By Brad Fitzpatrick

For waterfowlers, enthusiasm grows exponentially as opening day approaches. We double-check decoys, spend time at the range, practice calling, and find ourselves daydreaming about early mornings in the marsh. But even a picture-perfect hunt can turn into a nightmare if safety isn't a priority. Before heading into the field this season, make sure that you and everyone you hunt with is safe and responsible. To avoid any mishaps, keep these 16 things in mind every time you head to the blind.

1. Don't Chamber a Shell Before You're Ready to Shoot

I'm always amazed by the number of hunters who think it's necessary and prudent to chamber a shell well in advance of legal shooting light. There's no reason for this, and it is nothing but a hazard. In some cases, this is illegal, as well as a violation of commonsense firearms safety rules and blind etiquette. Get settled into your blind, make sure everyone else is ready, and load your gun only when it is time to shoot.

2. Exercise Muzzle Control

When ducks begin dropping into the decoys it's easy to get overwhelmed with anticipation. But the first rule of waterfowl hunting (and all hunting, for that matter) is to be acutely aware of the position of your muzzle. I've been around a few hunters who were so excited by the proposition of shooting a bird that they lost all awareness of their gun position. Keep the muzzle pointed outside the blind and in a safe direction at all times. Most importantly, demand the same from your hunting partners.

3. Understand Shooting Lanes

Always adhere to the 10-o'clock-to-two-o'clock window when you're in the blind with other shooters. This means you won't have a shot at every bird or flock that comes in, but it's far better to pass on a bird than to take a dangerous shot. Going too far left or right is not only irritating to the hunters positioned on either side of you, but also inherently dangerous-discharging a load of steel shot into the barrel of the next shooter's gun can have devastating consequences. Make sure everyone in the blind knows where they can and cannot shoot, and adhere to those rules without exception. This becomes even more important when hunting from layout blinds.

4. Hearing and Eye Protection

No duck is worth losing your eyesight or damaging your hearing, so be sure to protect yourself when the shooting begins. Hearing loss is irreversible, and the constant thunder of close-range shooting can cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). NIHL can be temporary or permanent, and it is a result of the fine hairs inside the ear (known as stereocilia) being damaged by loud noises. Digital hearing-protection devices allow you to hear sounds in the "safe" range (under 85 decibels) and protect you against louder sounds, like the damaging 150 decibels generated by a shotgun blast at close range. One errant pellet or even an ejected shell casing can cause permanent blindness, so protecting your eyes with ANSI-rated glasses is crucial. Another benefit is that many safety glasses provide improved target visibility in bright or low-light conditions.

5. Check the Barrel

Climbing in and out of boats, slogging through mud, and getting situated in a blind makes it easy to accidentally clog your shotgun barrel. It's not always obvious when you've jammed your barrel with mud or other debris, however. On a bird hunt in South Dakota I noticed that one of the barrels of my over/under had dirt around the muzzle. Closer inspection revealed that the lower barrel was completely blocked with thick, black mud. I have no idea when or how that barrel got fouled up, but I was very thankful I noticed the problem before I pulled the trigger. Before loading, take the time to double-check that your bore is free of debris.

6. Familiarize Yourself with Your Firearm

This isn't just a problem for new shooters; I've seen experienced hunters fiddling with the action, safety, and so forth on a new firearm. To my mind, preventing this dangerous situation is one of the best excuses to shoot sporting clays, trap, and skeet in the summer. As you're improving your shooting skills, you're also learning how to handle your firearm, and that familiarity prevents you from being a danger in the blind. Hunters who aren't familiar with how their gun works are more likely to lose track of their muzzle.

7. Pay Attention to Your Shells

Clogged bores can be a problem, but dirty, muddy shot shells can also cause foul-ups that may result in injury. Make sure your shells are in good working order, and don't mix gauges in the pockets of your hunting jacket. If you're hunting with a 12-gauge, make sure that you have only 12-gauge shells on hand. It's easy to slip a sub-gauge shell into a gun by accident and then load a larger shell behind it because you think your gun is empty-and the results can be devastating.

8. Leave the Safety On

One of the sounds I hate most in the duck blind is hearing a safety click when birds are still mere specks on the horizon. The safety should come off only when you are in the process of firing, never before. However, you must also keep in mind that the safety on a shotgun is a mechanical device, and as with all mechanical devices, it can fail. So don't rely on the safety alone to keep your gun from firing. Safe gun handling is still essential.

9. Keep Your Finger off The Trigger

Part of safe gun handling is keeping your finger off the trigger until your target is in clear view and you are sure it is safe to fire. In cold conditions most waterfowlers wear thick gloves, and those gloves can compromise fine motor skills and your ability to gauge trigger pressure. If the safety is off and you slide your finger into the trigger guard with heavy gloves, you can accidentally fire. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are actively shooting at a target.

10. Don't Rush the Shot

One of the primary reasons hunters miss is rushing a shot. That's true on the sporting clays course and in the duck blind. Learning to slow down and take a clear shot will not only help you hit more birds, but also prevent you from making a stupid mistake because you're rushing. In addition, don't stand up to shoot until the shot is called. By rising too early you are putting yourself farther ahead of every other shooter in the blind and creating a potentially dangerous situation.

11. Control Your Dog

A reckless, scrambling canine in your blind is more than just an annoyance-it's a hazard. If you're the handler, take the time to make sure your dog is behaving appropriately and isn't creating a dangerous situation for other hunters. If you're hunting with such a dog, remember that you must pay extra attention to safety and may need to have a discussion with the rambunctious canine's owner.

12. Practice Boat Safety

Many duck hunts require travel to and from the blind by boat, and each year more and more hunters are actually hunting from their boats. But a moving boat makes a lousy shooting platform, so don't fire until the boat is secured. Furthermore, if you're on the water you must wear a flotation device. A life jacket may not be the most comfortable addition to your hunting attire, but if you fall into icy water, it is often your only hope of survival.

13. Have That Hard Talk

It's not easy to confront another hunter who is failing to abide by the safety rules, but it's far better to engage in an awkward conversation than to live with the regret of witnessing an injury that you might have prevented with a simple exchange of words. Approach the conversation with tact and respect, but ultimately you shouldn't be hunting with someone who puts you or others at risk of injury or death.

14. Set Ground Rules before You Hunt

You'd be surprised how many hunters act in a risky or dangerous manner but have no idea that what they're doing is wrong. Before the hunt begins, make sure you address safety issues. No guns loaded before shooting light, know your lane, keep track of your muzzle, and keep your gun pointed in a safe direction at all times. We tend to think that these conversations are necessary only when there are kids or new shooters in the blind, but even seasoned hunters need to be reminded of the rules.

15. Know Your Target and What Lies Beyond It

This is a cardinal rule of rifle shooting that is seldom discussed in waterfowling, but that's a mistake. It's easy to assume that you're the only hunting party on the water at daylight. However, that's often not the case, especially in public hunting areas. Take the time to assess the situation and survey the area for other hunters before firing the first shot.

16. It's Just a Duck

While no one wants to go home empty-handed, it's far better to hold off when you feel that a shot is questionable rather than slap the trigger and find out you've made a mistake. All hunters have a responsibility to act in a safe and responsible manner, no matter the game. The consequences of taking the wrong shot far outweigh the benefits of a full bag, and you don't want to live with the knowledge that you caused an injury that could have been prevented.