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Take a Minimalist Approach to Your Duck Decoy Spreads

It pays to think small for early season duck hunting.

Take a Minimalist Approach to Your Duck Decoy Spreads

Photo by M.D. Johnson

As we paddled the Aquapods downriver and into the cut that would take us to the morning’s hunting spot, my companion, a senior at the high school where I substitute teach, broke the silence with an honest question.

"Aren't we going to need more decoys?" he asked. "I mean, you've got, like, 10 there. Is that going to be enough?"

I assured him we had plenty of plastic ducks to make it work. Once we arrived at the location, though, the young man's confusion grew.

"This spot is the size of my living room," he said. "And it's four inches deep. Are you sure we're in the right place?"

Pausing momentarily as we readied our setup, I pointed out the feathers floating atop the muddy water and the webbed tracks crisscrossing the shoreline. Yes, I assured him. This is the right place.

We worked quickly, but not without instruction, for the young man was new to ducks and duck hunting.

"Don't throw the decoys," I told him. "Set them down so they don't get dirty. They must look natural."

"How should we arrange them?" he asked.

"Haphazardly," I replied. "One here. Two there. We only have 10, so there aren't a whole lot of options.

"We still have to take the wind into consideration, though, even with only a handful of decoys, so place the blinds accordingly and with the sun at our backs. And always make sure you’re hidden. Not half. Not three-quarters. We must be hidden to the point of being invisible."

"Even on opening day?" he asked as he unwound the jerk cord.

"Even then," I told him. "Best to get into the habit."


"What do you think?" I asked as we settled into the boats.

"I don't know," he said. "I just don't know."

The first six mallards helped bolster his confidence. As they're wont to do in this place, they swung once, dropped and set up overtop the cattails. No calling; just a tug or two on the cord.

"Now," I hissed, and hesitated, waiting for him to rise. Four shots, three birds floating belly up on what the boy referred to as the puddle.

"OK," he said sheepishly, his fist filled with orange feet. "Maybe this will work."

As the hour hand slid to 10, birds came and went. Small groups of wood ducks. Mallards. A trio of gray ducks. Even a couple blacks. Some stayed while others beat a hasty retreat after seeing their comrades fooled. Breakdown took 15 minutes, and by 10:30 we were paddling back to the truck, a limit and a half of mixed puddlers tucked under the gunwales.

"That was something," the boy admitted as we loaded the boats. "I never thought that would work, but…I guess I still have a lot to learn about duck hunting." I smiled, thinking back in machine-gun time over the past 46 years.

"We all do, son," I told him. "We all do."

Early-season ducks can make anyone look the hero, but that doesn't mean they're always easy. One of the nicest things about early birds, though, is that quite often they're residents. That is, they're not around in the huge numbers that occur once the annual migration gets underway. What this means for the hunter is secluded puddles and small decoy spreads are usually enough to win the day. In some cases, very small spreads. Here's what to use in three common scenarios.

Shallow Water

"Oversized black duck decoys and geese are always part of my small spreads," says Realtree pro, call maker and multi-time champion caller Sean Mann of Maryland. "I paint them very dark so they jump out of their surroundings and grab attention. Black ducks are almost everywhere and almost always around, even during the breeding season, and that makes them an excellent confidence decoy. Resident goose populations make the goose decoys an obvious choice.

"When it comes to rigging a shallow-water spread—or any spread, for that matter—it's tough to say 'use exactly this many decoys and set them this way.' However, in tiny situations I'll use as few as 3 or 4 decoys. When hunting an incoming tide, I'll set 6 to 10 at first, then dip into my stockpile as the water rises, adding a few here and there until I'm at 18, give or take. No spinners for me, though; I'm a jerk cord guy. And I always take the wind (left-to-right or right-to-left) and the sun (behind me) into consideration, using both to my advantage whenever possible.

"Spacing is something folks usually overlook," Mann continues. "If you look at waterfowl, it seems the more content they are, the more they separate and causally loaf. So I always keep my decoys apart, with anywhere from 6 to 9 feet of separation between them. I want each individual decoy to be seen. A huge benefit of spreading your decoys is you create space for the birds to land wherever they want. There's no need for a specific landing zone. It’s all open and very inviting."

Marsh Madness

Mann and I see eye-to-eye when the scenario grows from a tiny pothole to a larger, more open marsh setting. "The larger the venue, the larger the spread," Mann says. "To a point, of course."

In these situations, visibility is key. You want to make sure the ducks can see what you're presenting. Here, Mann's strategy of using oversized black ducks and Canada goose floaters truly comes into play because they can be seen from a distance and stand out against the expanse of the more open marshland setting. Personally, I like something with lots of white, like drake pintails, drake shovelers and even drake bluebills.

If you're inclined to use a spinning-wing decoy for its long-distance attractiveness, don't hesitate to pull it if the birds give the slightest indication they're not comfortable with it. Again, it's tough to recommend a specific number of decoys, but I feel safe in suggesting 24 to 36 mixed puddlers—and I do believe a mix of species presents a more realistic impression than the traditional two-dozen mallards. And let's not forget the jerk cord, which I like to rig to impart motion to as many decoys within the spread as possible.

Hit the Fields

With the exception of the Canadian Prairies, there's not a lot of dry-field duck hunting done in the North America during the early fall. That said, there may be temporary sheetwater or puddles of various sizes and depth that provide fleeting opportunity. In these situations, Mann uses only silhouettes, saying they're his favorite type of decoy. It's easy to understand why. Silhouettes are lightweight, highly visible and can be very realistic looking, provided you take care of them.

Too often, I see silhouettes that are dull and dirty, which translates into an unrealistic spread. It only takes a few minutes with a scrub brush and cold water to turn a dank spread into something that truly looks natural and works incredibly well. Used exclusively, silhouettes—whether ducks, geese or both—provide what Mann refers to as the "carousel effect."

"This is the illusion of movement," he says, "caused by the birds losing sight of certain silhouettes in the spread as they approach or circle the decoys. It makes the spread come alive."

He's right. As birds work a silhouette spread, different decoys constantly seem to disappear and reappear, making it look as if parts of the spread are actually moving. This realism can often tip the scales in the waterfowler's favor.

New Season, New Dekes

Three ways to freshen up your spread.

Avery XD Pintails

Sure, the limit on pintails is just one per day, but that’s no reason not to mix a few sprigs into your rig. Avery’s new XD Pintails (above) are ultra-realistic, durable and have a prominent white chest that’s visible from a long way off. ($140/12;

MOJO Outdoors Bluebill Floater

Motion works wonders on bluebills, and no one does motion better than Mojo Outdoors. Big water, rough water…this decoy will handle it, thanks in large part to the 11-inch, 14-ounce removable stabilizing bar. Set the floater in the spread and run it by remote. It’s the ticket for divers of all species. ($140;

Dive Bomb Industries’ S3 Mallard Socks

Dive Bomb is a relative newcomer on the scene, but if you’ve watched any duck hunting videos on YouTube within the last year, you’re sure to have seen their silhouettes and socks being used with great success. The S3 Mallard Socks are great for sheetwater hunts in soggy fields, particularly those involving a long walk in.($70/12;

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