Calling the Shots
(Original Story featured in Wildfowl Magazine)
Take ‘em! Cut ‘em! Get ‘em! These short phrases are just a few of the heart pumping phrases used by thousands of waterfowlers notifying their camo wearing, shotgun wielding brethren and sistern it’s time to unload on the fowl that have been tolled into range or as we say in the marsh or field, “Call the Shot”. After 40 years of chasing ducks and geese across North America, I have heard almost every variation of “Calling the shot”. From simple easy to understand terminology like “Do it!” or “Kill ‘em” to colorful phrases like “Make it rain!” or “Unleash hell”. (I’ve actually heard that one.) One of my favorite shot calls and it never gets old, was by a good friend Rob Reynolds, a charismatic Mojo Outdoors poster boy and owner of Ranchland Outfitters out of Alberta Canada. Every trip, he would be the one to call the shot (if we weren’t filming, I’ll explain this later). He would wait for a single to come in, when the time was right, he would sit up, shoot and say, “Get em boys!” as the bird was falling out of the sky. Of course, the blinds would explode with laughter immediately afterwards. He still says my favorite phrase out of all the guys I’ve hunted with. Simply one slang word, “Yep!”
Now, calling the shot can be relatively easy, if you are by yourself or one other person, but if you are calling the shot for anymore than three, you better be on your game, because if you aren’t, you will most likely hear grumblings down the blind due to your poor timing and/or communication. Continue with poor shot calling and you will slowly see a mutiny on your hands with other seasoned waterfowlers either assisting you by telling you when to call the shot, or flat ignoring you and calling the shot themselves. Calling the shot is an art. Any person who has spent anytime sitting or laying in a blind will tell you, there is a window that will allow you to take that perfect shot where the birds are in range and you can easily get a second or third shot off if need be. If you call it to early, you will likely miss or wound birds by not letting them get in close enough. If you call it too late, you will likely either not get shots or only get a limited number of shots.
There are several major factors to calling the shot that need to take into consideration. First of all, who is going to call the shot? You need to make sure everyone knows who is calling the shot. If you are hunting with friends and you all are experienced waterfowlers, calling the shot by committee is okay, just make sure you are communicating amongst each other in the blind. But if there is an obvious difference in experience, usually the one who logs the most time in his or her waders, will be unofficially assigned. Whoever it is, you need to determine before closing up your blind. If you are hunting with a guide, most likely he or she has the experience and will be calling the shot. Here’s a tip… if you are hunting with a guide and you call the shot when you’re not supposed to be the one calling it, or you shoot before the shot is called, I can guarantee you’ll be reprimanded and there is a good chance when you call to book next year, there won’t be any openings available.
Now if you are the one with the most experience and expected to call the shot, here are some tips on how to do this successfully. It is not easy calling the shot and can be a lot of pressure. You have only so many flocks coming to that field or water hole, you better make each interaction count. I’ve called the shot most of my professional career, being a hunting guide and then a field producer, where I had to talk to the camera guys through microphones in order for them to be on the birds we were going to shoot. I will defer if I am a guest and not filming the hunt, it’s just courtesy, but when you're making film, spending other peoples money, it’s critical that we, including the camera guys, are all on the same page and I would always inform the guide or host of this. They understood this every time.
You have to think about where that person who is calling the shot is sitting in the blind or blinds. If there is three of you in a duck blind it really doesn’t matter, but if you are hunting in layout blinds with seven other hunters, you better put that person calling the shot in the middle. Seven blinds will take up at least 28 feet of real-estate. With birds talking, calls sounding, wind blowing, it can be very difficult for the guys on the opposite end of the blinds to hear the shot called if the person calling the shot is at the other end.
One of the most important skills you need to develop is patience. After many years of chasing small geese like lessers and snow geese in the Pacific and Central Flyways, I quickly learned these birds, especially the big flocks, don’t just drop in like big canada geese or mallard ducks. The smaller the bird, the warier they are. I’ve seen it take up to 7-8 minutes for these little geese to work their way down within gun range. It takes a ton of patience to watch as a few geese or ducks start landing in your spread waiting on that shot at the big flock. If you’re not blowing your brains out on a goose call, sit back and enjoy the show.
Another tip is understanding timing. It takes the average adult in good shape approximately 2-3 seconds to sit/stand up, pick a target and pull the trigger. Add guys that are overweight, old and can’t see, now the average is somewhere around 5 seconds and up. In 5 seconds, a bird, especially in the wind, can gain another 15 yards or more going the other direction. This is why it is important to take in account who you are hunting with. I try and time the shot to where the birds are in perfect range when the slowest guy is up with his gun against his cheek.
Pay attention to how the birds work. Usually in the early season, it’s not too much of an issue, birds work the spread and come with in range, often times landing in the decoys if they are set up correctly. (That’s another article.) Late season birds that have been heavily pressured can stay clear of decoys avoiding that perfect 20-30 yard backwinging-over-the-decoy shot. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a 40 yard shot straight up into their belly. In fact, that is probably my favorite shot. You need to pay attention and see how the birds work. If they do this to you once, be ready and don’t let it happen again. But again, take in the consideration of timing. Stand up to early and they’ll be a little far and you'll have poor long shots, stand up too late and you’ll be shooting with an arched back behind you, which is not the optimum shooting position.
When I call the shot, if it’s a few birds I like them hovering over the decoys. Letting them land, then coming up to shoot, just isn’t as appealing to me as the earlier, not that I won’t do it. A bird with open wings is a much bigger and vulnerable target than a bird on the ground. I rarely shoot birds on the ground, unless it’s a running cripple.
If you have a big flock, I like to allow half of them to land and call the shot as the back half of the flock is hovering over the rest. As you shoot the birds hovering, the birds on the ground will jump which allows you to take second or third shots at birds trying to take flight, maximizing the number of birds you shoot out of the flock.
Another tip, according to Rob Reynolds, when hunting puddle ducks such as mallards in the field, call the shot and come out hard and fast out of the blind. This often times will flare the birds up presenting you with a beautiful open winged belly shot.
If you are calling the shot for a large group, make sure you are nice and loud. As I discussed earlier, all the noise that can occur while you are trying to communicate, add old deaf hunters or guys wearing hearing protection and it can be flat challenging to hear the shot call. Make sure you are loud, I suggest yelling it.
The best thing you can do to become a solid shot caller is to hunt. Spend time in the field and pay attention to those who are calling the shot and how the birds are working. Eventually you will have the confidence to say “Take ‘em” in any setting.