While it’s common to overhear duck hunters bragging about the number of birds they shot on a successful outing, my circle of friends has a different way to measure success. Long ago, I instituted a belief within my young hunting partners that it’s not about the total, it’s about how many shells you burned to get there. While anyone can “let three fly” and often connect, the real prize is to take a limit of mallards with just four shells.
Through my trials of becoming a better shot, and therefore a more successful hunter, I observed a series of repeating sequences when everything seemed to line up, and birds crumbled on one trigger pull.
After such an education, I became better at gauging when the sequence would repeat itself, and held off pulling the trigger until everything was right.
Everybody knows that getting the birds in close will up your odds, but a few overlooked factors play just as big of a role. In order to have a box of shells last a half-dozen hunts, key in on these other three factors when looking down the barrel:
Choose the right load. When I first began hunting, I researched recommended loads for ducks. Opinions varied, but the general idea was that #4’s worked well, as did a few sizes on each side of the spectrum. After several years of hunting primarily mallards, I still wonder who is cleanly killing ducks with these small-sized rounds. While guns and chokes differ, and smaller birds like teal and wigeon can be cleanly killed with smaller loads, my experience has taught me that #2 steel shot is the all-time king of killing mallards. In fact, many of my partners take it a step further in late season when northern birds have thick feathers, often going as large as BB loads with great success. The goal: kill a duck dead in one shot. Hit them with a big shell, and you won’t have to worry.
Never shoot a bird going away. Tired of routinely chasing cripples through waste-deep muck, I vowed to never again shoot at a duck flying away from me. The proof lies in anatomy. To cleanly kill a duck, a hunter must hit them in the head or chest. Sure, other shot placement will often knock a bird but, again, our goal is one shell, one bird. A duck flying directly away leaves only one possible instant kill: hitting the bird in the back of the head. Such a target, when obstructed by the bird’s body, is about two inches square, and that’s a miracle shot for anyone. Wait until the kill zone’s are front and center, and you’ll down more birds.
Call the shot. As a fan of waterfowl TV, I remember watching the celebrities wait until the final minute to shoot, not doing so until the shot was called. However, for several years, such a game plan never carried over in my blind. When the ducks got close, we all just shot at once. Often times, my close hunting partner would get the first crack at the birds, as he’s a quick mount-and-shoot type of guy. That did nothing but screw me up; I rushed the shot, and usually missed. When I interviewed Phil Robertson years ago, he instructed me that no one in his group fires, ever, before he calls the shot. Once that method carried over into my own hunting scenario, improved results were immediate. Elect a shot caller prior to loading the guns each morning, and stick to the rules. Everyone will benefit.
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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.