The only waterfowl load you will ever need!

Is this the perfect duck hunting load?    

Want to discover the perfect waterfowl shotgun shell? Read on my friend and the truth shall be revealed.

Which duck hunting load is best?

In retrospect it did not take too far along in my duck hunting career to discover the perfect waterfowl load. It happened many years ago on the canal which separates the states of Minnesota and South Dakota. The canal is the actual border betwixt the two states, and it is generally full of ducks once you get off the main roads a mile or so. Lots of gadwalls with a mallard, woody or teal thrown in occasionally for variety.

We were armed with hand-me-down coats and leaky hip boots and home-reloaded shells. And it was then, after a day of walking and shooting, I discovered the ultimate waterfowl load. It was a 2 ¾ inch high-brass shell loaded with #5 lead.

We shot ‘em high and low and coming and going and everywhere in between. After the first few shots we realized we could not miss. “Bang” and down and splash. The 12 gauge smoothbores boomed again and again until we ran out of shells and pouches to stuff the birds.

You might have guessed that this was before the advent of non-toxic shot, which it was. But it was a deadly load -- #5 lead, about an ounce and a quarter. Fancy guns we had not, these were stubby 870s and a Mossberg pump. We all shot pump guns. Looking back now I realize the perfect shotgun shell also had a critical and unseen companion – confidence.

Confidence in your load makes any load the perfect waterfowl shotgun shell…for you. Think of all the ink spilled in magazines touting this load or that. Bananas I say!

It’s confidence mister that helped you make that shot, confidence.

Last year the missus and I split a case of steel #3s for our waterfowl duties. I find this is very roughly the modern/post non-toxic requirement equivalent to a load of chilled #5 lead. Doubles nicely as a pheasant load and will drop any pesky goose which dares to appear front and center. A 3” shell will get you up to an ounce and a quarter. Heavier than 4s, better pattern than 2s.

We never outgrew those frugal tendencies forged and set in our youth; our shells tend to be inexpensive. Never did warm to the idea of pitching a dollar out my barrel with each tug of the trigger. 

And so I’ll admit there is another facet to this story.

I traveled once with a dyed-in-the-wool waterfowler (and cube-mate at US Fish and Wildlife), to Manitoba and Saskatchewan for a two-week hunting trip. Steve had made the trip for 20 years annually. It was going to be cans on Dauphin Lake and then snows on the prairie westward.

A can collection, with redheads

Steve was never one to take advantage of the birds; he shot a double-barrel exclusively. And well. We brought a total of 13 decoys for the trip, not 13 dozen but 13. Hand-carved.

He would deploy these 13 blocks, a mix of mallards and divers, lovingly, each nestled in its own velvet bag. He had carved most himself, others obtained in trade from other carvers.

We shot limits of cans and a couple greater scaup. All drakes. I recall shooting only one hen during our entire two-week trip. There were two reasons for this fine shooting: we pre-identified the drakes in each flock (with field glasses) before they arrived; and secondly, we did not take a shot farther than 20 yards out. Most were 15. Steve did not miss a bird the entire trip. I’m not exaggerating, he never took a bad shot the whole trip and he never missed. He had confidence in his load and his gun.

That’s the tail end of the secret to the best duck hunting load – find one that works for you in your gun, shoot it enough to gain confidence, and then shoot it all the time.  But wait for good shots.

It’s a strategy we use today at Prairie Smoke Ranch, we let them get up close and personal before tossing those loads skyward. For those fated to do the “sky-buster” waltz on public land you have only our sympathy.   Been there, done that. Please know there is a better way.

Realize too there is a load out there for you -- the perfect load for your waterfowl hunting.

The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved.


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