©2007, Keith Sutton
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.
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 a parka.
2. Failing 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.
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.
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.
To rid yourself of this bad habit, don't get overanxious. Focus on a single bird and quickly try to determine if it's within proper shooting range. If you don't think it is, let it pass. Don't waste shells on a bird you'll probably miss or wound.
Another good practice is to allow one person in your party — someone who is a good judge of birds' range — to call all the shots. Often, this is the main caller in the party. No one shoots until that person says, "Shoot!"
5. Watching with your head, not your eyes
Sharp-eyed ducks will flare away if they see hunter movement. Often, it's the hunter's moving head, turning this way and that as he scans the sky, that birds see. When your partner whispers, "Don’t move! Three on the right!" every instinct tells you to move your head for a better look. But such movement often causes the birds to leave.
"Learn to watch with your eyes, not your head," a veteran waterfowler once coached me. "Keep your noggin still and tilted downward; move only your eyes. Fewer ducks will spot you, and more will drop in for a visit."
That's good advice. It's also wise to wear a full set of camouflage clothing, including gloves and a face-net or camo face paint. This is one more advantage that will improve your ducks-killed-to-shots-fired ratio.
6. Not studying your quarry
Waterfowlers who are top-notch shooters in the field also tend to know a great deal about the habits of the ducks they hunt most often. They know how their quarry will react to various weather patterns, the types of foods they're most likely eating, the ways their flight patterns will change throughout each day and each season, and, with a good measure of certainty, whether or not the hunting is likely to be good on a given day.
They know these things because they've made it a habit to learn everything they can about the ducks they pursue. They know that being a good hunter means studying even minute details about your quarry's habits.
The reason these hunters tend to be excellent shooters is because they have studied hundreds of ducks dropping into their decoys. They know what the birds will do, how they'll approach the decoys, which way they'll flare and whether they'll go high or low. The knowledge thus gained enables each one to know approximately where he must point his gun before it even touches his shoulder. This is why most great wingshots are veteran hunters. And it's also the reason many excellent skeet and trap marksmen fail so miserably at connecting with game birds.
Take, for example, the veteran mallard hunter. He knows a decoying greenhead will almost always tower straight up when the gunners stand to shoot, reaching an almost stationary point before leveling off. Know this point and you have an almost standstill target.
Diving ducks seldom tower when surprised. They curve away in a broad arc, relying on speed for their escape. The best shooters know how to adjust to the differences in behavior.
Dabblers such as pintails, shovelers and wigeons will spring up and drive into the wind immediately when flushed off flooded fields or potholes. This allows the gunner to focus his attention on a small arc instead of a complete circle, increasing the odds of connecting.
Divers coming in with wingtips barely above the water's surface will usually decoy perfectly, enabling the gunner to hold fire until the nearest ducks are well within range. He then fires his first shot at a bird near the rear of the flock and his last shots at front birds that are still within shooting range. Divers crossing high and fast will usually pass. Thus the hunter must be prepared to shoot at the exact moment the flock passes closest to the blind.
Knowing these types of things can prove extremely beneficial to the hunter. But the benefits are realized only if the hunter consciously studies the behaviors of the birds he's pursuing. "Pay attention and learn" - that phrase sums up the cure for this bad behavior.
Will getting rid of bad habits allow you to kill every duck you draw a bead on? Not likely. There still will be times you'll take down your gun and wonder how in the heck you missed such an easy shot. Even the best marksmen in the world miss occasionally. And some days, they miss frequently.
One thing's for sure, however: If you take time to analyze your bad habits and try to correct them, you'll become a better shooter. And being a better shooter is part of being a good sportsman. We may not bat a thousand each time we're up to the plate, but true sportsmen feel an obligation to try.
Break bad habits, bag more ducks. That's a goal we all should make part of our hunt.