Split-Second Waterfowling Decisions Make or Break Hunts
Every duck hunter has been there: A bird flies in at the edge of effective shooting range but then turns or starts to land short, leaving you a split second to decide whether to fire or hold off. On the surface, that seems like a straightforward call: If the bird is in range, shoot.
But it's not always that easy. Many factors — wind, fog, sunlight and even your hunting location — make range estimation difficult. And when you hesitate or make a poor decision, bad things happen. Here's how to streamline the process.
The easiest way to take solid shots and avoid skybusting is to know the distance to landmarks — your farthest decoy, a patch of cattails or the spot of water where whitecaps start — and restrict your shots to birds within those boundaries. Sometimes, you can do this by using a range-finder to determine the 30- or 40-yard mark. Other days, you must simply make your best estimation and err on the side of being conservative.
Now, let's agree that some guys can kill ducks farther than others. Maybe they're using dialed-in shot and choke combinations that extend their range. That's fine for them. You must know the effective limits of your gun, shot and load and stick to them. Simply hitting a bird isn't enough, even with a great retriever. You want to kill the duck or goose in the air.
Whatever the case, set a visual range limit, and stick to it. Best-guess approaches — merely being able to see color on a drake, for example — can lead to trouble.
Overhead shots or gunning on wide-open water with no visual markers can be challenging, as birds often appear to be closer than they actually are. In such cases, experienced hunters form mental pictures of when ducks or geese are in range. That can be tricky, and it only comes with experience. Pay attention to how birds look when they're in easy range, and also note how they appear when they're too far. Practice during the off-season by patterning your gun at life-sized duck and goose silhouettes.
Some states have illustrations in their regulation books that show how birds appear when they're at, say, 30 or 40 yards. Those can be helpful, but ultimately, you must observe waterfowl to know when they're within range or just tantalizingly close. Keep a mental notebook on solid shots — and poor decisions, too. Remember those sight pictures, and apply them to every bird that seemingly gives you a shot. Soon, you'll have an inner voice that says shoot or too far.
Know Thy Target, Conditions
Obviously, waterfowl species vary considerably in size. For example, a 15-pound giant Canada will look far closer at 40 yards than a tiny greenwing at 25. Learn to identify ducks and geese, and plug that into your range-estimation formula. Yeah, that can be tricky when mid-sized ducks — say bluebills or ringnecks — mix with big mallards or black ducks. However, by identifying your target, you boost your instinctive range-estimation skills and make better decisions.
Also, recognize that wind can greatly affect shot chances. In a 25-mph blow, birds hovering over your blocks at 30 yards can quickly turn into fleeing 50-yard target. Likewise, a flock of redheads that buzzes your blocks at 35 steps will likely be at the edge of range by the time you react and are ready to shoot. Anticipate how far birds will be when you pull the trigger, and call the shot accordingly.
If Nothing Else
When dealing with iffy shots, use your conscience. No one likes to let opportunity slip past. But I'd rather pass up 10 flocks at the edge of range than cripple and lose one high bird. When in doubt, hold off. But by honing your range-estimation and shot-calling skills, you can make more good decisions and avoid iffy chances.