An open mind and hard work let us reach new heights each season
I laugh at the 22-year-old me.
Oh, he was a decent fellow. Naïve and maybe a bit temperamental, sure, but not a bad dude. But he (OK, I) was extremely goal-oriented in those days, especially when it came to hunting.
I'm going to shoot 40 more ducks next year, I'd tell a buddy, and then we'd chuckle like goons and scheme how to make that happen, knowing we wouldn't.
Of course, I had it all wrong. My misplaced preoccupation with numbers was bad enough, but my goals were really just fantasies — silly ideas I had no way of realizing unless I won the lottery or inherited a private marsh. Age and experience ultimately changed my perspective, though, and I have a much different outlook on future seasons. I still set goals, but nowadays, they're realistic landmarks I can achieve through hard work or a more practical approach.
Really, these goals are just progressive steps along a waterfowler's quest to grow in the activity he cherishes. Let's look at some objectives everyone can achieve before next season.
Becoming a Better Caller
Some of you are probably already excellent callers. I'm OK, and I always try to improve, especially when it comes to goose calling. This is one of the easiest goals to achieve. Modern hunters have access to fantastic, easy-to-blow calls and an encyclopedia of online calling instruction. Further, with months between the end of this season until next fall, you have plenty of time to learn, practice and get better.
Typically, it's best to assess your current skill level and identify areas for improvement. Some folks can do this on their own, but that can be tough. Often, we lack the perspective to hear our calling flaws and suggest fixes, even when we listen to recordings of our routines. However, more experienced callers usually have no trouble finding gaps in our sound and aren't shy about pointing them out. That might hurt our feelings a bit, but such honesty is healthy when trying to grow.
Find an experienced caller you trust, and run a few calls for him. Listen to his honest critique and suggestions for improvement. Then, put those tips into action, and practice like mad. Run your new routines past him now and then to see if you're on course. Don't be afraid to tear down your entire approach and start from scratch. Change is tough, but it's almost always beneficial — especially when you turn a flock of high honkers and double-cluck them right into your spread.
More Ground (or Water)
Almost every duck hunter wants new spots far from bothersome crowds. That's easy to say but sometimes tough to accomplish.
My advice? Get busy looking, and don't worry about your batting average. If there's ample public property in your area, check it out — every piece you can. Some of it will be marginal. Other areas won't hold many birds. But now and then, you'll stumble upon a gem that no one else has noticed or is too lazy to access. Finding one such place per season can really add up.
I typically break my searches into situational needs. That is, I look for good early-season spots, areas that might hold migrants when the flight is in and late-season areas that provide open water after freeze-up. And I search for potentially hot fields throughout the year.
Finding early-season areas is relatively easy, as you have much of the of-season to look. Obviously, a backwater slough holding 50 woodies two weeks before the season might be a good opening-day spot. The only question is how many other hunters know about it. Likewise, finding good freeze-up areas is also fairly simple. You usually have much of the winter to look for streams, springs, warm-water discharges and other areas that don't ice over and concentrate birds after a freeze.
Locating hot migration stopovers can be a bit more difficult. Some places attract ducks and geese year after year, assuming conditions are similar. Others, however, go hot or cold, depending on food, habitat, water levels and myriad other factors. Solution? Again, get out there and look. You'll probably have to do it during the season, but it's usually worthwhile.
Every season, I experience days when I marvel at my proficiency with a shotgun. And every year, I struggle through other days when I can't seem to hit a pig in the rump with a coal shovel.
Shooting ups and downs are normal, especially considering that we often mount and fire our weapons while lying on our backs, sitting in boats, hunkering on bogs or confined in a creaky blind. We'll never hit every duck we shoot at. But we can smooth the bumps and kill more of them with greater consistency.
You'll find no secrets when tackling this goal. Shoot — a lot. Firing a few hundred rounds every off-season is good, but it's better to run through several thousand. Shoot skeet, trap, sporting clays, five-stand sporting clays and any other clay-target games you can find. Hunt doves before duck season, and pursue crows afterward. Practice mounting your gun at home, as a smooth, consistent gun mount is critical for good wing-shooting. That brings me to another tip: When you shoot those aforementioned clay-target games, start with a low gun. Your scores might suffer a bit, but your hunting success will only benefit. I've not seen many ducks or geese that let you pre-mount your gun and ready your sight picture seconds before they arrive. Shoulder your gun while intensely watching the target and shifting your body into position. When you're in sync, your finger will instinctively slap the trigger the instant your mind has the correct sight picture. Practice that again and again until it's second nature.
Different Skills or Approaches
The previous suggestions are pretty straightforward, prodding you to improve your situation or existing skills. This one takes more effort. We should try to acquire new skill sets every season. That might involve learning to run a mud motor or setting out long-lines in choppy water. Or it could mean practicing to use a specklebelly goose call (hey, you never know) or picking up flagging tips from a goose hunting expert. Perhaps you can learn the ins and outs of sea duck hunting in preparation for a big trip, or tag along with a field devotee to see how they locate and set up on birds.
You get the idea: Broaden your waterfowl hunting universe, even if by a bit. Every new skill or tactic you learn can help during future hunts, especially if your situation changes or you find yourself in unfamiliar country. Be ready for almost everything. A bag full of tricks might net you a few more birds every year, and it will absolutely make you look differently at your previous areas of expertise.
The Road to Better Goals
Define some realistic goals this off-season, and get after them. Before long, you'll have fresh abilities, new hunting buddies and a bright perspective on waterfowl hunting.
Oh, you'll have great stories, too. And which story would you rather tell? The one in which you do the same thing year after year and gripe about poor hunting, or the tale in which you adapted, improved and out-hustled other guys on your way to a cool season?