Embarrassing Whiffs Stiffen Resolve to Improve
I made some really good shots this past duck season. Honest. But I also bungled several, and they've stuck in my craw since.
Thankfully, the off-season has let me reflect on those whiffs and identify the causes of my misery. That, I figure, is the first step toward making sure I don't repeat them.
Maybe you've experienced similar misadventures. If so, you can relate and might benefit from reviewing my top three misses from 2015-'16.
The Bufflehead Incident
Barely visible against bright sunlight, a flock of buffleheads saw my diver spread and banked into the stiff west wind. I remained still in my layout boat, determined to let the flock commit before I rose to fire. The birds came straight at the two decoy strings to the right of the boat, pink feet down, wingbeats slowing. Still, I waited. Then, as divers often do during windy days, they darted into the breeze and hit the afterburners. I sat up and shot, but the ducks were already 90 degrees to my right, and my sure-thing triple turned into one dead butterball and muffled laughter from my buddies in the tender boat.
What went wrong: Obviously, I got greedy and waited too long, passing up a good opportunity while waiting for a cake shot. The birds were approaching from my right, which usually spells trouble for right-handed shooters jammed into small layout boats. Next time, I'll shoot when they swing 30 yards out in front of me.
A Wigeon Wasted?
Ducks poured past the small point into the sheltered North Dakota bay, and I'd seen enough. I'm going back there, I told my buddy, and commanded my Lab, Birdie, to follow.
After a short hike, I found some decent cover at a large pothole. One problem, though: Birdie could sit on a muskrat hut, but I was standing knee-deep in muck. Whatever. The birds wanted to be there, so I vowed to make it work. The first few birds decoyed nicely, and I was soon one duck shy of a limit. Then the flight slowed, and I began to fret. Finally, as if in answer to a prayer, a drake wigeon rounded the point and flew directly at me, seemingly hovering against the gusty breeze. I stood, took my sweet time and missed three shots, each seemingly easier than the last. Birdie never moved, but I swear she shook her head.
What went wrong: Foot position is critical in wing-shooting, and my feet were jammed deep into the muck. I couldn't adjust my position or swing my shotgun naturally. Moreover, I got lazy while viewing the seemingly easy target. In the future, I'll make sure to get my feet right and swing aggressively through the bird.
Going Out Flat
The final weekend of duck season brought a nice discovery: mallards packed into a spring-fed marsh. I slipped my Poke Boat off a highway bridge into the frigid water and paddled to the first good-looking opening. Perfect. I had plenty of room for decoys, and a handy muskrat hut on which to sit.
Soon, the sky brightened, and birds began lifting off a nearby river and heading toward the marsh. One greenhead peeled away from a group and descended toward my spread. I leaned back against the rat hut, hoping to remain invisible. When the duck was 15 yards away, I raised my gun and shot about a foot under him. The startled drake climbed for altitude, and I would have crushed him … had I not been rolling around on the side of the rat hut. Two futile shots later, the mallard was fine, and I realized I'd blown a prime chance.
What went wrong: Again, I waited too long. And I didn't have a balanced platform from which to shoot. I'll return next year and find a nice, firm cattail bog on which to stand.
The moral of this tale is pretty simple. Think about your shots while hunting. Never pass up good opportunities for potentially easier ones, and use proper form to set yourself up for success. Good field shooting stems from muscle memory and sight pictures you should acquire through off-season practice. Still, you have to engage your brain to make sure that practice can pay off.