By Drew Henry
The ducks have been scouted. The spread has been set. You are waiting with sheer anticipation in your layout blind, blanketed over by the early morning darkness. You are blessed to have your father along on the hunt, both of you sipping hot coffee and taking in the moments of this already amazing memory. You can hear your seven other close friends quietly whispering and giggling as they lay in line as well; it sounds as though they are back in grade school and the last day bell is about to ring, they can hardly contain their excitement. The dark slowly fades to light and it begins to sound as though a thousand leer jets will be using your decoys as a landing strip. Instinctively you tuck your head down tight, so sure that the last bombing mallard was about to give you a buzzed hair cut. Soon it is time and you hear the call, “Cut Em!”, as you burst from your blind to witness a falling sky of cupped-up green heads!
A huge volley occurs and ducks rain to the ground. Between the cheers and high fives, dogs and hunters run to quickly retrieve their game, as the next wave of mallards is already nearly upon them. Volley after volley continue throughout the morning, with the joy and excitement surrounding this epic hunt at an all time high. After returning with a beautiful drake, you casually slide yourself back into your layout blind. You feel the ground beneath you shake, you hear the unmistakable BOOM of a shotgun, and you realize you have just made one of the biggest mistakes of your life. The joy and happiness are gone. The silence is deafening. What have you done?
That was me.
Nobody died, no toes were lost, not even a destroyed decoy, but my stomach still twists in knots when I think about that moment. To this day, I don’t know if my safety was ‘on’ and I clicked it ‘off’ when I slid into my blind, or if I broke the cardinal rule and did not secure my firearm safely, only to return to a hot weapon. But it doesn’t matter why and there is never a way to go back in time; the gun fired accidentally and I was completely to blame. My pride was hurt, I was embarrassed beyond belief, and most of all I was angry that I could make such a stupid mistake; a mistake which I have since vowed to correct.
Most hunters take a safety course before they go afield for the first time, and most do a good job of following these lessons throughout their lifetime. I would place myself at the top of this category. But, mistakes will happen and I am blessed that my mistake is not directly tied to a tragedy. My best advice to you: learn from my mistake, freshen up on your general hunter’s safety, and absorb the following tips that are specific to hunting from a layout blind, and you may avoid tragedy as well.
Safety Your Weapon
One of the simplest things a hunter can do to greatly limit the chance of an accidental discharge is to make sure that the safety on their weapon is engaged; I don’t know of any hunters that do not already know this fact. But, in most hunting situations, and particularly in a layout blind situation, I would contend that the safety mechanism alone is not enough. What if you bump the safety when climbing back into your blind, or your cold, gloved-fingers betray you into believing you pressed it, or you simply forget all together during the excitement? A simple solution that I now practice is to hunt with the chamber open. There is no denying that your chamber is open, it is nearly impossible to mistake, and pressing the automatic feed button or sliding your pump forward is not that difficult to learn. Some may say that you will lose speed on the volley. I might not pick up as many doubles as I once did, but I’m safe, my hunting buddies are safe, and my mind is at peace.
It is really pretty simple; take care of your shotgun and it will take care of you. When duck hunting, life can get muddy, snowy, wet and just down-right filthy, and most duck hunters would agree that this is part of the enjoyment. However, it is easy to forget that we are constantly tracking mud and snow into our layout blinds, which can build up in the lower foot portion and on top of the blind itself, and this debris can easily be exposed to a shotgun muzzle. In fact, there are few other hunting situations where a muzzle is in as close of proximity to the ground as when hunting from a layout blind. So, pay close attention, and if it is questionable at all, then take the time to empty your weapon and check and clean your muzzle.
New Gear! Use it!
There are few things in life that make hunters happier than acquiring new gear in the off-season. No sooner than the gear arrives on our doorsteps do we assemble layout blinds and hide from our wives as they enter the living room. We unsheathe new guns, just to admire their beauty, and we are often caught wearing waders and parkas in the heat of the summer. This may seem as child-like fun, but it can be a crucial component to good hunting safety come fall. Equipment should be used thoroughly during the off-season; your equipment should be an extension of yourself, not only making you familiar with all of the dangers come opening day, but making you a better overall hunter.
Just as a bow-hunter practices drawing and shooting a bow in full camouflage, a duck hunter should do the same. I suggest shooting a few clay pigeons while wearing your fall coat and gloves. It may be hot, but come crunch time you won’t find yourself struggling to click off the safety due to your fat gloves, and you will already know that you need to take the hood off your coat because the dang thing gets in the way! Also, you should practice erupting from your new blind with full hunting gear; make sure you go outside so you don’t knock the lamp off the end table. I have learned that the door on my blind will catch on my elbow, that my gun rest needs an extra push to seat it properly, or that I need to have my cuff buttoned in order to slide my hand back through the flagging hole for a quick shot. Remember, if your neighbor is giving you nervous looks, move your blind from the backyard to your garage; you don’t need an awkward police visit.
We have heard it a thousand times, “always know what lies beyond your target.” In a layout blind hunt, your foreground should only contain waterfowl, unless you stray from your shooting lane. With other hunters along, it is common courtesy and a matter of safety that you identify your safe shooting lanes and do not stray from them. Also, always consult with the hunters next to you so that they remember to do the same. When a bird escapes your first two shots, which happens to me quite often, avoid the temptation to extend your lane with shot number three. Also, if a bird is sailing after a poor hit, make sure the rest of the hunting party is aware and they will surely be happy to help you clean it up. Take pride in the fact that you are taking safe and ethical shots; rather than taking a greedy shot and placing your friend’s life at risk.
Know Your Limits- Don’t Race!
I am blessed with many of life’s responsibilities; marriage, job, house, dogs, a new baby, and of course the infamous honey-do list. I make a solid effort to hunt as often as possible; probably more than most in my situation. My wife would say I hunt a lot, but she is very supportive. Because of this, I consider myself to be a good hunter, a decent shot, a below average duck caller, and a terrible goose caller. My skills pale in comparison to my single friends and their hunting prowess. I make no secret of my envy toward their ability to take daily hunts, spend hundreds of dollars on new clay pigeon throwers, and attain the capability to drop a fleeing mallard at 60 yards. I am accepting of this envy, and when hunting with my aforementioned friends, I am cognoscente of my skill-set and I remember my limits. Since I am accepting of my skills, I make an effort not to race for birds. When you race and hurry with a weapon, your safety is compromised. My advice is to try and pick the second or third bird away from you, take your time and make the shot; admittedly slowly, but safely and efficiently.
Finally, it is always a good idea to take the time to refresh your hunter’s safety knowledge. I recommend that you attend hunter’s safety again, perhaps with your child, niece, nephew, or friend. In Iowa, courses are offered online or in the classroom, and there is also a required field component. All of the information you need can be found on the Iowa DNR website at http://www.hunter-ed.com/Iowa/. Here you will find information about hunting safety in Iowa, links to other educational opportunities throughout the state, and links to hunting safety websites in 40 other states.
Remember, if you are safe, you guarantee that you will return to the field next time for one more hunt!