by Wade Bourne
Biologists who frequently fly over duck country offer useful insight into how blinds and decoy spreads appear from the birds' perspective
One blind had always produced better hunting than others on the lake, and we had never understood why.
It resembled all the other blinds in size and in how it was brushed. Its big open-water decoy spread was no larger than others on the lake, and superior calling wasn't the reason for the blind's success since passing birds often pitched to it when no one was hunting. We just assumed this blind was in the "magic spot" where ducks—for whatever reason—wanted to go.
But then my brother Joe, a former Air Force pilot, came for a visit during hunting season, and we rented a Cessna and flew the length of the lake. From "duck altitude," all the floating blinds were clearly visible, but the decoy spreads were hard to see.
But when we came to the blind, we got an eye-opener. This hunter's decoy spread really stood out. It was much more obvious and grabbed our attention better than the others. The decoys were all magnums, and many were painted flat black. From altitude, those big black decoys were much easier to see, and high-passing birds were evidently drawn to them.
We discovered this because we got a bird's-eye view. We checked our hunting setup from the ducks' perspective, and it made a big difference. The following season we upgraded our spread to resemble our competitor's, and our success rate increased noticeably.
It may not be practical for hunters to rent an airplane and do their own observing and scouting, but they can learn much from others who regularly fly over duck country. Ducks Unlimited biologists Bob Harris (Mississippi) and Mike Checkett (Tennessee) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot/biologist Fred Roetker (Louisiana) have spent hundreds of hours flying at low altitude over prime duck country. Each has seen countless blinds and decoy spreads, observed thousands upon thousands of live ducks on the water, and knows what looks natural from above and what doesn't.
All three are also avid waterfowlers who have applied what they have learned from flying to their own hunting efforts. They specialize in making their blinds and decoy spreads appear as natural as possible and have learned that doing so pays big dividends.
Blinds: The Natural Look
Harris, Checkett and Roetker agree the most effective blinds blend into the landscape naturally. They wouldn't catch your eye if you were passing overhead at 300 feet.
"I believe ducks are a lot smarter now than they were 20 years ago," Harris says. "They are subject to more hunting pressure, and they learn to avoid anything that's the least bit unnatural. If they see something that doesn't look right, they'll circle a couple of times, then keep going. This is why hunters now have to camouflage their blinds better than ever. They should try to make them disappear into the landscape."
After flying over his blinds and those of many other hunters, Harris suggests that hunters do whatever is necessary to keep duck blinds from standing out. "Instead of positioning a blind outside a line of woods or brush," he says, "put it back in the cover a few feet. Camouflage it totally with materials that are native to the spot but not taken from it. You don't want to hack or tramp down your natural vegetation."
Harris recalls one blind in particular as an example of poor positioning and use of cover. "This blind was in (not on the edge, but in) a pothole in a willow slash," he says. "From the air, all the surrounding vegetation was gray and brown. But this blind was covered in bright yellow cane. It stood out like a neon light in a darkroom. I could see it a mile away. Nothing could have made that blind more obvious. I know it had to scare ducks."
In contrast, Roetker remembers a pit in a rice field levee that was virtually invisible from the air. "This was in north Louisiana," he says. "I was flying a survey, saw a bunch of ducks in a rice field and swooped down to count them. When I got close, I realized they were decoys. But there was no blind. I looked for it but couldn't see it."
Roetker circled and on the second pass picked out the pit buried in the levee. "It blended in so well it was almost unbelievable," he says. "Around the pit the levee had been resodded with natural vegetation, and I couldn't see any opening. I know its owner must have been a very good duck hunter."
Checkett also remembers a blind that blended in better than most. "It was on a dead-timber reservoir in southeast Arkansas," he says. "Instead of being covered with oak brush or cane, it was covered with logs and sticks. It looked like a beaver lodge and fit in with its surroundings extremely well.
"I remember another blind in a cypress swamp," Checkett continues. "It was covered with slabs of [sawmill-cut] cypress with the bark showing on the outside. It was built with a cypress tree on the back corner with limbs spreading out over the back of the blind. It was very realistic."
Blinds in open agricultural fields are especially challenging to hide. Many hunters have switched from stake blinds or floating blinds to pits, but Harris says it's amazing how well pits show up from the air, especially those in wide-open harvested areas. "Hunters should try to locate their pit in a levee or next to a gully or some other linear feature in the field," he says. "Also, if the pit is in the middle of a crop, like standing corn, plant the corn all around the pit, and be careful not to knock your cover down."
Roetker says that, from the air, blinds stand out when they are higher than surrounding vegetation. "The blind should not be taller than the natural cover," he says. "If you're building a blind in cattails, brush or a standing crop, keep the profile low so it won't draw attention."
Checkett offers two more tips for camouflaging a blind. "From the air, a box-shaped duck blind looks like a box-shaped duck blind. Hunters need to soften the hard edges and round out the shape.
"Also, many hunters brush the sides of their blind really well, but they neglect the top," Checkett says. "Remember, this is what the ducks are looking at the most. Camouflage the top as well as or better than the sides, and close up those shooting holes so the ducks can't see down in them."
All three biologists warn against looking up when ducks are overhead. "From the air, human skin shines like a mirror," Harris says. "It's unbelievable how well you can see it. I'll be flying toward a blind, and when a hunter inside looks up at me, his face is the first thing I'll notice."
Harris recommends several remedies for this problem. "When the sun is bright, use a camo mask or camo face paint," he says. "Wearing gloves is also a good idea, and be aware that any metal object can reflect light—a watch, other jewelry or a shiny gun barrel. You have to keep these things out of bright sunlight."
Checkett says movement in a duck blind is very noticeable from the air. "Even if the shooting hole is well brushed, if there's somebody moving around down in the blind or pit when I'm directly overhead, I can see them," he says, "and I'm sure the ducks can too.
"As the season progresses, blinds lose camouflage," Checkett adds. "Natural vegetation gets knocked down, and blinds become more and more obvious. So it becomes critical to add new cover to the blind or maybe even to quit hunting it. Maybe it's better to go lie on the levee or bank and cover up with a grass mat. This might be what it takes to stay one step ahead of the ducks."
Decoys: Making a Spread More Realistic
Flying also provides these hunters a critical view of decoy spreads and a better idea of what looks natural and attractive to ducks.
Both Roetker and Checkett emphasize that ducks don't sit in large, evenly spaced groups, and from the air, decoys deployed in such a manner look like ... decoys.
"It's very artificial looking when hunters scatter their decoys too much," Roetker says. "Ducks sit in what I call 'hot clumps'—several in a group here, several in a group there—and they are almost touching each other. So when I'm hunting, I'll set six or seven decoys here and maybe a dozen over there. I want some bigger clumps and some smaller clumps. This type of setup is a lot more realistic."
"I like to put several decoys tight to the shoreline, and I'll set small groups down the bank," Checkett says. "Sometimes I'll put decoys out of range. I may drop a pair out in open water as if they just landed and are swimming in. I try hard for a random look."
Decoy color is also noticeable from the air. "Ducks have vivid colors that really stand out in bright light," Roetker says. "Conversely, old decoys look bleached out from the air. Hunters should keep their decoys looking fresh and clean. If possible, they should repaint them after each season."
Harris echoes this idea. "From low altitude, you can see the difference between well-kept, natural-looking decoys and culls," he says. "I've actually cut the number of decoys that I put out, and I use decoys that are extremely realistic. I think ducks are more discriminating today than ever, and sometimes they are leery of spreads with decoys that are dirty, have dull colors, or all have the same body poses."
Roetker emphasizes another point. "From a distance, ducks tend to look dark on the water," he says. "I've seen a lot of old-time hunters mix black jugs in with their decoys, and ducks responded to them. Darker decoys sitting close to one another look really good from overhead."
Harris strongly believes in adding movement to a decoy spread. "When you are flying and see ducks on the water, there's almost always movement," he says. "If you see ducks but there's no movement, they're decoys. It's just that simple. When setting out a spread, hunters should include some means of putting a ripple on the water—a jerk string, a Mallard Machine or something similar. Calling or a wing-spinner might get their attention from afar, but when birds get close and start circling your spread, you need those ripples. I think they're the real convincer."
Roetker has mixed feelings about spinning-wing decoys. "They are common as dirt," he says. "I see them everywhere, and a lot of hunters are using multiple wing-spinners. They certainly emulate the wing motion of a duck that's landing, but now when I see a distant wing-spinner from the air, it tells me that blind is being hunted. I don't know if ducks can make this association, but based on my own hunting experience, I think sometimes they can."
Harris says another frequent mistake is having decoys floating on clear water. "Feeding ducks stir up the bottom," he says. "I've seen this from the air over and over again. So if I'm hunting a shallow feeding area, I always muddy up the water where I'm dropping my decoys. I usually do this with a four-wheeler or a tractor. In my opinion, it's the kiss of death to have clear water if you're hunting in a shallow feeding area."
One last point: Checkett emphasizes that it is important to pick up empty shotshells. "When flying overhead, you can absolutely see those bright red empties floating in the decoys, especially if the wind has pushed a bunch of them against the shoreline. I know that a lot of hunters have killed a lot of ducks with spent shotshells floating everywhere. But I'm telling you that from an airplane, I can see them, and if I can, the ducks can.
When ducks are really spooky, spent shotshells around your blind or in your decoys might keep them from coming in. It takes just a little effort to keep them picked up.
"Game of Constant Adjustment"
"There are no absolutes in duck hunting," Harris says. "This is a game of constant adjustment. You have to study your area, the hunting conditions, how ducks are responding to what you're doing, and always be willing to make changes.
It's the versatile, innovative hunter who is usually the most successful. Flying has really helped me gauge the effectiveness of blinds and decoy spreads. By getting a bird's-eye view, you're looking at what the ducks see. You learn to play by their rules instead of trying to force them to play by yours, and this translates into greater hunting success."