EAST TROY, Wis. — A certain satisfaction comes from breaking clay pigeons at the shooting range.
Millions of shooters in America, many of them hunters, enjoy the challenge of trap, skeet, sporting clay and five-stand each year.
These same shooters typically derive less fulfillment from accurately estimating distances.
Or knowing their shotgun patterns with their normal hunting load at different distances.
But all three aspects of shotgunning are critical to becoming a successful waterfowl hunter.
And what’s more, regular practice of a variety of skills, including distance estimation and target shooting with hunting loads, will help produce better and more ethical hunters.
These are among the tenets of “Wingshooting for Migratory Birds,” a pilot program being rolled out this year in Wisconsin by the Department of Natural Resources.
The program is designed to improve shooting, improve distance estimation, increase awareness of effective shooting ranges and assist with selection of shotgun choke and ammunition for hunting situations.
“There’s a lot that goes into being a successful waterfowl hunter,” said Tim Lizotte, DNR wildlife supervisor from Waukesha. “This course provides a wide variety of instruction to help.”
Lizotte and DNR conservation warden Doug Zeihen conducted a two-day instructional class for the program in late June at Triangle Sportsmen’s Club in East Troy.
I attended the class along with 13 others, including representatives of Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Green Bay Duck Hunters Association, Triangle and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association. Each group has pledged to conduct two Wingshooting for Migratory Birds clinics in Wisconsin over the next two years.
The two-year pilot program is being funded by $50,000 in grants from the Pittman-Robertson Act, an excise tax on sales of firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment.
The June class was to “train the trainers,” people who will hold the wingshooting clinic through their clubs or organizations. The organizations conducting the clinics will borrow a DNR trailer filled with equipment, including clay pigeon throwers, patterning boards, waterfowl decoys and eye and ear protection.
The Wisconsin program is based on one used by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
It includes skills assessments, shotgun patterning, ammunition selection and game recovery techniques.
One of the primary faults of waterfowl hunters is a tendency to shoot at targets beyond their effective range, Zeihen said.
According to a study cited in the course, hunters on average took their first shot at ducks at 53 yards. Goose hunters took their first shot at 67 yards.
Such a habit can result in wounded, unrecovered birds. Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1965 to 2001 show that duck hunters report a wounding loss rate of about 17 percent, while trained observers put the figure closer to 30 percent for ducks and 36 percent for geese.
The course helps hunters define their abilities.
Our first shooting test was on a crossing target at 20 yards. Participants are required to hit at least six of eight to successfully complete the test.
Eleven of the 14 in our class were successful at 20 yards. However, at 30 yards only one person passed the test.
And that shooter was only able to hit three of eight at 40 yards.
“If most people are shooting at ducks at 50 but can’t reliably hit a target at 30, you know the outcome,” Zeihen said.
Next we tested our ability to estimate distance. Eight waterfowl decoys were arrayed in a field at the club.
Standing in the center, we were asked to write down the distance to each. We repeated another common problem — underestimating distance.
“You gave me a pencil that lies,” said Matt Ernst of Green Bay Duck Hunters Association, a smile creasing his face.
The decoys had been placed from 12 to 50 yards away. Our answers showed we thought they were 5 percent to 25 percent closer.
Part of becoming a proficient shooter is understanding the shot pattern. After pellets emerge from a shotgun barrel, they are arranged in a conical shape. The leading edge of the cone is smallest in diameter.
And it’s important for waterfowl hunters to know steel shot forms a narrower, shorter cone than lead shot.
The course recommends hunters practice at the range with the type of shell and load they plan to hunt with.
“It’s common sense,” Lizotte said. “Now I practice exclusively with my hunting loads.”
The course manual listed three basic techniques for shooting a shotgun: snap shooting, sustained lead and swing-through method.
In his book “Shotgunning, the Art and the Science,” Bob Brister states, “The easiest way to hit flying game is to swing the barrel through the bird as if to paint it out of the sky.”
This swing-through method forms the core of the shooting technique taught in the class.
Shooting instructor Steve Knoll of Waukesha conducted a session on gun fit, mounting and shooting technique. He related shotgun shooting to golf and baseball.
“When you swing, you don’t look at the club or bat,” Knoll said. “You look at your target.”
The course also utilizes Tom Roster’s 2013 Nontoxic Shot Lethality Table to assist in selection of choke, shell type and pellet size.
Roster, an internationally acclaimed wingshooter, prefers to hunt ducks with an improved cylinder choke and No. 4 steel shot.
We then checked the pattern produced by our guns on a board covered with paper. We counted the number of pellets in a 30-inch diameter circle to guide choke and load selection for typical hunting conditions.
A nationwide poll conducted in 2006 by Responsive Management found 78 percent of Americans approved of legal hunting.
To maintain high levels of support, hunters must be ethical and law abiding.
Lizotte said he hoped activities from the class — especially target shooting with nontoxic shot and distance estimation — would become an annual tradition for waterfowl hunters.
“Sort of like a rifle sight-in before deer season, it would be great to see duck and goose hunters turn out in large numbers and practice some of these factors that are key to successful waterfowl hunting,” Lizotte said.
“Wingshooting for Migratory Birds” courses will be advertised by the sponsor groups; several are likely to be held in August. Each is expected to take six to eight hours.