By Phil Bourjaily

When the subject of shooting doubles arises, I'm always reminded of a friend who shot a Canada goose out of a flock passing over a Saskatchewan wheat field. He was swinging on another bird when the first one fell on his head, knocking him flat. Shooting a double is rewarding, for sure, but sometimes you have to know when to be happy with a single bird.

My friend learned that lesson the hard way. Fortunately, most doubles can be shot without risking life and limb. The real risk of an ill-advised attempt at a double is losing birds. Here's a quick course on the art and science of taking doubles on waterfowl:

How to Double

Shooting a double is like shooting pool. You choose a first shot that will leave you in a good position to make the next one. To do this, start at the bottom of the flock and work your way up whenever possible. Moving the gun up, in the direction of a bird that you can see, is easier than moving it down, where the barrel may block the bird from your line of sight.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. For example, you can also shoot one of the birds in the back of the bunch first, knowing that the shot will likely cause the closer birds in front to flare up into your field of view. Likewise, when a flock of crossing ducks buzzes the decoys, shooting a bird toward the back of the flock first allows you to use your gun's momentum to swing ahead at one of the leading birds. Keeping your gun moving in the same direction is much easier than changing course and starting a second swing.

Sporting clays offers great practice for shooting doubles because targets are often thrown in close sequence or as true pairs. If you're shooting single clay targets, however, you can practice doubles as well. After you break a clay bird, simply concentrate on the biggest piece of the broken clay and make that your second target. This is not only a lot of fun, but also a great way to improve your shooting focus.

When to Double

I subscribe to the "bird in the hand" theory when it comes to waterfowling. That is, I'd rather have a bird on the strap than a couple of lively ones on the water. While some hunters swing quickly from bird to bird when a flock decoys, I rarely plan on shooting doubles. I want to see the first bird fold up and fall before I move on to the next.

Where you are hunting should factor into your decision on whether or not to attempt a double. Harvested grainfields, especially those that are covered with snow, are the best places for doubles. It's easy to find everything you knock down in such locations, even if you're hunting without a retriever. That's not the case in a marsh with heavy vegetation or on a fast-moving river that can carry cripples away quickly. Use your judgment and stick to single birds if you're not sure of finding everything you shoot.

Over water, mudflats such as those on Utah's Great Salt Lake, where I hunted last year, represent the ideal situation. The shallow water seems to stretch on forever with no vegetation at all. There's no place for a duck to hide, and nothing for a diver to grab onto if it plunges underwater.

Retrievers can clean up sloppy doubles, but even the best duck dogs aren't infallible, especially when you've got a big group of hunters in the blind. Drop eight or 10 birds from a flock and chances are that more than one will be a swimmer. Young dogs, in particular, will often pick up the close, dead birds first, giving cripples a chance to escape. One bird from a flock is enough for me when I'm hunting with a big party.

Of course, manners should also figure into your decision to double. If you are hunting with a partner and two birds are coming in, it's always best to take the one on your side and shoot at the second only if your partner needs backup.