The flocks were coming off the Missouri as educated geese will–straight up to 80 or 90 yards, where they made a beeline to the wheat they had in mind for the day. And we hunkered down as educated goose hunters will, the pits covered with cornstalks artfully arranged so that they blended exquisitely with the rest of the field. No one had set any decoys because a spread was as likely to tip the birds off as toll them.
It was a pure test of pass-shooting skill. I had known that in advance, of course. The leader of the expedition had told me not to bring anything less than a full-choke, 3 1/2-inch 12 gauge. Ten gauge would be better, he had said.
Trouble was, I didn’t own anything close to that kind of ordnance. I showed up with my 2 3/4-inch Model 12, modified, hoping that maybe he had been exaggerating. There’s always that lone goose, I figured, just down from the Canadian prairies, disoriented and willing to give the first feed fields a closer look. A 45-yard goose. Almost always. Or at least now and then.
As the other parties drew their pits, I watched for evidence of short shells, maybe even a hot shot with a 20 gauge. There were none. This crowd was ready to reach out and touch a long goose. The blinds on the north end of the line had the first action in the gray November dawn, a line of 20 or 30 geese that, from my vantage point, looked to be about 75 yards up. The volley did no apparent damage, nor did the second fusilade about five minutes later.
I was on the verge of reaffirming my long-held conviction that 75-yard geese are impossible to hit when a big flock came over the southern pits. As the light had risen, so had the geese–these birds were pushing 80 yards. Four shooters appeared out of the pit two down from us. Sheltered from the muzzle blast, I could hear the whack as shot hit geese. One folded, stone dead. Another broke a main spar and came down spinning. A third was wing-tipped and fought to control his fall. A figure erupted from the pit and ran after the cripple while two other hunters walked out to collect the dead birds.
In the next two hours, the line of hunters showed me that I was wrong about hitting geese at 75 yards or even 90. These gunners were well armed and mostly expert in the fine art of long-range pass shooting. Even in heavy clothes and frigid weather, they rattled goose after goose with patterns of Ts and Fs.
And then I started keeping score on the other blinds. As I recall, about a third of the birds that were rattled with shot fell dead or badly crippled. About two-thirds continued flying. When I had a chance, I watched those flocks fading toward the bluffs at the edge of the floodplain a mile or so away. Regularly, I could see one or two specks dropping slowly out of formation. Coyote fodder. Of the birds that took a pattern, I’d guess a third dropped out of the flock beyond the shooter’s reach. That left about a third that showed no ill effects. The shot may have rattled through their flight feathers without doing any damage, or they may have taken flesh wounds.
For about three generations now, we waterfowlers have chewed on the issue of skybusting. The ethically pure among us have pointed out the philosophical reasons for limiting ourselves to shots well within the limits of our guns, shells and skills. I know a few hunters who count any cripple they lose against their daily bag limits, which may be the ultimate expression of ethical commitment. There seems to be an essential rightness in killing cleanly, quickly and without waste. Certainly, it’s good public relations in an era when hunters are held up to increasing scrutiny.
But I have to admit that much of my heartburn with skybusting doesn’t rise from moral outrage–it’s a practical matter.
Let’s set aside the esthetics of waterfowling, the rich tradition, the fine dogs, calls and boats. Let’s get down to issues of efficiency. If the law allows me to kill five drake mallards, then the most efficient way I can get them is to decoy five lone drakes and kill them stone dead. If I cripple one of the drakes, I have to chase him around the cattails until I shoot him again or wring his neck. While I’m away from the blind and spread, Murphy’s Law states categorically that more ducks will decoy. I will not get a chance to shoot any of these birds, and there’s a good chance they will learn a little more about flocks of plastic ducks during their visit to my set, making them harder to decoy at a later date.
If I shoot my ducks out of a flock, the education process for the survivors is greater yet, and if I shoot at ducks in a flock and don’t kill any, I’ve accomplished the ultimate in hunter-proofing that flock. If the antihunting groups understood anything about hunting, they would a recognize shooting like that with a plaque for selfless efforts on behalf of mallards.
Shooting waterfowl close reduces the chances of all these inefficient outcomes. When a duck or goose is hooked over the decoys, he is moving more slowly and is easier to hit. If I miss or cripple him on my first shot, I have a good chance of killing him with my second or third. Because he falls close to my blind, I can dispatch and retrieve him much more quickly than a duck that falls into a patch of cover 40 or 50 yards away. My chances of killing a double or even a triple out of a flock are drastically higher when the entire flock is 15 yards off my gun barrel than when it is cruising over at 50 yards. Killing several ducks out of one flock is more efficient than killing one duck out of several flocks because it educates fewer ducks.
We all harbor a latent hostility toward the guys in the next blind, but if I must have neighbors on the marsh, I pray that the waterfowl gods send me efficient ones. I can’t say I’m glad to see a flock work another set of decoys, but it is some comfort when the guys over there wait until the birds are in their laps, then jump up and kill five out of the flock. I have to admire skill when I see it and besides, with that kind of ability, those hunters won’t be competing with me very long.
Of course, a crowd on the marsh automatically stretches the shooting ranges. There’s that constant fear that the flock will leave my spread and drift over to yours. This leads to calling contests, then longer and longer passing shots, until a few particularly jealous nimrods start shooting just to flare ducks that are working elsewhere.
In my humble experience, ducks will work decoys about as close as they are allowed. If everyone starts shooting when the birds are at 60 yards, then the birds will get skittish at 60 yards. If no one shoots until the birds are within 30 yards, the birds will work in to about 30 yards. The number of sh
ots taken is about the same; it’s the number of birds in the bag that changes.
There are three ways to improve our efficiency as waterfowl killers. First, we need to recognize the limits of our guns and loads. A duck or goose hunter who wants to reach out had better pattern his gun with several loads and shot sizes to find out which one is putting at least one or two pellets into lethal parts of the target.
Second, we need to get better at putting the pellets where they need to be. A few shotgunners are gifted wingshooters; a few more take the time to learn the art of wingshooting with good coaching and hard practice. Hunters who lack either the native skill or discipline to become exceptional shots can at least learn their own limitations. Take the shots you’re pretty sure you can make. Third, we can all become better hunters with better spreads, improved calling, better camouflage and less conspicuous blinds. In short, better techniques will bring waterfowl closer. Looking the birds in the eye at point-blank range is not only more efficient, it’s more fun.
Very few people are capable of hitting ducks and geese at 40 yards and beyond–I know I’m not. Further, as my hunt along the Missouri demonstrated, hitting a duck or goose isn’t the same as killing it. The barrage we send up is causing unnecessary pain and waste–it also trains the survivors to fly even higher.
Skybusting is unethical, wasteful, expensive and just plain stupid. Why does it continue?