By Bill Buckley

Calling shots is a crucial part of any well-run hunt. Without a designated leader, a hunt can devolve into chaos, with some hunters shooting whenever they want to and others left out or taking increasingly longer shots. The result is fewer downed birds, potentially dangerous situations, and, almost certainly, discontent.

For many waterfowlers, calling shots is pure guesswork. Should I wait for another pass to see if the birds will come closer? What if I'm not confident that my fellow hunters can make a particular shot? It often takes years of experience to become a good shot caller.

Jason Randolph, owner of WyoBraska Waterfowl, hunts along the waterfowl-rich North Platte River in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Randolph spends more than 100 days each year guiding for mallards, Canada geese, and snow geese. Do that for 30 years and calling shots becomes second nature. For those with less experience, Randolph offers the following advice.

Establish a Baseline

While we'd all like 15-yard shots at birds hovering over decoys, that's not always realistic. To judge what to expect from the morning flights, watch the first flock or two. Barring signs that you need to move decoys or hide better, those flocks will tell you when to call the shot. If, for example, flocks circle at 30 yards and then leave, that 30-yard shot might be your baseline. Passing on subsequent flocks, hoping they'll circle again and drop into the decoys, might mean forgoing the only opportunities you'll get. When birds won't finish, Randolph will call shots out to 35 yards. Shots should never be called beyond effective shooting range.

Safety Considerations

One thing Randolph won't do is call shots when the birds aren't centered up. "Shooting down the line, in front of, or over other hunters is dangerous," he says. "If the first few flocks favor one end of the blind, move decoys so the birds end up where everyone's shooting out front. If a single bird flies by the end of the blind, I might tell the end hunter to shoot, but never more than one hunter and never at more than one bird."

Wind Considerations

Wind speed is another important factor. When the wind is really blowing, all it takes for waterfowl to get out of range is one turn of their wings. "In a strong wind, you should let birds get really close before hunters start popping up into shooting position," Randolph says, "especially if you want follow-up shots. In a crosswind, set decoys so the lead birds fly past the upwind end of the blind. Then everyone can shoot."

Body Language

Although Randolph likes to decoy birds in close, he'll go ahead and call shots when he sees certain cues from approaching birds. For example, if cupped mallards suddenly straighten up, start pumping their wings, or veer off course, those are signs they've seen something they don't like. In these situations, as long as the birds are within good shooting range, he'll call the shot.
Being an effective shot caller often means taking what you can get and not being greedy. Sometimes, a small group will land ahead of a larger approaching flock. If even one of the landed birds flushes, Randolph will have his clients take the close birds, since the big bunch will usually see the flushing birds as a sign of danger.

When Not to Shoot

Safety and yardage considerations aside, there are times when calling even easy shots may not be prudent. "I want to give my clients a quality experience," Randolph says, "but like anyone who hunts the same general area all season, I've got to think about subsequent hunts too. If you shoot into large flocks of Canada geese or mallards, you may drop some, but you've educated a whole lot more. There will also be times when I'll have multiple big flocks of mallards in a row. At some point it's hard not to call the shot when your clients see one missed opportunity after another. That's why I say, unless it's about safety or ensuring clean kills, calling the shot is often a day-to-day judgment call."