By Wade Bourne

Several years back, a friend and I were hunting with a guide and another party of four hunters we hadn't met until joining them in the blind. Action had been slow most of the day, but it was picking up in the hour before shooting time ended.

Suddenly the guide spotted a flock of mallards on a path that would carry them near our spread. "Those ducks will work," he said, and he started calling. In response to the guide's highball calls, the 30 or so birds cupped toward our pothole. Somehow, a lone drake managed to pull several yards ahead of the flock, and he was coming in fast.

As the greenhead sailed into range, my friend rose and dropped it cleanly. However, the other ducks flared out of range and escaped without anyone firing another shot.

If looks could kill, my friend would have died on the spot. The guide and other hunters were models of self-control, but their stony stares got their message across. The guide finally said, "It would be best if you waited until I call the shot."

Deciding when to call the shot affects hunting success, enjoyment, and safety. Before a hunt begins, hunters should agree on who will be responsible for calling the shots. Usually this person is the lead caller, who has to keep up with the birds to call them effectively and therefore is usually best able to judge when they are committed to land or when they will pass over the decoys within shooting range. Thus, the lead caller usually has the best "feel" for when shots should be taken.

With this duty comes the responsibility to keep other hunters in the blind informed and prepared to shoot. It's not fair for hunters huddled back in the blind to suddenly hear "Take 'em!" when they are not anticipating the shot and don't know where the birds are. This situation leads to confusion and delay in getting on target.

A better example of how a shot caller might communicate with hunting partners would sound something like this: "They're swinging behind the blind. Get ready. . . . Off the right corner now. . . . In front. Shoot 'em!" Thus informed, other hunters know where to look when they rise to shoot.

When possible, shots should be called so all hunters have an equal chance at the birds. For instance, if a flock is coming in on a crosswind, the caller should delay calling the shot until the birds are squarely in front of the blind. Many times a delay of just a couple of seconds in calling the shot will allow all hunters to share equally in the action.

When the wind is blowing into the front of the blind, birds must work in from behind, and calling the shot can be challenging. The shot caller must decide whether to call shots over the back of the blind at oncoming birds or let them pass overhead and then call the shot out front. In either instance, the shot caller should keep other hunters informed and ready to rise and shoot together.

The same holds true for passing shots on days when birds aren't decoying well. A decision to take these shots should be clearly understood so all hunters can share equally in the action.

When the order to shoot is given, it should be commanded loudly and distinctly so there's no confusion. Before the hunt, shot callers should let hunting partners know what they will say to signal the time to shoot. My command is simply, "Shoot!" It is short, clear, and unmistakable in intent.

Shot callers are forever subject to criticism from their hunting partners. How many times has "we should have taken them on that pass" been muttered in America's duck blinds? Birds that fly away instead of circling back can turn a tentative shot caller into a goat. Others in the party may be tempted to start making their own decisions on when to shoot, but this can lead to chaos. Calling shots is akin to being marriedfor better or worse.

Shot callers should call shots when they think the timing is right and reasonable for all hunters, and they should adjust their shot calling based on how the birds are working that day (locking up and coming in or circling tentatively).

Shot callers won't make the right call every time, but their partners should allow them some leeway. If they make a good call most of the time, teamwork will rule and more birds will fall.