December 14, 2023
Back in the day, I was a duck hunter, meaning I focused solely on ducks—duck loads, duck calls and, most significantly, duck decoys and duck-specific spreads. Then, as things often happen in waterfowling, I turned a page and became a goose hunter.
Now on the backside of 50, I'm neither a duck hunter nor a goose hunter, but rather an opportunist. That is, when the regulations and situation allow, I set for both and will happily take a half-limit of mallards and two fat Canadas home as opposed to a full limit of one or the other.
With this change in mindset came a change in the decoys I pack into the field. Enter the combination spread. Before we go any further, one note on combo spreads: Ducks will absolutely work to goose decoys, often finding the big fakes irresistible; however, geese will seldom work to duck-heavy spreads.
With that said, detailed here is a three-pack of combo rigs I run throughout the waterfowl season. Pack your decoy bags accordingly.
WHY THEY WORK
Nothing works all of the time, not even the most well thought out and arranged spread. However, combination rigs—big, small or otherwise—have several things going for them that single-species setups lack.
It's been said that birds of a feather flock together, but in the case of ducks and geese, there's an exception to the rule. In fact, it's quite typical to see dabblers and Canadas co-mingling, whether that's on a small tidal marsh or in a recently cut grainfield. Therefore, mixing duck and goose decoys presents a realistic and very natural picture to birds trying to decide whether to join their plastic brethren.
Goose decoys are large and sit high on the water, making a mixed spread highly visible, especially from a distance. This can be a significant component in big-water situations, or where emergent vegetation—smartweed, buck brush, cattails or flooded grain—proves a challenge in terms of the birds being able to see the decoys.
Food and Security
With their long necks, geese can reach submerged food that the shorter-necked ducks can’t. Ducks, it seems, know this, and take advantage of the floating leftovers. Geese, too, thanks to their high-sitting eyes, are excellent watchdogs, providing an alarm service to all in the vicinity.
I feel confident in saying that, with the exception of dedicated diver or sea duck rigs, 9 out of every 10 spreads in the Atlantic Flyway consist of 24 mallards or, if it’s a field being hunted, two dozen Canada full-bodies or five dozen silhouettes. It’s the same spread time and again, and late-season birds, having seen this scenario since September or October, might be a bit reluctant to set down in it. A combo spread not only looks realistic, but it’s visually different than what the birds have been seeing.
ON THE WATER, Part I
Most of the time, I walk into my hunting spot and pack my spread on my back. If not afoot, I run a small duck skiff, like an AquaPod or Old Town Discovery 119. Due to this minimalist mindset and the fact that my decoy storage capacity is at a premium, my first water-based combo rig consists of six to eight water-keel Canada floaters, 10 to 12 wigeons and two drake pintails or northern shovelers.
Why wigeons? Everybody and his brother runs the aforementioned all-mallard spreads, and there are times, especially during the late season, when something other than mallard blocks can be a bit more effective. Not partial to wigeons? A mix of gadwalls, teal and a mallard or two will keep things visually different. As for the drake sprigs or spoonbills, their white chests, like the larger Canada decoys, help attract attention from a distance.
To set this spread, I run the goose floaters slightly upwind and about 25 yards from my hide. A simple jerk cord attached to a pair of lightweight green-wing teal (Note: I’d rather forget my calls at home than my jerk cord) goes in the center, or “hole,” with the remainder of the duck decoys in front and slightly upwind of my position. Geese, not wanting the potential air traffic control issues of flying over ducks, will land wide and with their own kind, which still puts them well within range. Ducks will often key on the motion generated by the jerk cord that spills over into the main duck spread. This puts them point blank.
ON THE WATER, Part II
Hear me out on this one: A dozen Canada floaters with mixed head positions, set in a wide, random, relaxed arrangement upwind of the blind, plus a dozen coots set tight and to the downwind side of the blind. This group of coots is the one and only time I will tolerate my decoys touching one another, and there's no such thing as too tight in this situation. In fact, I've experimented with rigging four to six coots, each with its own no-tangle line but all on a single anchor, to achieve this "coot ball."
Scratching your head? How many times have you had a group of coots pull ducks away from your spread? Coots know where the food is, and the other ducks know this. Plus, very few waterfowlers set all-coot spreads, so you have the non-traditional aspect covered. Again, motion is a key component, so throw a jerk cord rig into the coot ball and you'll have all the surface action you'll need. It's worth a try, especially during the late season.
ON DRY GROUND
When hunting dry ground—corn, beans or wheat stubble, for instance—where I’m able to drive my gear onto the ‘X,’ my go-to combo-rig consists of 18 to 36 full-body Canadas set in two rough teardrop formations on either side of the downwind-facing blinds, along with two dozen full-body mallards around and behind the blinds themselves. Two trios of "walker" or active Canada full bodies are set directly in front of the blind, simulating birds that have just landed and are hurrying into either feeding group. I stake a remote-controlled spinning-wing mallard behind the blinds, but shut it down at the first sight of geese.
Don’t have or care to invest in full-body decoys? Three to four dozen Dive Bomb V2 goose silhouettes mixed with two dozen M1 Mallard flats should do the trick. Plus, you can walk that entire spread into the field on your back.
It’s worth repeating that nothing—not even a puddle full of swimming and quacking ducks or a field of feeding Canadas—is going to work day in and day out. However, mixing it up and throwing out a combination spread often has a way of making those hard-luck mornings just a bit less challenging.