May 05, 2023
I’ll never forget the warm south breeze brushing against my face as I pulled another sled full of decoys out for a spring snow goose hunt. With my buddy, Justin, we set out 1,000 full body decoys all night, preparing for the sights and sounds of thousands of white birds as they roar into the spread. Morning came, and so did the snow geese. After shooting into several volleys of geese, we both jumped back in the blinds after picking up birds as a pair of snows glided into the decoys as the tones of my favorite track, what we called the “panty dropper,” played from the electronic caller. With the birds about ready to touch down 25 yards in front of us, Justin says, “you take them.”
Now I pride myself on my shooting, so I took aim on the pair, already counting them to the pile. However, the goose Gods struck down that thought of glory as I unloaded the shotgun (with extension tube on may I add) without touching a feather on either bird.
Justin backs me up and folds the pair. He looks at me, starts laughing and goes, “Did I just witness that?!” Let me tell you, 14 years later this hunt still gets brought up when out in the goose blinds as that time “I had to back up the world champion.” (Editor's note: the author is a trap shooting champion)
Since then, I’ve learned a wealth of knowledge on shooting techniques and the proper lead for waterfowl. Is every day going to be a slam dunk? Not even close, everyone will have their good and bad days of shooting. However, after reading this I can promise you’ll up your success rate and be a more consistent shooter when hitting the field. We’ll get to the tactical side of establishing lead, but first things first.
Let’s insert the timeless tradition of comparing “Chevy, Dodge, Ford” when discussing who makes the best truck. Now, convert that over to the waterfowl world, and instantly you’ll hear the “Browning, Beretta, Benelli” guys and gals start chiming in about their favorite gun.
All jokes aside, gun fit is everything, and more important than make. Find what fits you the best and gives you the most confidence. Go hold and throw up as many different shotguns as you can.
You want a gun that feels natural coming up to your shoulder, that sits your cheek comfortably on the stock, and most importantly looks straight down the barrel with your dominant eye. If you don’t feel all of that, keep looking. If you can see the top of the barrel or ventilated rib when you are down on the gun, keep looking.
Every gun manufacturer has their own features that fit everyone a little different. Some have taller ribs on the barrel, some have a beefier stock and forearm, and the weight of the gun will all make a difference in the gun feel.
Pre-Season Shooting Practice
I hear it every year: “Yeah, I should probably dust off the ol’ shotgun and get some practice in.” Then most of us never do, and wonder why we can’t hit anything. It’s easy to get some trigger time in. Take the clay target thrower out or go to the local sporting clays club with a few buddies and go shoot. As a last chance opportunity, get out in the field dove hunting. It's great practice to prepare yourself for the waterfowl season to come, and doves will always humble your abilities no matter how good a shot you are. For me, I get to sit next to my brother Matt, the back-to-back world champion doubles shooter. So, I have a very small window of opportunity and have to make my shots count, which usually ends with me missing and him bagging another bird.
If you’re unable to do any of the practice mentioned above, while sitting at home watching TV, pull the shotgun out (triple check that it's unloaded), and practice shouldering the gun. Doing 20-40 “pull ups” a day over the course of a month will help bring back your muscle memory and ability to bring up a shotgun naturally.
The Three Styles of Shotgun Leads
How you pull a shotgun up and lead waterfowl can dramatically change your success ratio. Some leads work better for others, so try them all to see what gives you the most natural feel when out in the field.
The most common leading techniques are swing through, pull-away and sustained lead.
In the swing-through method, you start by mounting the gun behind the target, swing through the bird, get a lead in front of the beak, pull the trigger, and keep following through.
With the pull-away method, you start by mounting the gun on the target, get a lead in front of the beak, and like the swing through method, pull the trigger and keep following through. This method is inherently faster than the swing through method, but must be more precise as it can easily turn into you jabbing at the target and forgetting to follow through.
The last method, and what I use most often, is the sustained lead method. Here you bring up the gun already in front of the bird, match the speed the bird is travelling with the correct distance lead and pull the trigger, keeping your gun moving while following through the shot. The sustained lead method is the most consistent when done properly because the gun is travelling at the same speed as the target vs the other two methods that require your gun speed travelling faster to get to and through the target, but it does take more experience to know the correct leads for birds at all distances.
How to Estimate Correct Lead
No matter the method of lead chosen, a shooter must learn how much to lead birds, which ultimately comes by experience and time behind the gun.
I have a fun story. We were out on a sunny afternoon dry cornfield hunt. The forecasted wind was 15-20 mph, but the reality was we had no more than a puff of wind. I will say, there’s two professions where you can lie and still get paid...weatherman and politician.
As a flock of mallards drift to the left side of the spread, we give the go ahead to a buddy on that side. He pulls up and puts the hammer down on the second bird in the bunch, then the fourth or fifth bird in line. After high fives, he spills the beans on his exceptional shooting ability: “I was aiming at the front bird, just so happens the second bird fell. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good."
If you shoot a shotgun, you’re either a one- or two-eyed shooter. A one-eyed shooter will close their off eye as that eye takes over resulting in a double image or looking down the side of the barrel. A two-eyed shooter can keep both eyes open and the dominant eye is looking down the center of the rib. Personally, I’m left-eyed dominant but shooting right-handed most of the time, but am ambidextrous and have learned the advantages of both styles of shooting.
One-eyed shooters rely more on the bead-to-bird distance in leading birds, where a two-eyed shooter has a more instinctual ability to pull up and effectively shoot without relying on that lead sight picture as much. In both cases you’ll need an understanding of leads, but if you’re able to shoot with both eyes open, that gives you the best field of view and advantage out hunting.
Unless the bird is at 10 yards, you’ll want some sort of lead on the bird. For geese at 20 yards you’ll want around a 6 to 12 inch lead. At 35 yards I will lead 2-3 feet, and at 50 yards I’m going with a 4–5-foot lead. For ducks I tend to almost double that. Geese travel at upwards of 30-35+ mph, where ducks (depending on the subspecies) can be 40-55+ mph, so more lead on ducks is critical.
Now this is a rough estimate for the leads I use. As we all know, there’s several factors such as wind, weather, the speed/direction at which the bird is moving that will require a different lead.
I will try to “over-lead” ducks and geese about half again more than I think I need. The reason for this?
1: You’re more likely to make that “stone cold” head shot. A duck is cruising much faster than you think, and even though that big ‘ol giant goose looks like a B-52 coming in, without lead you’ll be hitting tailfeathers.
2: Contrary to popular belief, we do lead too much at times. The birds’ reaction when shooting in front of them results in them flipping their head up or pulling their neck back. Knowing how to read this reaction gives you an advantage for a follow up shot. Simply cut down on the lead you used the first shot. Easy!
One thing I want to mention: Always use the same ammo for your hunts, don’t mix and match. Personally, I will get a couple flats of the same ammo at the beginning of the season. When you switch between a shell shooting 1,550 FPS and 1,300 FPS, it will also change that distance in your lead needed.
The Takeaway: Where We Blow It
Seemingly, waterfowl hunters have a million excuses. “The bird was too close, the bird was too far, I thought you were shooting that bird, and I need new glasses” are a few.
Where I see most people miss is not because they didn’t have enough lead on a target, but because they stopped the gun and/or they lifted their head, looking to see if they hit the target. Be sure to continue to follow through, and you’ll see the bird fall in your peripheral view.
The saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a valuable proverb. Start with that one bird. Take your time, focus on one bird and don’t be in a rush to try for that double or triple. Sometimes it’s better to take that single or smaller flock and focus on quality, consistent shots.