by Keith Sutton, Copyright 2007
Peeking through the leafy branches that covered our blind, I could see a dozen or so mallards as they circled through the woods, eyeing the open hole in the flooded timber by which we sat. They were still far out of shotgun range, but my hunting companion, Vernon Baker, convinced them to turn our way with a sharp hail call.
The pod of greenheads and Susies rocketed by at treetop height and banked sharply in response to Vern’s calling. Vern turned this way then that, trying to keep an eye on the mallards speeding through the maze of trees.
A staccato burst of feeding notes was the final persuader. The birds began dropping through the canopy. They plummeted into the flooded trees from a single point of the compass, wings cupped, feet splayed, the emerald heads of the drakes glistening in sharp contrast to the vivid crimson and orange of the autumn-colored oaks. The soft whistling of their wings filled our ears.
The ducks were right in front of us, only 30 yards away.
“I can’t miss,” I thought. “It’s ducks for dinner tonight.”
My heart thumped loudly as I waited for Vern’s signal. Then suddenly he called out: “Get ‘em!”
The ducks towered skyward again. I quickly mounted my shotgun and fired. Way high! Twice more I fired. I can still see those greenheads slicing away over the painted woods.
Vernon looked at me rather incredulously and smiled. I felt my cheeks flush.
“Ducks aren’t hard to hit,” he said. “They’re just easy to miss.”
I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget that twisted old saying: “Ducks aren’t hard to hit; they’re just easy to miss.”
I’ve used it a time or two myself when hunting companions were having a bad shooting day like I did back then. And the more I think about that old saw, the more I realize how true it is. When we’re having an off day, it’s usually due to our own errors, not because ducks are exceptionally evasive or acrobatic.
The cure? Well, often as not it’s simply more shooting. Forget what’s happening and just keep hunting. After a few more shots, you’ll finally connect. Then after another dozen, you’ll start coming out of the slump.
Do some self-analysis and figure out if you’re missing because of bad habits. If you are, it’s never too late to change them.
Bad habit #1: Shooting a poor-fitting gun
Becoming a good shot starts with having a shotgun that fits. If your gun doesn’t fit your physical characteristics, you’ll never be a proficient wing shot. Surprisingly, however, many shooters give little consideration to proper fit when purchasing a fowling piece. As a result, the guns they use cause many of their problems.
The shotgun you buy should feel comfortable, mount easily to your shoulder and point like an extension of your arm. As writer Wade Bourne once put it, “… a shotgun should be like a good dance partner that flows smoothly with your lead.”
To check the shotgun you have, grab it out of your gun cabinet, be sure it’s unloaded and pick an imaginary target like a ceiling light or picture on the wall. Now snap off a quick imaginary shot—both eyes open, no aiming. Now close one eye and look down the barrel. If you’re reasonably on target, your gun fits close enough. If you see the entire barrel, or none of it, your fit is out of whack. If you have to move your head in order to line your eyesight down the barrel, your stock is too long or too short.
If necessary, you can hire a gunsmith to custom-fit a shotgun to your exact measurements at minimal expense. But be sure to check your new gun’s fit when wearing hunting clothes, including parka.
Bad habit #2: Failure to focus
To bag a duck, you must focus on that duck and that duck alone. Yet many hunters fail to do this. When a flock comes close, it’s tempting to aim into the mass and fire randomly instead of choosing a single target. But such an effort usually results in embarrassing misses.
When you see several birds approaching, choose a single, and concentrate on proper aim and follow-through. Don’t think about trying for a double. If you miss a shot, adjust, but stay with the same bird. Don’t attempt to bag a different duck. Get one on the water before thinking about a second.
Here’s another helpful hint: load only one shotshell at a time until your shooting improves. Knowing you have only one chance each time improves your concentration and can help you become a better shot.
Bad habit #3: Analyzing each shot
Many ducks are missed, because hunters worry too much about the details of each shot. Let’s take lead, for example. Maintaining the proper lead is necessary for clean kills. But if you try to compute the proper lead in your head each time you shoot, you’ll get frustrated because each shot is different in terms of flight angle and speed. Some shots are going away, some are head-on, and some are passing at 90 degrees. Some shots are at ducks zipping by at full speed, while others are at birds hovering over the decoys. If you must consciously think about how much lead to hold, you’re probably going to miss.
Instead, shooting should be instinctual. You shouldn’t waste time figuring answers. Let unconscious reaction take care of firing the gun. Focus on your target and follow it with your shotgun. Your brain will automatically figure out how much lead to hold, and if the bird is within range and you have good shooting form, you’ll connect.
In his book, Modern Water Fowling, John Cartier explains this better than I can. “We aim rifles,” he said. “We point shotguns, in the same manner as we point our finger at a passing airplane. Shotgun technique is directly opposite that of a rifle. With a rifle, you place your single bullet with perfect aiming and slow precision trigger squeezing. With a shotgun, you ‘throw’ a cloud of shot with lightning reaction.”
Shooting practice is perhaps the best cure for the over-analytical hunter. Visit a shooting range as often as possible. Sporting clays courses are particularly good as they often have stations with targets that simulate ducks floating into the decoys, flying straight overhead and passing at various angles. Shoot, shoot and shoot some more. The more you shoot, the more your instinct will take over.
Bad habit #4: Shooting too far
Lots of duck hunters are overeager. They can’t wait to shoot, no matter how far the ducks are. Some buy heavy-load shotshells, thinking these will allow even longer shots. But that’s simply not the case. The chance of a shot failing to connect increases with distance. Most of these “sky busters” miss or wound more ducks than they kill.
It’s important to wait until ducks are well within range before firing, and that normally means 40 yards or less. That’s a shorter distance than most hunters think it is. Pace off 40 yards sometime and see. It may help to place a marker of some sort within your hunting area that will help you know the distance beyond which you should not shoot. After a while, you’ll be better able to judge the right distance in a snap.