By Wade Bourne
In waterfowl hunting, humiliation is defined by missing three times as a greenhead helicopters into your decoys so close that you make eye contact with the bird as it frantically reverses direction and wings away unscathed. We've all been there—with a sheepish grin, some lame excuse (my glasses were fogged up), and no real clue as to why our pellets and the bird failed to converge.
Shooting ducks and geese is a fine art that is honed through experience, but never to perfection. No hunter hits them all, and no one is immune to the embarrassment of occasionally blowing an easy shot. Still, this is no excuse for not attempting to improve your shooting, and the off-season is the time to do it.
The best way to get better with a shotgun is to seek instruction from a professional shooting coach, and then to apply this expert advice on the practice range. With that in mind, we've rounded up five of the nation's foremost shooting pros and sought their wisdom on how to consistently hit some of the most commonly encountered—and missed—shots in waterfowling.
1. The Decoying Shot - Gary Goodpaster
Retired DU regional director Gary Goodpaster of Collierville, Tennessee, has sidelined as a shotgunning instructor for some 40 years. Today he works frequently with hunters who wish to improve their field-shooting ability. An avid waterfowl hunter, Goodpaster knows the challenges of downing ducks and geese in virtually any setting and situation.
"In my opinion, contrary to what many duck hunters might think, the most challenging shots in waterfowling can occur when birds are descending into decoys. They frequently don't come in straight and level. Instead, they may constantly change speed and direction, especially puddle ducks like mallards that aren't really committed to landing," Goodpaster says.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that several birds in a flock usually drop in at the same time. According to Goodpaster, this makes it difficult to know which bird to focus on and how to shoot it. Likewise, sharing a blind with other hunters can create uncertainty about who will shoot first and who will shoot at which bird.
"All bets are off when the first shot is fired," Goodpaster says. "The ducks typically will flare and go into immediate escape mode. There's a tremendous tendency for shooters to panic when this happens and shoot too quickly, before they're on target."
When ducks or geese are coming in, a shooter should pick out one bird (on his side of the blind or pit) and be mentally prepared to make rapid adjustments when the action starts, Goodpaster advises. "Just be deliberate, try to anticipate what your bird is going to do, and don't get in a hurry," he says. "When ducks flare, there's still plenty of time to get on target and make the necessary adjustments for a clean, accurate shot. I think one of the biggest mistakes shooters make on decoying waterfowl is rushing their shots."
If he's hunting alone or if it's his turn to shoot first in his group, Goodpaster always prefers to shoot at a duck before the bird is disturbed. "I try to kill the first bird out of a flock before he knows I'm there," he says. "I don't worry about leading him much when he's coming in. I just lead him slightly in the direction he's going, and I shoot.
I don't want to give him any advantage of flaring. I just ease into shooting position, point, and shoot him where he's going. Only after I'm sure he's hit hard and falling will I look for another bird and try for a double.
"Again, the keys are to concentrate on one bird, be deliberate in getting on target, and be mentally and physically prepared to make necessary adjustments to your gun point as a bird tries to escape. Just remember to stay in control. If you do these things, you'll have more ducks and geese dropping belly up into your decoys."
2. The Crossing Shot - Bryan Bilinski
Bryan Bilinski helped bring sporting clays to America in 1982, setting up this country's first course in Houston, Texas. Today he operates Fieldsport, an upscale gun shop and wingshooting store in Traverse City, Michigan. Bilinski has instructed thousands of shooters at his wingshooting and sporting clays schools over the past 30-plus years and is a veteran waterfowl hunter and longtime DU member.
"The long crossing shot is the one most people ask for help with," Bilinski says. "It's the shot many hunters most commonly miss."
Hitting crossing birds at long ranges requires a combination of proper gun fit and good shooting form. First, a shotgun must fit the shooter in such a way that, with a proper mount, it shoots where the shooter is looking. Then the shooter must effectively track his target and fire at the right moment so the shot charge and target intersect.
To accomplish this, Bilinski teaches a swing-through shooting method. "This method is based on first moving your shotgun—in the gun down, ready position—along the imaginary flight line of the bird and matching its speed," he explains. "Then you mount the gun firmly to the cheekbone. When you're subconsciously aware of the muzzle reaching the tail of the duck, continue swinging through the beak of the bird. When you see a gap of daylight between the head of the bird and the muzzle, pull the trigger without losing focus on the head of the bird. Your hand-eye coordination makes this method possible, and simple, regardless of your skill level."
Bilinski also advises staying "in the gun" until you're sure the bird is dropping. "If you stay in your gun and the first shot is a miss, it's easier to accelerate your swing for an effective second shot," he says.
A devotee of the Robert Churchill method of instinctive wingshooting, Bilinski believes that hunters shouldn't try to quantify (or even consider) how much lead to hold on a crossing shot. "Instead, just move, mount, and shoot in harmony with the bird's speed. If you shoot when you see that gap of daylight ahead of the bird, holding the right lead will take care of itself."
For a final tip, Bilinski cautions shooters to ignore their shotgun's front sight. "The human eye can't focus on two objects at different distances at the same time, and if you focus on the sight, you'll miss. You have to learn to keep a hard focus on the bird and look through the shotgun. An old saying applies: ‘Fuzzy gun, sharp target.' Focus sharply on the head of the bird."
3. The Flushing Shot - Dan Schindler
Dan Schindler believes that good wingshooting results not so much in what shooters add, but what they take away. In other words, he feels that micromanaging the shot with calculators, angles, and leads complicates the shooting process and makes it more difficult. Instead, Schindler believes shooters should simplify things. They should let instinct take over and learn to trust their natural abilities to point and pull the trigger at just the right time.
Like Bilinski, Schindler is a proponent of the Churchill shooting method, which is one of a number of techniques he teaches at his Paragon School of Sporting in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Schindler offers instruction in wingshooting and sporting clays, as well as instructor certification. He believes that for flushing shots inside 35 yards, the Churchill method is best for getting on target and downing birds cleanly. He offers the following analogy: "If somebody calls your name as they toss you an apple, you don't have to think about what to do to catch it. You stretch out your hands, and the apple is there."
The Churchill method involves the same principle. "You rely on your instinct," Schindler explains. "You learn to trust your internal computer, which calculates lead without having to think about it. There's very little science involved. Instead, when a duck flushes, you start moving both hands in unison toward the target as you mount the gun. The gun finds the lead naturally. You pull the trigger, and the bird is cleanly harvested. There's no calculating involved. It's all very automatic and natural."
Schindler says that many of his pupils have trouble letting go of their notions about needing to figure leads and angles. "They don't believe that Churchill works, but it does, and when they realize it does, you can see the light bulb come on, and then you can watch their confidence grow."
He offers one caveat to this advice, however. "Beyond 30 to 35 yards, the Churchill method becomes less effective. But inside 35 yards, Churchill shines as shooters can feel connected to the bird. It's deadly."
Using the Churchill method, a waterfowler should practice shooting clay targets that simulate flushing birds. This repetition builds assurance in the system. Or better yet, a shooter should seek instruction from a qualified shooting coach to help him master this shot.
4. The Overhead Shot - John Woolley
Sometimes ducks or geese will circle in range, but they won't commit to coming in. In such cases, hunters must resort to taking high overhead shots if they are to get any shooting at all. The dynamics of this shot are difficult for some hunters to master, however, because there is a tendency to make at least one common mistake.
Veteran international wingshooting instructor John Woolley knows how to correct this problem. He has been teaching the art of shooting for 33 years, first in his native Great Britain and later in the United States; he operates Woolley Shooting Clinics in Amelia Island, Florida.
"On high overhead shots, many shooters mount their shotguns behind the bird and pull through, squeezing the trigger as the muzzle swings ahead of the target," Woolley explains.
"However, the eyes focus on the fastest moving thing. With this approach, the barrel is moving faster than the bird, so there's a strong tendency for the shooter to move his focus back to the gun.
"Then, when the muzzle blocks the view of the target, the shooter unconsciously shifts the muzzle to one side or the other so he can see the bird, and this causes a miss. A right-handed shooter typically misses on the left, and a left-handed shooter misses on the right."
Rather than the traditional swing-through technique, Woolley teaches shooters to focus on the bird when it's incoming while holding the gun in the ready position—not mounted.
"When the bird is in range, you should mount the gun, move at the same speed as the target, pull ahead, and shoot," Woolley says. "The pull-ahead happens quickly, causing only a split-second visual disconnect with the target—not long enough to affect alignment. And don't worry about lead. Proper lead will be built into your gun mount."
In summary, Woolley says: "If your eyes have a strong connection with the target and you have good fundamental mechanics in your gun mount, you will have no problem making this shot. Just look, mount, move, and shoot, and that overhead bird is going to drop."
5. The Going-Away Shot - Doug Erck
Waterfowlers frequently encounter going-away shots when birds are passing overhead or flaring after a volley from a blind or pit. These shots are the nemesis of many hunters who can't quite figure out how to center these fleeting targets in their patterns.
Doug Erck of Mechanicsville, Virginia, says that's the problem: they try to figure. "They overthink the shot," says this National Sporting Clays Association–certified shooting instructor. "They know the bird is going away and they have to hold under it. So they start trying to calculate lead and determine angles. If you do this, I can almost guarantee you're going to miss this shot, usually by pulling the gun too far down and shooting under the bird."
Instead, Erck coaches shooters to let their instincts take over. "I tell my students to look hard at the bird. Concentrate on tracking it visually, then let your hand-eye coordination execute the shot. Push your gun toward the target, and when the gun mount is complete, pull the trigger. You will perceive that you're shooting right at it, but your internal computer will direct your hands to put the gun where it needs to be to get the proper lead. That's all there is to it."
Besides not overthinking the shot, Erck also cautions shooters not to aim. "If your eyes go to the gun, the gun stops. Those big high-visibility sights some hunters put on their barrels make you miss. They provide too much temptation to focus on your sight instead of the bird, and if you do, you're in trouble. In wingshooting, the gun barrel is not your friend. You've got to keep the gun out of your conscious awareness and out of your field of view. This is the only way you can truly let your instincts rule."
Erck is a longtime waterfowl hunter and DU member. He hunts ducks on the James and Chickahominy rivers and in several mid-Virginia swamps. He particularly enjoys shooting wood ducks as they dart through cypress trees. "This is when you really learn to depend on your instincts in shooting. When those woodies come darting and twisting through the branches, you don't have time to think about what you're doing. You just pick a target, follow it with your eyes, raise your gun and shoot. It's all about God-given hand-eye coordination. If you try to think about what you're doing, you're just going to poke holes in the sky."
Stick With One Choke and Load
Confusion leads to indecision, which leads to missed shots. This is why many veteran waterfowlers stick with one choke and load that works for them in a variety of settings. For example, a modified choke with a 3-inch load of steel 2s or bismuth 4s are effective combinations in a broad range of duck hunting situations. This is a matter of personal preference and practicality. When shots will be consistently close or long, you may be better served by changing to either more open or more constricted chokes. But for shots at various distances, sticking with a middle-of-the-road choke (like modified) may work best. Moreover, patterning differences offered by switching choke tubes may be surprisingly small. The only way to know for sure is to pattern different chokes (with the same load) at various distances, and then decide if the difference is indeed noticeable enough to warrant switching chokes. If not, sticking with one choke and load combo will allow you to focus more on your shooting form than your equipment.