A simple calculation has to take place before you decide which choke is best for duck hunting. The primary question to ask is how far will you be taking a shot at these potential waterfowl?
The ideal shot pattern for ducks is a 40-inch spread. You can get a 40-inch spread with any of the four most popular choke designs for shotguns, only the distance changes.
The Improved Cylinder choke is the best all-around choke for duck hunting. The Improved Cylinder is the most versatile choke, and if you could only choose one choke this is what you should choose.
What Are the Shotgun Gauges?
The 12 gauge shotgun is the most popular-sized waterfowl gun. The second is the 20-gauge, but purists prefer the 16-gauge, and long-distance “sky busters” enjoy the added heft and range of the 10-gauge.
Those that can’t take the recoil of a 12 or 16-gauge shotgun, often skip the 20-gauge as well and hunt with the rarer 28-gauge gun.
The ideal 40-inch spread comes at exactly the same distance for a 10-gauge as it does for a 28-gauge. The .410 shotgun, even smaller than the 28-gauge, but measured as if it were a rifle caliber, has the same pattern as well.
What Are the Four Main Choke Styles?
With a full choke, you have a 40-inch pattern at 40 yards, a modified cylinder creates the 40 inches spread at 35-yards.
The improved cylinder produces the same pattern at 30-yards and the cylinder choke has the widest pattern, spreading shot in a 40-inch spread at only 25-yards.
The difference from the large 10-gauge, to the small .410, comes in how many pellets the shell sends out in that 40-inch pattern.
Even though the muzzle velocity is nearly identical over all the various gauges, the amount of shot send flying at a duck is vastly larger in 10-gauge shells.
How Are Shotgun Gauges Determined?
A brief lesson in how shotgun gauges were originally determined. For a 10-gauge shotgun, it takes 10 lead balls the identical .775 diameter of a 10-gauge barrel to equal a pound.
The same is true for all the other gauges, at .729 inches in diameter it took 12 lead balls to equal one pound.
Keep the linear pattern going and a 16-gauge is .663, a 20-gauge. 615 and a 28-gauge is .550 inches in diameter with each taking the number of their gauge in lead balls to equal a pound.
Jump back to the late 19th century when commercial waterfowl hunters were decimating ducks and geese from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys and you had a mammoth, pivot mounted 2-gauge shotgun in use.
That meant a round ball weighed an incredible eight ounces. They didn’t shoot slugs but filled with #4 or smaller shots and you had thousands of pellets ripping entire flocks apart on one blast.
The 10-gauge is the largest legal size in America today.
What Chokes For Duck Hunting?
Duck hunting comes in as many varieties as there are species of this colorful waterfowl.
Jump shooting is very different than shooting over floating decoys, and both of those are vastly different from hunting in a cornfield with stationary decoys, motorized rotating week decoys, and layout blinds.
Best Choke For Jump-Shooting Ducks?
Jump shooting is the simple practice of stalking a section of a stream, canal, or small lake and jumping up to flush unwary ducks.
The best choke for this style of shooting is the improved cylinder. Its average effective pattern at 30 yards lends itself to the stalk and flush method.
A 40-inch pattern at 30 yards will often drop more than one bird when loaded with four-shot or larger steel pellets.
Best Choke For Shooting Over Floating Decoys?
The choke pattern with floating decoys varies as the season advances. On opening day, and a few days after, a standard cylinder, with no choke is often the best.
It spreads a shot pattern much wider over short distances, hitting ducks at close range who haven’t figured out that they’re flying into a trap.
As the season progresses, ducks become much more wary of the telltale signs of a hunter shooting over floating decoys.
By the final third of the season, you won’t get many local ducks close to your decoys. Migratory ducks will still come in, but the locals have learned the trick. They’ll circle and circle in ever descending patterns, but many times they won’t break wing and land.
This is where the full choke, with its tight 40-inch pattern at 40 yards earns its keep. You can still hit ducks at longer range if you’re a good shot, and if the pattern you’re shooting hits them in enough volume to drop the birds.
Best Choke For Shooting Over Cover?
Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe decoys are decoys, whether on land or on water. That isn’t always accurate.
If you’re set up with layout blinds, or even an old white sheet covering you in a field of harvested grain on a field covered with patches of snow you’ve created good camouflage from incoming waterfowl.
Setting your decoys in a specific feeding pattern, and calling in the birds with a feeding, or muddling call will get them close.
Your best bet for this style of duck hunting is a modified or improved cylinder. The birds, especially at the break of dawn, and twilight will come in close, usually inside 40 yards. The 40-inch pattern of these two chokes at 30 and 35 yards is an ideal range.
Do Chokes Work Different With Different Species of Ducks?
This answer is always yes. Ducks can float in like feathers over decoys or they can resemble X-Wing fighters from Star Wars screaming in at 60+ miles per hour and flying erratically.
Blue and green wing teal are notorious speed demons that spin, drop, rise, and almost shimmy-shake in their flight pattern. You won’t be getting your limit any time soon when firing a full choke at these athletic little birds.
A standard cylinder or perhaps an improved cylinder is your best bet.
Fast-moving buffleheads are equally difficult to hit at a long-range. They don’t dart-like teal, but they are among the best drag racers in the waterfowl world.
Large ducks like canvasbacks, mallards, mergansers, and redheads don’t fly as fast, but they’re durable birds that can take the shock of light pellets at long distances without even losing feathers.
They may drop a bit in speed, but they quickly recover, hit the afterburners and they’re gone.
It’s best to use a full choke on these big birds.
If they’re at 40-yards your pattern is perfect, but if you’re an expert waterfowl hunter you can adjust for longer shots by leading them a bit more, or for closer shots by leading them less and focusing on a single bird rather than a flock shot.
Is the Poly-Choke a Good Idea?
My dad hunted waterfowl, and upland game birds with 20-gauge Remington 870. He almost always harvested more birds than the rest of us.
He was an excellent shot with a shotgun, but he had another advantage in the poly-choke on the end of his 20-gauge. He could dial the choke from cylinder to full, with increments between the modified and improved cylinder.
His poly-choke allowed him to go beyond the standard four choke styles.
With just a twist of the wrist, he had a shotgun that was set for the conditions every time. My own 12-gauge 870 has two barrels, one with a full choke and the other an improved cylinder.
No, I didn’t take them into the field with me, but I did carry the one not on my gun in the carrying case if I needed to change.
There is more to duck hunting than simply pulling the trigger. Knowing which choke to use for the specific style of hunting you’re planning, and the type of duck you will encounter always improves your success rate.