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Waterfowling costs money. Once you add up the prices of guns, waders, decoys, and all the rest, the money you spend on ammunition makes up only a small part of the total cost. It’s the part that stings, though, because you’re reminded of the price of ammo several times a season when you have to buy more.

The variety of non-toxic shot materials—steel, bismuth, tungsten-matrix, and various tungsten-iron alloys—means there’s a huge range of prices in duck and goose loads, from $15 a box for steel to over $6 per shell for pure TSS. Some situations, like pass-shooting high geese, call for the extra punch of the good stuff, while there are plenty of instances, like decoying close-in birds, where cheap steel shells work just as well. Here’s a guide to every day and special-occasion loads at affordable and somewhat less affordable prices.

Best Shotgun Loads for Small Ducks (Teal and Wood Ducks)

Budget Load: Winchester Xpert High Velocity Steel

Small ducks, small guns, and small shot go together. Size 4 shot has enough energy for teal and wood ducks, while providing enough pattern density, even in a 20 gauge, to put multiple hits on small targets. Nearly all teal and most wood ducks are shot at close ranges, too, and Xperts tend to pattern more openly than other steel loads I’ve tested.

The Good Stuff: Boss Bismuth

Bismuth shot patterns more openly than most steel, and the added density of bismuth/tin pellets means you can downsize even farther in shot than you can with steel for higher pellet counts. No. 6 shot would be my all-around choice, although I might move up to 5s for a wood duck-only shoot. Boss shells are copper-plated to improve patterns, and since Boss only sells direct, there’s no middleman to pay.

Best Shotgun Loads for Big Ducks

Budget Load: Federal Speed Shok

A favorite of budget-conscious hunters forever, “Blue Box” Federal delivers a lot of bang for the buck and was recently redesigned with new powders and primers to help it burn cleaner and ignite in cold weather. Steel 2 shot is my favorite all-around duck pellet, and it has plenty of energy for late-season mallards and the occasional Canada that wanders into my spread. You can choose a lighter payload and higher velocity, but as a believer that it’s pellets, not speed, that kills, I’ll give up 100 fps for a handful of extra pellets.

The Good Stuff: Apex Ammo Waterfowl Tungsten/S3 Steel Blend

Apex was the first maker to offer TSS factory loads and continues handloading all their shells today. A pinch of hard-hitting 7½ TSS on top of No. 2 steel gives you the extra oomph you need on those windy days when decoying ducks can flare out of the hole in an instant and because you’re only paying for a little bit of TSS, prices are high, but not TSS-turkey-load high.

Best Shotgun Loads for Geese

Budget Load: Kent Fasteel 2.0

My standby load for geese over decoys these past few years, Kent Fasteel 2.0 BBs reliably puts down geese up to 13 pounds for me, and on one or two occasions when I’ve needed to reach out, it has been more than up to the job. Already a favorite of frugal hunters, Fasteel got better recently with the addition of a new base wad to improve its function in semiuatos. I have never had a lick of trouble with it in my semis.

The Good Stuff: HeviShot Hevi XII

The first denser-than-lead pellet, original HeviShot was my answer for big ducks and geese at all ranges, although it does pattern tightly at almost any range and can be tricky to hit with up close. I always considered No. 4s to be a good all-around size. Back when I cared about shooting things far away, I made some very long shots on geese with it. One I remember in particular fell from high enough that I found it impaled on a corn stalk. Hevi XII is back, and now it’s available in 25 round boxes in place of the old 10-packs, which helps HeviShot keep the price down to a semi-reasonable level by tungsten standards.

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