Decoying Tips For Northeast Ducks & Geese
September 24, 2010
Savvy Atlantic Flyway waterfowlers know it's essential to put out the "right" spread to bring in wary ducks and geese. Here's how to do just that.
Photo by Ken Archer
Early autumn has come and gone, and it's time now to prepare for colder weather waterfowling in our region. Part of your success will hinge on the areas you select to hunt and types of decoy spreads and blinds you use. But another large influence on your bag results isn't under your control. That variable is, of course, our very changeable and unpredictable weather. Here is a quick look at how the weather impacted our last two seasons along the Atlantic Flyway.
ATLANTIC FLYWAY TRENDS
Most hunters and wildlife biologists considered our two most recent seasons "average" with the best success rates coming late each winter. The fickle weather, which was too mild during most of the season, initially resulted in fewer birds migrating from Canada and the Great Lakes region.
Waterfowl biologist Min Huang said that hunting success was poor during the mild weather. But mid-winter counts were about average across the flyway. "We wintered good numbers of birds on the Atlantic seaboard, but just didn't have a lot of cold weather to make the birds move," Huang said. He also noted that for really good waterfowl hunting success, we need some inclement weather and freezing temperatures to push those birds around and force them in to feed. "A lot of birds were there," Huang said, "but just not available to hunters because of the mild weather."
Fortunately, that changed later in the season when strong cold fronts in early January pressed birds down the flyway. The problem, however, was that while some areas had great shooting, other parts became so bitterly cold that traditional late-season spots froze solid. This condition made access difficult or impossible for waterfowlers and drove some birds even farther south and out of the region.
Although the overall seasons were average, black ducks and mallards appeared plentiful and the numbers of scaup -- a population that has been in decline since the 1980s -- seemed to improve. Some diver species like mergansers have been increasing, while others, such as canvasbacks, goldeneyes and buffleheads, were reported as stable. The best news is the burgeoning population of non-migratory or "resident" Canada geese, which have become so numerous that they're being called pests by many landowners.
Many regions in the Atlantic Flyway offer bonus goose-only seasons to curb the growing numbers of Canada geese, which are ruining farmland, golf courses, beaches, playing fields and corporate lawns. As with ducks, your chances of good success rates on late-season honkers are weather dependent. The colder the weather, the more the birds are pushed and concentrated into any available water sources. Assuming you can find and access the birds, you'll need flexibility when designing your decoy rigs depending on what type of water you plan to hunt.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before you worry about what type of rig to set, you first need to do your homework. Waterfowl are creatures of habit. Once freezing conditions have chased them from their normal feeding, watering and resting areas, they soon find new locations and, if not disturbed, return to those spots day after day. But setting a big rig and then sitting and waiting in miserable conditions to "see if you're in the right spot" isn't a pleasant or efficient hunting method.
To find new spots and flyways, you need to do some legwork by scouting with binoculars to see how the birds are behaving. Look for puddlers sitting on the water, standing on ice, commuting over points or alighting on marshes or corn fields to rest and feed. A concentration of bird droppings on ice, riverbanks or coastal rocks is a giveaway to recent activity.
Look for divers commuting from one feeding area to another or moving from their overnight resting waters to daylight food sources, such as shellfish beds.
"I seldom take a December trip without first making a scouting run," said Rich Haigh, a seasoned Northeast waterfowler. "I'll grab a cup of coffee and head down to the bay early in the morning before work. I sit in my warm truck and scan the sky and water with binoculars for at least a half-hour to see how many birds are around and where they're commuting. If the activity looks good, I'll plan a trip for the next wintry day. It makes the difference on whether or not I'm wasting my time and suffering needlessly on a hunt."
By scouting spots and finding ducks, you'll be able to set a smaller rig and fill your bag more quickly because birds having an established pattern don't need much convincing -- that's already where they want to congregate. You can chase them out when you arrive and wait for their predictable return, thereby minimizing your time and effort in the inclement weather. Or, better yet, set up quickly in the pre-dawn to be ready in the area where you expect them to move. Once you've filled your bag, pack up the rig and move out fast so as not to disturb the rest of the birds that will likely still work in during the morning.
RIGS FOR SMALL WATERS
If you hunt small waters, such as farm or timber ponds or backwater pockets in marshes, you have an advantage over hunters who gun over big, open waters because there's little chance the birds will land outside your decoy rig and out of range. But that doesn't necessarily mean you can succeed with just a half-dozen decoys. Using large spreads in small waters provides great visibility for drawing ducks from a distance, and it also allows you to arrange enough decoys in such a way as to funnel the birds to land where you want them.
A productive pond setup is a "U"-shaped" pattern with the open end of the U facing into the pond and bend of the U being closest to the blind. The wind should be at your back so the birds alight directly toward you and into the opening of the decoy pattern. A variation of this setup, depending on the geography and sun position, is to place the U's bend facing the opposite shore and into the wind. This will leave the opening toward you. The birds then cup in from behind and above and land with their backs facing the blind directly in front of the gunners.
Keeping your decoys in good shape is important, too. Be diligent about painting the decoys each season and concentrating on the bright colors and contrasts of the drakes to help draw attention to your rig. Gaudy mallard decoys should be your predominant species because most dabblers will set to them. Keep the ratio of drakes to hens high to emphasize the male color patterns. Mix in a few black duck decoys to boost contrast and confidence in a late-season spread.
When hunting on small water that's infested with stumps, broken by rocks, dotted with reed clumps or littered with ice chunks, try setti
ng some magnum blocks. Regular-sized decoys can become "lost" on a surface cluttered with natural structure, and magnums will stand out. If you don't own enough oversized decoys for an entire spread, that's OK, you can mix them in with your standard-sized blocks.
HUNTING BIG WATER
Whether hunting on a lake, bay or sound, big water is a challenging place to set a decoy rig. Here, large numbers of decoys are important to draw birds from a distance and convince them to land in your spread rather than in one of the many other places that are available. Like pond shooting, it's important to keep bright colors and strong shades in your rig to catch the eyes of passing birds. Mallards, again, are ideal for this purpose. However, in big-water hunting, you also have a likelihood of divers, so be sure to set some scaup, goldeneyes, canvasbacks or other divers with strong black/white color contrasts.
Although puddle ducks and divers both frequent the shorelines of large water bodies, don't make the novice mistake of mixing your diver and dabbler decoys. Puddle ducks don't like to mingle with bay ducks and vice versa. If you have similar numbers of both types of dekes, separate them and leave a large landing zone between them where either species could pitch in.
A classic big-water decoy setup is the "J" or fishhook formation. The long tail on the J acts as a roadmap for the ducks to follow up toward the head of the rig and land in the pocket. It's common for hunters to rig the J, like the U mentioned above, with the bend facing the blind and the wind at their backs. But a more advanced technique is to erect your blind with a crosswind.
When the wind is from your left or right, set the J with its tail running parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the shore. The bend in the J should end up directly in front of your position. The advantage of this layout is that the birds will be looking ahead toward the J's hook and more open water rather than looking directly at land and your blind as they would when landing with the wind blowing from behind you.
GOOSE BLOCKS DRAW LATE-SEASON PUDDLERS
By the time late season arrives, puddlers have survived many gun volleys over big rigs of same-species decoys. As a result of having their tails burned so many times, they become decoy-shy of decoys of like species. However, they'll usually join geese.
This is a spin-off on the time-tested confidence-decoy theory, but here you're not rigging goose blocks with mallards, you're rigging them instead of mallards. Geese are wary, and puddlers know that. They also know that they haven't been sky-busted when they've swung over geese. When rigging divers in big water, try placing a knot of one- to two-dozen Canada geese ahead of your diver spread and closer to shore. Allow a pocket between the two species so they appear separate. You'll also have a great chance at adding a few honkers to the day's bag.
If you don't own goose decoys, paint some magnum duck decoys in goose patterns. Don't worry about the body shape not being anatomically correct, ducks will key on prominent color patterns. Remember to set your goose blocks in an area large enough to accommodate real geese. In other words, they need a big landing zone -- this trick won't look realistic in that tiny, timber-lined puddle-duck hole.
SMALLER SPREADS FOR CERTAIN DIVERS
While most sea ducks and many other divers, such as scaup and canvasbacks, need huge spreads for reliable tolling, some bay ducks commute and feed in small groups. You can enjoy great action on buffleheads, ringnecks, goldeneyes, mergansers and even oldsquaw by setting a knot of decoys in the right spot. Small islands, bars, points and pockets are good places to try rigging in open water.
If, for example, the divers' feeding destination is a big bay containing shellfish beds, that area may be too large for a shoreline setup and not offer any other blind possibilities. In that case, rig a dozen black-and-white blocks off a nearby point or spit that the birds are trading past. Your blocks will draw curious divers for a look, often within range of your blind.
Don't neglect the better-eating puddlers. When shallow inland waters freeze, puddlers are forced to non-traditional water bodies, including big lakes, rivers, bays and sounds. A spread of mallard and black duck decoys rigged near shore and separate from the divers often produces bonus birds. Now that you have knowledge of a blind position and decoy pattern, you're faced with what type of ammunition to shoot for maximum efficiency and cost.
MAKING SENSE OF MAGNUM LOADS
"Magnum" shotshells are designated as such by ammunition manufacturers. Part of the reason is to convince you that they shoot better and, thus, ammo companies sell more shells at a higher price. Some experts claim that magnum loads don't perform any better than regular loads, while others say that they do make a difference. Before spending extra cash for these high-brass cartridges, you need to know more about them to determine if they're worth purchasing for your late-season hunts.
The word magnum refers to the quantity of gunpowder in a shotgun shell, which is usually the maximum amount possible for the shell size. The theory is that the more gunpowder available, the harder, faster and farther it can push the pellets toward the target. This energy is commonly called "knockdown" power, and it provides cleaner kills at longer ranges because of the increased velocity.
Steel shot has been required in many regions for waterfowl hunting for nearly 30 years. Steel shot complicates the magnum debate because steel carries less energy than lead, in fact, only about half as much. Therefore, if you want your steel magnums to have the comparable hitting power of lead magnums, you have to shoot steel that's two shot sizes larger. In other words, steel BBs hold their energy about equivalently to lead No. 2s.
Also, at first look, it appears that steel might have an advantage in pellet numbers because steel's lighter, and, therefore, it takes many more pellets to weigh an ounce. But because the pellet diameter is the same -- No. 2 lead is the same size as No. 2 steel -- you can only pack only so many pellets into a given shell space. That's one reason they created the greater-capacity 3 1/2-inch magnums in the 12 gauge. Consider that a 3-inch turkey shell can hold 2 ounces of lead, but a 3-inch waterfowl shell can hold only 1 3/8 ounces of steel. As another example, a 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge shell can hold a full 1/4-ounce more lead than steel.
Because steel pellets of equal size to lead pellets carry less energy, the ammo manufacturers add more powder to steel loads to compensate for steel's lack of velocity. Thus, one reason why magnums have become popular is because they push steel shot out of the gun as fast as possible, which helps balance off its rapid energy loss in flight.
If you compare two equal gunpowder loads of, say, 3 3/4 drams, but one has 1 1/8 ounces of steel, while the other has 1 3/8 ounces of the same size steel shot, the lighter one may, technically, hit harder. That's because with fewer pellets, there is more energy available per pellet. An argument can be made for shooting standard loads with less gunpowder and
fewer pellets. These would cost less and kick less than a magnum with more pellets and more powder.
All this considered, remember that if you shoot a different gauge shotgun, these shell measurements will vary significantly. And, naturally, choke selection will play a vital role in pellet distribution. Don't forget that to safely fire 3- and 3 1/2-inch shells, a gun must be chambered for them.
When the late season rolls around, the ducks that survived the early season are wary and decoy-shy. Don't be afraid to experiment and use non-traditional techniques, including shotshell loads, decoy spreads and blind positioning to convince birds that your spot is where they want to alight.