the feathered rocket, even though the first barrel had a skeet one bore (.000 choke) and the other skeet two (.007 choke). These spread the shot widely, which should have made wing shooting easier than with tighter chokes.

Then, moments later, just as I had reloaded and closed the breech, a second grouse flushed from the same tree and followed the path of the first one, resulting in two more misses.

Poor shooting with the 20-gauge infuriated me, but a worse consequence was losing faith in that new shotgun. This resulted in my shooting getting worse and worse each day. A week later, after I switched to an old Model 101 12-gauge with improved cylinder (.007 choke) and modified (.012), my shooting improved a lot.

As shotgunners know, a 12-gauge shotshell generally has more pellets than a 20, but the modified choke on the 12 was much tighter than either one on the 20 and the other barrel was equally choked. With the 12, this forced me to center more on the target with the tighter first barrel than the wide-open one on the 20, but I still shot better. Go figure.

Wing shooting has so many parallels to batting in baseball, and the most obvious involves confidence. When doubt enters the equation, the shooting average plummets. Another similarity involves flight patterns of grouse and woodcock. Some flushes can be compared to a fastball, others to a curve, some to a changeup. The flight path’s unpredictability influences shooters to lift the head of the stock to track the bird better, which always results in a miss.

I bought that Winchester 20-gauge during my early years as a writer, when money proved ever so tight. That September, I shot lots of skeet and trap with this shotgun before the season opener.

My opening-day salvos at the grouse had wrecked my confidence because I was cocky with the high-house one shot, which requires an explanation involving another upland bird — woodcock. This migratory bird often flushes vertically, like a helicopter, before leveling off and flying straight away. The second part of the flight offers shooters a typical high-house one shot on a skeet range.

In my teens, this woodcock flush gave me fits, so I shot myriad rounds of skeet just from the high-house one station. This regimen made a woodcock shot out of me, and this two-grouse scenario with Vanderweide called for the same shooting principle. The shotgunner holds under the bird and lets it fly into the pellets.

In my late teens and 20s, I shot skeet at Vaughn Cail’s range in Palermo, where Cail and his son taught me proper wing-shooting skills, beginning with the stance, mount and follow-through. They taught me to keep my feet fairly close together, with more weight on the front foot — the left one for a right-handed shooter and right one for a lefty. The toes on the forward foot should point toward a flushed bird going away. Or, on a passing shot, they should point at an imaginary spot where the bird will be during the shot.

The back foot is a half-step or so from the front one and angled toward 2 or 3 o’clock (9 or 10 o’clock with a leftie). The shooter spreads the feet far enough so as not to feel unbalanced. This stance allows for a more free swing of the shotgun, particularly at passing targets. Too wide of a stance tightens the swing — not good.

When a bird flushes, the shotgun comes up smoothly to the shoulder with the barrel pointing toward the flying target. During the mount, the shotgun stays parallel to the ground without the barrel pointing higher or lower than the stock butt.

When the shotgun hits the shoulder, the shooter welds the cheek onto the stock, and “weld” is the right word. It can’t be emphasized enough. Head lift is a leading cause of misses.

I prefer the pull-through swing for upland wing shooting, but choose the sustained-lead for passing shots on waterfowl — both self-explanatory.

Wing-shooting requires practice to polish the footwork, mount and swing, even for experienced shot-gunners if they haven’t shot for months.Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

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