May 10, 2022
By Chris Ingram
If you’ve spent any time at all in the marsh—or even on the clays course prior to the season—you know that busting a bird stone dead is a never-ending challenge. There’s the mental component; the stress of a dozen previous misses and the razzing of your blindmates buzzing in your ear. There are the external conditions; a biting North wind, freezing mud, sideways rain, and enough layers covering your body to outfit your entire family. Then there’s the birds themselves. Backpeddling mallards that suddenly descend from the heavens and drop faster than your bank balance a month before opening day, or bluebills that come screaming up your spread at breakneck speeds head-on into a gale-force crosswind. It’s no wonder you lose your composure and horridly empty your gun, hoping to make contact with the trailing end of a few stray pellets. Shooting at waterfowl is easy. Hitting them is hard. But there are a few considerations to ponder to reduce your cripple count on your next hunt.
Party On Dudes
We all love a good old-fashioned bust-em-up buddy hunt. The “you-should-have-been-there” days when everything goes according to the plan. The birds do it right and it’s all hi-fives, smiles, and piles. But before you get too amped up on me, there are some downsides to the smash fests and shoulder-to-shoulder screamer volleys. For a few seconds, it’s complete chaos without concentration, and it may be fun, but it’s not always fruitful.
How many times have you pulled up to put the bead to a beak only to watch that bird fold up before your finger ever found your trigger? Is there really a need for a squadron of shooters to stand up in unison to empty their guns on just a pair of greenheads? Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for a defensive onslaught strategy, but most times you’ll get better presentations and cleaner kills—along with a few holdover shells for the next hunt—if you let the singles and pairs close those last few yards, appoint a single shooter, and save the battlefield bombardment for the spring snow goose conservation season.
You Suck at Math
You don’t need to be a mathematical mastermind to kill birds consistently, but you may need to spend some time to get a better handle on judging distances and limit your self-appointed superhuman shooting skills. Challenging external conditions such as wind speed and avian aeronautics can humble even the best gunners with the best gear. More often than not, birds are either closer or farther than we think, and both situations can lend themselves to less-than-our-best shooting performance. We often begin to go rouge on range with our decoy deployment. I am just as guilty as anyone, I inadvertently set my decoys too close or too far from the blind under the veil of darkness in the pre-dawn setup. In the end, it’s worth missing a flock or two to reposition the fakes and ultimately pull the next pass into proper killing range.
It’s just as easy to get caught up in thinking a supercharged magnum shotgun with cutting edge shotshells and a military-grade, aftermarket choke tube are going to give you a heroic shooting ability. And while these enhancements certainly improve performance, they mean nothing without setting proper expectations and a realistic mindset. Yes, they will assuredly help you kill more birds, but you still need to do your part. Even in the industry-leading extended choke with the newest high-performance, ultra-mega-supreme density, supermag shotshell loaded with the latest, heavier-than-ever, space-age metal is no excuse for trying to take birds at 60-75 yard—or beyond—ranges. Understand your own limitations and the proper parameters of your equipment to make more effective shots and avoid feeding the foxes.
You’re Totally Unprepared
Let’s face it. Some waterfowlers are just lazy. They hardly make time to clean off decoys, hang up waders, and clean their guns—no, that chronic cycling issue was just a bad box of shells. They shoot a random, what’s-in-the-bag-today assortment of chokes and loads on each hunt. They’re even known for forgetting their gun and grabbing the “extra trailer gun” that hasn’t been shot since the last bag limit change three seasons earlier. They don’t punch patterns or bust clays in the offseason and use opening day and a box of shells to dial in. Cripples somehow just become lost as casualties of a can’t-hit-crap-blame-the-gear mentality.
Without making time for practice and planning ahead, nothing’s going to change. If you’ve never shouldered your gun from a flat-laying position, don’t expect to do well hiding in whites on your spring snow goose shoot. Or, if you’ve never stood to shoot from a concealed pit or box blind, don’t think you’re going to knock ‘em dead on your first try. Sure, waterfowlers are kings and queens of overcoming adversity, but without making some mindful modifications, you’ll be like your dog chasing its tail, while you watch your dog chase its tail….
Your Timing is Completely Off
We’ve all been guilty at one time or another of jumping the gun and rushing our shooting, both in calling the shot and pulling the trigger. Between opening day jitters, last light hustles, or getting caught off guard by a flanking flock of birds, there are times when “Take ‘Em!” comes a little early and the skybusting begins. Most times, you’ve got more time than you think. Let the birds work and give you better feet down, neck-out presentations.
On the flip side, there are times when our shots are delayed and lead to sailers and wingers. I know at least one or two sweet-dreaming blind sleepers who wake up mid-volley to join in the commotion and scramble to touch the string of wings as they make their reckless retreat. I guess the sting of three empty hulls with nothing to show is better than the ridicule of “where were you on that one!?!” banter. Save the slumber for another time my heavy-eyed, sleep-deprived brethren, and don’t be tardy for this party.
And then there are the slapdash, supermag shooters with that oh-so-sweet, safety net of a third shell. That 3 ½-inch, next-county-reaching, feather duster has given you too much confidence, so you wait too long to get in gear or you rush your first two shots.
Our days afield are fleeting, outmatched only by the expediency of the time the birds actually spend in range scrutinizing our decoys giving us the opportunity to cleanly kill them. Make the most of your shots by practicing your shooting in the offseason. Get comfortable with the way your gun handles. Shoot at paper and clays to get familiar with how various chokes and loads perform at different distances. Take a few minutes to set the decoys in range and pace off the distance to the blind. I like to set my farthest decoys at the maximum length I feel confident enough to knock ‘em dead in that given situation. A confident shooter is one that will have more fun and undoubtedly make cleaner kills.