August 28, 2019
By M.D. Johnson
There are a lot of moving parts to a duck hunt.
But with these strategies, you can fill your strap.
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One debate that has gone on for years among duck hunters is the role of drake vs. hen decoys in an ideal set. Is it important to hunting success to use more mallard drake decoys in a spread versus mallard hens? Do drake decoys have more draw, visually, or is it simply a matter of hens being more attractive from a biological standpoint?
“I typically run more hens than I do drakes, and that’s year ’round,” said Geff Duncan, a pro-staffer for Avery Outdoors. “During the early season, many of the drakes don’t have much in the way of color. So everything -— drakes and hens — appear a little on the dark and drab side. Later in the season, and here I’m talking late December and onto the close, I think it becomes more of a biological consideration. The birds that haven’t paired up are looking to pair up, and more hens translate into more opportunity, let’s say, for any passing drakes.”
Does Duncan have scientific proof of this latter tactical page in his playbook? “Not scientific,” he admits, “but I am trying to match, and as precisely as possible, what I’m seeing in the field. Plus, I think more hens gives me a psychological advantage, and confidence plays a huge role in how successful or unsuccessful a duck hunter is in the field.”
The drake-to-hen mallard ratio in my own spread depends both on the time of year, as well as the location I’m hunting — so my experience parallels Duncan’s. During the late season, when the ducks may be beginning pair-bond development pre-breeding, I will use more hens — say, two- or three-to-one — than I will drakes, based on the assumption that those hens will be more biologically attractive to the drakes. It’s a guess, but it’s a justifiable guess. As for location, if I’m hunting heavier emergent vegetation, I switch the ratios and use more brightly colored drakes than hens, strictly from a visibility standpoint. On open water, it’s back to two- to three-hens-per drake. Does the drake-to-hen ratio really make a difference?
The bottom line is if it matters to you, then yes, it makes a difference.
THERE’S MORE TO THE X
The “X” is that magical place where even the most inexperienced waterfowler can shoot easy limits. Find the X. Throw out two old decoys and a Twinkie wrapper, sit back, and get your duck-pluckin’ muscles ready. It won’t be long now, and the clouds of mallards will appear on the horizon. It happens that way. Sometimes.
Believe it or not, the X isn’t always the guaranteed slam-dunk it’s often thought to be. Find mallards in a cornfield on Tuesday, and there’s a good chance they’ll be back on Wednesday. Same spot. Same time. Or will they? Any number of circumstances, most of which are well beyond your control, can work to muddy the waters. That said, let’s assume you’ve located the X. Now, what’s next?
Make sure what you’re looking at is indeed the X, and not just a wandering group of mallards. Do the birds appear familiar with the field? Did they land and immediately start feeding, or are they milling around looking for something? Familiarity might mean a regular feed, a place the birds know and return to often. That’s a good thing for you. Watch the field for two or three evenings, just to eliminate the possibility that it was a random flight. Activity for three straight days? Hunt it on the fourth.
But there’s an exception to this Rule of 1-2-3-4, and that’s weather. A radical weather change — high winds, ice, or heavy snow — might spell a need to move up the calendar; that is, hunt on Day 2 or 3 instead of waiting until after the skies have cleared and the weather moderates. Remember, The Weather Channel is the duck hunter’s best friend.
Finally, it’s vital to locate the X within the X. A half-section of corn stubble isn’t exact enough. Note where the birds are, and then, once they’re gone, find the specific spot they’re using.
Feathers, droppings, and tracks can help you pinpoint the X, and that’s where you are going to want to set your spread. With the X, close isn’t close enough.
RUNNING THE CARNIVAL SPREAD
I had sent a picture of my small puddle-duck rig to a fellow duck hunter whose opinion I respected. “So, what do you think?” I asked him.
“What do you call that? The Carnival Spread?” he said.
That exchange took place around 15 years ago and the phrase has since then been etched into my waterfowl hunting dictionary.Before we define the Carnival Spread let’s first consider what approximately 95 percent of the puddle duck spreads being hunted in the U.S. consist of. Mallards, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily wrong — only that 95 percent of the dabbler flocks found anywhere coast to coast will be comprised of mallards and one or more other species. It’s natural for puddlers to intermingle, and attention to a natural look, particularly in the late season, can help put decoy-wise birds on the strap.
So, what does my spread look like? First, numbers. Typically, my spreads are small, say, 18 to 24 decoys. However, be they 10 or 110, this rig can be easily adjusted accordingly.
Next, the species. I do begin with a handful of mallards, drakes and hens, before turning to high-visibility drakes of pintail and northern shoveler, maybe even a drake ringneck or two. Gadwall and widgeon come next followed by a smattering of hens of the latter five.
At times I’ll use teal, but not often. Teal decoys are tiny compared to the silhouette presented by a real-life or over-sized pintail or grey duck, but teal do take up room in a pack or decoy bag. My goal here is a realistic eye-catching spread, and eye-catching is really important, so nine times out of 10, I’m leaving the green-wings and blue-wings at home.
I also leave wood duck decoys out of these spreads, because it’s been my experience that they aren’t often seen in the open with these others.
Finally, a half dozen mixed drake canvasback and redhead decoys grouped off to one side, separate from the puddlers, can, with their white, turn an otherwise dark spread into a virtual tractor beam of mallard-drawing power.