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Photo by Fred Greenslade

Every year, a substantial number of ducks and geese are lost or wounded by hunters. Many are quick to blame this on the lack of killing power of nontoxic shot, but more often than not, the crippling of a bird is the result of poor shooting. One of the most common mistakes hunters make, either from ignorance or desperation, is shooting birds that are simply out of range. Shotguns are effective tools for hunting and the modern selection of nontoxic shot is expansive, but range is still limited, usually to 35 to 40 yards in most situations. The body structure and dense feathers of waterfowl are also an effective shield against pellets that are low on energy, so even if you hit a bird at long range, there’s a good chance you won’t recover it.

Responsible hunting requires that hunters know their effective range and don’t take shots beyond that distance, whether they’re hunting mallards or mule deer. Patterning your gun might not clearly demonstrate the lethal effective range of your load, and there’s a big difference between punching holes in paper and driving a pellet into the vitals of a duck or goose. For most shooters, the maximum effective range with a shotgun is between 35 and 40 yards. At that range, most nontoxic loads are lethal and effective, and the proximity doesn’t require the same skill with a shotgun that longer shots demand. The simplest way to keep your shots within that range is to set a decoy or other marker at maximum range and refrain from shooting at birds beyond that. If you’re hunting with a veteran waterfowler who is good at judging distance, let him call the shots.

Prepare Yourself

Perhaps the best way to practice range estimations is to create a duck or goose silhouette that is accurately sized for the species you are hunting. Teal and other small ducks have a wingspan that is generally less than 2 feet, and mallards and similar-size ducks have a wingspan of up to 3 feet. Geese are even larger, and most Canada geese have wingspans that range from 4 to 6 feet, so design a silhouette that matches the species you are most likely to encounter.

Set these decoys at maximum range, shoulder your shotgun, and get a feel for how wide the bird is compared to the rib of your gun. This will help you judge distance to the birds as they are flying in and you’ll have some point of reference, so you don’t shoot at birds beyond your range. Also, choose a choke tube that gives you the maximum effective range for shooting nontoxic shot. There are several high-quality aftermarket tubes designed specifically for lead-free shot that will help you present a lethal pattern. Finally, learn to sit tight in the blind until you know the birds are in range, and you’ll spend more time shooting and less time tracking down cripples.