You’ll experience two painful silences in waterfowl hunting.
The first occurs as a flock circles for the third or fourth time, just close enough that you and your buddy glance at each other with anticipation, wondering if the other will give the “shoot” signal. The other happens after your partner rises and whiffs on a bird you thought would have offered a better shot had it been given the chance.
Each awkward pause arises from one of bird hunting’s oldest and most common questions: when to call the shot. If you do it right, you’ll be a hero, as every shooter in the field or boat will have good opportunities. Mess it up, whether by being hasty or waiting too long, and your partners will start grumbling
On the surface, calling the shot on ducks or geese should seem fairly easy: Take the first good shot birds offer. Don’t pass up a good chance for what could be a better opportunity. Sure, if approaching ducks or geese seem confident and content, let them come. But if they’re merely passing by or seem edgy or hesitant, shoot when you can.
It’s rarely that simple, though, as the quality of opportunities varies based on several circumstances, including the wind, hunting pressure, and the number and experience of shooters in your group.
Windy days might pose the toughest variable. Birds hovering over the decoys at 25 yards can pump their wings once or twice and be at 40-plus and retreating by the time you’re on them, turning an apparent slam-dunk into an iffy opportunity. I like to let windy-day ducks and geese commit as much as possible — feet down, wings back, almost touching the blocks — before shooting. Even then, don’t dawdle. Get on target quickly.
Hunting pressure also confuses the mix. Ducks that seem content to sail into your spread might flare wildly at a nearby gunshot, leaving you frustrated and wishing you'd shot earlier. In high-pressure situations, such as opening day or at crowded public marshes, I don’t wait. When a bird or flock comes into range, my philosophy is simple: shoot. Would some come closer if I let them? Probably, but why take a chance? Conversely, when field hunting or in low-pressure situations, I usually give birds the benefit of a doubt and let them play out their approach. If it seems like most flocks want to decoy in the pocket or flare overhead at 30 yards, I’ll wait for those shots. If not, I revert to shoot mode.
The size of your hunting party can muddle the mix, too. When I’m hunting solo, I simply take shots with which I’m comfortable. If I err on the side of being conservative, it’s no big deal, as I only have one limit to fill. Hunting with an experienced partner is almost as easy, as we’ll discuss opportunities as they occur and shoot when we’re comfortable.
Big groups, however, can make things tough, especially if some hunters are less experienced than others. One seasoned group member must serve as the pit boss. He should assess each situation and call the shot loudly and clearly. Moreover, he must instruct shooters to remember and respect their safe zones of fire — basically 10 to 2 o’clock — even as birds commit. The boss should analyze each opportunity as it unfolds and, ideally, wait until approaching birds offer a good opportunity for at least several group members. But if birds slide left or right, the boss must instruct the shooter at first or third base to take what he can. Switch positions if some gunners seem to get more chances than others.
You’ll encounter many other variables when deciding whether to shoot, including sun, wind direction, obstructions in your blind and difficulty of a potential retrieve. Ultimately, you won’t find standard answers for every situation. Observe ducks and geese throughout the hunt, and always consider the circumstances. Then, use common sense, and trust your instincts. If your head screams “shoot,” do it. When your inner voice cries "ugh" if you wait, adjust your approach. Above all, be safe and thoughtful. You’ll call the shot correctly more often than not.
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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.