By Phil Bourjaily

We practice tough shots during the off-season, but the goal of every ethical waterfowler should be to create close, easy opportunities that result in clean kills and suspense-free retrieves. Some advance preparation is required to set yourself up for shooting success.

Configuring the Decoys

Decoy spreads have another function besides attracting birds. They also steer ducks and geese in front of the guns for good shots. Some hunters (myself included) like to employ classic letter-shaped spreads with built-in landing zones that pull ducks in front of the blind. The double-O, J, and C patterns all feature gaps in which decoying ducks can land, and the zone need not be bigger than five or six yards wide.

Some hunters believe that because real ducks don't sit on the water in letter patterns, neither should the decoys. If you're in that camp, be sure to leave a couple of natural-looking open spaces in your spread, or at least enough room between the individual decoys for ducks to land. As you set up, keep in mind that everything looks farther away in the dark; be careful not to clump decoys too close together when you pitch them out before sunrise.

Twenty yards is the sweet spot for a landing zone. Any farther, and the birds will be out of range in an instant when the shooting starts, especially on a windy day. Conversely, setting your landing zone too close can make shooting more difficult; you'd be surprised at just how hard it is to hit ducks at five to 10 yards. Shot patterns are tighter at close range, and the chaos of a flaring flock can be even more confusing. At 20 yards, the pattern has a chance to open somewhat for a better shot.

When waterfowl aren't giving you the shots you want, move some decoys. If the birds are landing outside the spread, create a larger landing zone or more space between blocksor pull your farthest decoys in closer so you can shoot the birds at the edge of the spread. If the ducks or geese are aiming for one side of the hole or the other, rearrange the decoys to block off the area and pull the birds in closer to the guns. Be sure to bring a range finder, or step off the distance, so you don't have to guesstimate the yardage from the blind to the edge of the decoys.

Positioning the Blind

How you situate your blind is a big factor in determining the types of shots you'll get. Facing it southeast puts a northwest wind at your back, but it also puts the sun in your eyes. If you position your blind crosswise to the wind, you can get crossing and quartering shots at decoying ducks without having to fight the sun's glare. Additionally, blinds with well-camouflaged shooting holes or drop-down panels will allow you to watch the flock approaching, which is much better for your shooting than having to keep your head down until the last instant.

During the early-morning flurry of duck activity, a dark shore or tree line can make ducks invisible at the moment they drop into the decoys, especially if your blind is elevated. Don't be afraid to leave the blind to sit where you can see birds against the sky first thing in the morning. In the half-light before sunrise, you have the advantage: birds stand out against the sky, but they can't see you very well if you remain motionless.

Solid footing is important for good shooting, and it's a safety factor as well. Put nonskid tape on the floor of a blind to make it less slippery when wet. Use a small piece of plywood to give yourself something solid to stand on when hunting from a marsh seat on muddy ground. And don't hesitate to move to get a more solid footing for better shooting opportunities.