By John Pollmann
The saying goes that if your decoy spread ain't broke, don't fix it. But if birds are starting to become wary of your setup, it might be time to mix things up a bit. We have some tips from one of the nation's top duck hunters to keep the birds guessing this fall.
Make a Realistic Change
Every hunter seems to have his or her own favorite way of setting up decoys, but Tony Vandemore has come to understand that the real decision must be made based on the birds in the sky.
"When birds start sliding the edge of the decoys or circle several times and then just lose interest and leave, I'm out there moving some decoys," says Vandemore. "I've found that you can't be too stubborn to take a few minutes and make some changes."
Vandemore is one of the owners of Habitat Flats, a premier waterfowl hunting operation in north-central Missouri. While decoy patterns are a good starting point, Vandemore suggests that hunters try to keep things as realistic as possible.
"When I watch live birds on our property, some are sitting tight to each other, others are spread out in spots; there's a pair here and a pair there," says Vandemore. "You never see them all perfectly spaced out across the whole flock."
Vandemore says that a decoy spread should reflect those natural tendencies and, at the same time, influence birds to finish in a particular spot so hunters can make good, clean shots.
The number of decoys Vandemore sets out changes over the course of the season too. Early-season hunts include a smaller number of decoys, and as migrating numbers begin to build, Vandemore begins increasing the size of his spread. As ice starts to take over and groups at Habitat Flats hunt smaller and smaller pools of open water, Vandemore will once again go back to a smaller number of decoys.
But Vandemore says that one rule never changes. "If at any time my decoys look like they are in a 'spread' or a 'pattern,' I will change it up," he says.
Movement and Color
It is no secret that movement in a decoy spread can help attract the attention of passing ducks. Hunters have long taken to kicking the water or employing the use of a jerk string to create ripples on a calm day.
Vandemore suggests that hunters should even try setting some of the decoys where they might catch a little more wind or ride more in the current.
"Regardless of how you get it," he says, "movement is crucial and often the ticket to finishing birds."
And what hunter hasn't noticed a group of birds because of a distant flash of color? Vandemore says to use this observation to your advantage.
"I'll include some drake shoveler and pintail decoys in our moist soil or even timber holes, and drake goldeneyes and canvasbacks on larger bodies of water," says Vandemore. "And we only shoot but a handful of black ducks every year, but I like to put some in every spread. Both the white and dark colors help to enhance visibility from longer distances."
Stand Out in a Crowd
Vandemore says, as a season progresses, ducks begin to grow accustomed to seeing the same decoy spreads along the flyway. He encourages hunters to do whatever it takes to differentiate their spreads from the folks around them.
Some of the techniques that Vandemore employs include adding full-bodied decoys along the water's edge, as well as sleepers, resters, surface feeders, headless feeders and duck butts (where appropriate).
Late-season duck spreads at Habitat Flats will often feature more Canada goose floaters than ducks.
"Mallards in particular feel safe around the big geese," says Vandemore. "And it is just another way to keep birds guessing, and staying ahead of the game.
Perhaps the most important tip Vandemore has to offer is one that most hunters have heard their whole lives: clean up after yourself.
"The one thing that is most effective for me is picking up my decoys every day," says Vandemore. "Ducks will grow stale in a hurry when they see the same decoys in the same location day after day."
So don't be afraid to make some changes. In the end, Vandemore says it will only help you gain a new level confidence in being able to adapt to what the birds want to see.
After all, the ducks are the final judge. What verdict will they hand down to your decoy spread this fall?