By Matt Young
As any waterfowler who has ever hunted near a refuge knows, ducks and geese associate safety with numbers, and they usually flock to the largest concentrations of their own kind. Given the gregarious nature of the birds, many waterfowlers work to acquire as many decoys as possible in hopes of building a large enough spread to overcome, by sheer numbers, the innate wariness of their quarry.
A few waterfowlers, however, have taken this concept to the extreme. These individuals, largely outfitters and other extremist waterfowling devotees, have amassed spreads of hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands of decoys. The following are tips and advice from waterfowlers who regularly hunt over some of the biggest decoy rigs in the nation.
Big Rigs: Playing the Field
Every autumn, spectacular numbers of waterfowl gather on the vast prairies of southern Saskatchewan, where numerous pothole marshes and lakes surrounded by endless acres of harvested grainfields provide ideal staging habitat for migrating ducks and geese.
The incomparable waterfowling opportunities available in Saskatchewan are well known to Stan Anderson of Tennessee, who makes an annual hunting trip there in fall with several of his hunting partners. Anderson's group specializes in hunting light geese (Ross' geese and lesser snows)-by far the most numerous birds in the region-on harvested grainfields. However, they also bag Canada and white-fronted geese and ducks, primarily mallards and pintails.
"During our afternoon scouting trips, we look for really big concentrations of snows," Anderson explains, "but there are often large numbers of dark geese and ducks using the same fields. This gives us the opportunity to take several different species during the same hunt."
Like most snow goose hunters, Anderson believes in putting out a huge spread of white windsock decoys that resembles a large flock of feeding birds. "We like to shoot decoying birds, so you have to use big numbers of decoys to have any hope of getting them in close. Our success rates went up dramatically a few years ago when we increased the size of our spread from 400 to 1,000 decoys."
Anderson makes his own windsock decoys from synthetic Tyvek fabric, which is lightweight and moves in the slightest breeze. When filled with air, the hollow body of each decoy closely resembles the size, shape, and motion of a feeding snow. A metal washer is used to secure the decoy's head to a 3/8-inch wooden dowel that serves as a stake.
"We put out the bulk of our goose socks in a big mass about 60 to 80 yards wide, depending on how many people we have in our party that day," Anderson says. "To make the spread look as natural as possible, we surround the main body of decoys with scattered family groups, which helps to break things up."
In addition to drawing lesser snows and Ross' geese, the white spread is also very appealing to ducks. "On the prairies, ducks seem to feed with snow geese more than in other areas," Anderson says. "They will come to a big white spread like a magnet, especially during the first half-hour before sunrise. We often get our limits of ducks before the geese have even started flying."
For dark geese, Anderson sets a mixed spread of four dozen Canada goose shells and four dozen silhouettes in two groups on the downwind side of the white spread. "You have to separate your white and dark goose decoys because Canadas and specks don't like to fly over white spreads," he says. "Calling is also very important for both snows and Canadas. With a spread that size, you have to work them well with the call to get them to sit down where you want them."
Anderson and his hunting partners conceal themselves by wearing white parkas and facemasks and sitting among the windsocks on the ground on Avery backpack recliners, parallel with one another for safety. "On a windy day, you would be amazed how much movement you can get away with while wearing white in a big field of goose socks. Last season, we had five hunters and a camera crew in our rig, and we still had birds lighting right in our faces."
Big Rigs: A Good Layout
During the past decade, Missouri has emerged as one of America's top duck destinations. Thanks to the state's ambitious land acquisition and wetland habitat restoration programs, some of the best hunting is available on public land. Arkansas state waterfowl biologist Mike Checkett is a Missouri native who returns to his home state every year to hunt waterfowl on public lands.
"We do most of our hunting on moist soil management units consisting of big expanses of shallow water interspersed with low vegetation," Checkett explains. "Since there is little cover in these areas, we began using low-profile layout boats that enable us to hide in small patches of vegetation in the middle of open pools where the ducks feel secure." Checkett has also discovered that using a large decoy spread gives him an advantage on heavily hunted public waters.
"We try to set a rig that has a much different look than what the birds are accustomed to seeing day in and day out," he says. "Most hunters use a standard spread of three to five dozen decoys placed in a J-hook configuration, or in two groups with an open hole between them. My partners and I never go out with less than 20 dozen decoys, and we frequently use up to 45 dozen when we hunt with four or five people."
"We don't place our decoys in any particular pattern," Checkett continues. "We just start throwing them out around our boats to cover as much open water as we can. Ideally, we like to completely cover the pool with decoys, so that the birds have to hover over the rig while looking for a place where they can squeeze in. We leave a little more space between the decoys just downwind of our boats, to give the birds room to land."
Checkett's spread consists predominantly of mallard blocks, plus 60 drake pintails that he places together in one group on the upwind edge of the rig. In very shallow areas, Checkett bolsters his spread of floaters with homemade mallard and pintail silhouettes that he places on mudflats and dry humps. "Pintails are common on our hunting areas, so we include decoys in our spread that will draw them in. The white on the pintail blocks also enhances the overall visibility of our rig."
Like many avid waterfowlers, Checkett is a firm believer in the value of motion decoys. "We like to have as much movement in the spread as possible to represent the natural activity of feeding and loafing ducks," he says. "I rig several decoys on a jerk string, which creates ripples throughout the spread. I also strategically place a few battery-powered motion decoys in the rig. On sunny days, their flashing wings reflect light, which can be seen by trading flocks from a mile away."
Big Rigs: In Black and White
Few areas of the country are as steeped in waterfowling lore as northwestern Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake, where the legendary market hunter Victor Glodo helped develop the modern duck call. An expert on the subject is Russell Caldwell, one of the nation's foremost duck call historians and collectors.
Caldwell hunts from a location known as Lost Pond, a large pocket of open water surrounded by ancient cypress trees, where he has established a permanent blind. Although the area was once a prime hunting spot for canvasbacks and other divers, today Caldwell primarily bags mallards, other dabbling ducks, and Canada geese that return to the big water to rest after feeding in distant grainfields.
An enduring tradition among Reelfoot waterfowlers is the use of vast decoy spreads. Caldwell is no exception, and, every year, he and his hunting partners deploy more than 1,000 blocks around their blind. The bulk of Caldwell's spread consists of headless, Styrofoam Canada goose bodies.
"The quality of your decoys is not as important as their general shape and how they ride on the water," Caldwell explains. "When ducks approach a big spread, they can't tell if the decoys have heads or not. They simply see a lot of bodies that appear to have their heads down in a feeding or resting posture."
Caldwell paints roughly two-thirds of his decoys a flat black. He paints the remainder with a white feather pattern-similar to that of a scaup. "We use black paint on most of our decoys because that is the most visible color to waterfowl from the air," he says. "If you fly in an airplane over a large number of resting waterfowl, you will see that they largely appear black. Adding white to some of the decoys further increases the spread's visibility by providing color contrast and flash while the decoys are bobbing on the waves."
After more than 30 years of experimenting with different decoy spread configurations, Caldwell has devised a rig that he has found to be most productive under a wide variety of conditions. "We place our decoys in tight bunches of about 25 each, which are much more visible to waterfowl from a distance than decoys scattered more widely apart," he says. "We leave a hole about 20 yards wide in front of the blind to provide the birds with a clear place to land, and we set several dozen super magnum mallards and a few motion decoys on the edges of the landing zone as an added enticement. For geese, we set a separate group of 100 hand-painted Canada goose decoys in a horseshoe pattern off to one side of the main decoy spread."
Even while using such a large spread, Caldwell stresses the importance of loud, aggressive calling to bring waterfowl in close. "On Reelfoot, we have to compete with a lot of other hunters, and many of them are excellent callers. In such a competitive environment, your calling has to be just as good as-if not better than-your decoy spread to have good shooting."
Big Rigs: Going for Numbers
The famed Grasslands Water District of California's San Joaquin Valley is among the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway. A large proportion of the remaining wetlands in the region are found on private duck clubs, which are intensively managed to provide excellent habitat conditions for waterfowl and other wildlife. Not surprisingly, waterfowlers in the Grasslands take their duck hunting very seriously, and they go to great lengths to ensure that they enjoy good shooting.
A prime example is Bob Nardi, a private wetlands management consultant and the owner of a 200-acre duck club in the heart of the Grasslands. He sets a massive rig of 3,000 pintail decoys on a large open pond on his property. "Our objective is to use enough decoys to make our club look like a closed zone," Nardi explains. "We use almost entirely pintail decoys because they are the most abundant duck in our area. All species decoy readily to our spread because they are accustomed to seeing large concentrations of pintails, especially on refuges."
Nardi and his partners hunt from three sunken concrete blinds that provide them with almost complete concealment amid sparse flooded vegetation. The blinds are set in a triangle pattern, enabling the group to hunt different areas of the pond in different conditions. Nardi surrounds the blinds with decoys set in a large circle, which covers most of the open water in the pond.
Each morning, he resets enough decoys to open a hole about 40 yards across to serve as a landing zone adjacent to the blind in which they are hunting. "We're not concerned about the appearance of individual decoys," Nardi says. "The overall look of the spread is more important.
"The beauty of a big spread is that you will draw ducks from miles around. At any given time, we may have 100 pintails working our rig, which attracts other ducks. If you are patient, and don't rush your shots, a vortex of circling ducks will build over your decoys. Then you can sit back and selectively take the species that you want from the circling flocks."
Despite the great drawing power big rigs have on waterfowl, Nardi cautions that they don't guarantee success. "Having good habitat is the most effective way to attract waterfowl. A few years ago, a neighboring duck club put out a big spread, but it didn't work for them because their habitat wasn't in very good shape. After they improved their management practices, they had great shooting."
As the aforementioned experts clearly attest, decoying waterfowl can be a numbers game. Acquiring and maintaining hundreds of decoys, however, can be costly, both in time and money, and large spreads are simply not practical in many places. Nevertheless, for those who do manage to amass a truly big rig, and hunt in an area where it can be put to good use, the rewards can be spectacular.