BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Sagebrush crackles underfoot and hoppers dart for cover as you push through an eastern Idaho gully.
The season started 10 minutes ago. You're in the heart of great grouse ground. It's cool, but you're already too warm in your Mackinaw.
Rover surges ahead, his energy barely contained by a series of commands, sit, back, hold. He knows the drill but is too excited to listen and runs headlong into a patch of low-lying sage.
A trio of birds flush in a cacophony of beating wings.
Rover runs crazy, sure of a retrieve.
Head down, you walk forward. The rest of the flock rises in a fury. Demoralized and empty-chambered, you mutter darkly while Rover pouts.
To avoid eating burgers this winter and to keep Rover happy, start practicing now, say longtime shotgunners.
''There isn't a big top secret to shotgun shooting,'' said Steve Peterson, who teaches shooting and gun safety for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. ''It's just a matter of getting comfortable and having confidence.''
To get ready for the season, Peterson and other experts recommend seven simple steps.
Get your gun out of the closet: By doing so, you can make sure it's in perfect working order.
Shoot, shoot and shoot: ''People will miss their first 10 to 15 shots, easy shots, just because they haven't practiced,'' John Goddard, an avid waterfowler who has shot shotguns for 15 years. ''It's vital to practice.''
Peterson likes to shoot two boxes of shells on two different occasions to get comfortable with how the gun swings.
When he practices, Peterson tries to mimic a number of different types of shots he'll face in the fall.
One trick he uses is a ''quail walk.'' Working with a friend, he walks through a field. Unannounced, the friend will launch targets at random intervals and at different angles.
''It's just a good way to see different scenarios,'' Peterson said.
Learn to judge distances: Birds will jump up at different distances and knowing how to judge them will make you a better shooter.
Pattern your shotgun: Every load size shoots differently, as do lead and steel. Patterning your gun will give you a better idea of how each works.
Know your quarry: Knowing the difference between a pintail and a mallard will make you more confident in the field, which will make you a better shooter.
Get your gun sized: ''It is critical to have your gun fitted by a local gunsmith and have it cut if it's the wrong size,'' Goddard said. ''That is the least thing done and probably the most important to good shooting.''
Know the regulations: Rover runs ahead and the birds flush just right. You flick the safety as the barrel comes to rest just perfectly.
They are sage grouse, lumbering to get off the ground. You've got time. You pick the bird peeling to the left and lead him just enough.
Swinging the gun, you pull the trigger.
Successful, you move to the second bird. Success again.
You're done because two birds is the limit. Rover returns with a mouthful of bird as you head for the truck.
Pattern Your Shotgun: A sheet of cardboard can make you a better shotgunner.
By shooting through it at a local range, you can get a clear picture of how your shotgun throws lead and steel. It's called patterning, and it works.
''It's a confidence builder, knowing how your gun works,'' said Steve Peterson, who organizes the hunter education program for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
To pattern your gun, stand about 30 yards from two sheets of cardboard marked with a bull's-eye. Shoot different loads, such as BBs or No. 4, at both targets and then study the spread of your pellets.
What you are looking for is coverage of the target. Draw a 30-inch circle around your bull's-eye. If roughly 90 percent of the pellets are inside the circle, your gun is shooting well. If lots of pellets are outside the circle, change loads.
If you have an adjustable choke system in your gun, patterning will also tell you what chokes to use.
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