2. Dr. Brian Davis, Little Rock, Ark.
Davis, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, is a lifelong hunter who has pursued ducks throughout Arkansas and many other states. When birds get decoy-shy, Davis, like Van Cleave, makes a major adjustment in his spread.
"I hunt in rice fields, where many hunters leave huge spreads out all year," Davis says. "They work well early in the season. But by late December and January, the ducks have started pair-bonding. Then I do better with a small spread that mimics this change in the birds' behavior."
Specifically, Davis sets 6 to 12 decoys in widely scattered pairs. "I'll put a drake and a hen right in front of my layout blind," he says. "I'll rig the hen on a jerk-string to give her some movement. Then I'll set the other pairs up to 30 yards away both upwind and downwind.
"This time of year, the hens are starting to avoid the big flocks," he continues. "Instead, they are dispersing out with their mates and fattening up for their return trip north. So having just a few decoys in scattered pairs is more realistic for working mostly singles and doubles. Also, I call very little over this spread. Late in the season, the ducks work better to a subtle approach than to more aggressive tactics."
3. Skipper Dickson, Shreveport, La.
Dickson primarily hunts mallards in flooded fields and brush thickets in northwest Louisiana. "These are the most educated ducks there are," he notes. "By the time they get here, they have been called to and shot at all the way from Canada. They're tough!"
Still, Dickson maintains a high rate of success when hunting these birds by employing increasing degrees of subtlety and realism. "When ducks get decoy-shy, I start hunting over six or eight decoys that I set each morning," he says. "I don't put these in the middle of the pocket. Instead, I put them where they are in the shade or partially obscured by brush. I want the ducks to see them, but not get a good look.
"I always use motion," Dickson continues. "I want subtle water movement—ripples instead of noisy splashing. So I go with a jerk-string or a feeder decoy with a bilge pump that spews water out the back, like a Pulsator. And when things get really tough, I go to my secret weapon—a dozen mallard stuffers. They are a lot of trouble, but I think they're worth the effort."
Dickson also pays attention to the number of drakes and hens when setting decoys. Sometimes he sets bachelor groups of drakes. Other times he sets more hens than drakes. "I like some of the hens to be alone and look available to circling drakes," he explains.
And finally, Dickson calls sparingly and quietly. "I want ducks to have to strain to hear the call," he says. "With shy ducks, it's better to give them too little calling than too much.