By Will Brantley
Dedicated waterfowlers understand that to get a leg up on today's stiff hunting competition they must do everything possible to set themselves apart. Scout harder. Call better. Shoot straighter. Set a better decoy spread. This last imperative may be the most important of all.
In areas with heavy hunting pressure, ducks and geese often get a crash course in what looks right and what doesn't. Those that survive the gauntlet of the early season can be even more cautious about committing to the decoys. Setting a spread that can convince even the wariest waterfowl will give you an advantage over other hunters. Here are 10 expert tips that will consistently help you close the deal.
1. Make Your Spread Visible
One cold and windy morning last season my hunting partners and I got a late start, so we decided to do some scouting before we set up. Although we couldn't find big flocks of ducks concentrated in any one spot, quite a few birds were flying up and down the main channel of the Tennessee River. We decided to set our decoys just off a large point and tuck ourselves into cover along the shoreline. The spread-a mixture of four dozen diver and puddle duck decoys-wasn't huge. But it was visible, thanks to the black-and-white diver decoys. Ducks flying the river could see them from hundreds of yards away. Not every flock decoyed into our spread, but quite a few of them did. By lunchtime we had a nice mixed bag of gadwalls, goldeneyes, and bluebills.
What's the lesson in this story? Not every decoy spread has to be set in a prime feeding or resting area. On a windy day, or on flight days when large numbers of birds are on the move, simply setting a good spread in an area where ducks will see it can result in a productive hunt.
2. Keep Water Open around Your Decoys
Ice is one of the most challenging conditions a duck hunter can face when setting decoys. If the ice is thick, you can break it up into big free-floating sheets and push them under the surrounding ice. This will create an open hole to set the decoys in.
Skim ice, however, can be more of a challenge. This thin ice breaks into small pieces when you walk through it, churn it with an outboard motor, or drive through it with a four-wheeler (if the water is shallow enough). Pieces of skim ice in the decoys reflect sunlight like a broken mirror and can spook wary ducks and geese. Although you can clear a hole of broken ice with a rake or net, the water often refreezes quickly on cold mornings.
For the ultimate solution to this problem, consider purchasing an ice eliminator such as the Ice Blaster from Higdon Decoys. It works by turning a prop under-water and churning warmer water from the bottom to the surface. This unit not only helps keep your spread clear of ice, but can also add movement to your decoys. If you get to your spot early, break the ice a little bit and put the Ice Blaster to work; you'll have an open hole for your decoys by shooting light.
3. Set a Floating Spread for Canada Geese
Avery pro-staffer Levi Fry does much of his goose hunting on the outskirts of Minneapolis, in an area that supports both a booming population of resident Canada geese and a growing number of goose hunters. Since most of the hunting pressure is concentrated in grainfields, Fry and his buddies usually hunt geese over water. "We have the best luck hunting over water because it's where we can decoy birds," Fry says. "Regardless of where geese are feeding, they have to return to water to rest at some point."
A few years ago, a small spread consisting of a couple of dozen decoys was enough to consistently enjoy good hunting in this area. Today, however, the trend is toward bigger spreads. "We started setting 60 to 70 Canada goose floaters last year, and we're going to push that to 150 decoys this fall," Fry explains. "We see some really large groups of 200 geese in this area, even early in the year. The big spreads will decoy almost every goose in sight by creating the impression of a big sanctuary, which is attractive to both resident and migratory birds."
4. Use Goose Decoys for Ducks
Rob Reynolds, who owns Ranchland Outfitters in Alberta, Canada, specializes in dry-field hunting for geese and ducks. Whether he's after greenheads or honkers, Reynolds changes little about his spread. "We hunt harvested grainfields, where the stubble might be tall enough to hide a thousand mallards," Reynolds says. "In fact, when you're scouting, you can watch birds fly into a field and virtually disappear as soon as they land. But you can always see the geese."
For that reason, Reynolds sticks with a full goose spread even when he's targeting ducks. He sets three dozen or so full-body Canada goose decoys around the interior of the spread, which helps break up the outlines of the layout blinds. He then places several dozen more silhouette decoys around the perimeter. "Big numbers of silhouettes provide the illusion of motion to working birds," Reynolds explains. "If I had to choose between using only silhouettes or full-bodies, I'd opt for the silhouettes every time."
When he's hunting ducks, Reynolds adds wing-spinners to his spread. "The thing that stands out in a field full of ducks is the wing movement," he says. "You can see all that motion from a long way, and ducks can too."
5. Spread Out Decoys in Flooded Timber
"Most flooded-timber hunters find a hole and put their decoys right in the center of it," says Arkansas Avery pro-staffer James Staten. "If ducks see that often enough, it doesn't take long for them to get decoy-shy."
Staten and his hunting partners have spent a lot of time watching live ducks working in the timber. The birds, they believe, pay attention to the movement in the trees and brush rather than simply in the openings. "Often the ducks will drop right through the tree limbs, land on the water, and then swim into the open areas. That's what we try to replicate," Staten says.
Hunting mostly public land, Staten and his hunting partners typically carry two to three dozen decoys with them. "We set a few groups of eight or 10 decoys in the trees around the hole, and quite a few right behind us," he says. "If we do put any in the hole, it's only six or eight-and they're usually the best- looking decoys we have."
6. Deploy the Ultimate Diver Spread
Avery pro-staffer Rusty Hallock hunts waterfowl on Chesapeake Bay, where gunning canvasbacks and bluebills over decoys rigged on longlines is a rich tradition. He says that while gang-rigging decoys is the only practical way to set a big spread in open water, such spreads often look unnatural from the air.
"We break the spread up by setting our longlines and then tossing a dozen or so individual decoys out between them," Hallock says. "Instead of setting them in a traditional J-hook pattern, we cluster a knot of decoys in the center with numerous lines extending out from the middle."
Hallock supplements his diver spread with his favorite confidence decoys-swans. "I like to put a couple of swan decoys alongside my diver rig when hunting from a shore blind. These big decoys are not only incredibly visible from a distance, but they also help attract dabbling ducks, which often feed with swans."
7. Give Geese Room to Land
"Think of ducks as helicopters and big honkers as commercial jets," says Field Hudnall, host of DU TV. "The jet needs a lot more room to land. Big geese don't drop right into your spread. Instead, they want a long runway. If they don't have a clear path, they'll try to land wide and swim in."
When hunting geese on the Ohio River, Hudnall and his buddies arrange their decoys so approaching flocks can come in parallel to the riverbank rather than directly into it. This gives geese a longer glide path to the decoys. The hunters set out at least 100 Canada goose floaters, leaving a 20- to 30-yard-wide landing zone in the middle of the spread.
"The farthest decoys from us will be about 50 yards out in the river," Hudnall says. "We position a number of rester decoys near the center of the spread, and that's usually where the birds focus. When this spread works the way it's supposed to, the geese decoy right in the center of the spread. Plus, it's also a deadly setup for ducks."
8. Deceive Dabblers with Coot Decoys
Dan Crick has been hunting gadwalls and other dabbling ducks on Kentucky Lake for more than 40 years. Droves of ducks flock to the lake to feed on milfoil and other submerged aquatic plants. The vegetation also attracts plenty of coots, which often congregate with ducks while feeding and loafing. "If you spend time watching ducks, you see that they usually don't sit by themselves," Crick says. "In many areas, they often sit with coots."
Knowing this, Crick rarely sets a spread without using plenty of coot decoys. "I do a lot of walk-in hunting," he says. "Many times, I carry a dozen coot decoys and only four or five gadwalls. I set the coots right against the bank, just as you'd see them feeding naturally. I put a couple of gadwalls right in there with them, and a couple more off to the side. The spread imitates what the ducks in this area are used to seeing, and often they will drop right into the decoys without circling."
9. Choose Quality over Quantity for Snows
Avery pro-staffer Steve DeMaster has hunted snow geese since he was a teenager. Though he grew up using more than a thousand Texas rags to decoy these wary birds, he now sets a much smaller spread of realistic full-body decoys. "Full-bodies changed the snow goose game," DeMaster says. "I believe that as long as you do your scouting and find exactly where the birds want to land and feed, you can do just fine with 250 to 300 full-body decoys. The secret is taking care of them so they look real, and knowing how to set them."
DeMaster sets most of his spread upwind of the layout blinds and spaces out the remaining decoys to make the rig look as large as possible. "I may stretch the tail of the spread 50 yards or more downwind, and I like to put several strings of four or five decoys off to the sides to look like small groups of birds walking into the main mass," he says. "Finally, I like to create a smaller landing zone than many other hunters do. On a windy day, I may narrow it down to 30 yards wide by 35 yards long. That way, when geese commit, everyone in the field should have a good shot at them."
10. Don't Skimp on Realism
One theme that all the experts seem to agree on is that realism is the primary consideration when setting a decoy spread. "Making your decoys look as realistic as possible will give you an advantage over other hunters," DeMaster says. "The most realistic decoys don't come cheap, but I always recommend buying the best ones you can afford."
Many modern plastic decoys, such as Avery's Greenhead Gear line, feature ultra-realistic paint schemes that are nearly as detailed as the plumage of real ducks and geese. Flocked decoys look even more natural than all-plastic decoys, especially on cloudy days. And maybe best of all, premium decoys are usually available in a variety of different body postures. Supplementing your spread with feeder, rester, and sleeper decoys can help create the illusion of a flock of live birds, which is what setting a spread is all about.