By Phil Bourjaily
Shotgunning is simple. In fact, the phrase "eye on the target, head on the stock" covers about 95 percent of what you need to know. In theory, at least. In practice, however, it's all about the other 5 percent—the tiny details that can mean the difference between a big day in the field and an empty duck strap. Here are 25 tips that will help you fine-tune your shooting technique for waterfowl.
TIPS FOR SHOTGUNS
Quick Fix #1: Cut the Kick
Recoil builds bad shooting habits. Cutting the kick makes you a better shot. The best recoil reducer is a lighter load. If your gun beats you up, try a load that's 1/8 ounce lighter and 100 fps slower. A gas-operated autoloader is the second-best recoil reducer, especially if the gun has some heft to it. A good recoil pad such as a LimbSaver or Kick-Eez is yet another buffer against felt recoil. Combining all three can make your shooting a lot more comfortable and successful.
Quick Fix #2: Blacken the Bead
The shotgun bead is not there to be looked at. You're supposed to see it in your peripheral vision to help you keep track of the muzzle-target relationship as you look at the target. As soon as your focus shifts to the bead, the gun stops moving and you miss behind the bird. If the bead distracts you, replace it with a less obvious sight, remove it completely, or blacken it with a permanent marker.
Quick Fix #3: Be Prepared for Problems
A cleaning rod is a handy tool to have with you in case a shot wad, or even mud, gets stuck in the barrel. And sometimes a spray of Break Free CLP or G96 Gun Treatment will help you get through a hunt when a grimy gun becomes sluggish. For any repairs beyond that, the best insurance is an extra gun.
Quick Fix #4: Shorten Up the Stock
Late in the season, when you're bundled up in heavy clothing, you might find that a shorter-stocked gun is much easier to mount. A good solution is to adjust your stock or have it cut to the right length for hunting in winter clothing. You can always use a slip-on recoil pad for early-season teal or other shirtsleeve-weather hunts.
TIPS FOR CHOKES AND LOADS
Quick Fix #5: Mix Loads for Maximum Results
You can get some of the benefits of a double gun, with its two chokes, by first chambering a shell with an open pattern followed by two tight-patterning loads. Winchester Blind Side and Xpert as well as Federal Black Cloud Close Range tend to open up faster than many other steel loads. Load one of those, then follow it with two standard premium steel cartridges in a larger shot size.
Quick Fix #6: Compensate for the Cold
The increased resistance of dense, cold air slows pellets and opens patterns. You might lose up to 75 fps of velocity and shoot patterns that are 10 percent wider late in the season, when temperatures drop. You can compensate for this by selecting shot that's one size larger than the pellets in your regular load and then tightening your choke. Cold air affects larger pellets less than it does smaller ones.
Quick Fix #7: Choose an All-Around Pellet
Steel 2s come as close as anything to an all-purpose pellet for waterfowl. They shoot patterns that are dense enough for close-range teal and yet sufficiently powerful to bag decoying geese. If I had to choose just one load for all waterfowl, it would be 1 1/4 ounces of size 2 shot at 1,450 to 1,500 fps. Take geese out of the equation and I'd go with 3s as a good all-around pellet.
Quick Fix #8: Use Swatter Loads for Cripples
You can use up a lot of ammunition trying to hit a crippled duck or goose in the head. Steel 6s give you greater pattern density for hitting birds in that small, vital area. Shoot a little low at swimming cripples so you don't waste the top half of the pattern. I also keep a bunch of 2s or 4s in my pocket for dispatching crippled geese in dry fields.
Quick Fix #9: Open Your Chokes
Most waterfowl gunners are over-choked. You don't need tight patterns at 40 yards if you shoot your birds over decoys at 25. Improved-cylinder or light-modified chokes work very well at decoying ranges. When you choose chokes, pattern your gun for the distance at which you expect to take most of your shots. Look for a pattern that puts 75 to 80 percent of its pellets in a 30-inch circle at that range, with good coverage out to the pattern's edges.
TIPS FOR TECHNIQUE
Quick Fix #10: Practice at home
The most essential skill in field shooting is a good gun mount. Learning to bring the gun to your face smoothly and consistently helps you shoot instinctively, without conscious effort. Practice your gun mount at home with an unloaded gun. Concentrate on bringing the gun to your face first, then tucking the butt into your shoulder. Repeat this same gun-mounting routine while wearing your cold-weather waterfowling clothes, so you learn to push the gun out and away from your body to keep it from snagging on all those layers.
Quick Fix #11: Match the Target's Speed
Moving the gun muzzle too fast destroys your "feel" for the target and attracts your eye to the bead, which stops the gun. If you start the muzzle in front of the bird, match the bird's speed. However, swing-through shooters should think of moving the gun about 1 mph faster than the bird as they move the barrel through the target. On high passing shots you have to really slow down. Move the gun at half the speed you think you should.
Quick Fix #12: Point Below the Target
Keeping the muzzle below the target allows you to see the bird clearly. That's important, because blocking your view of the target with the muzzle makes you look at the gun, causing you to miss high and behind—the most common way to whiff in shotgunning. The only time you need to cover the bird with the gun is when ducks jump out of the decoys or when you have an overhead shot.
Quick Fix #13: Take Your Time
Shooting ducks isn't a fast-draw competition. Rushing the shot only increases the chance of a bad gun mount. See the target and move the gun to it slowly. You have more time than you think.
Quick Fix #14: Keep the Gun in Front
The easiest way to make a crossing shot is to never let the bird pass your gun muzzle. Keeping the gun in front of the target will make the bird seem to fly slower, because you won't feel the need to rush to catch up. If your eyes stay on the target, your gun becomes a blur in your peripheral vision as the barrel remains out front.
Quick Fix #15: Focus on the Bird
The more precisely you focus on the target, the better your hands know where to put the gun. If you look in the general direction of a duck, that's what you hit. When you're having a bad day, take the time to narrow your focus to the bird's bill or eyes and the gun will go where it has to.
TIPS FOR A GOOD MINDSET
Quick Fix #16: Talk to Yourself
If you get excited when birds come in, use self-talk. Borrow a technique from target shooters and keep your thoughts performance-oriented. For example, think about what you need to do—such as pick a bird or move the gun slowly—in order to make a successful shot.
Quick Fix #17: Stay Positive
Slumps happen, and they tend to get worse when your thoughts turn negative. Once you start thinking I'm a terrible shot; I never hit anything, a slump can become harder to break. Think only about what you can control—the next shot. When you miss a bird, think about why you missed it and move on. When you hit one, shooting will begin to feel like the easiest thing in the world and the slump will end.
Quick Fix #18: Read a Golf Book
Reading a book about golf psychology can help you handle the mental challenges of shotgunning, even if you don't play golf. The similarities between the two sports are remarkable; they go far beyond keeping your head down and your eye on the target. One of my favorite golf books for getting into a good shooting mindset is Zen Putting by Dr. Joe Parent.
Quick Fix #19: Avoid Mental Blocks
Although it's important to have confidence in your equipment, don't get stuck on a particular brand of shotshell, a specific velocity, or a certain pellet size. If you do, you'll be off your game the first day you have to shoot something else.
Quick Fix #20: Visualize the Shot
Visualization is a lot like daydreaming, which is how most of us get through the off-season anyway. When you visualize, you are actually training your mind. See yourself shooting successfully. The more completely you can imagine the situation—the cold, the wind, the sights and sounds—the better. Picture yourself doing the things you need to do to be successful, and this positive outlook will carry over into your shooting.
TIPS FOR BETTER SHOTS
Quick Fix #21: Help Yourself Up
When hunting in a layout blind, some hunters will dig a shallow depression beneath their seat so they're already partially sitting up in shooting position. Others will dig below the foot of the layout to gain the leverage needed to sit up more easily. Either one of these tactics will help make it easier to sit up and shoot in a layout blind.
Quick Fix #22: Cover Your Face
Wear a face mask or paint. Dimming the shine of your face could give you a slightly bigger window of opportunity to keep your head up as the birds come in. It's much easier to shoot if you don't have to look up suddenly and try to find a target when someone calls the shot.
Quick Fix #23: Keep Your Hands Warm
Shooting with numb fingers can be challenging. Chemical hand warmers are great, just as long as you can keep them dry. However, rechargeable devices such as ThermaCell hand warmers and Flambeau heated hand muffs will keep your hands warm even in wet weather. Taking along extra pairs of gloves also helps.
Quick Fix #24: Have a Clear View
Pulling the bill of your cap down too low on your face can make it difficult to see the target and potentially cause you to lift your head off the gun. Tip back the bill of your cap or turn it around, and you'll see better and have an easier time keeping your head down as you mount the gun.
Another way to improve your ability to see waterfowl is to leave your shades at home. Sunglasses can help cut down glare if you're looking into bright sunlight, but dark lenses make it hard to see ducks and geese. Instead of sunglasses, wear shooting glasses—and choose the lightest tint you can use without squinting. You'll see targets better that way.
Quick Fix #25: Set Your Feet
Being able to move your feet when you're standing in the water is often a luxury. Usually you have to shoot with your feet stuck in the mud. If that's the case, set them so you are facing slightly to the right (if you're right-handed) of where you expect to shoot. It's much easier to swing to your left without binding up than to your right.