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.
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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."