By Chris Batha
Several times a year I host a driven-shooting school, aptly named The British Driven Game Shooting Academy. It focuses on the techniques used when shooting birds driven from high cover crops over a waiting line of Guns.
At the most recent event a client commented that the techniques being taught would stand him in good stead when shooting the high-overhead and long passing shots he often encounters with waterfowl, especially when the birds are wary of decoys or they can’t be tempted off of their flight lines. This gave me pause, and then I realized that he had hit the nail on the head! There is little if any difference between shooting a high driven or long passing shot, regardless of species or location.
Following are a few tips on how to practice making longer shots at ducks or geese. Of course, the chances of missing or wounding birds increases with distance, and the “point and shoot” method that works on flushing grouse is not likely to work on a duck flying past at 40 yards. If you can improve your long-distance shotgunning, you can be confident of making clean kills on overhead and passing birds.
Practice on Clays Makes Perfect in the Field
Most upland hunters are looking for clay targets that imitate shooting over pointing or flushing dogs, so any fast, rising, going-away shots will work. They also are looking for long, incoming targets that resemble decoying ducks and geese. But when it comes to practicing high overhead and long passing shots, a tower is the perfect tool for this, as is a trap placed in an elevated position if the terrain allows.
The popularity of sporting clays, particularly the competitive variety, has resulted in a shooting style and technique that involve a sustained or maintained lead. When shooting passing shots, the gun is inserted at a previously calculated distance in front of the target and matches or moves marginally faster than the target’s speed. The trigger is pulled when the gun and target speeds are in sync. Using this technique, top shots are registering amazing and consistently high scores. But maintained lead is often not well suited for hunting. The reason is that modern trap machines throw targets that are consistent in both speed and line of flight—unlike the flight of wild birds.
Real birds fly at unpredictable speeds and along infinitely variable lines of flight. They also are programmed to be on the lookout for predators, and sudden movements by hunters often will result in them taking evasive action. If it is a flock of birds, usually the whole flock will make the move as one.
The gun mount and move to the target should be smooth and steady—almost stealthy. Wildfowl are wary and constantly on the lookout. The gun mount needs to be practiced until it is completed in one smooth movement. The mantra of the old gunslingers that “smooth is steady and steady is swift” gives the best chances of success when pass-shooting waterfowl. If your gun mount is a fast, herky-jerky movement, not only will it be like a semaphore warning to the flock, but also your shooting likely will be affected.
A small bird in flight always looks faster than a big bird, though they may be flying at roughly the same speed. The number-one requirement for success on long, high shots is swing speed. Waterfowl—particularly geese and larger ducks—are deceiving, as their size and wingbeats can lull you into taking slow, measured shots. Though the lead may appear visually correct, a lack of swing speed results in a shot missed behind.
I learned this the hard way in Scotland this past season. The drives were a mix of very high partridge and equally high pheasants, and though I was knocking down the partridge consistently, I could not buy a pheasant. My loader, an old keeper, whispered, “It’s gun speed! Shoot the pheasant like they’re partridge!” I wasn’t convinced, but I thought, What the heck! I hit the gas on the next pheasant, accelerating the barrels through the line, and took the shot with the same lead picture I was using for the partridge. The pheasant’s head snapped back, and the bird folded. It was a good, clean kill and a good lesson learned.
It is essential to start, stay and finish on a bird’s line of flight through the completion of the shot. This technique avoids a miss off-line, under or over the bird.
If you are on the line, there will be one of three outcomes: You will kill the bird cleanly or you will miss it either in front or behind. And connecting one out of three times is considered excellent shooting with high and long passing shots.
Another way to think of it is: If you are going to miss, you might as well miss in front. After all, birds do not fly backward. Simply put: Lead is achieved by placing the gun sufficiently in front of the bird to allow for the “time lag” between when you decide to pull the trigger, the time it takes for the gun to discharge and the time it takes for the shot cloud to make a collision with the bird.
The Best Techniques for Overhead or Passing Waterfowl
Swing-through: In the classic swing-through technique, the muzzles are inserted on the tail of the bird, and then you smoothly “swing through” the line of flight and pull the trigger without pause or checking the bead or the lead. Often referred to as “instinctive shooting,” swing-through is taught to the timing rhyme of “butt-belly-beak-bang.” This method works well on closer shots at birds that do not require long leads, as the gun’s momentum produces enough follow-through to give sufficient lead.
Measured swing-through: This is an improved swing-through technique used for longer passing shots that need more lead. This method also helps keep the barrels on the line at greater distances. The only difference between this method and regular swing-through is that the muzzles are inserted the same distance behind the bird as what you would compute to be the correct lead in front of the bird.
You can do this when practicing on clay targets. Insert the muzzles the same distance behind the target as the computed lead, visually measuring the gap, and then swing through the target. When the muzzles reach the same distance in front of the clay that you inserted them behind, take the shot.
Pull-away: The clay shooter’s pull-away technique can work well on longer overhead and passing shots. The muzzles are inserted and kept on the head of the bird throughout the gun mount, and then they are swung, or “pulled away,” to establish the lead required. Like the measured swing-through, another good overhead technique, this move ensures good gun speed when pulling the trigger. As the saying goes: “Point-gap-bang.”
Spot-shooting: “Ambushing”—better known as spot, or snap, shooting—is another form of so-called instinctive shooting. The muzzles are inserted in front of the bird, the correct amount of lead is judged from prior practice and experience and the trigger is pulled instantly. This target ambushing, or interception, takes real belief and confidence, plenty of practice and exceptional hand-eye coordination. This snap, or instinctive, shot may be used best when hunting in flooded timber or heavy cover, where there is only a small window of opportunity.
Through practice on clay targets that simulate high overhead or crossing waterfowl (and dove) shots, you can find your own best techniques. I have witnessed many good shots using some or all of these techniques to good effect. The best thing to do is practice with clay targets from a high tower to determine which technique(s) works best for you. Time spent practicing definitely will improve your waterfowling experience this season and help you connect on wary birds.