Duck and goose shooting is by far the most complex type of wingshooting, as there are many components to successful waterfowl gunning. First, waterfowlers are usually shooting from a blind or pit and often from a seated position and in heavy clothing. In addition ducks and geese have keen eyesight and are exceptionally wary, so even though they may seem committed to the decoys, they can jink and flare at the slightest movement.
Fortunately, ducks and geese feed, roost and travel together, and this behavior makes them very susceptible to decoying. A well-placed decoy setup does wonders to draw birds into range. Still, to turn a passing bird into a shooting opportunity takes a combination of field craft, well-placed decoy setups, excellent concealment and calling skills.
Blinds should be built with sufficient room to allow Guns to rise to swing and to shoot standing or from a seated position. Also be sure to make room for a wildfowler’s best friend: the dog. You can be the best shot in the world, but it will mean nothing if you can’t retrieve your downed and wounded birds.
All hunting is subject to weather, and wildfowling goes hand in glove with foul, cold conditions. It also typically involves water, such as lakes, ponds, rivers or even the sea. These environments require specialized clothing that can be bulky and restrictive. Waders should fit to allow a smooth transition from sitting to standing; jackets need to provide room for good shoulder and arm rotation but should not be so baggy that they snag and hinder a smooth gun mount. Comfortable and warm shooting gloves are a must.
If the chosen camouflage matches the background and blind, it is difficult for birds to see the hunter on their approach. Even so, movement must be kept to a minimum. There is nothing more certain to cause birds to brake and flare than fidgeting or rising too soon to shoot. Be sure the birds are fully committed to landing in the decoys or passing within range before beginning the gun mount. Timing the move to take the shot is a real skill, and success depends on it. Most waterfowlers have shared blinds with other hunters and experienced the frustration of poor timing. There is nothing more frustrating than to have a partner jump up and start firing just before the ducks are in range.
Basic Advice for Shooting Wildfowl
• Good things come to those who wait. Shooting ducks and geese over decoys is a waiting game and requires patience.
• Perfect your gun mount from standing, sitting and prone positions. Once you are committed to shoot, the rise and mount must be a single synchronized action. This first must be mastered while standing, then rising from a seated position and, finally, sitting up from a prone position.
When shooting in a blind, the gun usually cannot be held in the same ready position as when waiting for doves or walking up game. The gun often must be held vertically because of the wall in front of you and/or hunters to either side. With an empty gun, rest the butt of the stock on the same-side thigh of the shoulder being shot from, keeping your hand on the grip and finger off of the trigger. This is both comfortable and safe, with the muzzles pointed skyward and the gun’s weight supported by the thigh. Picture a duck approaching, and use your feet to swivel your body on the seat into the correct address position. (This swivelling movement replaces the upland bird shooter’s step into the line of flight.) The swivel should be a smooth, controlled movement, not a jerky, fast movement; once mastered, the swivel and mount can be made in one motion.
When the decision to shoot is made, the forend hand grips the gun and you begin to rise. As the forend hand passes the rim of the blind, it begins to point to the duck. This move pivots the gun into the proper position as the mount continues to the cheek, not the shoulder. (If you mount to the shoulder first, this requires you to drop your head to align the eye and bird and causes both a jerky and rushed gun mount. If the gun is mounted correctly to the cheek, it will always be correctly placed in the shoulder pocket.) The shot is then taken without check or hesitation. Be sure to stay on the bird to see it crumple and fall or, if wounded, to take a second shot before looking for another opportunity. This last-second smooth move and mount is essential to successful wildfowl shooting.
The same sequence with an empty gun can be used to practice sitting up and shooting from a pit or layout blind. The timing of sitting upright and mounting the gun needs to be practiced for both safety and efficiency. It should not be “learned on the job,” as this can create both unsafe and unproductive situations. If waiting in a blind on a guide to call the shot, mount the gun while sitting up, as practiced, and then pick out and shoot your bird.
• Select your shot. If more than one duck approaches the spread, allow the closest to commit to land and shoot the following bird first. The first bird will flare and take evasive action on the gun’s report, but it should still be within range and offer the opportunity for a double.
• Keep still. Unless a bird is wounded or falls at a distance, sit down and keep still. Downed birds falling into a decoy spread can look like ducks landing and attract more birds.
• Synchronize shooting in a blind. When sharing a blind, be sure that all Guns shoot from the same position—either seated or standing. If during the heat of the action one shooter stands and one remains seated, it is far too easy for the seated shooter to swing through his fellow hunter. This is a good case for hunters sharing a blind to take turns shooting. If you opt not to take turns, then agree to halve the shooting zone, taking only birds on your side of the blind. When more than two hunters are sharing a blind, each hold your arms shoulder-width in front of you and open them outward a foot to either side—this is your safe zone of fire. It can be simply said but must be rigidly applied: Do not shoot outside of your zone.
• Bring a good retriever. If you can avoid it, don’t shoot ducks or geese without a good retriever. Chances are you will not harvest your downed or wounded birds without one. That said, if you are shooting over open fields, wounded birds often can be easily walked down.
• Use enough gun. Ducks and geese are hardy birds with thick feathers, tough skin, and plenty of fat, muscle, bone and cartilage. Overhead shots need to pierce the hard breastplate. Use the best combination of choke, cartridge, shot and gauge for the bird and range you expect to be shooting. The old adage is “small birds/small shot” to increase pattern density, “large birds/large shot” to maintain pellet energy. I am a great believer in using the pattern board to test pattern density, and I shoot telephone directories soaked in water at anticipated ranges to prove sufficient pellet penetration for various combinations of choke, cartridge and gauge. Cleanly killing a bird requires enough pellets striking the bird so that at least one or two reaches a vital organ or breaks a critical bone. With the telephone-directory test, I look for loads that have a minimum of 1-1/2" of penetration for mallards and 2-1/4" for Canada geese at specific ranges. (Note: Do not shoot steel pellets at a steel pattern board, as they will ricochet. Use a plywood board and be sure to wear shooting glasses.)
• Practice using your equipment. Avoid the restrictions imposed by bulky clothing by using thin layers of modern synthetic fabrics that are light, warm and waterproof. You can always remove a layer if you become hot. Layer gloves as well: A thin under-glove and a thicker over-glove is the best combination.
Put all of your kit on, with everything strapped in place—dog whistle, duck calls and so on—and mount your (unloaded and safe) gun a few times. See what snags or obstructs your mount, and redistribute gear, swap pockets or whatever is needed to allow a smooth mount. Is the stock hanging up on the thicker clothing? A simple safety pin to gather slack under the arm can be a quick fix.
With the same empty gun, wear gloves and practice clicking the safety on and off. If you prefer mittens, the type that allows the finger portion to be folded back out of the way is best.
Make sure waders are adjusted so that you can sit and stand freely.
• Practice on clay targets. The shooter who spends even one day at the range before his first day in the field will shoot better. Shooting a round of skeet while seated on a dove bucket is excellent practice for decoying ducks and geese. The incoming targets on a skeet field offer excellent practice, and many sporting clays courses offer incoming targets of some sort. Have a friend support you when you first practice firing from the seated position so that you don’t fall backward. With success, you can begin rising from the bucket to shoot from a standing position.
Ducks and geese with their wings set are at their most vulnerable, exposing all of their vital organs. Timing is everything, and this shot can be practiced using a machine set way out so that targets drop in at close range in front of you. Remember that every target needs lead, regardless of its direction. A duck dropping into the decoys will need some forward allowance under it, just as a crosser needs lead in front. Of course the farther away the dropping target or duck, the more lead underneath is required. Only practice will teach you how much.
• Proper lead for pass-shooting. If you cannot set up where birds are feeding or beneath their line of flight, then try to get within 50 yards of their flight line and try to pass-shoot them. This is by far the most testing of wildfowl shots, as everything has to be just right to put the cloud of pellets on a collision course with a bird traveling 45 mph. (The common flying speed of ducks and geese is between 40 and 50 mph.) Larger geese are often the fastest flyers, even though they appear to be flying more slowly. This illusion is created by their size and slower wingbeat. A mallard, for example, is on average 23 inches long, while a Canada goose is almost double that; therefore, the lead needs to be adjusted accordingly. In pass-shooting, the approximate forward allowance is six to eight feet at 30 yards and 10 to 12 feet at 40 yards for a bird or target travelling at about 45 mph, and these leads are easy to replicate in practice at clay targets. But our eyes are drawn to movement—for example, to birds’ wings, in the middle of their bodies—so the same lead at a small clay target sometimes does not work when shooting at larger passing wildfowl. And lead is exponential: Inches at the barrel translate to feet at the target. Imagine the shooting station is the hub of a bicycle wheel with the spokes radiating out to the rim of the wheel. A small movement at the hub is a big movement at the rim.
Hard focus on the leading edge of the clay target and the well-drilled fundamentals required to consistently break targets at 40 yards are both vital, whether shooting clays or live birds. But judging the speed of the larger object and determining the actual lead required to hit it are more difficult with birds than with clays.
A duck at 30 yards needs three to four times its own apparent length (approximately two feet) to place the pattern on a collision course six to eight feet in front of it. At 40 yards, six times the duck’s apparent length, or 10 to 12 feet of lead, are needed. A Canada goose needs two to three times its apparent body length (about four feet) at 30 yards and three to four lengths at 40 yards. The old advice is: “When shooting geese at closer ranges, ignore the body and treat the head as a snipe.” Otherwise, a goose’s deceptively slow passage will lead to measuring and a miss behind.
It is your ability to place the shot cloud on a collision course with the bird that will put a limit of ducks or geese in your game bag. Good shooting is directly proportional to the amount of practice you put in.
Chris Batha’s new book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting www.chrisbatha.com.
- By: Chris Batha