4. Jim Thomas, Key West, Fla.
A professional duck guide, Thomas has hunted on Florida's Lake Okeechobee for three decades. He shoots mostly ringnecks with a smattering of bluebills, redheads, canvasbacks and wigeon. In years past, he mainly hunted open hydrilla flats, where he put out decoy spreads numbering 200 or more blocks.
But today conditions have changed, and so have Thomas's methods of hunting these birds. "The big hydrilla flats are mostly gone, and the large rafts of ducks that fed on them have dispersed into smaller openings in the marsh," he explains. "Also, hunting pressure has increased dramatically."
Now, Thomas depends on good scouting to find where ducks want to be, and then he sets up in that exact spot. "It's easier to hunt decoy-shy birds if you go to them instead of trying to make them come to you," he says. In so doing, Thomas uses a small spread—as few as six decoys. "These decoys are freshly painted; they look good," he says. "Also, I don't use magnums. I want something that looks exactly like real ducks on the water."
5. Dr. Bobby Cox, Ipswich, S. Dak.
A waterfowl biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Cox is also a fanatical duck hunter. In recent years, he has seen mallard behavior on the prairies change—a result, he is convinced, of increased hunting pressure.
"Now mallards are more herdish," he explains. "They are acting like snow geese, resting and feeding in huge concentrations. There are fewer small flights and stragglers than there used to be—birds you can work."
Cox is careful not to disturb the big bunches of ducks. Instead, he sets up in small satellite wetlands between resting and feeding areas. He typically hunts alone, setting out as many decoys as he can pack to a hunting site. "Two bags of decoys are better than one," he says. Cox sets these in a J-hook formation off the bank in the middle of the pond. Then he hides in a coffin blind or a circle of hog wire that is brushed with local vegetation.
Cox says some hunters make the mistake of jumping ducks huddled next to the lee bank and then throwing their decoys out where the birds flushed. "Usually the ducks will land in the middle of the pond and swim to the lea bank, so that is where I set my spread," he explains.
Cox avoids using spinning-wing decoys on heavily pressured ducks. The only motion he adds is a jerk-string on calm days. His calling style is equally restrained. "I only blow four- and five-note greeting calls—no single quacks or feeding chuckles," he says. "If ducks are locked and coming, I stay quiet unless they show signs of pulling away. Then I'll blow a three-note series to regain their attention and keep them coming.