A Rookie s Guide to Knocking Down Ducks

A Beginner’s Guide to Duck Hunting When You’re an Inexperienced Shooter

Some would argue that for your first early-morning duck hunt of the season, it’s essential to be clear-headed and well-rested.

A Rookie s Guide to Knocking Down Ducks Outdoor Life

I, however, ignored this advice.

In the dark, I stood by a 2022 Can-Am Defender Max Lone Star with four other guys, unscrewing the lid of a water bottle and quietly emptying it. In the rig’s bed, there was a heap of gear: shotguns, blind bags, camera boxes, coolers, a dog crate (housing a black lab named Reign), and dozens of Hydrofoam Blue-Winged Teal decoys from Heyday Outdoors. The bed was full, unlike my head, which felt light and off-balance. Additionally, my tongue seemed furry—probably due to the canned cocktails and beers I consumed the night before.

As we drove to our spot, the Turtlebox speaker blasted music from the front, engulfing the enclosed Can-Am cab in sound. The gravel roads illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights, the cab became an echo chamber with a mix of David Allan Coe and Ludacris, drowning out the throbbing inside my head. This was the remedy we needed. Discussing our hangovers would only make it worse. This duck hunt was a combination of a tailgate party and early teal season in Texas.

When we arrived at the blind near a small, flooded rice field, it was still 45 minutes before shooting light. We had work to do, and I reminded myself of a lesson someone once yelled at me on a dock: “Get your hands out of your wader pockets and do something.”

I grabbed a dozen decoys, glanced cluelessly at J.J. Gustafson—our host and the Director of Business Development for Heyday Outdoors—and he quickly explained the spread layout, pointing me to the right side. I stepped into the water, sinking into the mud with each step, and carefully tossed out the decoys, one by one, into the shallows.

Then I looked back at J.J., a large man standing on dry ground, and watched him untie a dozen decoys. “Some people wonder why we prefer using Texas rigs,” he proclaimed as he grasped the bundle of PVC-coated steel cords with both hands, launched all 12 into the air, and watched them untangle before splashing perfectly among the others. I returned to the blind, feeling like I just received a valuable lesson.

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That wouldn’t be my last lesson of the day. Hunting with a skilled group of duck hunters can be daunting for a rookie. However, a few simple tips can help even novices shoot their limits.

Forget About Your Audience

We were certain we would have plenty of opportunities that morning. As we settled into the blind, a few teal had already flown by. Seated on a stool in the middle of the group, I anxiously observed the birds vanishing as quickly as they appeared in the pre-dawn light.

When the first group of ducks came in and J.J. shouted, “Kill ’em!,” I was more nervous than I wanted to admit. I was no stranger to shotguns, having grown up shooting doves and quail as a teenager in Central Texas. However, coastal plain duck hunting was unfamiliar territory for me. I was out of my element, surrounded by four experienced hunters.

I can’t even recall if I aimed at that first duck, but I do know I didn’t hit it. The second and third ducks were no different. Although ducks were falling all around me, sometimes several at once, I couldn’t claim any of them.

Finally, after about 20 minutes, I successfully took an easy shot at a duck that settled in the middle of our spread. While it was hardly a moving target when I pulled the trigger, the relief was palpable. I felt satisfactorily average.

After a few more missed shots, I started to relax and focus on the fundamentals.

A Rookie s Guide to Knocking Down Ducks Outdoor Life

I intentionally aimed at the ducks directly in front of me, rather than the ones on the periphery of the pond. Gradually, I began hitting my targets.

Master Timing

One of the most important lessons I learned about shooting teal that day was timing. Throughout the morning, the ducks steadily descended, sometimes in pairs or groups. However, in the first hour of shooting, each appearance felt surprising.

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My initial instinct was to shoot as quickly as the experienced hunters in the blind, fearing that waiting would mean fewer targets. Yet, this hasty approach disrupted my smooth gun mount, causing me to shoot before fully shouldering the 12-gauge.

After numerous missed opportunities, I returned to the basics and centered my cheek solidly on the shotgun stock. However, as I struggled to hit ducks near the pond’s outer edge, I convinced myself to wait for the birds to fly directly over the blind. I believed that the closer they were, the better my chances. I could not have been more mistaken.

I missed every close shot I took that morning, which was incredibly demoralizing. Later, I mentioned this to Guy Billups, an expert British lab trainer and the president of Wildrose Kennels in Texas. He was among our group and offered a concise explanation of how shotgun loads disperse over distance.

“Well yeah,” he said with a smile. “At that point you’re throwin’ golf balls at ’em.”

Furthermore, most novice duck hunters use modified chokes, which are ideal for shots at 20 to 30 yards.

Focus on One Bird at a Time

Returning to lesson number one, I discovered that narrowing my field of vision helped me ignore the other shooters in the blind. This is challenging when a large flock appears, tempting you to look in all directions simultaneously. However, it’s achievable.

The more I concentrated solely on the ducks directly in front of me, the better my shooting became. By having fewer targets, I could focus and avoid flock shooting. Even the more experienced hunters aiming for doubles only focused on one bird at a time. They simply transitioned faster from the initial target to the second. I didn’t concern myself with such complexities. If I could pick off one duck cleanly from the flock, I considered it an accomplishment.

Take What You Can Get (Including the Easiest Bird)

During a productive hunt, such as ours in Texas that morning, there is usually one or two ducks in almost every flock that hovers over the kill hole longer than the rest. These are the easiest ducks to hit and veteran hunters often allow rookies to shoot them, while they target the ducks on the outer fringe of the flock. This way, there is no risk of five shooters all focusing on the same duck hovering over the kill hole.

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Sometimes, rookies can limit out by only shooting these opportune birds.

After an hour and a half of steady shooting, we were all thrilled. Maybe not as thrilled as the two labs that tirelessly retrieved ducks with guidance from Guy and J.J., but still. We had seen hundreds of teal that morning, breakfast was imminent, and the Coors Light waiting in the small cooler by my feet began to pique my interest once more.

We had a couple more ducks to harvest, and while I continued to miss more birds than I hit, I realized that considering I had only used one box of Apex WS-3 shells and had five teal in my pile, things could have been worse.

Soon, everyone else had reached their limits, except for me.

When the next group of quick-moving ducks approached the decoys, instead of scattering and flying away like they had throughout the morning, they slowed down and backpedaled over the spread.

“Let ’em have it, Dac,” J.J. instructed.

I aimed and shot at a hen that skirted just above the water. The duck dropped, but didn’t crumple, so I fired once more, effectively concluding our hunt. I then unloaded my gun and gazed up at the vibrant pink sky, acting as if I’d done this many times before.