December 08, 2020
By M.D. Johnson
It was shaping up to be the kind of waterfowl hunt you see in the picture books. A low-profile skiff. A black dog. Shotgun. Blind bag. Eight inches of sheet water. Clouds, but no rain, and a good east wind. And 12 decoys.
I beached the skiff on a soggy section of the half-flooded pasture and set to rigging my small spread. Canada floaters to the left at 20 yards. Ducks widely spaced to the right, also 20 steps from the hide. A pair of dekes attached to a jerk cord in the hole. Four minutes was all it took to set the spread. I got my retriever, Sadie, settled into her blind and crawled into the skiff.
Five minutes after legal shooting time, a small knot of wigeons whistled over my right shoulder from behind. I gave the cord a sharp tug and watched as the birds turned on their wingtips. At 15 yards I sat up, mounted the gun and sent the first of three loads of #6 shot downrange. A white-capped drake crumpled, then a second.
Over the course of the morning, wigeons, mallards, green-wings, gadwalls, a lone drake pintail and a trio of honkers were duped by my diminutive spread.
When and Where
Like most hunters, for most of my life I planned my hunts for either ducks or geese, but not both at once. Because of trips like the one described above, however, I’m now a fan not only of mixed spreads of ducks and geese, but also of small rigs typically comprising just a dozen decoys.
I use small spreads because they work. Like most hunting strategies, though, they work best when employed under the right conditions. In some cases, such as in big, open-water habitat, a large spread that is visible to migrating birds at greater distances is a better choice. But in isolated pockets or on small bodies of water, small spreads look natural to passing birds and will attract them. Small spreads work best when paired with pre-hunt scouting; birds are more likely to see a small spread if they are naturally passing close to it. If your scouting reveals small-water places that ducks and geese find attractive, a small decoy spread will be all the convincing birds need to come within gun range.
Practical Meets Effective
For solo hunters, the logistics of setting out many dozens of decoys—especially on public land where you can’t leave sets out overnight—are impossible to overcome. Also, many good hunting spots require some walking to get to. For a solo hunter or twosome, the choice isn’t whether to use a small spread or a big spread, it’s whether to hunt a prime isolated area with a small spread or not hunt it at all.
Hunting over a small spread lets me get in, get set and get down to business while still being effective.
Small spreads allow for more flexibility throughout the day, too. Moving a large spread in the middle of the day is impractical, but a small spread can be picked up, moved and re-set in minutes. Texas-rigged decoys make this process even easier.
Small spreads are more productive when they include a variety of species. Waterfowl species have overlapping habitat needs. Therefore, mixed spreads that include multiple kinds of puddle ducks, a couple geese and even a coot off to the side look natural and "safe" to small groups of waterfowl.
A mix looks especially good as the season progresses, since migrating birds get used to seeing spread after spread composed of nothing but mallard fakes. Ducks and geese learn to associate these spreads with danger. A small mixed-species rig adds realism and sets your spread apart.
One good way to add variety to a small spread is by adding a couple of geese. Geese are wary birds, so their presence in a spread gives the impression of safety. In addition to that, they are big, which helps improve the visibility of a small spread. Even hunters who are focused on Canada geese can benefit from adding a lone snow goose decoy. Snow geese are especially easy to see, and that increases the goose spread’s attractiveness without sacrificing realism.
Just as your spread should have a variety of species in the mix, all the decoys shouldn’t just be sitting still, either. Jerk cords, which impart motion in the spread, don’t take up much room in your bag, are easy to set up and work so well that often I’m more likely to pull a cord than blow a call.
Though a mixed-species spread is helpful, always start with whatever species you saw in the area while scouting. Seldom will you exclusively see mallards. However, mallards are both common and desirable, so it’s a good idea to run at least a couple—a drake and a hen—somewhat off to themselves.
Multiple species may use the same flooded area or pond, but individual species will tend to segregate themselves from others. Pintails, for example, can be a solitary sort, so I’ll separate them from non-pintail decoys. Wigeons often sit closest to the geese. They’re sometimes called "robbers" because they take advantage of the longer necked Canadas' ability to reach deeper vegetation and aren't too proud to dabble the floating scraps.
Gadwalls are prone to land frustratingly wide of a spread, so any gadwall decoys should be positioned out and away, but still within 25 to 30 yards.
Fall as They May
As for the spread’s configuration, I don’t subscribe to a formal arrangement in the shape of a "C" or "L" or "X." Rather, as both real puddlers and geese at rest are wont to do, my spread is arranged more loosely. I stand where the jerk cord will be set and throw goose decoys to the left and duck decoys to the front and right until I don’t have any more to throw.
I don’t systematically measure the space between the decoys, either, but some space between them is important. Tightly bunched ducks and geese are alarmed birds; conversely, contented birds space themselves here and there. Such a look is realistic, and realism is the means to achieve your goal of a full strap by the end of the day.