by Bill Nichol
I used to duck hunt with a dog that really hated a miss. Whenever a volley failed to produce a splash in the decoys, she would let out a long, loud, quavering whine. For those present, her pining notes definitely added insult to injury. Yet, they also expressed how each hunter was feeling inside. The plain truth is that nobody likes to miss birds.
Even though waterfowling encompasses much more than pulling the trigger, shooting is perhaps the pivotal moment in the sport. In fact, few other elements of the hunt can evoke such strong reactions. Dropping a 40-yard bird at the edge of the spread produces satisfaction for a shooter and cheers from his hunting partners. On the other hand, four-letter words rarely do justice to the frustration that comes with missing an easy 15-yard shot at a cupped-up bird.
Each season, waterfowlers pursue ducks and geese in many different environments throughout North America. Nonetheless, the shots they find most difficult can be grouped into a handful of general categories. So here is a look at five of the toughest shots in waterfowling, along with tips from veteran duck hunter Gary Goodpaster and professional shooting instructors Bruce Bowlen, Wendell Cherry, and John Woolley on how to correct your mistakes and fill your bag with fewer shots.
1. The Crossing Shot
The mid- to long-range crossing bird is one of the most frequent shots duck and goose hunters encounter in the field. As with all shots, individual waterfowlers use different techniques to shoot crossing birds—the two most popular being the sustained-lead and swing-through methods. Yet, regardless of shooting style, this textbook shot still proves one of the hardest for hunters to make with consistency.
When it comes to helping shooters improve on crossing birds and other shots, all three shooting instructors teach what is known as the instinctive or English technique. This method incorporates the sustained-lead approach to shooting and relies largely on a shooter's instinctive ability to point accurately at a moving object.
As Bruce Bowlen, senior instructor at the Orvis Wingshooting School in Manchester, Vermont, explains, "All people are blessed with one degree or another of natural hand-eye coordination. We all have the ability to look at an object and point right at it." This ability, Bowlen continues, is what allows a person to hit a golf ball, tennis ball, or baseball. In shooting, he says, hand-eye coordination enables most people to instinctively point a shotgun where it needs to be in order to hit a moving target with a shot charge.
In practice, this instinct-based method differs from the swing-through method, which entails starting the gun barrel behind the target, swinging through the target, and pulling the trigger after the barrel has passed in front of the target. By contrast, the instinctive method teaches that shooters should always keep the barrel pointed ahead of the target, match their gun/hand (swing) speed with the speed of the bird, and then pull the trigger.
But there are many ways shooters disrupt this process. One of the most common is a hunter's tendency to take his or her eye off the bird. Bowlen says looking at the gun barrel to see the bird-barrel relationship is the temptation that most often causes shooters to loose sight of their target.
"If you lose visual contact with the bird, your swing will stop or slow down," notes John Woolley, a former English gamekeeper and world champion sporting clays shooter. "This reaction almost always causes you to shoot behind the bird." Avid waterfowler and professional sporting clays shooter Wendell Cherry agrees with Woolley and adds, "The whole game of shooting is focus and tempo. This means that on crossing shots you have to maintain visual acuity on the crossing bird and get the gun, both hands, and both ends of the gun moving at the same speed that the bird is flying."
For waterfowlers using the swing-through technique, Gary Goodpaster, DU's regional director for western Tennessee, recommends taking a slower, more studied approach to shooting long passing shots. Goodpaster, who has hunted ducks and shot clay targets in competition for more than 40 years, says, "Through the years, I discovered that on shots 35 yards and longer, I was frequently swinging the gun too fast to shoot far targets effectively. So I created a modified swing-through system for those long passing shots. This involves slowing down my swing speed, really making sure that I am in front of the bird, and seeing the lead that experience has taught me I need to drop the bird."
In addition to mechanical mistakes, Goodpaster observes that misreading a duck's flight path frequently causes hunters to miss a crossing shot. "A bird could not only be flying left to right but also climbing or dropping at a very shallow angle," he says. "Some people don't pick up on this and read the bird as flying perfectly parallel to the water. So you may need to take a lead that is not only in front but a little above or below the bird to accommodate it climbing or dropping."
2. The High Overhead
The high overhead is another classic waterfowling shot that routinely causes problems for many hunters. On days when ducks and geese show interest in a spread or calling but lack the conviction to land in the blocks, taking overhead shots may be a hunter's best bet to fill his bag.
Whether birds are incoming or outgoing, Woolley believes that shooters often miss overhead shots because they are moving the wrong parts of their bodies. "You want to keep your head still in relation to the inside of your shoulder and the top of your chest," he instructs. "The upper half of your body should move as one unit. But the motion to make the shot comes from your chest down." In other words, Woolley encourages shooters to take a high overhead bird by bending at the hips and knees rather than tilting back their head.
For Goodpaster, shooting high incoming birds requires a hunter to suppress a bad habit and rely on shotgunning fundamentals. "One thing that makes this shot hard is a shooter's natural tendency to want to see the target and the gun at the same time," he says. "But you always have to lead a bird in the direction in which it is moving. On a close overhead incomer, a hunter can rely on gun speed to take care of lead. So he needs to just pull the trigger as he quickly moves the gun through the bird and covers the head. But on a true, high incoming overhead, most hunters will have to block out the whole bird to hit it. I think it's one of the toughest shots in waterfowling."
Cherry gives similar advice about reading high overheads. "Most of the time, high incoming birds are not coming directly at you but are quartering to your right or left," he says. "So I start my gun at a bird's feet, swing through its body, pass its head, and pull the trigger. You often won't find the correct line unless your swing comes all the way through a bird's body." Cherry, the 2006 U.S. Open and National FITASC sporting clays champion, also provides a tip on shooting overhead birds on second or third shots. "When a bird peels out after the initial report of the gun, the shooter needs to recognize that the bird has ceased to go forward and is burning all its energy to go upward," he says.
3. The Flushing Shot
Rushing the shot is one reason hunters sometimes miss flushing birds. According to Woolley, shooters commonly experience a bit of panic on this shot because the bird is moving away from them. As a result, Woolley observes, hunters will often miss this shot because they mount their gun improperly. "To mount your gun correctly, the stock should hit your face first and then your shoulder," he explains. "When you try to get a gun up too quickly, you tend to hit your shoulder first. This makes you look back to find the gun, which breaks your focus on the target. It also makes you mount the gun too low on your shoulder. When this happens, your eye connects with the bird and you fire before you have time to get the gun and the bird aligned. So you nearly always miss low."
To curb this tendency to rush, Bowlen tells shooters to let their eyes start the process of pointing at a flushing bird. "The eyes [not the hands] need to lead the parade," he explains. "If you bring the gun to your shoulder first, before your eyes have made contact with the target, you are left with one option—to use a sort of aiming technique." And aiming, as opposed to pointing, usually produces a miss because it does not incorporate leading a moving target. Bowlen continues by suggesting that shooters should "take time to see the bird clearly enough to identify detail. If it's a mallard, try to see the green head on a drake."
Cherry also thinks that focusing on detail can help hunters avoid hurrying their shot on a flushing bird. "Try to see a color on the bird or anything that stands out to your eye," he advises. "That may take a full second, but there's a lot more time for this shot than you think."
4. The Dropping-in Shot
For waterfowlers hunting in flooded timber or during stormy weather, having birds lock up on a spread and recklessly plummet into gun range can be a regular sight. Yet, this picturesque scenario can present hunters with deceptively tough shots.
Goodpaster believes that shots at dropping-in birds are missed when hunters fail to move the gun through their target. "They will see a big greenhead at 20 or 25 yards and hold the gun right on it," he explains. "But when they pull the trigger on that dropping bird, they are actually shooting right over the top of it. They're shooting where the bird has already been, because it has already passed below the shot. And as soon as they fire that first round, the bird reverses and starts climbing out of the spread. As it's going up, they are still shooting right at it. So they frequently miss over the top with the first shot and miss underneath with the next two. It doesn't matter how much a bird looks like it is almost standing still out there over the decoys, you need to remember that it is always moving in some direction."
While considering lead is critical in this case, Cherry notes that accurately reading the bird is equally important. The dropping-in bird is a common shot he sees when hunting ducks in flooded timber. As with high incoming overheads, he says few dropping-in birds advance directly toward the shooter and that most of these shots are taken on birds quartering to the shooter's right or left.
To prepare himself for these quartering shots, Cherry calculates the angle he needs to swing his gun as if the angle were a hand on a watch face. "If I am positioned at 6 o'clock and facing 12 o'clock, the downward angle of my shot for any right-to-left, quartering-in duck is always going to be 8 o'clock," he says. "For any left-to-right quartering shot, it is always 4 o'clock."
5. Layout Shooting
Season after season, hunting from a layout blind or sneak boat becomes more popular among waterfowlers. It is easy to understand why. These blinds provide enough concealment for hunters to hide in areas such as harvested agricultural fields that are popular with birds but provide little natural cover.
But the advantages of these blinds come at a price. Because of their low-profile configuration, layout-type blinds make shooting more difficult for some hunters. For one, most hunters find sitting up to shoot a less natural sequence than standing to shoot. In addition, shooting from a sitting position constricts the range of motion in a shooter's upper body and therefore limits how wide he can swing a gun.
As a devoted sneak boat hunter, Goodpaster has learned how to overcome the drawbacks of layout conditions. "When you are sitting down in a layout blind or boat, you have half the lateral movement you would if you were standing up," he says. To compensate for this drawback, he carefully arranges his layout setup. "It's critical to position your decoys and boat so that when you rise to shoot, you are in a perfectly comfortable, natural position that allows you to easily point your gun where you expect the shots to be," Goodpaster says. "In other words, when you position your boat, do not place it directly on line bow-to-stern with where you expect the birds to be, but offset it at a 45-degree angle to that ‘sweet' spot."
For right-handed shooters like Goodpaster, this would mean offsetting the front end of a blind or boat 45 degrees to the right of the sweet spot. "From this position, you have good lateral movement to the left and right and can move the gun smoothly on any birds that decoy well," he says. "This setup should give you a 90-degree arc where you can move comfortably, swing your gun, and execute your shots."
Goodpaster's other piece of advice for layout hunters is to slow it down. "When you sit up in a layout boat or blind, there's a lot going on, with blind doors or other cover swinging open and birds right in your face," he explains. "A high proportion of hunters tend to pop up and want to get shots off as fast as they can instead of smoothly sitting up, mounting the gun properly, tracking the target, and pulling the trigger."
Having hunted in layout blinds in Prairie Canada for a number of years, Cherry also advises layout shooters to take their time. "When you sit up, you are in a rush to mount the gun," he says. "You are coming up on a bird that should be trying to land. So you are accelerating while it is decelerating. Your eyes will be drawn to the fastest thing in the sight picture. When you move the gun a lot faster than the bird is flying, your eyes come off the bird and go toward the barrel. How your hands move relative to a target controls how well your eyes stay focused on it."