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Gunning for Greenheads
in the New Millennium

by Tom Rothe, Statewide Waterfowl Coordinator, ADF&G

The 2000 waterfowl season in Alaska holds the usual promise of abundant waterfowl and unique hunting in wild places. Alaska is fortunate to have an abundance of wetlands-from coastal river deltas and tundra to interior river basins-that provides table habitats for 10-12 million ducks, over 1 million geese and 130,000 swans. In recent years, surveys have shown above average numbers of ducks and increases in most goose populations. This fall, as always, Alaskans will have no shortage of birds-their success will depend on preparation ,weather that concentrates birds before they head south, and being in the right place at the right time. As this article is read in the waning summer, we dedicated waterfowlers are reminded that we SHOULD HAVE been practicing our shooting, training the dog, painting the decoys and squawking on the calls. So let's get focused to make the best of another fall flight. 

Gearing Up for Opening Day 2000


This season will be the 10th year Alaskan hunters have shot waterfowl under nontoxic shot rules. Most hunters have gained enough knowledge and experience to feel comfortable with steel shot-it is widely available and prices are now comparable to quality lead loads or less. However, in recent years, the shot shell industry has developed five other alternative nontoxic shot types for those that want high-density metals. Bismuth-tin and tungsten-iron shot have been around for several years. Tungsten polymer, tungsten matrix and tin shot were the newest entries in the field last year. 

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Although these new shot types use dense metals, they share some common disadvantages-high cost, special shot shell configurations and lack of adequate performance data to evaluate their worth as lethal loads. The dense metals are relatively rare and are extracted as by products of other mining-they will likely remain in short supply and the prices will not come down. In addition, bismuth, tungsten and tin all have physical characteristics that require special shot-making processes and new shot shell designs. These factors result in “sticker shock” from the price tags on bismuth-tin ($1.50 per shell) and tungsten-iron ($2.25 per shell). Most hunters are not willing to pay those prices-on up-for “boutique shot” when their serviceable steel loads cost 40 cents a pop. 

Perhaps the most important obstacle in judging the currently approved new shot types is the lack of thorough, objective testing in the field. As usual, sports writers and industry advertisers are first out of the chute to rave about new products-but the conclusions offered are almost never based on scientifically designed studies of external ballistics under field conditions. At this stage, the jury is still out on whether most hunters can cleanly kill waterfowl better with these loads than with lead or steel. Let's see if buffered loads will prevent the tendency to fracture in large bismuth-tin shot—let's see if the thick wad and small shot capacity of tungsten-iron shells will produce lethal pattern densities downrange—let's see if tungsten polymer and tungsten matrix retain their pellet shape and effective patterning when fired. 

Ultimately, most of us will be “throwing iron” in the marsh because of its price, availability-and we have adapted to steel's characteristic velocities and patterning performance. Nevertheless, a brief refresher might provide some valuable preseason thoughts on ammunition and choke choices, and stimulate practice on the range to improve our skills. 

Steel is lighter than lead. To compensate for steel's lighter shot weight than lead and retain more energy beyond 40 yards, the general rule is to use steel shot one or two sizes larger than you would with lead (example: #2 or #3 steel instead of #4 lead). 

Steel is harder and deforms less. Because steel shot is rounder, shot strings of steel are only 60-70% the diameter of lead and only 1/2 to 2/3 of the length. More open chokes (IMPROVED CYLINDER or MODIFIED) will spread and lengthen steel's smaller strings and improve your ability to intercept birds, but shorter steel shot strings will demand more practice for effective trigger timing. 

Steel shot shell configurations are different. Better pattern efficiency and more payload volume in steel shot shells means we can buy lighter steel loads (e.g., 1 ounce vs. 1 ounce) and get effective charges at less expense . 

Unfortunately, the shot shell marketplace is often not in tune with our needs. In particular, the “big box” stores are prone to stocking only large shot sizes, even-size shot (2, 4) and mostly heavy loads. In some areas, it is difficult to find #1 or BB steel for Alaska geese, #3 steel-the optimal duck load, and #6 steel for close ducks, wounded birds, and clay targets. No wonder hunters are dismayed at the high prices and poor selections of shot sizes! 

The technology of shotgunning is fascinating and rewarding if you want to devote some time to serious study of ballistics. However, it is important for waterfowl hunters to educate themselves at least about the basics of shotguns, chokes and shot shell effectiveness to ensure better satisfaction in the field and a more efficient harvest of birds. The advent of nontoxic shot has both unfortunately produced misinformation that persists in confusing hunters, but also provides reason to learn how we can use shot shell technology more effectively without toxic lead shot. There is a lot of information and help available, through periodic shotgun clinics, written materials, and trained staff to answer questions. Just call toll-free (800) 478-SHOT. 

Hunting Strategies for Waterfowl—Arts and Ethics

Prior to the North American duck crisis of the 1980s, about 5 million people hunted migratory birds annually in the U.S., harvesting 12-15 million ducks and 1.5 million geese each year. Alaska has averaged about 10,000 waterfowl hunters, taking about 110,000 ducks and geese. Unfortunately, on average, one in every four waterfowl shot by hunters are not rendered to the game bag—they're wounded and lost, they recover, survive as injured birds, or die. Even under ideal circumstances, like a study in Illinois where skilled shooters and guides were involved, 15% of the birds are lost. Any experienced waterfowler will attest to the challenge of cleanly bagging ducks- they are fast, hard to target, and seem to enjoy rocketing through the decoys when least expected. 

Here are some major factors contributing to lost (and missed) birds, and an efficiency checklist for planning your hunt strategy: 

Species of Bird – Each kind of game bird behaves differently, requiring the hunter to know and anticipate the prey in order to make an effective shot. Body size, flight behavior, habitat preferences, and social habits are all-important considerations for your choice of gear, location, and techniques. Other than knowing areas where game birds are abundant and their favorite habitats, knowing the body size and typical flushing distance will help you plan your gauge, choke and ammunition selection to meet the challenge of wing shooting. Studying game bird identification will make the hunt more interesting and keep you out of trouble with the restricted bag limits on canvasbacks and some grouse species. Summer duck-watching and leafing through the field guides is a good way to prepare for fall hunting. 

Habitat and Local Conditions – Hunting in dense marshes presents substantial risks of losing birds that are downed, compared to the ease of recovering birds on open water. Plan ahead, get to know the hunt area in advance, and select a shooting stand that offers good visibility in your zone of fire and watch every shot bird carefully until it is down. In Alaska, it is not unusual to lose birds on outgoing tides or down-river. Having a boat and dog where they are needed is essential. 

Hunt Methods – Pass-shooting can result in bird losses as high as 60%, in contrast to more careful and accurate shooting available at closer ranges over decoys. Pass-shooting at any distance requires good gun-handling and practice, and it is the most abused technique of unskilled hunters. It may require an initial investment of time, but far more birds can be bagged-more enjoyably-through learning the arts of calling and decoying birds into your effective range, than through all the desperate rapid-fire, sky-busting, magnum-thumping, anti-aircraft tactics used by those who can't shoot well! In some areas, jump-shooting results in satisfying success from skillful stalking. However, the best sneak can be tarnished by birds lost in attempts to shoot beyond effective ranges. Often jump-shooting presents us with a going away bird that is difficult to kill-bones and muscles of the legs and pelvis shield vital organs, and the tough gizzards of waterfowl protect the heart and lungs. Careful judgement and perhaps a larger shot size are warranted for this kind of hunting. 

Hunter Skills – Besides the necessary knowledge and experience about gear and hunting strategies, the most important factors in cleanly bagging waterfowl or losing wounded birds are the gun-handling skills and trigger-pulling judgement of the individual hunter. The most difficult problems are learning how to swing a shotgun on a moving bird and when to fire the shot-and when to pass up marginal chances. A good wing-shooter needs as much or more athletic ability and coordination as an accomplished golfer or baseball hitter, yet there are a lot of hunters who leave their shotguns in the closet from the season close to the next opening day, or expect to pick up the scatter-gun cold and hit a home run the first time out. Like learning the habits of game birds, off-season study and practice-practice-practice, are the keys to becoming an efficient and skillful shotgunner. 

By far, the most common and serious error committed by water-fowlers is underestimating distances to their targets and attempting shots that are too long for their skills and chosen ammunition to guarantee a clean kill. Beyond 35 yards, struck birds are lost at twice the rate of birds that are shot at closer ranges, and the losses increase phenomenally beyond 50 yards. For the sake of personal satisfaction and conservation of migratory game birds, it is critical that waterfowlers learn the effective ranges of their ammunition, how to judge distances in the field, and to shoot only within the limits of their own shooting abilities. Yet again, off-season work is the answer-pattern testing loads, shooting clay targets and accurately visualizing the limits of our skill and technology. 

Gun Dogs—the Waterfowler's Best Friend

I often have reason to re-evaluate my choice to live with three active hunting dogs and a spouse who prefers dog training over pure leisure (sleep) on the weekends. But as I scroll through the “dog day” memories...old Charlie the Labrador's midnight sneak into Bill's bunk after a hard Susitna Flats opening day...Miss Ruffian making a “pop-fly” catch on Ann's first white-fronted goose...and 6-month-old Griz staunchly pointing an eastern Oregon chukar, the pleasures and purposes of living with bird-dogs are reaffirmed. Although many people are not enthused about feeding, training, and living in close quarters with a rather large, rambunctious canine, mankind has developed unusually firm bonds with dogs that transcend mere companionship and household defense. In my view, these bonds are most meaningful in the many uses we have for working dog breeds, and the most artful is a bird hunter's partnership with a trained gun dog. 

Over the past 4,000 years, hunters have bred and trained a wide variety of bird dogs to search for, attract, point, flush, trail, and retrieve game birds. The common goal of their efforts has been to ensure an efficient, non-wasteful harvest of wildlife. In our present era of shrinking wildlife habitats, more intensive use of fewer public hunting areas, and the need for more careful conservation of bird resources, hunting with bird dogs not only ensures that we receive the rewards of our efforts in birds for the table, but also adds a satisfying new dimension to our enjoyment in the field. 

As I mentioned in the section above on gunning, the unfortunate loss of unretrieved game birds results from the nature of wing-shooting with a shotgun, but most of it is directly related to hunter skills and choices made by hunters. The choice to hunt with or without a dog is an important hunting and conservation decision. The use of trained dogs can reduce the losses of downed waterfowl by up to 70%, depending on hunting conditions. In North America, only 18-20% of waterfowl hunters use dogs, but it is interesting that recorded rates are highest in British Columbia and Alaska. In a survey of Alaskan hunters, the Department of Fish and Game was surprised to learn that 31% used dogs for waterfowl hunting. The highest level of use was on Kodiak (46%) and the Alaska Peninsula (41%), where sea duck hunting and retrieving in marine waters are common. You can bet that Alaska's duck dogs earn their keep and provide many of the birds for our special winter meals. 

Even if owning a gun dog is not for your family, most hunters that use dogs welcome the opportunity to work the dog with friends and help others recover birds in the field. A well-trained dog is a joy to watch and is especially appreciated when skim-ice is on the pond, or the tide is running. 

We should never use retrievers as an excuse for shooting beyond our abilities-we should be grateful for their skills and devotion that enrich our imperfect hunts. 

If you are interested in raising and training a gun dog, a responsibility not unlike parenthood, there is plenty of help available in Alaska. There are three American Kennel Club (AKC) retriever field trial clubs and three North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) clubs located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Kenai Peninsula. AKC has a long history of promoting breeding and training of pure-bred working dogs, and conducting competitive field trials for retrievers. NAHRA focuses on dog work done under simulated hunting conditions, and offers non-competitive testing of dogs against standards of performance. 

The popularity of training for hunting situations has spawned a major expansion in AKC Hunt Tests and NAHRA events. Alaska's newest hunting dog group, Alaska Bird Dog Association, is providing more opportunities to train and test the flushing, pointing and versatile dogs for upland gamebird and waterfowl hunting. Members of all these clubs are avid hunters and can offer a wealth of advice, training opportunities, and hunting friendships. Throughout this article, I have tried to emphasize the importance of being knowledgeable about waterfowl and the gear used in waterfowl hunting, both for more rewarding hunting experiences and conservation of game bird resources. After all, the responsibility for maintaining waterfowl hunting opportunities and an efficient harvest of migratory birds rests in the minds and trigger fingers of hunters in the field. 

With the level of public scrutiny on hunting and the educational resources that are available to waterfowlers today, there is no room for the excuses that “I can't cleanly kill birds with steel shot,” and “I couldn't tell what kind of bird it was when I shot.” If you take full advantage of all the opportunities to learn and practice the hunting arts, you can extend your enjoyment of waterfowling throughout the entire year—perhaps to the chagrin of your spouse, employer, and all the relatives that expect you to entertain them. Check out some videos, go to the shooting range, or join a gun dog club—it will pay off in greenheads and great memories! 

This story was taken from the October, 2000 Alaska Hunting Bulletin


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