Note: Game & Fish Magazines teamed up with our sister publication Wildfowl to bring readers pertinent info, stories and tactics for this waterfowl season.
Next to shotguns, decoys are the most important tools waterfowl hunters have. Over the last several decades, more than any other type of waterfowl gear, decoys have undergone a fantastic evolution. My first decoys were made of compressed paper pulp, and old-timers once made their own decoys from wood, cork or canvas.
Most modern decoys are plastic, a material so adaptable that commercial manufacturers have created species and styles for every conceivable purpose. All this allows hunters to tailor decoys to targets, mix species properly, change the size of spreads and use confidence decoys.
Most puddle-duck hunters use mallard decoys. Most diving-duck hunters set scaup decoys. These species are great for beginners’ setups. However, as they progress, hunters want to expand their take to include other species that might ignore those decoys.
Every hunting location attracts specific ducks. If the bulk of them are mallards, logic dictates mallards should form the bulk of the spread. However, if other species, such as wigeon, predominate, then wigeon decoys should form most of the spread.
Some species, like gadwalls, goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks and pintail, are finicky about decoying to species besides their own. Seeing a gadwall giving the spread a once-over before flying on is frustrating.
“Gadwalls are goofy,” said Lamar Boyd of Beaver Dam Hunting Services. “They don’t decoy as well or work like mallards to a call.”Any hunter who sees decoy-shy ducks like gadwalls should incorporate them into their spreads for better chances. After Avery Outdoor Products introduced a new GHG Gadwall Decoy, Boyd began using them and found gadwalls were not nearly as goofy.
It is not only the most discriminating species that decoys best to their own kind. All waterfowl are sharp-eyed and can recognize species from hundreds of yards away, making it mandatory that hunters match decoys to the species. However, mixing species presents several problems.Gadwalls are a prime example, but the same logic applies to other species. When plastic gadwall decoys first came on the market, I set some at the edges of my setups. I began decoying more gadwalls than before. However, they always offered long-distance shooting. Once I figured out what was happening, I began setting gadwall decoys closer to my shooting position.
MIX AND MATCH
Rather than tossing different species helter-skelter, a hunter should strategize when setting a multiple-species spread. Puddle ducks, diving ducks and Canada geese do not mix well. Yet, a hunter who is in an area with so many species wants to attract them all.
Understanding the landing habits of the different waterfowl groups is key to decoying them. All tend to land into the wind, which helps in setting up. None of them likes sitting with the others.
Puddle ducks prefer landing at the rear (downwind) side of decoys and can helicopter straight down. Diving ducks have a propensity to land in front of decoys and coast in low and long. Geese prefer a long, open landing zone.
To take advantage of these habits, in a wind blowing parallel to the blind, I set diving duck decoys on the downwind side and puddle ducks on the upwind side, leaving a large opening between the two groups of decoys right in front of the blind. This separates the two groups. Puddlers should land in the opening at the tail of their decoys and divers in the same opening at the head of their decoys. A great trick is setting one decoy of the most desirable species prominently in the shooting opening for individuals or small flocks to target.
I set Canada geese a good distance upwind or behind the blind, if possible, to separate them from duck decoys. The important thing is to make sure the approach brings them within shotgun range.
I also tend to separate individual species within the larger groups. Waterfowl primarily move and feed in family groups. If a hunter sets a huge number of scaup decoys, and redheads are a secondary target, include a few redhead decoys, but keep them together. Do not simply jumble them with the scaup.
On a typical big-water hunt, I may set at least six different duck species and some Canada geese. What I set and where they are in the spread depends upon which species are in the area. An important aspect in selecting decoys is migration timing. Some of peak flight occurrences are easy to remember, such as an early flight of teal with a special season or the arrival of scaup with freezing weather. Experience on local waters is the best teacher, but shortcuts to learning include: talking with other hunters, checking Internet waterfowl chats, visiting refuges and contacting biologists.
While certain situations require lots of decoys, Banded Gear Pro Staffer Matt Fields sometimes sets only two mallard decoys when he hunts enormous reservoirs.
“I set a couple of Avery Mallard Field Decoys on the shore,” Fields said. “The ducks see big spreads of floaters so much that they stay away from them. But, if they see mallards on the bank, they figure they have found a great place to rest or feed.”
Other situations that require few decoys are flooded timber holes, beaver ponds and potholes. I have hunted tiny tidal pools for puddlers, where only one or two decoys did the trick.
However, when hunters set multiple-species spreads in open water, the number of decoys can grow to dozens, even hundreds. Tony Vandemore, another pro-staffer, often sets a huge combined spread of GHG floating and field mallard decoys.
“It takes lots of decoys, and you have to set them in the right places,” Vandemore said. “The mallards are sitting in pockets of water that are still open because of water flow.”
He sets decoys on sandbars, snow-covered ice and in the water. The spread covers more than an acre. Some conditions call for even larger spreads. Many hunters are reluctant to set decoys beyond the commonly accepted 40-yard shooting range. The idea is having ducks land within shotgun range, but most ducks do not actually land. I have hunted over floating decoy spreads numbering more than 750 that covered several acres.While most hunters do not have the wherewithal to set that many, simply opening up a spread by leaving more space between decoys gives the illusion of more ducks.
Opening up a spread works particularly well in strong winds, which is one condition where ducks prefer larger landing areas. But anyone who has problems with ducks landing outside decoys should consider opening up their spread to make it more welcoming.
Another tactic tailored to diving ducks is setting an elongated spread. This classic spread uses a single-file rank of decoys stretching 100 yards or more to lead passing ducks to the head of the decoys, which are set in a curve or V in front of the blind. While this “fish hook” pattern is nothing new, few modern hunters seem familiar with it, so they don’t have confidence it will work. This may be due to subtleties in the technique. It is more often due to low diving duck limits or lacking enough decoys, but hunters can always combine decoys and hunt in larger groups.
Diving ducks fly along the straight line of decoys, which can begin far out in a channel. I use a 5-foot spacing, which works well. However, if one is missing or moves out of alignment, diving ducks may bail out of the sky to land before arriving in range. For that reason, a trotline rig works well for setting the fishhook rig.
A confidence decoy is any species that ducks or geese are familiar with seeing. I carved my first confidence decoy, a herring gull, from cypress. I hunted diving ducks in open water from a boat and noticed they were shying from my setup. Setting the large gull on the boat bow did the trick because ducks were used to seeing seagulls sitting on navigation markers. Some of the most popular confidence decoys are Flambeau’s blue heron and egret.Large, floating decoys can also attract attention and instill confidence. When I hunt areas with tundra swans, I usually set out at least one swan decoy. In other circumstances, Canada goose or snow goose decoys may work. These larger decoys with lots of white also create visual attractions. When I use them, I set them off from duck decoys because ducks do not like sitting close to them.
Coot decoys also work well. Coots are not as wary as ducks and may swim or fly into the decoys, where their antics constitute additional attraction. If ducks do not decoy, a hunter can always collect a limit of coots.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Calling is part-and-parcel of the art of waterfowl hunting. However, in certain situations, silence is golden.
One of them occurs when calling both ducks and geese. You have attracted the attention with greeting calls and the birds responded. They are circling, looking over the decoys, while you coax them with confidence calls. Suddenly, the birds go silent. They may be circling behind the blind, out of sight. They could also be hovering, but have not moved away in another direction or shown other signs of alarm.
This is a true test of a great caller because the hardest thing to do is to go silent. The birds know the decoys are there and are making up their minds. Something may not look just right to them, but as long as they appear interested, the best tactic is to stay quiet, as even a spot-on confidence call at this moment could send them away. The best thing to do is wait and watch. If they turn away, you can always hit them with a comeback call.