By Mark Romanack
In the glory days of waterfowling, sportsmen developed shooting skills in the field by firing at wild birds. These days, the amount of time a typical duck or goose hunter can spend in the field doesn't come close to providing the practice necessary for refining the art of hitting webbed feet on the wing.
In the same manner that a duck dog can't learn the art of fetching on wild birds, avid waterfowl hunters have to find other more creative ways to practice the demanding types of shooting challenges we face.
Clay Target Practice
Clay target games such as skeet, trap and sporting clays are wonderful ways to become more familiar with the fundamentals of shooting a shotgun. The problem with these clay target games is the flight of the bird is all too predictable, making it a far cry from the shooting situations hunters face in the field.
Given a little time to practice, most any shotgun enthusiast can learn to break the No. 1 low house bird in skeet. Shooting a lot of skeet, trap or sporting clays helps develop fundamental shooting instincts, but it does little good in the field when the rules of the game suddenly change.
Modified Clay Shooting
The best way to gain an edge on a clays course is to step outside of the standard rules. Try shooting a round of skeet, trap or sporting clays by standing 5 to 20 yards behind the normal station position. It's amazing how much more difficult it is to break clays routinely just by increasing the distance to the target by a few yards.
Because the typical skeet shot is around 20 yards, and waterfowlers routinely take shots out to 40 yards, it works wonders to burn up a few boxes of shells at greater – and more realistic – distances.Stepping back a few yards forces shooters to daylight the bird (position the muzzle in front of the target before shooting), which is more than necessary on the regulation course. Because most ducks and geese are missed by shots behind the target, this can pay huge dividends in the field.
Shoot From the Hip
In skeet and trap – and, to a lesser degree, in sporting clays – many shooters pre-mount the gun and then call for the target. The technique might increase your skeet score, but it won't help knock down ducks in the real world. Call for the bird with the gun at hip height and master the art of mounting and swinging the gun in one smooth, fluid motion.The best way to practice this critical step in gun mounting is to slip a penlight into the barrel of an unloaded gun and practice by picking a spot on the wall to point at. Snap the gun to the shoulder over and over again while concentrating intently on a particular spot. The light should hit the wall at exactly the spot where your eyes focused. If the light hits the wall outside this focal point, the gun fit is wrong, or there is an eye-dominance problem that should be addressed.
Sit a Spell
Practicing skeet or trap from 25 to 40 yards quickly teaches a shooter the importance of keeping the gun barrel moving. The next step is increasing the degree of difficulty by shooting from a sitting position. The typical waterfowl hunter in a layout-style blind is forced to shoot sitting down. It is an awkward position, requiring practice to master.
I actually take my layout blind to the skeet range and position it on the ground at or behind a station, climb in, close the lids and call for the bird. When you can call and open the blind, sit up, click off the safety, shoulder the gun and break the target, you are ready for the real deal. This drill is difficult for even seasoned shooters to master.
Right Hand, Left Hand
While we are on the subject of layout blinds, a few tips can help average shooters drop more birds. From a seated position, the torso can only rotate so much. To keep your body moving fluidly and the gun following pace, the shot has to be taken in a rather narrow field of view compared to standing and shooting.
The typical right-handed shooter should position the layout blind with feet cocked well to the right of center. Doing so increases the range of movement the shooter has from right to left. Of course, the reverse is true for left-handed shooters. It is also important to position any left-handed shooters on the far right hand flank of the decoy setup and a right-handed shooter on the left flank. Taking the proper positions allows maximum coverage of the spread and the space immediately left and right of the decoys.
How many times have you read it is important to wear your hunting clothes when practicing shooting? That's true, but for waterfowl hunters, the bigger culprit is wearing too many clothes. Bulky clothing so common in waterfowl hunting limits freedom of movement and, in turn, the ability to swing the gun fluidly.
The advent of high-tech clothing materials has dramatically changed the way I dress from the waist up in the field. Instead of wearing the typical three-in-one waterproof parka, I start with a solid base layer of stretch-fit polyester next to the skin. On top of that, I add a thin polyester-fleece pullover and a wool sweater engineered with a wind-blocking membrane. My three-layer maximum-stretch clothing allows me to remain flexible and warm. In extreme conditions, I add a waterproof jacket.
I'd prefer to be dressed in lighter layers that allow me to shoot well than to bulk up and not be able to hit a bird. Another trick for staying warm while wearing less is to choose garments that block heat loss at the head and neck. A turtleneck base layer works wonders. I also wear an insulated cap with earflaps to keep heat from escaping out my noggin. I don't mind looking like Elmer Fudd, as long as I can shoot well.
Choke it Down
Tightly patterning steel and other non-toxic shot encourages a lot of hunters to use more open chokes such as improved cylinder and even skeet chokes for waterfowl. I've opted to go the other direction and hunt with a modified choke most of the time.
My reasoning is simple: Most of the shots taken at waterfowl are not in-your-face opportunities. Instead, in the real world of duck hunting, we're forced to shoot at birds from 25 to 50 yards away. A tighter choke allows me to hit distant birds with enough pellets to deliver a quick kill, compared to more open chokes that don't put enough pellets on target beyond 30 yards.
I'd like to say all the birds I drop are within 25 yards, but that isn't true or realistic. Instead, I prepare to shoot birds at 30 and even 40 yards, so when I get a chance to take a decoying mallard at 20 yards, it literally becomes a chip shot.
Mark Romanack hunts ducks and geese from the Canadian prairies to his home in Tustin, Mich.