If there is one thing that is consistent among waterfowl hunters, it’s that they’re very particular about what gear and equipment they’re using. Shot size is no exception. If you’re an experienced waterfowler, you probably already have your shot sizes dialed, but for someone who is just starting to go after ducks or geese, it can be overwhelming. Getting more birds out of the sky and into the blind will ultimately depend on selecting the right shot sizes. Plus, since lead ammo is generally prohibited from use on ducks and geese (but okay for most other birds), you’ve got another decision to make in terms of what material you go with. For those brand new to waterfowl hunting and shotshell purchasing, the shot numbers on the side of shell boxes may mean nothing to you. We’ll fix that in no time.
These numbers can range anywhere from 1 to 6, and the general guideline to go off of is that the size of pellets gets smaller as the number increases. For example, a 12 gauge, size 4 will have roughly 125 pellets per ounce; a 6 shot shell in the same gauge will have about 210 pellets per ounce. More pellets in the same size container means they are smaller individual pellets. If this still sounds like Greek to you, don’t worry. Here’s a breakdown of the best shot sizes for waterfowl, based on the type of bird.
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Teal: Shot Size No. 6
Teal are some of my favorite ducks to go after. Not only does the season start much earlier, but their smaller size and erratic flying makes it a very challenging hunt. They’re also the best to eat. Due to their size and quick, shifty flying, smaller pellets that have a wide spread are ideal. On early teal hunts, I am almost always using No. 6 steel. Hevi-Shot makes a great teal round called Hevi-Teal. With a 12 gauge, 3-inch round, they shoot 1500 fps and are very reliable, whether you’re in the marsh pits or in some flooded timber.
Widgeon, Wood Ducks, and Gadwall: Shot Size No. 3 and No. 4
Using 3-inch, 1 3/8 oz., No. 4 shot is pretty standard for medium-sized ducks such as widgeon, wood ducks, and gadwalls. These ducks are often hunted from the timber, where close shots are very likely; these ducks are known to fly by quickly in such a setting. If that’s the case, No. 3 shot is also appropriate for this situation, and I usually find myself leaning more towards No. 3 as an extra safety net. For those of you who love 20 gauge shotguns (myself included), the Kent Fasteel 2.0, 3-inch, 7/8 oz., No. 3 is an incredible round for these medium-sized ducks, and are some of the better priced rounds on the market.
Mallards: Shot Size No. 2
Mallards are the whitetail deer of waterfowl hunting, as they are often the most abundant as well as the most sought-after for avid waterfowlers. Mallards are larger ducks that typically need a round that packs a punch, especially when reaching out past 40 yards. No. 2 shot is generally the standard when hunting mallards, and most loads are effective up to about 50 yards for someone who is a decent shot. For 12 gauge hunters, Winchester Xpert, 2 3/4 inch, 1 1/8 oz. is going to be your best round for taking down greenheads. For 20 gauge hunters, Winchester Drylok Super Steel, 2 3/4 inch, 3/4 oz. is an incredible mallard round.
Canvasback and Cackling Geese: Shot Size No. 1
There can be a lot of crossover with rounds when it comes to canvasbacks, cacklers and mallards. However, I like to differentiate as I feel it gives you a slight edge. These larger ducks and geese need a round with high velocity and put-down power. Hevi Bismuth 12 gauge, 3-inch, 1 3/8 oz. No. 1 shot is my go-to round when I am after canvasbacks or smaller geese. They have a muzzle velocity of 1450 fps and can reach out surprisingly far. I was extremely impressed after using these for the first time last year, and I will absolutely be using them again this coming waterfowl season.
Canada Geese: Shot Size BB
Canadas are some of the biggest waterfowl you’ll likely be going after, along with certain sea ducks such as surf scoters. Due to their larger size, it’s best to use BB shot rounds to ensure quick and ethical kills.
Apex S3 Steel is one of my favorite rounds for larger waterfowl. From my experience, the 12 gauge, 3-inch, 1 1/4 oz. has the tightest patterns while still providing all the knock down power needed for large Canada geese and certain sea ducks. These rounds are fairly inexpensive, averaging around $0.96 per shell, which is hard to beat when considering their performance on the water.
Successful waterfowl hunting demands the use of proper gear and equipment, and while shot size can often be overlooked, it shouldn’t be. Our goal as waterfowlers is to make quick and clean kills without crippling birds and having them fly away with only a pellet or two in them. With a good understanding of the best shot sizes for waterfowl, and knowledge about when to use them, you will almost certainly bag more ducks.