By Phil Bourjaily
We all have days in the field that we wish we could do over. One of mine was a February morning in Nebraska years ago. We were across the road from a swarm of 50,000 snow geese. Birds coming and going from this huge flock flew right over the blinds at a distance of 35 to 40 yards. I shot a box of shells at them and never ruffled a feather.
Back then I had done a lot of upland bird hunting but not much waterfowling. And like many shotgunners, I had honed my skills by standing up and shooting at going-away targets thrown from a trap at my feet. This was great practice for upland hunting, but it didn't help me learn the techniques I eventually had to master to consistently shoot ducks and geese.
Following are five essential wingshooting skills that all waterfowlers should master:
1. Learn to Lead
Upland hunting requires short leads; waterfowl hunting demands longer ones. As a pheasant hunter, I shot by swinging through targets-starting the muzzle behind the bird, swinging it past the beak, and pulling the trigger. "Paint the bird from the sky" was the phrase my dad taught me. This swing-through style works very well for the shallow angles and short ranges of upland hunting, but it's often a poor choice for waterfowling. It wasn't until I learned to start the muzzle in front of birds that I became a decent waterfowl shot. Starting the gun ahead of the bird allows you to make a much more controlled swing. It also makes the bird seem to fly slower. All you have to do is match the bird's speed with your gun and focus on its bill.
2. Shoot Sitting Down
In upland hunting, you usually have your feet underneath you and can move them freely to put yourself in the correct position to make the shot. Waterfowlers who hunt from layout blinds, or with their feet stuck in the mud, have to learn to shoot with a minimum amount of footwork. This can be challenging. Range of motion is important and should be taken into account when setting out blinds and decoys. If you're a right-handed shooter, for example, you'll be able to swing the gun farther to your left than to your right. The opposite is true for lefties. When shooting from a sitting position, try to swivel your whole body by pushing with your feet and swinging your knees instead of merely twisting your upper torso.
3. Find the Range
When a bird flushes, the upland hunter has to shoot before it flies out of range. Waterfowlers typically have to wait for the birds to fly within range before shooting, which takes patience, resolve, and experience. Judging distance by the apparent size of birds can be tricky. Green-winged teal always look farther away than they really are, and mallards seem to grow to the size of geese once they are over the decoys. Setting a decoy as a range marker can help you determine whether the birds are close enough, and so can looking for distinguishing features such as the shape and color of feathers and even the birds' eyes.
4. Hit Dropping Targets
The old shooting advice about blotting the bird out with the gun barrel works much better on rising upland birds than it does on decoying ducks and geese. To hit descending waterfowl, keep the muzzle below the bird so you can see the target. Flushing and overhead shots are exceptions; cover the bird with the barrel when puddle ducks jump up from the water in front of you or when waterfowl fly directly over the blind.
5. Pay Attention to the Little Things
To become a good waterfowl shot, you must also learn to deal with heavy recoil, cold fingers, and bulky clothes that can snag a gun butt. These extra demands are why waterfowling adds up to a shotgunning challenge that takes longer to master than most upland shooting. The rewards, however, are well worth the effort.