Standing in ankle-miring mud, I felt about as sturdy as the standing-dead timber that surrounded me. The swamp was a perfect duck hole.
Cypress and gum trees, dripping with Spanish moss, stood like statues in a park. Other trees, casualties of lightening strikes, bugs or too much water, were gnarled and only a slight breeze away from toppling. Other members were already fallen, some floating perches for preening wood ducks, some underwater and ready to trip an unwary hunter. Various seeds and acorns, a buffet for ducks, floated on the surface. Once the birds started flying, it was not a matter of getting some ducks but how soon. Given that it was primarily a wood duck hole, getting the two-bird limit should have been a cinch. With the sky waking up, the woodies began to fly. Wood ducks often announce their arrivals with a squeal long before a hunter sees them. It’s as if the ducks were airplane captains communicating with the tower while preparing to land. This morning was no exception. A squeal came from the east, and before long we heard a whish of wings. Splashes a few seconds later indicated the birds had pitched into the swamp. The still dim light prevented me from getting a glimpse of them as they passed. The next batch repeated the same flight line. Their calls let me know they were coming and this time I could see them. Spinning to take a shot, my ankles attempting to twist in the soft bottom. My off-balance effort resulted in a clean miss. Regaining my footing, I got ready again. Wood duck hunting is usually fast and furious. The third bunch, a trio of birds, two drakes and one hen, sliced in from another direction. My gun wasn’t pointed toward them initially, but my second shot nailed the trailing drake. It was a lucky shot. Two more bunches and a single bird came through the swamp before the morning’s thunder subsided as quickly as it started. I’d blasted five more holes in the morning sky without scratching another feather. It’d been a fruitful morning with the lone drake in the bag, and I was happy to have something. But as I waded out of the swamp, stepping gingerly not to take a tumble from an underwater speed bump, it nagged at me that maybe I could have shot a little better. Truth be told I could have. Waterfowlers put forth a lot of effort to locate and decoy birds, often overlooking the most important aspect — shooting. Duck hunters can do several things to improve their shooting skills, and much of that work can take place before they hit the marshes, swamps or fields. “The first thing a hunter needs is a shotgun that fits,” said Teressa Carter of Remington. “To insure a proper fit, a hunter should pattern his or her shotgun using a paper target to make sure the pattern is hitting the target where the shooter is looking.” That sounded like a pre-season exercise spring turkey hunters employ to test various loads, but it’s imperative for anyone using a shotgun. Having a shotgun that doesn’t fit correctly causes a shooter to incorrectly mount the weapon, leading to aim that’s off target. “A person’s head should naturally mount on the stock and the master eye be aligned with the rib,” Carter said. “The top of your hand around the grip shouldn’t hit you in the face either. When a shotgun fits, bringing it to your shoulder and into a shooting position should be effortless. “If a shotgun does not fit, a hunter may have to reach for the trigger or cock his head. Each one of these behaviors causes your aim to not be one with the weapon, resulting in a miss more times than not.” If unsure whether your shotgun fits, a qualified gunsmith can help. Stop by a gun shop, and if the gun doesn’t fit, the smith can make the appropriate modifications, if possible. “Even if you have a shotgun that fits, the type and amount of clothing you wear can affect the gun’s fit,” Carter said. “Since most duck hunting takes place during cold weather, bulky coats are the main culprit. “Before you are already out in the field, try a dry run with your gun and the clothes you intend to wear. Be certain the gun is unloaded and lift it to your shoulder. If it gets hung on your poked-out waders or under the armpit of your coat, then you need to make the proper modifications to your clothes.” After finding a gun that fits, practicing with it leads to proficiency. “Practice makes perfect is a valid saying for a reason,” Carter said. “Most hunters never touch their guns until opening day rolls around. If you carve out some time before the season to shoot some practice rounds, that’ll help you get the kinks out. “Sporting clay courses are an option. The targets replicate the assorted speeds and angles of waterfowl. After several rounds, you’ll develop the mental sight picture of your correct lead.” Some hunters can rely on natural talent to be good shooters but learning all one can about shotgunning pays dividends. Carter recommended hunters hire an instructor or attend a shooting school. She said an instructor is trained to spot problems and correct them as well as reinforce and enhance proper technique. Some duck hunters might think a shooting school is too pricey for their budget. The outlay of cash might hurt at first, but when compared to what someone spends to go duck hunting, it’s small potatoes. If you truly can’t afford a school, Carter said hunters could get shooting instructions by taking a hunters-safety course. “Duck hunters should spend some time practicing with the loads they’re going to use while hunting,” Carter said. “I know a box of non-toxic shotgun shells is expensive when compared to dove loads, but there’s a difference. Duck loads have a higher velocity than lighter game loads. As a result, your lead is going to be different because the shot is moving at a faster speed.” Hunters also routinely overlook their eyes when it comes to hunting. Sitting all day in a duck blind and scanning the sky for birds can lead to eye fatigue, particularly if it’s a bright day. To combat tired eyes, wear sunglasses. On the flip side, if it’s a gray day, yellow lenses enhance contrast between objects, which helps keep eyes on the target. “A hunter can do many things in the off season to enhance shooting skills,” Carter said. “Once you’re in the blind, there are a few more things to consider before you pull the trigger. “One of the most common mistakes someone makes with a shotgun is stopping their ‘swing.’ You pull the trigger and instinctively stop and drop the gun to see if you hit the bird. You must follow through after the shot; keep the gun moving. You’ll have no problem seeing if you hit a duck or goose because your eye is still tracking the target at impact and beyond. “Hunters need to remain calm as well. Because ducks move at amazing speeds, some hunters believe they must shoot quickly or the birds will be out of range. This isn’t true. You have plenty of time to take several well-timed shots before the birds are out of range.” Carter also suggested hunters get in a good position before taking a shot. Picture a Major League batter that’s always making certain he has good footing before each pitch. Duck hunters can do the same thing. Have the gun facing in the expected direction of arriving birds. Be comfortable but make sure to raise the shotgun and get to your feet, if need be, without stumbling. If a hunter is attempting to shoot in a twisted or awkward fashion, odds of connecting are greatly reduced. “Hunters need to effectively judge range,” Carter said. “Taking shots that are too far leads to misses and in some worst cases, wounded ducks. Accurately judging range comes from experience and practice. “Ducks and geese come in different sizes and how far away they appear varies by that size. By watching birds any chance you get, you can get an idea of how far they are from you. “It is a good practice to place a marker at your effective range. Some duck hunters place the edge of their decoy spread, for instance, at 35 yards. If they extend their spread beyond an effective range, then they might place a particular or noticeable decoy at the edge of the range. Once a target crosses over that point, then they know it’s in range.” A hunter can help himself right up to the point of pulling the trigger by taking these steps. However, to be able to pull the trigger he must find some ducks to hunt. Steve Thomas waded out from behind a cypress tree, retrieved a dead greenhead and gathered his decoys. He was at work by 8 a.m. That might sound like a boring or unproductive hunt but to Thomas it was the culmination of his efforts. “I had spotted a pair of mallards loafing by that cypress tree during the previous afternoon,” said Thomas, a veteran Santee Cooper duck hunter who now lives outside of Charlotte but still comes to the coast. “I had an early morning meeting at work the next day, so I only had time for a quick hunt. I knew there was a reasonable chance those birds would be back there in the morning.” Most doubters would write Thomas’ success off as luck. If it were 99 percent of the other duck hunters in the world, they would be right. However, Thomas reads about ducks, does a lot of scouting and applies a classic hunting technique usually reserved for other species. A deer hunter will spend an entire season chasing a particular quality buck. He’ll eat, sleep and try to become that animal in hopes of harvesting it. Rubs, scrapes and pictures from a trail camera are the only evidence the animal exists. It’s like hunting signs left by a ghost. Turkey hunters are guilty as well. After seeing a big gobbler strutting in a field, they sacrifice everything to learn where that bird roosts and flies down in the morning in an effort to get a shot. This sort of hunting is rarely applied to waterfowl. Woodies in the swamp might be targeted but rarely are a pair of birds. Big bucks and boss gobblers, strikingly less abundant than waterfowl, are pursued with persistence but why not small batches of waterfowl? “I try to locate as many flocks of birds as possible,” Thomas said. “I’ll check on them several times before or during the season to determine if any of them are still using the same spots. If they are, even if it’s one or two birds, then I attempt to pick the spot that I think will not have another hunter in it. That said, I always have a backup in case I thought wrong. “Most duck hunters will ignore one or two birds sitting in a spot. But those ducks are there for a reason, and if you can recreate the situation and those same birds see it, there’s a good chance they’re going to decoy.” For this reason, Thomas has at least six decoys of nearly every species. If he sees a flock of a dozen mallards in a spot that has a lone drake pintail, then that’s what his spread will resemble. It’s that level of detail that leads to Thomas' success, something he records in a journal after every hunt so he can spot emerging patterns. “You can’t keep all of the information in your head,” Thomas said. “It’s just too much stuff. By writing it down, it’s not lost. Over time, the information will help you narrow down where and when to hunt.” Taking stock in the details, whether it’s how smoothly your gun rises or which tree a pair of ducks is loafing near, will lead to better results for your duck season.