Ducks In Your Lap

Why is it that some waterfowlers have trouble getting ducks within shotgun range, while others seem to have them landing in their laps? Here may be the answer.

The easy way to approach this story simply would involve a recap of all the available information on traditional decoy sets that bring ducks into shotgun range. But what fun would that be?!

Realistic, lightweight decoys like those made by Carry Lite make it easy for one or two hunters to haul in enough decoys to set up effective spreads at their favorite locations.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Instead -- and as a way to get waterfowlers of various skills and experience levels thinking -- let me offer a two-word piece of advice that will do more for your duck-hunting success than anything else: Be resourceful.

Look . . . we'll go through the basic sets shortly, and you may find some drawings that illustrate the various kinds of decoy sets that are tried and true and that bring ducks into range consistently. What I'm suggesting with the "be resourceful" nudge is that you learn about these basic sets but be willing to apply them to every unique situation you encounter.

Successful duck hunting is not formulaic. You don't roll out of bed hours before sunrise and think, OK, if I use that "J" set, they'll be tumbling in at first light. I'll have my limit before the first cup of coffee out of the thermos begins to cool.

Well, you can do that. Just know that you'll be disappointed.

There are times and places, for example, when using the traditional approach of a large decoy set will be advantageous. From here, however, there is a chance that ducks -- especially those migrating into your area from regions to the north -- are going to arrive with some "decoy education" as the season unfolds.

Think about it. There are guys hunting ducks in northern areas, while die-hard waterfowlers in other places -- much farther south -- are still getting sunburned on the front casting decks of their bass boats. Have you ever considered just how many decoy sets migrating ducks actually see over the course of their annual trek to their winter homes?

That's why you must be resourceful. Use the basics, but adapt them slightly to your specific hunting situation. Don't make your "J" pattern look like every other "J" pattern the ducks have seen in several other states on their way to yours.

One concept I've adapted from fishing is a "match the hatch" approach. No matter where you look for information on decoying ducks, you'll read hunters and guides say to place your decoys by species -- that is, put all the mallard dekes together, all the pintails together, and so on.

I take that a step further. I only use decoys that represent ducks in the area at the time I'm hunting. This may be nonessential, but my thought simply is to make things appear as natural as possible. It occurs to me that ducks overhead that see the same kinds of on-the-water shapes and outlines represented by the real ducks using your hunting area are going to be at least a bit more comfortable than they would if they begin to approach your decoy set and notice dekes representing species they have not seen in a while -- if at all. So, pay attention to reports from local fish and game agencies and focus on those ducks that are reported in your area in fair-to-good numbers. I believe that will help.

The author prefers pothole or farm pond hunting to any other. Be sure to set up your decoys with the duck landing zone within the killing range of your shotgun and load.
Illustration by Allen Hansen.

Another concept I have used successfully -- time and time again -- involves a subtle approach to calling. I confess here that when I started trying this many years ago, I was, in fact, being resourceful. I was new to duck hunting, and my hail call sounded awful. But I enjoyed calling so much -- and still do -- that I opted to go with calling routines that my novice skills could handle.

For me, that means feeding chatter with "lonely hen" calls mixed in. What I'm trying to say is, "Hey . . . you ducks up there! We got some vittles down here, and y'all should come join us because there's plenty of room." It definitely works.

Many years ago, during one of my first waterfowling seasons, two friends and I actually were hunting an early teal season when, across the shallow bay on the north end of a large U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir, I spied a single mallard buzzing along the shoreline. We hadn't had much action in close to an hour, and so just to see what would happen, I pulled my mallard call out and started some feeding chatter, followed by a loud, plaintive "lonely hen" call.

That lone drake seemed to turn on a dime in midair and was on top of us in seconds. Of course, we couldn't shoot -- and didn't -- because mallards were out of season. But the exercise reinforced to me the notion that sounding different from all the other calls in the marsh isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I've used that same approach in flooded timber, flooded rice fields and even on tiny potholes to woo ducks. The message here is to think about the kinds of calling you do and consider switching up as a way of giving the ducks something a little different.

The most important reason for that is the migration mentioned earlier. Ducks can and do get call-shy over the course of a season. I remember standing in some flooded timber on a hunt where the guide practically ordered hunters not to call. His rationale was simple. Call-shy ducks can't get spooked by too much "talking" if hunters don't call.

Limits in short order -- based only on the ducks spying decoys in the timber from above and approaching them without calling enticement -- proved that he had a good idea.

I simply enjoy calling, so rather than shutting up, I subtle-up. It pays dividends.

Let's now look at the general decoy sets you should consider when planning your duck outings. Regardless of the pattern you use, two common threads are prevalent.

A blind like one of Summit's Run-N-Gun series is perfect for that style of hunting. The blinds are incredibly easy to set up. Think of them as inside-out umbrellas. Just as important, they're easy to take down and stow.

First -- ducks land into the wind. Notice in the chart that decoys are placed so that they are facing into the wind. Ducks will be cupping their wings and gliding in toward the backs of the decoys from behind them. Keep that in mind as you think about your shooting lanes.

Second -- you have to place your decoys in a pattern that provides an opening for ducks to land in, and it must be within shooting range. You want an easy way to ensure this? It's a two-step process.

Step one involves going to a shooting range and patterning your waterfowl shotgun with the loads you intend to use. Let's say you determine that, given the choke and loads you prefer, you get a pattern effective for ducks out to 40 yards.

Step two involves carrying a range finder with you on your hunts and placing your decoys so that all of the landing area is within your effective shotgun range. If my gun patterned well out to 40 yards, I'd do everything possible to assure that ducks would be coming in at no more than 37 or 38 yards, just to err on the side of caution.

One final consideration before we get into the specific, traditional decoy patterns. Think about how you shoot most effectively. On side-to-side shots at the skeet and trap range, do you hit more clay bird when you swing from right to left, or from left to right? Is there a motion that you've refined to the point where it's pretty much instinctive . . . one that you don't have to think about?

If so, it will behoove you to place your blind, and then your decoys, in positions that offer you the best chances for shooting success. If your decoys are set to assure that ducks will be coming in within your shotgun's effective range (based on patterning) and if you've placed those decoys in relation to your blind to provide the most comfortable, "second-nature" swinging and aiming patterns, you'll enjoy success.

For this story, we'll assume that you'll be after those species that many waterfowlers find most attractive -- puddle and diving ducks. Your decoy sets will involve one of three basic on-the-water patterns; the set, when you're finished, should be shaped like a "C" a "J" or a "U/V" and in every case have the opening for ducks to land so that they don't have to fly over the decoys before settling down.

Over the years, my experience has been that the shape of the decoy set reflects, more than anything, the number of decoys you're using. Not only are the letter sets already referred to listed alphabetically, but they also correspond with a least-to-most approach for decoy numbers.

The more decoys you plan to use, the bigger the set and shape you can incorporate. It's a numbers game.

The general pattern shapes so far are going to apply to impounded waters of various sizes. I'm going to save potholes/farm ponds for last, but there's also another kind of "duck water" you may encounter -- and it has current.

Maybe you've never tried to hunt a river because of the current involved, or because you're not sure about the best way to set your decoys. I like to think of it as similar to finding game fish in rivers and streams. That is, you look for those pockets of calm water just off the current.

On a river, that's going to mean the inside downstream bend in the channel, where an eddy forms. You'll be able to see it -- and when you find spots like that with the right wind direction, you can set up the dekes in a "C" or a "U/V" pattern (again depending on how many decoys you want to use) and enjoy good hunting action.

Remember, however, to think about how you'll have to position your blind and what that will mean for your shooting angles and swinging on targets. It could be that a wonderful spot to set up will challenge you to shoot effectively, and you'll have to consider that when deciding where to hunt a river or stream that ducks are using.

This is where you might normally expect the "secrets" that will help you set your hunts apart. Sadly, there aren't any. As mentioned early on, just be resourceful. Look at your favorite hunting spots with a fresh perspective, and think about how you can modify those basic letter decoy sets to improve your odds for success.

Something else that will improve your odds of success involves using quality gear. Decoys, calls, even portable blinds, ought to be investments that you make with an eye toward getting good return over a number of seasons -- not just this season.

With that in mind, let's look at some examples of the kinds of gear you should be using.

When it comes to decoys, the first word that comes to mind is "natural." Like any kind of hunting that involves using decoys and calling, the key to success is the ability to fool your prey by presenting looks and sounds that imitate their natural world.

Individual decoys have to look realistic to ducks. Their appearance -- that is, how they're made and colored -- and their buoyancy affect realism. Carry Lite decoys provide good examples of the best in both features.

Carry Lite calls its decoys part of the Mother Nature Series because they are detailed and colored to provide looks that are as realistic as possible. They are available in various duck species designs.

Maybe you've never tried to hunt a river because of the current involved, or because you're not sure about the best way to set your decoys. I like to think of it as similar to finding game fish in rivers and streams.

Each model features intricate feather details and strikingly natural coloration. They also feature weighted keels that enable them to float perfectly and remain stable even when the chop on your favorite hunting waters gets fierce.

For added detail and true realism in any decoy spread, hunters might want to consider adding Carry Lite's XTRA Motion Lander -- a decoy that mimics the natural landing motions of ducks.

All of the Carry Lite regular decoys come packaged six to a carton, with four drakes and two hens. Having the ability to mix and match species in your decoy spread, as mentioned earlier, can instill confidence in the ducks you hunt. Just remember to place the decoys in your spread together by species.

Next, add some calling to the mix. Today, there are more choices in designs and materials in duck calls than ever before. The Knight & Hale company offers a series of duck calls that will satisfy any taste or approach to calling. All of the calls are very well made and reasonably priced.

If you're new to calling, a general rule of thumb to remember is that you'll generally be able to call louder with a single-reed call, while a double-reed call will produce a more raspy sound that some hunters consider more natural. For me, after many years of hunting, it appears that the individual "voice" of the caller also affects the overall sound of a given call.

That'

s a main reason a full line like Knight & Hale's is important to discuss. With single- and double-reed models available in a variety of materials, you can pick the call that sounds just right when you use it.

The end pieces on Knight & Hale calls are threaded, and they screw together. This Threadlock system provides an ultra-tight fit and, as a result, consistent sound quality because the call pieces aren't moving or -- in the worst case -- separating at the wrong times like when a flock of mallards has just about made up its collective mind that your calling is the real thing and they want to "drop in."

End pieces also feature tuning holes that allow callers to vary the volume and sound of their calls, which is a nice feature designed to enhance the versatility of every call. Reed spacers also assure that reeds won't stick together in double-reed models.

Knight & Hale makes Smooth Talker and Blue Collar Girl single-reed calls, and double reeds that include a Smooth Talker, Big Talker and Bachelorette. The Knight & Hale wood duck call also provides realistic simulation of woodies' high-low and quiver calls.

When I test calls, I like to discover (1) how easy it is to make a feeding chuckle and what that chuckle sounds like, and (2) what a long, plaintive "quack" sounds like. As noted earlier, I tend to shy away from hail calls and comeback calls because ducks hear them across entire continents as they migrate south for the winter. My calling approach is a bit more subtle and attempts to entice them rather than shout at them.

You may feel differently. Many other hunters do. There's nothing wrong with that. Just find the call that sounds best to you because you'll use it with more confidence. These Knight & Hale calls definitely will inspire confidence.

You also might want to consider picking up a portable ground blind, especially if you have access to potholes and farm ponds. I prefer this style of duck hunting to any other, and a blind like one of Summit's Run-N-Gun series is perfect for that style of hunting.

The blinds are incredibly easy to set up. Think of them as inside-out umbrellas. Just as important, they're easy to take down and stow. Anyone who's ever owned a portable, pop-up blind knows that some of them can be real boogers to take down and return to storable dimensions. Not these Run-N-Guns.

Grab one of these blinds, the call you like best and some decoys, and set them up to invite ducks to land in a comfortable setting. That's what this story is all about, and that's how you can enjoy some of the best and most consistent duck hunting ever.

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