Skip to navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer
Your browser is outated!

Update your browser to view this website correctly.

Update my browser now

Primetime Ducks, Up Close!

Story & Photos by Scott Haugen | December 8, 2023

Circling with caution, the flock of pintails began to gain elevation. They didn't flare. They just didn't want to commit to the spread. Then, a big sprig peeled off, cupped its wings, and dropped into the decoys. Its stark white breast glared in the sunlight, the long tail curling upwards with a speedy descent. 

I shouldered the Benelli .28 gauge, fired one shot, and my dog was on it. I watched Kona, my Pudelpointer, bird in mouth, swim through the decoys and deliver the gorgeous duck to hand. Kona eagerly got back into his blind, but the hunt was over. 

I admired the limit of seven drakes, the pintail, and six wigeons. We stayed another 20 minutes so Kona could watch more ducks work. He loves spotting birds in the distance, usually seeing them well before I do. 

Gathering the decoys, Kona watched me from his hide, our ducks neatly stacked beside him. It was my first duck hunt with a .28 gauge, and I was impressed. Low recoil, smooth shooting, and ducks were dying with conviction with the HEVI-Shot HEVI XII, a 1 oz. payload of #4 tungsten. I used the same setup on other hunts and was impressed. 


Duck hunter shooting out of a Pit Blind


Match Maker 

Earlier in the season, I began seriously shooting a 20 gauge for ducks. I'd shot sub-gauges before but didn't really study them. I hit them, thought it was cool, then returned to my 12 gauge. I figured a bigger bore with more pellets equated to more kills with fewer shots fired. I was wrong. 

I first noticed how quickly a lighter weight 20 gauge handled than a 12. With the 20, I hit more birds with my first shot than the 12 because I could better control the swing when I stood up in the blind or quickly sat up to shoot from my layout. After my first shot, my follow-up shots were more accurate as I stayed in the gun longer due to the reduced recoil. I could get on birds faster, too, thanks to the lightweight 20. More doubles and triples fell to it. 

I experimented with a range of loads, too. From straight steel to bismuth, tungsten to blends, I even swapped chokes. My loads and chokes of choice were based on where I was hunting, the amount of public pressure that impacted birds, weather conditions, and who I was hunting with. 

My most frustrating hunt came with four buddies. I sat on the upwind side of the blind with my 20 gauge and dog; they all had 12s. It was a very windy, stormy day, and the birds were flying. But before they could reach my end of the blind, the ducks were out of range, already having been shot at. Later, I swapped ends, which helped, but it taught me a lesson to communicate with my buddies to see what gauges they were shooting before the hunt. 

Later that week, I purchased a 20 gauge Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 BE.S.T.  

SBE3 20 gauge with limit of Ducks


With it, I hunted for several days in driving rain for puddle ducks. I also shot cackling Canada geese with it, and it performed well on diving duck hunts a half-mile from the salty Pacific Ocean. Again, the loads and chokes were vital to success. 

I see a lot of fellow hunters growing frustrated with misses, which have become more frequent in the past couple of years with the ammunition shortage. The reason for excessive misses might not be your shooting but rather the fact the gun, choke, and load aren't  

compatible. Perhaps a shim plate adjustment will fix things, or you might have to try a different load or even choke. Not all guns shoot all loads the same way. It takes time, but there's nothing worse than growing frustrated with misses that aren't your fault. 


Scott Haugen and Dog Kona with Duck and SBE3 20ga.


On The Hunt 

Before most hunts, I'm scouting to see where birds are working. I try to learn where they're roosting and eating, then determine where my blind will go. 

Late last season, I scouted a spot for three days. It kept building with wigeon, mallards, and pintails. The evening before my hunt, there were over 5,000 ducks in the flooded, green-grass field. 

By daylight the following morning, I was set up with a dozen floating duck decoys, three dozen Big Al's silhouettes scattered in the shallows and along the shoreline, and my little homemade panel blind covered in dead brown grass; it's just big enough to hide me and my two dogs. That's my favorite way to hunt these days, just me and my dogs. 

At first light, a flock of pintails came in, and I hammered the bull. Then came a pair of mallards, and the drake fell at the shot. Then ducks started landing in another section of flooded field, 250 yards away. The X shifted before my eyes. Wasting no time, I moved. Twenty minutes after getting set up, I was done, a limit of ducks having fallen to the 20 gauge. 

Knowing when to move and being mobile during the season's peak is often critical to success. Limit yourself to hunting out of a stationary blind, and it doesn't matter how many decoys you have or how good your calling is; if the birds don't want to be there, there's often nothing you can do but go to them. 

During the peak of the season, food sources change. In the area I hunt, this is due to new grass sprouting in January and feed being devoured by large numbers of ducks. In the temperate zone where I hunt on the Pacific Coast, many ducks are already starting their spring migration northward. Combine migrating birds with overwintering birds, and numbers quickly build. Make no mistake, these birds are educated. 


SBE3 28ga. with limit of ducks


Get Real 

The later in the season it gets, the more realistic I want the spread to look. I emulate what I see when scouting. Last December, I took my SBE 3 20 gauge to a chunk of private land I hunt twice weekly. It's not a club, just a rye grass field that floods with winter rains. 

I struggled on the two hunts prior, so I swapped my big spread and got rid of my jerk cord spinners–we can't use motorized decoys in my home state of Oregon. I went with a dozen Final Approach Live Fully Flocked Floating Mallard decoys, a dozen of their Live Floating Wigeon, and five dozen wigeon silhouettes grouped tight on the shoreline. With the mallards 25 yards from my blind and the floating wigeon moving toward shore to join the already grazing wigeon silhouettes in the green grass at the foot of my blind, I was set. Over the next three weeks, my buddy and I limited every time. 

My best hunts come on weekends and weekdays when nearby duck clubs are active. This keeps birds moving. But the birds are wise. I only call a little in the late season, just enough to capture their attention, then let the decoys do the work. 

One stormy day last season, two buddies and I took our sub-gauges and didn't call once. The birds were flying low and diving into the decoys that day. The shooting was simple. 

My last three hunts with a 20 gauge found me firing 24 shots to kill 21 birds. I shot HEVI-Shot's new HEVI-Metal Xtreme, a 1 1/16 oz. blend of #4 tungsten and #1 steel, which patterned best in the gun. Every bird I shot was locked on the decoys, feet down. Taking high-percentage shots is the real key to sub-gauge hunting success. 

I don't hunt with small bores to pass, shoot, or go deep. I want birds close for a clean, ethical shot opportunity. After all, for me, that's where the joy and challenge of duck hunting lies: getting them in close and connecting on the shot. It's simple. If the birds aren't where you want them, don't shoot. 

Hunter picking up decoys


Note: Scott Haugen is a full-time writer of nearly 25 years. Learn more at and follow his adventures on Instagram and Facebook. 



Back to Articles & Features

More Articles & Features

ATTENTION: Please be aware of online merchants impersonating as direct Benelli retailers. LEARN MORE