Shooting ducks isn’t easy. Most of the time either your feet are stuck in the mud, the boat is rocking back and forth, or you’re wearing so many layers that you look like Randy in “A Christmas Story.” And that’s not to mention the different nuances of shooting from a seated position in layout blinds, dealing with blind stubble in your face, or leading a bird properly.
Being a good wing shot on ducks requires good fundamentals, like planting your front foot toward the bird. But it also requires familiarity with both your gear and the birds themselves. No amount of summertime clay pigeon shooting will replace a green-wing teal catching a strong wind.
You Never Practice How Ducks Fly In both trap and upland shooting, you’re usually practicing with targets flying away from you at a consistent elevation. But you almost never get this shot when you’re actually hunting ducks. If the birds are decoying well, your first shot is usually at birds moving towards you on a downward trajectory, your second shot is at birds going almost straight up, and your third shot is somewhere in the corner of their turn up and out.
Ben Webster, a full-time waterfowl guide from Kansas, has seen trap shooting strategies fool plenty of duck hunters.
“When people practice shooting, they’re usually in a t-shirt, standing upright, shooting at a target going away from them,” said Webster. “When we put them in a layout blind with birds coming at them instead of away from them, the shooting goes haywire. Not to mention a faster target and way more clothes.”
His advice? Find somewhere you can practice with clays coming at you at varying speeds and angles. You can do this pretty easily with modern clay pigeon throwers, which have remotes that enable them to throw from anywhere. Or, you could really step up your practice by breaking out the old hand throwers for more variation and trickier flight patterns.
You Don’t Watch Your Shot String When you’re hunting water, every visible shot string is a gift with the potential for a learning experience. The obvious lesson here is your lead. Were you in front of the bird or behind it? Under or over the bird? It’s an easy visual representation of your shooting faults, and you get feedback with each miss.
Troy Poynter, a hunting guide from Lake St. Clair, Michigan, sees this problem a lot when diver ducks come through the spread.
“It’s pretty rare to see clients lead a bird too much. These birds are typically moving very fast,” Poynter said. “A lot of these people are shooting behind the birds every single shot. Especially on crossing shots where the bird is not coming straight in.”
Here’s a hot tip: scattergun beginners should take a crack or two on water as they learn how to effectively shoot a shotgun. When beginners are shooting at clay targets in the air and undoubtedly missing, they have no understanding of their pattern size or the speed of the shot. But firing a few rounds at a clump of cattails on the water gives beginners some context of what’s coming out the other end of the barrel.
You Always Change Your Ammo Load and Choke This might ruffle some feathers because I see all sorts of waterfowl hunters do it; one day you shoot #4 shot through an improved cylinder at wood ducks and the next day you shoot BBs through a full choke at geese. The #4 shot are Black Cloud High Velocity 1 1/8-ounce shooting 1,635 feet-per-second and the BBs are a standard 1 ¼-ounce shooting 1,450 feet-per-second. Personally, I’m not a fan of changing loads like this. Unless you’re hunting enough to build up a knowledge of each load and choke tube, I think it hurts more than it helps.
I’ll concede that you don’t want to shoot #4 shot at geese or BBs at wood ducks, but I still think more consistency in your load and choke combo is important, especially regarding speed and cartridge model. In the above example, your lead changes with each load. One hundred eighty-five feet per second might seem insignificant, but those Black Cloud High Velocity shells are almost 13% faster than the standard 1 ¼-ounce load. A 13% difference in your lead isn’t going to matter at 10 yards, but it’s substantial on that third shot as the birds peel out.
I also think it brings more confidence to know how your specific choke and shell combination patterns. I’ve shot Black Cloud since 2014, and I know what to expect from my gun, choke, and load combination. Most of the best waterfowl shooters I know stick with one choke tube, and one or two loads that they order in bulk every year. West Bond is one of those hunters. He’s the best wing shot I’ve met so far, and he hunts all 60 days of the Arkansas duck season. His advice is simple.
“Pick one load and choke and stick with it,” Bond said. “You will eventually learn the proper lead at all your ranges. Changing loads and chokes is definitely not your best option.”
By practicing right, watching your misses, and sticking with an ammo and choke you’ve patterned and tested, you’ll become a better wingshooter with more ducks in the freezer.