When hunters shoot at birds that are too close or too far away, they can miss, cripple a bird, or render it inedible. Here are some tips on how to estimate the distance of a target, determine the practical range of your equipment, and select appropriate chokes and loads for the type of hunting you do.
One rule of thumb contends that birds are in range when you can see an eye or make out the markings and colors of their feathers. It works, in certain conditions, but there are many variables. I can't see a bird's eye as well as I could 30 years ago, and no one can see a bird's eye or colors when that bird is silhouetted by the sun or when it's early or late on a gloomy day.
Judging by size works better than looking for details, although there can be optical illusions to deal with. A duck at 30 yards directly overhead looks farther away than a duck at 30 yards on the deck, and that same 30-yard duck flying over the water looks much closer on a big reservoir than it does on a pothole.
Practice range estimation by watching birds at a local park or nearby wildlife refuge. You will have plenty of good opportunities to practice judging range in all light conditions at these locations. Take a rangefinder with you to verify your estimates, and also take it with you to the blind, where you can determine the distance to the farthest decoys in the spread, the landing hole, and the spinners, as well as any treetops or other landmarks. Remember that geese and big ducks look large at 40 yards when you're excited, and huge at 25. Hold out for huge. You'll be fooled occasionally by small birds like cacklers, teal, and Ross's geese, which are almost always closer than they appear to be, but you'll take better shots and lose fewer birds.
Choosing the right chokes and loads begins with patterning at hunting distances. Forget 40-yard testing unless that's the range at which you take most of your shots. Tighter patterns aren't always better. They tend to be too dense at the core and sparse around the edges, making them harder to hit with. Wide-open patterns can turn patchy in a hurry. Ideally, your gun will shoot a 75-percent pattern at the range at which you tend to take your birds. That usually results in a spread that's open enough to hit with but dense enough to kill cleanly without tearing up meat. If you err slightly on the tighter side, you'll have a margin for error around the pattern fringe if you underestimate range. As you evaluate your patterns, remember that a load for big Canadas should put about 70 pellets in a 30-inch circle; for big ducks, about 100; and for small ducks, 140 or so.
Choke and Load Recommendations
Improved cylinder and size 4 or 5 steel shot work well for teal season, where shots are close, the small birds fly erratically, and a wide, dense pattern helps you stay on target. Improved cylinder and 3 or 4 shot are a good combination for wood ducks in close quarters or even mallards in the timber. For all-around hunting, light-modified or modified chokes are fairly easy to hit with at 25 yards yet remain effective to 40 yards. Size 2 shot is a versatile load for situations in which you might encounter geese as well as ducks; otherwise 3 shot is a good all-purpose duck pellet. At ranges inside 40 yards, BB, 1, or 2 shot are good for geese; 2 or 3 shot works well on ducks. For pass shooting out to 50 yards, tighten up to improved modified and 1 shot for ducks and snow geese. I like BB or BBB shot for big Canadas.
Bismuth loads, like those offered by Boss Shotshells, or Hevi-X tungsten-iron loads are two of the most affordable upgrades to steel shot. These loads allow you to either increase your range by choosing larger shot, or to increase pattern density without sacrificing energy. In the case of bismuth ammo, you'll probably want to use a choke that is one step tighter than you would with steel. Hevi-X loads respond to chokes about like steel, but you'll want to pattern them to be sure.