Decoy Tactics for River Waterfowl

This is often the time of year when only our river systems offer open water, which is perfect for hunters who know how to present a good-looking decoy spread. Here's how!

By Tim Herald

Late-season waterfowling is often the best time of the year; that is, if you have a place to hunt. December often finds marshes, potholes, flooded fields and even smaller creeks frozen solid, but for hunters who know how to hunt river systems, the time when much of the typical waterfowl habitat is iced up and birds are concentrated along the river corridors is the most productive part of the season. Choosing where to hunt and then setting up properly are the two most important factors of a quality river hunt.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Rivers vary greatly in size and shape, but there are places that are "best bets" to find waterfowl on any river. Like in real estate, location is everything.

Small rivers are the easiest places to find concentrations of ducks and geese right now. Sandbars or small islands in shallow water will attract both ducks and geese. There should still be enough current to keep the water open while still allowing the birds to feed and loaf comfortably. On narrow little rivers or large creeks, the inside of bends where the current is slower or in rocky riffles are where you can expect to find ducks. These small waterways generally don't hold geese.

Major rivers provide many quality hunting locations. Around islands and sandbars are again great places to set up, especially if you are targeting geese or a mixed bag. These open areas give geese the view and large landing zones that they prefer, and the shallows provide quality loafing areas after the big birds have fed in fields.

Sloughs off the main channel can be real hotspots for both ducks and geese, but they often freeze early because of the lack of current.

Warmwater discharges and the mouths of creeks can provide hot action during periods of extended cold. These areas will stay open all year, and the influx of fresh, often warm water is an attractant to waterfowl. If you can find some slack water in an area like this, chances are birds will use it.

No matter how much you know about the areas ducks and geese use along rivers, there is no substitute for scouting. If you find a large concentration of mallards and Canada geese where a creek dumps into a river during the afternoon, it stands to reason that they will be there the next day. This situation should provide you with a quality hunt. The same goes for a small island in an oversized creek. Getting out and locating birds before you hunt will greatly improve your success.

On a big river that I haven't had the luxury of scouting the day before, one of my favorite tactics is to launch the boat just after daylight so I can navigate and run the river safely. I then cruise the stretch of river I want to hunt and simply look for a raft of birds or groups of birds landing in a particular spot. Then as quickly as possible, I will move in, flush the ducks or geese and make my setup.

There is something about the spot that drew the birds in (even if it was just a certain place on a long, straight stretch of river that all looks the same to human eyes), and birds will likely continue to use the place on that given day. Often in this situation, birds will drop into the decoys before you finish setting up.

A mixed bag of divers and puddlers is often possible when hunting rivers during the late season. Photo by Tim Herald

SETUPS

Setups vary from place to place, but let's consider a few general rules before we look at some specific scenarios. First, if there is a little current, weighted keel decoys are best. They will ride better in moving water than aqua keels. Along the same lines, heavy anchors are beneficial on rivers. I like the lightest weights I can find (generally 4 ounces) when hunting potholes or flooded fields, but they just won't hold your decoys in current.

These small weights can be fine when hunting slack water, or for pools on sandbars; but in moving water, I like at least 8-ounce weights and prefer the big river anchors that I fill with shot. One good thing about river hunting with heavy decoys and anchors is that you are usually transporting them with a boat, so it isn't like you have to pack in a 60-pound decoy bag on your back for half a mile.

As far as decoy sizes, I prefer magnum decoys when I hunt big open areas and will opt for standard-sized dekes when hunting a slough, small river or creek. In these spots the gunning will usually be close and the birds can't see your spread from a mile away anyhow.

Let's consider a few specific locations and the types of decoy spreads that are most effective for each. One of my favorite places to hunt puddle ducks when the weather turns really nasty is in the shallows of creeks and small rivers. Often these waterways are lined with trees, and the hunting is similar to that in flooded timber. I like to get my decoys in by boat and set them up in a fairly shallow area where there is a good hole in the canopy above. Then I either hide in a brushpile partially in the water or lean against a tree on the bank.

I find that using a small spread of one or two dozen standard-sized decoys is sufficient. It seems to work best when I place about half the decoys close and then spread out the remainder. Put a few in good current for movement, simulating a congregation of birds holding tight in one spot with a few others either swimming into the group or branching out a short distance to feed. With this set, I usually concentrate on soft calling.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are big open rivers. Favored places are mud flats and sandbars. When hunting these areas, bigger is often better as far as decoy spreads go. Using as many magnum duck decoys as possible in the shallows and putting out a large number of goose imposters on the sandbars as well as scattering a few floaters upwind of the ducks is effective.

Visibility is a key here, and with all the available places for birds to use along large rivers, having a spread that can be seen from a long distance is quite helpful. The other benefit is that since it is natural for large groups of birds to congregate in these places, a big spread will make your setup look to be one of the places birds want to be.

Calling on big rivers with a large decoy spread is most effective when a number of hunters all produce waterfowl sounds (often a mixture of duck and goose calling is effective), and loud calls are helpful when vying for the attention of distant flocks. Layout-type blinds situated in debris washed up on the bank or actually in the spread on the sandbars seem to be the best h

ides. Even a well-camouflaged boat and blind will stick out like a sore thumb when pulled up to a bare sandbar.

One of my favorite river hunts is for divers late in the season. When the divers show up in good numbers, this type of river hunting can be fast- paced and extremely exciting. Layout boats may be used, but on most rivers a typical duck boat will work fine.

Finding a spot that divers are already using is always best, but open stretches with gently sloping banks (i.e., fairly shallow water near the shoreline) seem to be good choices for diver sets.

Again, visibility plays a big factor and magnum decoys with plenty of white on them work well. Big spreads are effective. Placing a small group of mallard and Canada goose decoys between the diver dekes and the bank will often coax in non-diver species.

The classic "J-hook" pattern is very effective on fast-flying divers, and the curve of the J should be on the upwind side of your boat or blind. The idea is for the ducks to follow the long line of decoys into the wind toward the larger concentration of dekes in the curve. The "landing zone" should be just short of the J's curve and directly in front of the gunners.

Since calling isn't much of a factor where divers are concerned, hunters should take extra care when setting their decoys to make sure their spreads are large and realistic.

A book could be written on all the different waterfowling scenarios that can be found on rivers, so they all obviously can't be covered. The information above contains some good general rules and discussions of a few specific tactics and strategies.

When the "freeze-up" hits this season, load your boat with a bunch of decoys and get out to a local river. Ducks and geese should be concentrated along these open-water corridors. After picking the right spot and setting out a realistic decoy spread, you will likely experience the best waterfowling of the season.



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