December 09, 2020
My dad turned to me as he exited our duck blind. "I'll be right back," he said. "The jerk cord has grass on it. A lot of new birds are showing up, and they can be finicky. I want to make sure everything’s perfect so they don’t hesitate."
Soon we were back in action, the jerk cord moving our decoy spreader with ease on the pond’s surface, and it wasn't long until Dad and I had our limit of puddle ducks.
When it comes to hunting waterfowl throughout the West, there are many ways to improve the odds you'll take a limit, and making sure your decoys look as good as possible and perform the way they should tops the list.
1. Add Movement
In states that forbid the use of motorized decoys, my go-to decoy movers are Motion Duck spreaders that operate with jerk cords. I combine them with a pair of Revolution Waterfowl spinners and two sets of WindWhacker decoys. When there's a slight breeze, the Revolution and 'Whacker dekes continually spin, capturing the attention of passing ducks. For added precision, I can control the frequency and types of movement with the Motion Duck spreader systems, which keep decoys and water moving even when there’s no wind.
Hunters in states that allow the use of motorized decoys have even more options. The first time I hunted with Chad Yamane and his partner Rob Friedel, owners of Fried Feathers Outfitters in Utah, they opened my eyes to how effective motorized decoys can be.
"Moving decoys are an important part of our spread, with motorized decoys being our constant go-to movers," says Yamane. "Wonderduck Decoys are battery-operated decoys we rely on every day, and they’re key to our spreads as they give the illusion of a feeding flock. We hunt a lot of calm sheet water, and it's unnatural to have a spread of ducks sitting there with no movement."
A typical mid-season Fried Feathers spread is big—300 silhouettes and 15 to 20 dozen floaters. Yamane points out that many birds in nature do not congregate without lots of movement.
"Wonderducks are perfect because they're not just a moving decoy, they also get a lot of water moving," he says.
2. Mix It Up
I start my season with small, simple spreads since I'm targeting local birds. As the season progresses, I'll add shovelers, teal and pintails to the mix for color and contrast, but also because they entice those specific species.
"Mallards will decoy into anything, but pintails, canvasbacks, goldeneyes and buffleheads flock to their own kind," says Yamane. "If you don't have those decoys set in their own little groups, you'll miss those birds."
3. Instill Confidence
Something you'll almost always find in my duck decoy spreads is a pair of honkers. Goose decoys give approaching ducks confidence that all is OK, as geese are extremely wary birds.
"We used to include a couple swan decoys in our duck spreads, but a few seasons ago we switched to running a couple dozen goose decoys with ducks mixed in," says Yamane. "That's something these ducks don't see around here, and it works."
Adding a great blue heron, egret or even coot decoys to the edge of your spread can also help attract wary ducks.
4. Ghost a Boat
Hunting a marsh from a boat blind isn't a simple matter of anchoring up, hunkering down and waiting for the birds to arrive.
"Boats can be hard to camo up, especially in the early season when things are green," says Yamane.
He advises hunters to break up their boat's outline with natural vegetation, just like you would with a ground blind. Especially consider what your boat looks like from above, which is how the birds will see it.
Make sure that that there isn't a strong color contrast between the boat's interior and the brush you put on the side of the boat. Yamane also points out that boat blinds cast hard, straight shadows that can alert wary migratory birds that a patch of "brush" is really a blind. Make grass mats or pile rushes or tall grass all around the boat to soften up those shadows, and more birds will decoy into shooting range.
5. Brush a Blind
For many of us, hunting from ground blinds is the norm, but as with boat blinds, melding into the environment is essential.
"The most important thing with ground blinds is to break up their outlines and make sure they match the surroundings," says Mario Friendy, vice president at Final Approach. "There aren't many straight lines in nature, especially in the marsh, so be sure to break up the sides and top of the blind. Natural cover from the area you're hunting will help you blend in better than whatever stubble is left over from a previous hunt in a different location."
Friendy reminds hunters that for permanent blinds, maintenance is a year-round commitment.
"Give attention to it in the off-season and it'll provide a big benefit when it comes time to hunt," he says.
6. Talk the Talk
Friendy is one of the best duck callers I've hunted with. He stresses that in becoming proficient there is no substitute for experience, but it's also important for hunters to know their limitations and not try to do more with a call than they are capable of.
"Be sure you've practiced and are confident with a range of sounds, but also know the boundaries of the sounds you can deliver," he says. "Knowing what sounds to make and when is key, and that only comes with experience."
Friendy suggests adding to your calling repertoire as the season progresses. Go easy early, but as educated birds move down the flyway, louder, more pleading sounds are effective.
Watch the birds in your area and evaluate how they respond to calls. It's often better to call minimally and let the decoys do the work, rather than overcalling and scaring birds before the decoys can do their job.
7. Position Your Pooch
Friendy stresses the importance of minimizing your dog's movement during a hunt.
"Be sure your dog is covered, especially if it's hyper," he says. "As long as the dog can mark birds in front of your decoy spread, that's all that’s important."
Even more important on late-season hunts is to keep your dog from getting too cold. Cold dogs have a hard time staying still, can't retrieve efficiently, may not be able to follow commands and are in danger of injury or even drowning in rough water. Give your dog in a dry place out of the water to sit between retrieves.
Friendy fits his dogs with neoprene vests for the added warmth, but also to guard against sticks and other things that might injure the dog during retrieves.
Finally, never position your dog in front of you when hunting. Whether you hunt from the ground, a permanent blind or a boat, place a platform or dog blind to the side of your blind to protect its hearing.