Your Guide to Effective Duck & Goose Hunting

waterfowl-huntWhether you’re hunting waterfowl or upland birds — it’s all about shooting form, leading your target, pointing, pulling the trigger and following through.

Mostly covered in our layout blinds, casual banter was abruptly interrupted by incoming honkers.

“Here they come! Cover up,” I instructed.

Intermittent guttural honks suggested these birds were relaxed and eager to feed. Sure enough, all 10 began their ascent. On approach, wings were locked. All we had to do was offer a few confidence calls to close the deal. With legs down and wings fully extended, we nearly let them finish before go time.

“Take ‘em!” I hollered, and with that, blind doors flew open, guns raised and barrels blazed. At 15 metres, greater Canada geese look like B52 bombers. Flapping wings and shotgun blasts, along with a few requisite hoots and hollers of joy rang through the evening air! I have to admit, that was one hunt where just about everything I shot at hit the ground. I couldn’t miss. Truth is I’m a barely an “above average” shot at best. Most days I can hold my own, but sometimes I’d do best to leave my shotgun at home.

Most of us are unaccustomed to a certain type of shooting. Some tend to excel at long-range shots, others close range, some flying away, others on approach. Few and far between are the truly proficient shooters among us who can score at any distance, speed or angle. For instance, as a waterfowl outfitter/guide, I see a lot of guests who aren’t accustomed to shooting at close range. Most of their gunning is at fast-flying ducks at long ranges, i.e. from 30 to 50 metres. Many of those hunters can’t miss high and fast-flying targets, but put them in a blind where birds finish in their face and they often have a terrible time knocking birds out of the sky.

What’s the Secret?

So what’s the key to shooting well? Like any precision shooting sport, it’s all about the practice; proper practice to be precise. Learn how to shoot, invest plenty of time at the range and in the field, and it will eventually come together. Furthermore, take every opportunity to shoot in different positions and at a variety of airborne targets at variable speeds and coming from different directions.

Consider your own wingshooting: are you a consistent? Most of us have hot and cold days. Sometimes we can’t miss, others it seems we can’t hit a thing. Concentration and consistency are a big part of the wingshooting equation, but most of all understanding proper form and the biomechanics of shooting a shotgun at moving targets separates the good shooters from the bad.

Wingshooting is much like golf; proficiency is most often correlated to the amount of time invested at the range and in the field. Each year I get to spend time with several truly exceptional shooters. Seldom do these guys miss. The key to their success is routine practice both with clay targets and game birds.

These fellows shoot well for several reasons. Their guns fit them properly, they have exemplary form and they shoot a lot. In turn they have an intimate familiarity with their guns. The swinging, mounting, pointing, leading, shooting and follow-through process is second nature to them.

Several years ago, I fancied myself a pretty fair shot. Today I’m no slouch, but I’m not as skilled as I once was. The difference is inconsistency. While I shoot clays now and then and hunt migratory as well as upland game more than most, I can always use more practice. That said I’ve learned that certain fundamentals are key to wingshooting success. If you’re a recreational shooter or hunter, consider the following the next time you pick up your shotgun.

Consistency Breeds Success

Knowing your shotgun and becoming familiar with how it works and feels is the first step. Before visiting a range, practice shouldering your unloaded firearm repeatedly. Many professional skeet shooters do this in front of a mirror daily to check form and instill a kinesthetic comfort with their gun. Be sure to stand or sit upright and avoid lowering your face or tilting your head to the firearm. Use both hands equally and mount the gun at the same place on your face each time. Remember consistency is imperative. The most common mistake made by new shooters is mounting to the shoulder versus the face. Experts suggest doing daily repetitions with an unloaded gun to establish familiarity, e.g.: 10 swings and mounts at a time. Employing proper form while spending plenty of time at the range in the off-season will help improve your shooting in the field. The key here is repetition.

Practice with Light Loads

With upland game birds being the exception, most of us are using heavier loads in the field, particularly for goose hunting. Many instructors will advise shooting lighter loads during practice sessions at the range, i.e.: shot shells containing 7/8- to one-ounce shot. These have less recoil than heavier hunting loads and will help you develop proper form and comfort with your gun. Lighter loads have more powder and less shot. In turn, they generally retain a more consistent pattern and are therefore preferred ammunition for practice at the range.

Trust your instincts

Allow your instincts to guide you as you swing and mount your gun. Shoot enough and it will become kinesthetic. In other words, your body will adapt to having your shotgun in hand and shooting will become second nature. Remember, for most folks, shooting a shotgun at moving targets involves a distinct learning curve. In the early stages, as you grow accustomed to shooting, it will probably feel awkward, but over time the raising, shouldering (mounting), pointing and swinging motion will become second nature. As a rule, avoid mounting and then swinging as this wastes valuable time. Flying targets, whether they are alive or made of clay, don’t stick around for long. Speed is the name of the game. Proficient shooters swing to follow their target and mount the shotgun simultaneously. One of the most important things to remember is that you have developed your pointing instinct your entire life. Rely on this instinct to assist you as you acquire and possibly lead your target. Pull the trigger the instant your instincts tell you to.

Pick Your Target

In the field, a common mistake made by many hunters is shooting into a flock rather than picking one bird. The idea being that because pellets spread out in a pattern, they’ll hit something. While, there is some logic to this train of thought, I assure you, this strategy doesn’t work. Despite the pattern, it is imperative to select and shoot at a single target. Seasoned gunners pick a target, ensure that their sight plain is level along the rib, they then swing, mount and shoot.

With an auto-loader, you’ve got three shots and with an over-and-under or side-by-side, you’ve got two. In the field many advise taking the lower bird(s) first, then the higher bird(s) with remaining shots. Likewise when shooting simultaneous clay targets, it is good practice to take the lower of the two first. The recoil will help raise the gun as you follow through to the second.

Point & Pull

Shooting a centrefire or rimfire rifle requires its own kind of precision; the marksman carefully aims while lining up the sights and slowly squeezing the trigger to discharge with pinpoint accuracy. Shotgunning is a different experience altogether. Wingshooting requires the gunner to point, not aim; and pull the trigger quickly, not squeeze it slowly. If you remember anything at all from this article, lock this tidbit into your memory. Maintain a level sight plain, focus on pointing at the target, not aiming with the barrel or even the bead. When your instincts tell you you’re on then pull and follow through. Some shooters might question this, but ask most instructors and they’ll nod in agreement.

Maintain Mental & Physical Control

Shotgunning at moving targets can be a fast and furious activity, ergo use of the word “sporting” whenever we describe upland or waterfowl hunts, not to mention sporting clays. Due to the fast pace, it’s easy to get worked up as we anticipate the shot. Nerves often get the best of us. One question races through our mind: will we be able to acquire the target fast enough? Bottom line — waterfowl and upland hunting is intense and exciting. Every now and then we all panic as we take the shot, and this leads to a bad shot or a miss. Whether you are shooting clay targets or live birds, the idea is to pick out the target, point and shoot in a timely manner. The only way to do this effectively is to develop familiarity with your shotgun and maintain both mental and physical control. Extra movements take time and neophyte shooters often miss due to the fast nature of wingshooting. Stay calm, steady your nerves, keep your movements to a minimum, and concentrate on making the shot.

Consider the Lead

Wingshooting involves shooting at flying birds. Last I checked, birds don’t read manuals and, as such, they seldom do the same thing twice. Rarely is the exact same shot presented during any given hunt. One thing is certain though, unless the bird has landing gear down and is at a near standstill in the air as they back pedal to vacate an ambush, chances are you’ll have to incorporate some type of lead before taking the shot. The amount of lead required depends on the type of shot presented. Moving targets can cross from left to right or vice versa, approach from head on or from behind. Sporting clay courses provide exceptional practice opportunities at variable speeds for those looking to experience extreme variations in shooting circumstances. Shot strings are often 20 to 30 centimetres in length. If you find that you are missing crossing targets, try doubling your lead. With some experimentation and practice you should catch on to the required lead in short order. For oncoming and flying away shots, the required lead may be slightly above, below or straight on depending on the speed and height of the target. Again, experimentation will confirm the required lead.

Follow Through 

Indeed it is possible to merely point at a target, lead accordingly, shoot and stop but all competitive shooters will tell you the correct way to shoot at a flying target involves using a sustained lead, or follow through. It is done by pointing with the required lead, then pulling the trigger and maintaining that lead at the same speed as the moving target to ensure a hit.

Consider Lessons

Proper practice will inevitably improve your skill, but if you find that you reach a plateau and are unable to improve further, consider taking a lesson or two from a certified shooting instructor. The key lies in learning and practicing proper form. It’s easy to develop bad habits and difficult to shake them. A qualified instructor can diagnose shooting problems and increase your proficiency.

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