While still teens, my friends and I accomplished an inordinate amount of pass-shooting, sky-busting ducks of all kinds that traded from off-limits water — such as a country-club lake, wildlife refuge or exclusive private property — onto the fields and sloughs where they fed at daylight. We knocked down birds at amazing ranges. This was the golden age of lead shot, of course, and lead carried bird-killing impact well beyond 60 yards.
But as high-school graduation loomed for my band of hunting buddies in the mid-1980s, steel shot — the bane of all waterfowl hunters — appeared and was figuratively shoved down our throats by the mandates of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Admittedly, the technology behind steel-shot has evolved exponentially since the mid-’80s. Many more ducks are now killed in the air at reasonable ranges instead of merely inducing crippled crash landings for the retriever to sort.
Still, waterfowl hunting essentially remains a 40-yard game, all luck aside, and decoying ducks still ranks at the top of the gentlemanly ways to conduct business in the duck marsh.
Before we get started, let’s address the following important axiom: As a duck’s range to its landing site decreases, its vision upon that site increases. Get it?
That’s why when you work inside the 40-yard shot radius – hopefully much closer — required for the effective impact of your volley of steel-shot, it really pays to invest in the extra work necessary to disguise you and your retriever. This isn’t just for show. If you want ducks to confidently drop into decoy spreads, to commit fully with webbed feet reaching for water at slam-dunk range, you must make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. And for gosh sakes, hold still!
THE RIGHT STUFF
A bit more common sense is in order: The best decoy spreads come to nothing if your decoys are not placed where ducks want to be.
This day-by-day nature of ducks is mostly dictated by the weather. In general, when it’s warm and clear, ducks seek the safety of broad, open water. When it’s windy, raining or snowing horizontally (the proverbial “fowl” weather), the birds seek the shelter of protected coves, marsh creeks and ponds, and river bends.
Air temperature, too, can lead a duck to water, so to speak. When still-water begins to ice-up late in the season, look for ducks on ice-free flowing water or spring-fed ponds.
And ducks always seek areas where hunting pressure is lightest. Regularly collecting limits of ducks means constant scouting, using old-fashioned horse sense when time doesn’t permit reconnaissance. Common sense, right? As it well should be! But a lot of duck hunters fall into the habit of hunting a specific site because it was productive last week, last month or even last season! Many return to a particular piece of water because it’s easy to reach or a blind is conveniently placed there. Ducks don’t play that way. Convenience for ducks can mean sudden death!
No matter when a duck hunt is planned — in the inky early morning darkness before dawn, during the mid-afternoon resting period, or upon an evening hunt before sunset — there are three things you must remember before tossing the first decoy.
- First, ducks (all birds, really) always land into the wind.
- Second, ducks do not like to fly over the heads of other ducks while on final approach (to avoid mid-air collisions and possible injury).
- And third, ducks do not like to approach decoys that lead them toward solid ground.
Arrange your decoys to make it as easy as possible for them to land where you want them to land. Use decoys to crowd water where you don’t want ducks to land. And offer ducks an invitation into gun range by creating open landing sites within easy shooting range. You do this by considering the wind direction. In fact, because decoy placement is so absolutely directly related to wind direction, I don’t hesitate to redistribute the entire mess, even if 10 dozen “deeks” are involved, when the wind direction suddenly changes.
The most basic premise to steering ducks toward your position is in creating the classic “J-hook” or “V-funnel” spreads. Both are used according to water type.
The J-Hook and Closed Waters
The J-hook spread is most useful in small coves, sloughs, ponds and rivers. The idea is to create a long string of decoys that reaches the limit of your shooting range, then crowding that area with more decoys to make it uninviting as a landing area. The inside bend of the J-hook then creates the dead-end in the decoy spread, where ducks are likely to stall in front of your blind.
With the wind blowing down the hook of the “J” and flowing along the length (not across) of the watercourse, you begin you’re spread at the long arm of the J-hook with a thin scattering of decoys well downwind and beyond your blind. I like to begin with wary species such as pintails or mallards. These decoys create a general path for incoming ducks to follow. The spread is “thickened” with decoys where it approaches the beginning of the hook bend. I place blocks — such as scaup, ringnecks or male shovelers — with a lot of attention-grabbing white on them. Next, the decoys in the depth of the bend are arranged in the shape of a crescent moon. The few decoys placed at the abbreviated tip of the “J” quickly thin out to a short downwind trail (I use teal in this area, normally in shallow water where it appears natural for the little ducks to congregate).
The V-Funnel And Open Water
On open water, along a lake point or down an exposed riverway sandbar, a spread of decoys is often more effective when created in the shape of a funnel or a wide “V” shape.
This V-shaped, funnel-like spread offers incoming ducks a wide landing site that’s open to the wind but constricts in front of your blind. The narrowing path on the inside of the “V” causes ducks to stall in easy gun range while dropping toward the water.
Open-water duck hunting may also require a straight-line decoy spread aligned with the prevailing wind; crowding the shoreline with decoys; stringing decoys across a point directly in front of the blind; or using the blind as the center of a “cat’s eye” spread in open water that can have you shooting in virtually any direction.
I’ve even seen old-timers use a simple “X” spread. Diver ducks — scaup, ringnecks, redheads and canvasbacks, in particular — show a propensity for skimming long lines of deeks. The arms of an X-shaped spread
provide ducks like these with flight paths that lead to the center of the spread, where the blind is carefully hidden on the axis of the “X”.
In general, the bigger the water, the more decoys you’ll use, but always use your common sense. Feign the natural order of things. Use only a handful (say, two dozen) of deeks in areas where ducks break into smaller groups. Use large spreads (10 dozen or more) in areas with dense duck populations.
In areas that receive a lot of hunting pressure, especially later into a season, convincing decoy spreads are all about details.
I’ve mentioned already the mix of decoy species I prefer in my spreads. Of course, you know better than I do the species of ducks you have on your favorite marsh. Try to approximate the local mix of duck species when creating your spreads. The standard two dozen mallards are hardly realistic on most Western waters, and ducks quickly learn this. A healthy mix of northern shovelers and mergansers (even if you don’t shoot them), scaups-ringnecks, pintails, mallards, gadwalls and teal makes a more life-like spread of “ducks” and is normally rewarded by more committed ducks inside effective shotgun range.
And don’t dismiss the smallest details. Sometimes, adding a great blue heron, a pair of snowy egrets, coots or even crows to your spread can make all the difference to the ducks. These “confidence decoys” imitate unusually wary birds that calm tolling ducks and tell them, “All is well down here.”
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By avoiding the lazy, random approach to decoy placement, you’ll return home with more ducks to pluck than stories of what might have been. Smartly directing duck traffic with meticulous decoy spreads around your hunting blind assures in-your-face shooting instead of hurried pass shots and wildly flaring ducks.