It might be the off-season, but now's no time to put your shotgun away
When the season ends, most duck hunters clean and store their shotguns and don't pick them up again until the fall. We should do the opposite, and use the free time granted in the off-season to shoot more and stay sharp. This year, try combining several challenging wingshooting activities — clays, upland hunting and light-goose hunting, for example — to practice the most common shots you'll experience in the duck marsh. Here are a few of those shots and how to approach each.
These might be the easiest shots in waterfowling. The target flies directly at you, seeming to hover or descend slightly. Because it looks so simple, though, it's also one of the easiest to miss. Don't get overconfident. Keep your head down on the stock and follow through just as you would with hard crossers or springing teal. Resist the old advice to aim at their feet. Wingshooting doesn't involve aiming. It's all about relying on your instinct, reaction and hand-eye coordination.
As with incomers, outgoing targets — a straightaway in trap or a flushing wood duck — can fool you. Typically, I raise my gun quickly to meet the target, making it easy to shoot over those birds. Resist hasty shots, but don't wait to fire until you block out the bird with your barrel. Instead, swing naturally until the target rests on your barrel, fire and follow through.
These classic waterfowl shots can range from easy (a honker sailing over at 25 yards) to graduate-level (a redhead flying with the wind at 45 yards). Proper execution of both remains the same, however. Watch the target intently, swing through the bird and fire when your brain says shoot. As you move your gun to and through the duck, it's usually best to point your barrel slightly to one side of the bird so you can keep your eyes focused on the target through the process. Blocking out the duck as you swing through can make you stop your gun. Also, if you're standing, shift your weight from your front foot to your back foot in sync with your swing.
These quintessential shots separate finely tuned wingshooters from fair shotgunners. The key, as you've doubtless heard before, is to move your barrel ahead of the bird and continue your swing after you fire in a smooth follow-through. Shooters get in trouble when they float birds with a sustained lead or don't swing their guns aggressively enough. As with overhead targets, burn a hole in the bird with your eyes, and move your gun swiftly through the target. Some folks ask how far they need to lead birds at various distances. The answer? I don't know. Experience and hand-eye coordination will reveal the solution. (But when in doubt, always lead the bird more.)
5. Quartering Angles
To me, these are the toughest shots. It's easy to misjudge them, especially if the target is rising or falling (imagine the high-house bird on Station 2 in skeet). Try not to overthink things. Again, stare intently at the target, and then mount and move your gun naturally through it. You don't need to lead these targets as much as a crossing shot, of course, but you also don't want to approach them like straightaways. Keep that gun moving, and let your eyes and brain call the shot.
During clays sessions or on other bird hunts, note how you position your feet and body when preparing to shoot targets. Replicate this in the blind or pit when shouldering your gun. Try to keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and point your left foot where you want to break the bird (assuming you're a righty; southpaws should point with their right foot). Also, plant most of your weight — some experts say as much as 70 percent — on your front foot.
And if you're at the clays range, resist the urge to pre-mount your gun. Doing so might improve your score a bit, but it won't prepare you for duck season.