When Your Shooting Slumps

“I have slumps occasionally, but I’ve stopped trying to figure them out. And I’ve stopped worrying about them . . . almost.”

They happen to everyone at some point, but shooting slumps are never fun experiences. (Photo: Grady Reese/iStock)


From Babcock’s My Health Is Better In November. Babcock is one of dozens of eloquent quail writers featured in our new The Greatest Quail Hunting Book Ever. Pick up a copy today!


Did you ever get so you couldn’t hit a barn door? I got that way in the middle of the quail season one year. It was pretty bad, I can tell you. Why, one afternoon I found eight coveys and bagged only five birds. Ordinarily, of course, I would have—But there’s scant comfort in post-mortems.

My neighbor, a sympathetic and thorough sort of fellow, came over to diagnose the trouble.

“Sleepin’ well?” he began.

“I’ve always been an expert at that.”

“How’s the vision? Maybe your glasses need changing.”

“No. Eyes all right.”

“Maybe you’re worried about that note that’s coming due. The best gunner in the world couldn’t shoot well when . . .”

“Coming due is no new experience for that note,” I laughed.

“Then it’s more’n apt to be your liver. I can always tell when my liver ain’t functionin’ well by the way I play golf. What you need is a good . . .”

“Got one of the best livers in the country,” I defended warmly.

“Well, then,” he sighed, “I reckon your shootin’ is just a little off.”

And that’s about the only diagnosis that’s safe in such cases. My unaccountable slump lasted for a week, then just as unaccountably passed off and left me shooting normally again. I have slumps occasionally, maybe once or twice a year, but I’ve stopped trying to figure them out. And I’ve stopped worrying about them . . . almost.

They are the common lot of all good wingshots. If you do much quail shooting, the chances are so-many-to-one that at times, for some obscure reason, you get so definitely and horribly “off” that you honestly feel you couldn’t hit a bull in the rump with a $10 spade. No matter how good a shot you ordinarily are, either.

It is also true of our misguided brother who smacks a golf ball up and down the fairways, who plays tennis, shoots skeet, or does anything else that requires the same nicety of coordination—the sixth sense we have when the other five are working together. There are days on which we can’t do anything wrong. Other days on which we can’t do anything right. And the thing passes understanding.

If you’ve hunted much, you’ll know there are days on which you can’t miss a bird. You pluck the dizziest customers with surprising ease. And other days when you can’t hit one flying straight down Main Street with a 10-gauge gun.

If you hunt a lot and you never get off, maybe it’s because you’re never on! Maybe you are like a traffic cop I heard about:

“That fellow is undoubtedly the most even-tempered man I ever saw.”

“Is that so?” I asked admiringly.

“Yeah. Stays mad all the time.”

If you come into court and say you do a lot of wingshooting, and that you are not subject to an occasional “streak o’ missing,” you might be telling the truth. Might be. But the probability is that you are allowing yourself to fall into a verbal inexactitude. You can’t hit a fellow in the nose for that.

If you do hunt a lot and you really never, never get off, you are just a freak of nature, and I have no sympathy for you. I haven’t any use for anybody who is always right.

Dogs are subject to slumps, too. Even the best of them have off days, and often without any ascertainable cause. Sometimes a dog, apparently in good condition, can’t for the life of him pin his birds down. You have seen that, I am sure. However hard he tries, he bungles the job, while his master berates him for his maladroitness. The dog’s precision just deserts him, and he is often aware that something is wrong and is decidedly unhappy about it himself.

Sometimes such a condition is induced by physical trouble, but just as often no cause is discoverable. When dog and man both get off at the same time, the whole world just ain’t worth a tinker’s dam and it’s right hard to be philosophical about it. When this happens, I love the fellow who can call his dog in and say: “Old man, you can’t smell ’em and I can’t hit ’em. We’re both off. Let’s go home, get us a good supper, and forget about hunting for a few days.”

To be consistently good is hardly human, and really not much fun. Most of us ordinary mortals are streaky and freaky. We shoot by spells. Off and on. We make the most of our streaks when we have them, knowing full well they won’t last forever. As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, pithily remarked in Bret Harte’s famous tale: “Luck is a mighty queer thing. All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you.”

What is it that makes us sometimes shoot away above our heads? Golfers call it being hot. It is an intangible but terribly real something—often the only difference between first-money and also-ran. A hot amateur can whip the stuffings out of a cold professional.

I once asked a famous tournament golfer: “Exactly what do you mean by being hot?”

“You don’t know what it is, where it came from, how long it’s going to last, or where it goes when it leaves you. But when you’ve got it you’re unbeatable, and when it deserts you it’s pluperfect misery,” he answered.

Nothing is more surprising than how dumb a man can be at times, especially a bird hunter. I happen to be a reasonably good shot, but I have walked up thundering coveys in the wide open and let them all sail away without shooting. Just stood like a dumb cluck in a brain fog. Should be ashamed to admit it, but it’s a fact.

Sometimes I don’t think I have as much sense as I think I have. I have watched many an easy shot sail away while debating whether it was within range, suddenly deciding that it had been within range after all, and getting furious with myself for realizing it too late.

Very often some physical upset underlies a persistent streak of missing. A mean cold, a sleepless night, eating some food to which one is allergic, all may undermine our reserve powers, make our senses less acute, and dull our reactions. A lazy liver is often the bête noire behind a slump. A discerning companion of mine often declares: “I can always tell when Bill is constipated by the way he shoots.”

It doesn’t take much to get a man off, and not much to get him back on. I have a Virginia brother-in-law, a crack shot, who invariably does poorly when he comes down to South Carolina to hunt with me. It’s the coffee, he says, and it may be, but I subscribe to the theory that he’s worrying over his affairs at home. You can’t shoot well when you are divided.

You’ve got to be all there.

The trouble may be physical without our being aware of it. A physical state may induce a mental state, although neither obtrudes itself on our consciousness. Neither outcrops. We can just feel bad without knowing it, I suppose.

Here is what puzzles me: All of us can testify that on the very days we have felt our worst, we have often shot our best; on the days we have felt best, we have often shot our worst. We can remember particular days on which this has happened. There’s something metaphysical about this business. You are always safe in calling anything you can’t figure out that.

One thing is mortal certain: getting mad won’t do any good. Neither does cussing enter into the therapeutics of the case. The more you cuss, the more you’ll have to cuss. I’ve demonstrated the futility of this measure myself.

And don’t agonize. The more you do, the more prolonged your slump is likely to be. In fact, that might have brought it on. Failure often comes from trying too hard. Bird shooting, like a lot of other games, is easy unless you make it hard. Trying to outshoot the other fellow is one of the surest ways of inviting trouble.

Such competitive shooting is bad business all the way round. To make a gallant gamebird merely a target for marksmanship is hardly a gentleman’s pastime. And it will adversely affect your shooting, making you tense and overanxious.

Trying to outshoot the other fellow makes it too important. When you get into a slump, go out by yourself with one sure dog and content yourself with one shot on a rise. Take it unimportantly and leisurely. Say to yourself: “What if I do miss a few birds. There will be other days. Don’t need so many anyway.”

If your bad streak is an especially stubborn one, quit hunting for a few days; immerse yourself in something else, something different. It is a prime time to overhaul your boat, catch up with your correspondence, or get back into the good graces of your wife by doing the thousand-and-one things about the house that you, being a promising kind of fellow, have intended doing ever so long. Sometimes the best way to find something you’ve lost is to quit looking for it. Ever notice how often it will turn up?

Another thing is certain, too: A slump period is the worst time in the world to do any experimenting. If you must experiment, experiment inexpensively. It is the best time known, for instance, not to trade guns, or to make any major adjustments. Because as sure as fate and taxes, you’ll rue them later.

I know a slumper who persuaded himself that his vision was defective and who enriched his oculist without benefit to himself. Another who spent half the night manicuring the stock of his gun. When he got his shooting pants back on, the gun didn’t fit. Still another who decided that his gun barrels were too long and had a gunsmith amputate them, to his everlasting regret. And a melancholy fellow who, always thorough in what he did, turned against his gun and swapped it for a new one. Two weeks later he was walking his pants off trying to find the man who had his old gun, and he had to pay a premium when he found it. Moral: The gun wasn’t in a slump!

When you’re in a slump, your judgment just ain’t worth a durn. Gun fit is of prime importance, of course, but trading off an old companion with which you have always shot well, or making any major adjustments on it, is not only ingratitude but costly folly. If you feel your gun is suspect, don’t buy another one. Borrow one and try it first. It may be you and not the gun. If you’ve simply got to make adjustments, make minor ones.

If you want to switch to another shell, fine. If you think you can shoot better with another, you probably can. But be sure you don’t do anything you can’t undo later.

Nothing is so easy as bird shooting to a man who can shoot birds. Nothing is so hard to a man who can’t. If you happen to be one of the latter, don’t let it get you down. It may be a compliment to your intelligence!

I have derived a deal of comfort from an observation I once heard an old sportsman make:

“A smart man is not apt to be a good shot,” he said. “He’s got too much imagination. Thinks too much. He misses because he is afraid he is going to miss. Takes a man who hasn’t got much on his mind to shoot well. No, sir, a smart man ain’t apt to be a good bird shot. Never saw one yet that was.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s the most encouraging thing I ever heard.”

And about that time my wife, who is a realistic sort of woman, drifted by and said sweetly: “What makes you think that applies to you, darling?”


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