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."