Duck and goose hunters often joke about “running it to the plug,” which means shooting until the gun is empty. We all do it now and then. The expression itself embraces the wild, carefree aura of the sport.
But in practice, emptying your gun can have positive and negative connotations — and the difference often rests on a razor’s edge. Experience and sound judgment keep you on the right side of the spectrum while greed and foolishness can leave you in the wrong. And you must often make that distinction in a split second.
Whether it’s three during duck season or more during spring conservation goose seasons, there’s nothing wrong with firing every shell in your shotgun when birds are in range and there’s no danger of exceeding the daily bag limit. If three mallards decoy perfectly at 20 yards and you can kill them all within reasonable range, fire away (again, assuming that doing so wouldn’t put you over the limit). You’re legal and ethical, and you’re out there to shoot ducks.
Trouble arises, however, when running it to the plug becomes an easy temptation or mantra regardless of the circumstances. If three mallards decoy and you kill two, but the third is still 50-plus yards outside the decoys, you’re better off saving that shell instead of risking a crippled bird you might not recover. Every duck hunter has been in this situation, and those with a conscience have looked in the mirror afterward and scolded themselves about irresponsible shooting.
It’s easy to remain disciplined when you’re hunting solo or with a like-minded partner. But peer pressure can enter the equation when you mix with large groups. Someone might say “Keep shooting!” or, “Don’t let him get away!” as fleeing birds reach the limits of effective range. When that happens, many hunters capitulate and empty their guns, even though they probably suspect they’re wasting ammo or might wound birds that they have little hope of recovering. I’ve seen a few hunters fire every shell in their guns at every opportunity, even when the remaining birds are ridiculously far. To make matters worse, someone occasionally makes a miraculous shot with their third shell, seemingly affirming the empty-out-at-all-costs attitude. But those “golden BB” shots are akin to visiting a casino: Gamblers brag about the rare jackpot they hit, but never mention the countless losses they incur.
Thankfully, the solution is easy: awareness and self-control. Learn to identify scenarios where running your gun to the plug is appropriate. Likewise, recognize situations in which it’s wiser to stop shooting instead of foolishly emptying out. It’s no different than passing up questionable long shots or unsafe opportunities. Strive to be ethical, and learn to say no when you have doubts, despite what anyone else says.
So next season, when the situation allows, don’t feel guilty about running your shotgun to the plug. Just don’t feel compelled to fire ’em all when the smarter choice calls for one or two shots.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.