Minnesota Outdoorsman - Minnesota Fishing and Hunting Reports
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Shotgunning: Patterning Makes Perfect

Follow these seven tips to pattern your shotgun for waterfowl


By Phil Bourjaily

Patterning a shotgun is one of the essential chores that we all should do during the off-season. It's not fun, but neither is missing and losing birds. Testing your shotgun and load will tell you if the combination delivers enough pellets on target to make clean kills, and whether the pattern is broad enough to easily intercept flying birds. Skip patterning, and you're firing blind when you shoot at a duck or goose.

Here are seven things to keep in mind as you search for the perfect shot pattern for waterfowl.

1. No Two Patterns Are Alike

Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two shot patterns are exactly the same. In fact, there's a surprising amount of variation from one to the next. Therefore, you need to shoot more than one pattern with each gun, choke, and load combination you are testing. Ammo manufacturers take an average of 25 shots, although there's a diminishing return after 10. 

2. No Two Shotshells Are Alike

If you're interested in figuring out percentages, you need to know exactly how many pellets your shotgun shells contain. Open up five cartridges from the same box, count the pellets, and figure out the average. Pellet counts, and even sizes, can vary a great deal among different lots of the same ammunition. 

3. There Is No Such Thing as an Even Pattern

The mythical "even" pattern doesn't exist. Patterns are denser in the center and sparser at the fringes of a 30-inch circle, which represents the maximum effective spread of a shot pattern. Within the bell-curve distribution of pellets in a pattern, you will find clumps and gaps. All patterns have them. Changing chokes is one way to reduce the number of gaps. At close range, many chokes are too tight,  leaving gaps in the pattern fringe. At longer ranges, a tighter choke may put more pellets in the pattern, closing some gaps. 

4. Altitude and Weather Affect Patterns

If you pattern your gun in Portland, Maine, near sea level, and then take a goose hunting trip to Colorado's Front Range, the thinner air at 5,000 feet will cause you to shoot slightly tighter patterns. On the other hand, dense, cold air tends to open patterns. If you hunt in single-digit temperatures, your gun will shoot a slightly more open pattern than it does when you test it on an 80-degree summer day.

5. Pattern at the Same Distance You Shoot Your Birds

Everyone wants to shoot 90 percent patterns at 40 yards, but what does that choke-load combination look like at 25 yards, where you shoot your birds? At that close range, chances are you'll see a tight clump of pellets in the center and a sparse pattern along the fringes, which provides little margin for error. If that's the case, open your choke or go to a load like Federal's Black Cloud Close Range or Winchester's Xpert, which often shoot more open patterns than other shells.

6. A Pattern Is a 2-D Picture of a 3-D Phenomenon

Shot clouds have height, width, and depth. A pattern on a piece of paper shows only the spread of the pattern, not the length of its shot string. That said, shot strings with hard, round steel pellets are fairly short. "Shot stringing," or the lengthening of the shot column, therefore becomes a factor only when you take long, 90-degree crossing shots that cause some pellets to arrive too late to hit the target. The majority of shots at waterfowl, however, are taken at closer ranges and at less extreme angles.

7. Pellets Kill, Not Percentages

Pattern analysis can be as statistical as you want, or as simple as counting holes. Generally speaking, if your choke and load combination puts 90 to 100 pellets inside a 30-inch circle, that's enough to ensure vital hits on large ducks. For geese, you want to see 55 to 65 hits, and for small ducks about 130.

Basic Patterning Materials All you need for patterning is a roll of paper at least 36 inches wide, a 4x4-foot sheet of ply-wood, and a staple gun. You can make a crude compass with 15 inches of string and a felt-tip marker for drawing 30-inch circles.

Sporting Clays for Waterfowlers

Bag more birds this fall by breaking more clays over the summer


Photo Chris Jennings

By Curtis Niedermier Illustrations By Mike Sudal

Skeet and trap are fine for summer shooting practice, but sporting clays is the best way to tune up for duck season. On any sporting clays course there are stations set up to mimic decoying mallards, overhead geese, springing teal, and other types of shots commonly encountered while waterfowling. By learning to hit these targets consistently on the course, you can improve your chances on wild ducks and geese in the marsh.

Keep in mind when you practice that even sporting clays cannot exactly replicate the flight of wild birds. Waterfowl sometimes approach from unpredictable angles and can change speed and direction in flight. Clay targets are much more predictable and always decelerate once they leave the trap. But you can prepare yourself for the variability of real-world hunting by becoming a more experienced and instinctive shooter. "Practice as you would hunt" is always good shooting advice.

Following are five of the most common waterfowl shots that you can practice on the sporting clays course, as well as advice from expert shooters on how to break these targets and improve your wingshooting skills.

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How to Smoke Fish & Three Easy


Smoking is one of the oldest methods of preserving fish. Long before there were refrigerators and freezers, our fishing ancestors learned to use a combination of salt and smoke to keep fish from spoiling. Today, smoking fish is no longer necessary, but it remains a popular method of preparation to add flavor to fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, sturgeon and catfish.

smoked salmon

Large batches of fish can be smoked, refrigerated and used in a variety of tasty recipes. photo from Food Network
In pre-refrigeration days, smoked fish were heavily cured and smoked fairly dry for storage at room temperature or in a cellar. Today's cures are lighter, so most forms of fish smoked at home need to be refrigerated until use. You can freeze smoked fish for even longer storage.  

Today's cook has a variety of smokers from which to choose, and all can be used to prepare excellent smoked fish. Many cooks prefer inexpensive, vertical charcoal smokers such as Bass Pro Shops Smoke'n Grill Charcoal Smoker Grill. These utilize a water pan inside for moist cooking.  

Smokers that run on propane are popular for use in fishing camps and at home. The Masterbuilt Extra Wide Propane Smoker, for example, has a push-button ignition and features 1,333-square-feet of cooking space, adjustable gas controls and full-range thermometer in the full-size, locking door.

Electric smokers are great for preparing delicious fish, too, and come in many varieties, from inexpensive basic models such as Brinkmann's Gourmet Electric Smoker/Grill to high-tech products like Bradley's 6-Rack Digital Electric Smoker with advanced digital circuitry that allows you to precisely control the time, temperature and smoke level for succulent results every time.  

If you plan to cook for a crowd, and want to invest in a smoker that will last a lifetime, you also may want to consider some of the big fabricated-steel smokers on wheels such as those available from Horizon smokers found at Bass Pro Shops.

Fish smoking methods vary, but all are based on a few common principles. The following are very generic steps you can use to smoke your own fish. You may want to experiment a little with some different ingredients to create your own brine. Start with the basic brine solution listed under Step 1, then add what you like to it. Additions to try include lemon juice, garlic cloves, rum, soy sauce, onion salt, garlic powder or other ingredients whose taste you like.  

Step 1  Fish Smoking

Place small pan-dressed (gutted, head removed) fish, fillets of fish or pieces of boneless fish with the skin left on one side, in this basic brine solution:

  • 1/2 cup non-iodized salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 quart water  

Stir the ingredients together until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Then place the fish in a bowl, completely cover the pieces with the brine solution and refrigerate. Fish pieces one inch or more thick should be in brine eight to 12 hours. For thinner pieces, six to eight hours is sufficient.  

Step 2  Fish Smoking  

Remove the fish from the brine, and rinse each piece under cold water. Gently pat dry with paper towels, and lay the pieces on a waxed paper to air dry for about one hour.  

Step 3  Fish Smoking

Smoke the fish for two hours in a smoker heated to 200 degrees. Use your favorite wood chips or chunks when smoking. You can cut and dry your own wood or buy prepackaged materials like WW Wood Smoking Chips and Cooking Chunks or Jack Daniel's Wood Smoking Chips. Experiment to find the taste you like most. Good woods for flavoring smoked fish include hickory, alder, apple and cherry. Add more wood chips during the smoking process if necessary, depending on how much smoke taste you want.  

With some types of smokers, you also can add flavor using prepared smoker ingredients such as Jim Beam Smoking Bisquettes or Bradley Smoker Flavor Bisquettes.  

Smoked fish is delicious alone, or can be used in a wide variety of recipes, including those that follow.

Smoked Fish Dip

  • HowTOSmokeFish2

    Smoked Fish Cakes. Photo courtesy of PDPhoto.org
    1-1/2 cups crumbled smoked fish
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup finely minced onion
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • 3 teaspoons sweet pickle relish
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 
  • Cayenne, salt and pepper to taste

Put the smoked fish in a medium bowl and add the milk. Cover and chill for 30 minutes to an hour. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover and chill for 2 to 3 hours until flavors have blended. Serve with your favorite crackers.  

Smoked Fish Cakes  

  • 12 ounces smoked fish
  • 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
  • 1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 red bell pepper, minced
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • Butter for frying  

In a food processor bowl fitted with a steel blade, pulse the fish, relish, bread crumbs and bell pepper until finely chopped. Scrape into a bowl and mix in the soy sauce, mayonnaise, eggs, dried herbs, dill and pepper. Add more bread crumbs, if necessary, to make a firm fish mixture. Form into twelve or so (three inch) patties.  

In a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, heat enough butter to generously coat the bottom of the pan. Arrange the fish cakes, not touching, in the pan and cook until brown on both sides, turning once (about four minutes per side). Cakes should be moist but not mushy inside. Top with a dollop of tartar sauce or your favorite fish sauce.  

Smoked Fish Omelets

  • 12 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • Butter
  • 6 oz. smoked fish, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons chopped red onion
  • 8 tablespoons whipped cream cheese  

Whisk eggs, salt and pepper in a large bowl to blend. Melt two teaspoons butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Ladle 3/4 cup of the egg mixture into the skillet. Cook until eggs are softly set, stirring often and lifting the edge of the eggs to allow the uncooked portion to run under, covering skillet if necessary to help set the top. Place 1/4 of the smoked fish on half of the omelet. Sprinkle with one tablespoon onion and top with two tablespoons cream cheese. Fold omelet in half and slide out onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining ingredients to make three more omelets.

Animal Tracking: How to Identify 10 Common North American Species


Learn how to read tracks, and you'll learn a new language, one that communicates the hidden stories of the animals that leave the tracks. Our ancestors had to be adept in tracking to learn about the unseen game animals and predators in their vicinity. Today, animal tracking provides an invaluable service to the hunter and trapper, as well as the nature lover and photographer. Tracking can also be a lifesaver in a survival situation, warning you about dangerous creatures in the area and helping you to locate your next meal. Find a few clear prints and you'll be able to read a few pages from the tale of that animal's life. Find a trail, and you might just find the animal itself. Polish up your existing skills or learn a brand new one, with these tips on tracking 10 common species.

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