December 02, 2020
By Brian Lovett
More than any other type of hunting, waterfowling offers unmatched variety and the opportunity to pursue many different types of birds in drastically different scenarios. However, some waterfowlers use the same two or three decoy spreads no matter the situation, which limits their success.
Don’t fall into that trap. With effort, ingenuity and a bit more of an investment, you can tailor spreads for specific hunting circumstances and put more ducks and geese on the strap.
POTHOLE PUDDLERS: THE CRAB
Pond or pothole spreads for puddle ducks don’t require much fuss. Some days, a natural, relaxed blob suffices. But this setup refines and narrows your kill hole. Place several decoys—the number will depend on the situation, but usually one or two dozen are enough—in a loose group to one side of your boat or blind.
Next, extend an arm of three to six decoys downwind off each side of the main body and relatively close to shoreline cover, forming something that roughly resembles a crab. Those crab arms funnel birds toward the kill hole and discourage ducks from landing short or at awkward angles from the blind.
- Tip: This applies to all decoy spreads: Don’t configure your kill hole directly downwind from the blind. Instead, angle it to one side or the other, ideally with the sun at your back. That way, birds won’t be looking right at your hide while approaching.
BIG-WATER DIVERS: THE FAT L
Long lines—heavy mother lines to which several decoys on drop-line leaders are attached—save diver hunters time by allowing them to quickly and easily deploy several dozen blocks. But they can look unnatural if placed improperly.
The Fat L spread uses five or six long lines and is ideal for shoreline or island hunters. Place four or five lines to the upwind side of your blind, then run another one or two lines as a long tail, starting from the inside decoy nearest to your hide and extending downwind. Leave some slack in the tail line so it can bow in the waves.
The tail is your runway. Divers love to fly over their own kind on approach. Main body decoys are blockers. The wide space formed between tail and blockers is the kill hole. In calm conditions you can place a few single-line decoys between for added realism. Spinners can be placed in the kill hole.
- Tip: Try to place your spread so there’s at least some open water between the decoys and the land. Divers finish much better when they’re looking at water instead of at an island or shoreline.
EARLY FIELD GEESE: THREE BLOBS
Field-hunting for geese can be a numbers game, but in many cases—especially in early seasons for locally breeding honkers—farmers don’t want you driving on fields, which severely limits the number of full-bodies you can set up. No worries. With a partner, lug two- to three-dozen decoys to the X. Divide the fakes somewhat equally into three family groups of eight to 12 birds—a common scenario with early-season geese—making sure each group has several feeders, some loafers and a looker or two.
Place one group among and just behind your blinds, using a few full-bodies around your hide to boost concealment. Set the other two groups left and right of your blinds, perhaps 20 to 30 yards downwind. This creates a natural looking micro spread with a well-defined hole.
- Tip: Consider using a few silhouettes or socks to boost numbers, if needed, but always place your best-looking decoys downwind, near the kill hole.
GREEN-TIMBER DUCKS: REALISM and MOTION
Ducks using flooded timber typically key on sound—that is, calling—because they can’t see other ducks on the water below the tree canopy. Still, veteran hunters believe some well-placed decoys can give approaching ducks a sense of comfort and help line birds up for quality shots. Veteran timber hunter Dennis “Dr. Duck” Loosier, co-host of "Black Cloud" on Realtree 365, says his spread configuration depends on the shape and size of a timber hole (spoiler alert: Few holes are perfectly round or square).
He’ll throw some decoys in more heavily timbered areas outside the hole to give the appearance that ducks landed and swam into the trees. A few highly visible decoys provide reassurance for your calling.
- Tip: Emphasize motion. "Jerk strings are great tools," Loosier says. "I recommend using more than one—even three to four, depending on how many guys you have hunting. If you have a lot of guys standing in the trees, put a jerk string in their hands. The more it’s moving down there, the more it looks like real birds."
LOAFING AREAS: AT EASE ON SHORE
Migrating mallards and geese often roost on big water, feed in grain fields during early morning and late evening, and spend much of midday loafing at smaller waters. Often, you’ll see many birds packed along a shoreline or sandbar, sleeping, preening or milling about.
Reflect that in your decoy spread by mixing in a few full-body field decoys (honkers work great for both geese and ducks) on land with a few swimmers in the water. If you don’t have full-bodies, silhouettes provide a effective lightweight option.
- Tip: Don’t overdo these spreads. If you find 100 geese on a sandbar, don’t throw out 100 decoys. Birds approaching loafing areas are usually ultra-suspicious, and seeing a full-blown spread often trips their alarm. Instead, use a dozen or two to make it appear as if a few birds have returned from feeding and that all is safe at the loafing area.
WALK-IN HUNTS: MIX IT UP
Walk-in hunts—think prairie potholes or state wildlife areas—limit how many fakes you can tote. Solve the dilemma by mixing and matching several types of puddle-duck decoys, including mallards, gadwall, teal and a drake pintail or wigeon. Mallards are ubiquitous; any duck will recognize and decoy to them. Small teal decoys boost your numbers and let you fill in holes. A white drake pintail or wigeon decoy can add visibility. Depending on the size of the pothole, configure blocks in a broad, loose group, or form a long J-hook.
- Tip: If divers might be on the menu, boost this spread with a half-dozen canvasback decoys. Simply use the puddlers as the main body of a J-hook or similar configuration, and then stretch the cans downwind as a tail.
Ready to Rig
Two specialized decoy-rigging options.
This rigging method uses heavy monofilament or wire line instead of decoy cord so lines don’t tangle. Each line features a weight at one end and a loop or clip at the other. The line slides through the hole in the decoy’s keel. For storage or transport, slip a carabiner clip through the looped ends of the lines and lift the decoys vertically—no need to wrap decoy cords around the dekes. They can then hang in a group, but the lines remain separate and untangled. To place the decoys, release each from the carabiner and let the weighted end slide down. The decoys are then ready to deploy.
Texas rigs are ideal for water shallower than 4 feet. Most hunters use 4- to 6-ounce weights. Four-ounce weights hold well in pothole, timber or small-marsh situations. The 6-ouncers hold decoys steadier on bigger water or in current.
Lifetime Decoys Texas Rigs
With PVC-coated steel-cable construction, these rigs last longer and are more tangle-resistant than the heavy monofilament line common with other Texas-rigging options. ($34.99–$59.99; lifetimedecoys.com)
Ideal for big-water diver hunters, this system lets you deploy and store multiple decoys on one main line. Rigs feature a heavy main “mother” line anchored by heavy weights on either end. Decoys are rigged with drop-line leaders (typically 18 to 36 inches long), which attach to the main line via a snap or lobster-style clip. Depending on the length of the mother line and depth of the water you’re hunting, you can typically attach 12 or more decoys to one line.
To deploy the lines via boat, simply drop the weight upwind of your hunting spot, and then drift or motor downwind, tossing decoys as you go. Then, pull the line taut and drop the downwind anchor. When wading, work with a partner to establish the upwind anchor, then drop the downwind anchor when the lines are somewhat tight (some bow or bend in the lines adds realism).
Doctari Longlines’ Guide Series Longlines
These main lines are 100-percent nylon twine that are tarred for durability. They have a tensile strength of greater than 1,050 pounds and come in several configurations. ($26.20-$41.95; doctarilonglines.com)
See Your Spread
With most waterfowling, setup work usually happens well before sunrise. At those times, assembling a killer spread the right way requires a quality headlamp that offers ample light and leaves your hands free to work.
Streamlight’s Enduro Pro Headlamp ($29.99; streamlight.com) is one solid choice. The low-profile, multi-function headlamp offers three lighting modes: spot, flood and a red or green LED. For spot and flood modes, there are high, medium and low settings. The high end on spot mode produces 200 lumens, while the low end on flood mode kicks out 15 lumens. Run times range from six to 38 hours, depending on the setting, and the headlamp operates on three AAA batteries.
Spot mode is beneficial when looking over a spread to ensure your buddies arranged the fakes properly, while the flood mode is key for tasks such as untangling decoy cords, loading your gun or sneaking in one last breakfast sandwich before settling in for the morning. The two colored LED settings allow some illumination while also preserving night vision, and the lamp’s 45-degree tilting head is easy to adjust.
As with everything used for waterfowling, durability is important, too. The Enduro Pro has a tough polycarbonate thermoplastic construction with elastomer overmold and unbreakable polycarbonate lenses. Add in an IPX4 water-resistant rating, and this unit is ready for the marsh, timber or big water. — Drew Warden