The essentials of shooting waterfowl

Ken Kieser
Waterfowl season will soon be here. Visit the target range, improve your shots and avoid wounding birds.

Shooting ducks and geese is a challenge, even for the most experienced or best shooters. Leading the bird correctly is necessary for a clean kill, but this is where some hunters get in trouble. Thinking too much before shooting means calculating speeds and angles. Taking the time to think about this means missed shots or even worse, wounded birds to fly away and die later. This is why all waterfowl hunters should practice long before the season begins.

First, if you are missing a lot, have your eyes tested. I made this mistake a couple of seasons ago and now shoot much better with glasses. My telltale moment was when a mallard drake hovered over my end of the blind and I emptied my pump shotgun without touching a feather.

Kenneth Kieser

My “buddies” maintained silence while trying not to laugh. However, this changed when one of them handed me one of their boxes of shotgun shells, knowing I needed more shells to hit a bird and then everyone erupted in laughter, including me.


I highly recommend shooting sporting clays for practicing difficult shot angles. This might include fast pass shots, ducks flying straight toward you, curving angles, hovering and any imaginable shot. Some ducks rely on speed to escape while others seem to jump straight up, especially mallards. Are you not hitting the clays? Ask a range instructor for help. Most are happy to give you some instruction when they are not busy.

There are many different thoughts on shooting ducks. Experts suggest that you aim slightly below close fowl, raise the gun up into its flight path and pull the trigger when the gun barrel blots out the bird. When the duck is descending to land, aim at its feet and shoot. The duck will have dropped into the middle of your shot pattern by the time the shot charge gets on target.

Some shots seem simple while others seem difficult. Truth is, every shot at a goose or duck requires concentration and the ability to lead and follow through. This comes from shooting practice long before the season opens.

What are you shooting

Waterfowl shotguns cost a lot of money. You don’t necessarily have to own the best, but a good gun will make your hunts more successful. Matching your choke system with the right shotgun is imperative.

Most modern waterfowl pieces have screw-in chokes. There are three common choke sizes – full, modified and improved cylinder. A full choke is a tight constriction, with the modified slightly more open. The improved cylinder choke is more open and has less constriction than the modified choke. Be sure to check the manufacturer's recommendations on which chokes to use with steel-shot loads.

Ideally, you want your choke and load combination to put 70% to 75% of the shot charge into a 30-inch circle at the range you will most often be shooting. More is not better and this could indicate your choke pattern is too tight. Next set up a pattern board, cover it with white paper, and trace a life-size duck or goose image in the center. Move back 40 yards, then shoot directly at the image with your shotgun stabilized in a shooting rest.

Shotgun shells

How many of you think all shotgun shells are created equal? Hopefully no one, especially waterfowl hunters. I was invited to test different shotgun shells for waterfowl hunting many years ago. We found that the more expensive shells like Hevi-Shot patterned better and were more effective on a hunt.

Buying bargain barn steel-shot shotgun shells is ridiculous for a couple of reasons. First, most waterfowl hunts are expensive, so give yourself the best chance for clean harvests provided by better shells. Second, even if you’re sitting on a plastic bucket by the river, better shells mean more kills and less wounded birds flying away to later die a horrible death. Some of the better shells today are Hevi-Shot, Black Cloud Flex, Rio Blue Steel, Remington Nitro Steel, Winchester Blind Side, Kent Fasteel and Browning BXD.

Most waterfowlers use three-inch shells, while 3½-inch shells hold the most shot, but also generate more recoil for the hunter. Both of the larger loads deliver the best patterns when fired from a 12-gauge or 10-gauge. We prefer the bigger loads, especially for geese. However, I don’t recommend youth shooting anything larger than a 2 3/4-inch shell simply for comfort factors. Fearing a hard-kicking shotgun will take anyone’s mind off making a shot. The bigger loads possess a kick.

I highly recommend practicing shooting to match your shotgun shells with the choke system. This will ensure your best chance for the all-important one-shot harvest and give the shooter peace of mind.