How To Be A Better Waterfowl Hunter

Learning to shoot a rifle presents its own challenges but becoming a top-notch wing shot and waterfowl hunter is a different kettle of fish.

Becoming a better wing shot will take time and commitment to the point where making that difficult high overhead or downwind crossing shot the norm and not a rarity. It is both reactive and intuitive and comes in part from practice and experience, yes, but it is much more than that. There are a quite a number of pieces to this puzzle and I hope to at least touch on those that will put more birds in your bag.

Gun Fit

While there a number of critical elements in shooting a shotgun well, if “it don’t fit,” most of the others become secondary. Unfortunately, most shotguns off the shelf are made for a person that is of average height, weight, build and arm length. This leaves out many shooters such as women, younger shooters and those who stand over six feet and have an arm length of over the 33-inch average.

If you can afford it, a custom made shotgun that was measured to your exact specifications is the ultimate answer. But since that is beyond most of our resources, let’s move on to the real world. The key here is to try as many shotguns for fit and feel as you can. Ensure that the gun comes to point on target the same each time, that you are looking down the centre and length of the barrel, and that you are not forcing yourself into position in order to make the gun fit. The reason is obvious as in the field when facing a fast-fleeing bird, you simply can’t repeat the search for the right fit in time to make a quality shot. The gun must fit naturally and the stock should mount to your face and not the other way around, and it should not  hang up getting to your shoulder. If it does, the length of pull is too long, or if you find yourself crowding up on the stock, it is most likely too short. There are differences between manufacturers and you may find the right gun for you, as I did, with a number of off-the-shelf Berettas, which fit me like a glove. A number of manufacturers are now offering guns that can be adjusted for fit with the use of various types of spacers. However, if you can’t find one that fits, and you like a particular gun, take it to a good gunsmith that understands shotgun fit and they can often make alterations at a reasonable price that will put you on target. As a final test of how it fits, take it to the range and pattern the gun with a number of your favourite loads. The pattern board will pick out any flaws in how the gun fits. If, for example, it patterns too high or low, the comb will need adjustment or if it patterns too far right or left, the cast will need attention. Then move to the sporting clay, trap or skeet range to ensure that it is performing as you expected.

Learning To Shoot

As with any sport where timing and dexterity are involved, practice, or should I say quality practice, makes perfect. First, it is important to learn to shoot with both eyes open as it provides you with a much better field of view. Next, learn to acquire a moving target and while maintaining that target in view, bring your gun to your face forming a sight pattern between you, your gun and the target. It should look like an elongated triangle. It is essential this sight pattern is repeatable each and every time you mount the gun and don’t peek or take your head off the stock or it will result in a miss. Then develop a swing technique that is right for you or the hunting situation you find yourself in. The two most common are the “sustained-lead” and the “swing-through” methods. Sustained-lead means, as its title suggests, that you establish a lead on the target and then swing the shotgun ahead of the target so that the gun movement matches the speed of the target and then pull the trigger. Swing-through conversely means that you start behind the target, swing through it and pull the trigger as your barrel passes ahead of the bird. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

I like the swing-through for most upland hunting, as it is quick and fast but prefer the sustained-lead for longer shooting situations such as pass shooting. It is great to learn to use both and it will certainly add birds to your bag if you can. There are a number of charts that specify the amount of lead to be used by either method but for all intents and purposes they aren’t really of much value. The amount of lead can change so quickly due to distance, angle and speed of the bird, speed of your swing and the velocity of the load, that it is something that only experience and your ability to adapt to results and conditions can teach. Above all, never stop your swing as to do so will lead to a sure miss. I would additionally spend regular sessions prior to each season practicing mounting and swinging a dry gun on to a specific target until it becomes second nature. While practice on the range is a great help in developing your shooting ability, there is nothing like the real thing to further enhance these burgeoning skills. Get in on every wing shooting experience you can. For example, crows can provide a great off-season method of not only enhancing shooting skills but they also offer a fun hunt to boot. Last, whenever and wherever you can, practice those shots that give you the most trouble. Often a partner with a hand thrower can simulate actual field situations.

Tips For The Field

While it appears on a pattern board as a circle of shot, it is actually a string of shot that travels downrange to your intended target. The trick is to get the centre of that string to your fleeing target at the same point in time. That is not as easy as it used to be when the only type of shot was lead. Today, with the restrictions pertaining to the use of lead and with the introduction of many non-toxic alternatives, it’s not quite the same picture. You need to understand and match the type of shot size and load required to the hunt and type of bird you are intending to hunt. As a general rule, I prefer more open chokes and lighter loads early in the season but look to heavier loads and tighter chokes as the season progresses. A rule of thumb that I have learned to live by is: don’t over choke, as you would be surprised what a modified choke can do for you. I also prefer a longer barrel of 28 or 30 inches for most waterfowl hunting and a shorter barrel of 26 inches for much of my upland hunting. The longer barrels tend to swing smoother for pass shooting and the shorter barrels are quicker on fast departing birds.

Avoid sky busting (making shots out of range) at birds that are out of range as this often leads to either missed or wounded birds. Learn to judge distances though various techniques such as being able to clearly identify certain parts of the bird when it is in range. Another key to successful wing shooting is to take the closest bird to you and then move on to more distant birds. While it sounds contrary to what your instincts tell you, it is much easier to start your swing on a close bird and then after it is down, continue the swing in the same direction to a more distant bird. It is more difficult to come back against the direction of your initial swing in order to pick up a near bird after downing a distant bird.

Be prepared to be responsive to how birds are reacting to your hunting technique and the weather. If you know, for example, that on a windy day shooting is likely to be close for upland birds or is going to be fast on distant crossing ducks, adjust your loads and choke accordingly. Lastly, don’t shortchange yourself on the quality of ammunition you use. It must provide an adequate concentration of pellets to your target to ensure quick clean kills and if it doesn’t, change to what will. There are all but endless choices and it may require a bit of time on the range patterning particular loads to find what works in your gun but it will be worth the effort when more birds fold to the slap of your trigger.

High-Tech Shotgun Sights

There are a number of recent developments in sights for shotguns that may also assist you in becoming a better wing shot. Two models that warrant a look are the new high-tech fiber optic sights from companies such as LimbSavers and Champion. Either can be quickly installed on any shotgun with a ventilated rib or you may want to give the new SpeedBead from Burris a close look. They are all designed for quicker and more precise target acquisition.

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