November 19, 2019
It’s opening day and I’ve hidden myself at the edge of a scrub-lined ditch in the midst of 80 acres of semi-flooded pasture. Twenty yards to the east, 14 Canada goose floaters sit atop 10 inches of sheetwater; to the right of them, a dozen mixed puddlers. In between the groups, a jerk cord packing a pair of teal provides motion. It appears perfect. Now, if only the birds believe it.
Proof isn’t long in coming. Eighteen widgeon slide in from the bay behind me. They dip in unison, rise and cut back to the west. A tug sets the teal to dancing; the whistle around my neck completes the illusion. Convinced, the flock pivots, dips once more, and commits. My first round of steel No. 5s tips a white-crowned drake out of the pack; the second splashes his wingman into stained water.
Ducks trickle in throughout that first hour and we peck away at a mixed-bag limit. Sadie hears them first: ears perking up, eyes swinging to the bay. A minute passes and I hear them, too. Geese. I snap open the action of the over-and-under shotgun to swap the steel No. 5s for Hevi-Shot No. 4s. We cover up just as the birds break the southern row of trees. They’re locked up, already committed. One hundred yards out. Seventy-five. Big black feet deploy as the half-dozen hit 40. At 25, I sit up, shouldering the stacked barrels, and blotting out the first long neck.
Back at the pickup, I swap my chest-highs for street shoes and admire the morning’s take. It was, indeed, a fine morning; one made, I believe, even more productive thanks to the effectiveness of a deadly decoy tactic, one I’ve grown quite fond of over the past 40 years: the combo spread.
SETTING THE SPREAD
Admittedly, setting the combo spread is relatively simple. However, there are some differences from rig to rig, depending upon where and how they’re being used. For purposes of explanation, I separate these situations into three categories: small water, big (or open) water, and field spreads. Two things to remember, regardless of the situation, is ducks often show a tendency to key in on the goose decoys, landing either in or alongside the bigger fakes. This becomes significant when deciding where to drop the goose floaters in relation to the blind(s) location. Second, the combo spread isn’t limited to Canada goose decoys. If they’re common to the area, white-fronts can work well; so, too, can three or four snows thrown into the dark goose element of the spread, thus radically increasing the overall long-range visibility of the rig.
I define small as an acre, perhaps two, and could be a pasture pond, marsh backwater or sheetwater puddle. While it’s true all situations—and waterfowl hunters—are different, my rig, under these circumstances, will typically consist of a dozen goose floaters, a dozen mixed puddlers and a two-teal jerk cord. The geese are set upwind of the blind and close, 15 to 20 yards at maximum; a gap (call it a landing hole, if you will) and the ducks, widely spaced, arranged slightly downwind. The jerk cord sits on the upwind edge of the duck decoys, where it imparts good motion to the duck fakes while providing some movement among the geese.
Give the birds room to work. Set the duck and goose floaters too close together and geese will show a tendency to land wide and outside the spread or, even worse, outside of range. Little geese, like cacklers, Aleutians or lessers, will land with little geese; big geese, like Westerns/Interiors, often show a tendency to light on the edges rather than in the middle of the fakes. Geese, big or small, often show a hesitancy to overfly or avoid ducks, presumably from an air traffic control standpoint.
BIG OR OPEN WATER
Visibility becomes a concern on bigger water, and this often translates into a larger spread numerically, perhaps three dozen geese and a like number of ducks or more. On big water, I still set my geese upwind of the blind and close. However, I set them in a loose J- or L-shaped arrangement with the bend facing the blind and the open area inside the formation situated downwind, providing an obstacle-free landing hole.
Geese and ducks both show a tendency to key on this open area, though I still leave a hole between the groups of decoys. I place my duck decoys downwind of the hide, but in no particular or specific configuration.
On dry ground, I always try to quarter my spread to the blinds, meaning I set the spread in relationship to my hide so the birds work either left-to-right or right-to-left, depending on the wind. This way, they’re focusing on the decoys and not on the hunters.
In a field, I duplicate the big water rig mentioned above with one major difference. For my geese, I start my L in front of the blind, running the longer leg to quarter upwind, and the shorter to quarter downwind. If I’ve done a good job grassing the blinds, a blob of decoys at the hides themselves is unnecessary. Remember the birds are approaching at an angle versus face on. With geese, especially big geese, the longer leg of the spread pattern acts as a blocker or fence, while the shorter works to direct birds into the pocket.
My ducks, then, are set adjacent to and on the downwind aspect of the last blind in line, along with (where permitted) a spinning-wing decoy operated by remote. In this situation, the duck decoys are a confidence boost, as mallards and other puddlers, along with most geese, seem to key on the downwind tip of the shorter leg.