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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Building a Decoy Spread

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Story at a Glance
Elements to consider in building a spread:
  • Decoy Species
  • Decoy Size
  • Decoy Materials
  • Solid Keel or Water Keel
  • How Many Decoys?
  • Specialty Decoys
  • What Type of Spread?
  • Rigging Options
  • Thoughts on Movement

How Many Decoys?

Several factors go into determining how many decoys to use in a spread. These include: type of water to be hunted (i.e., small pothole, large lake, river); whether the spread will be taken up daily or left out; means of transporting a portable spread (backpack or boat); competition from other hunters, and financial capabilities of the hunter.

On smaller, confined waters, a spread of six to 36 decoys should be sufficient. On larger waters or dry fields, hunters should put out as many decoys as practical. I never heard of anybody scaring ducks or geese away because they used too many decoys. Typically, the more, the merrier.

Walk-in/wade-in hunters obviously are restricted to smaller spreads. One hunter shouldn't attempt to carry more than 18 standard, rigged decoys in a backpack. You might physically carry more than this, but too many decoys (plus shotgun, shells, etc.) lugged through marsh or muck can be a killer. Boat hunters can put out bigger spreads. Two or three bags, each carrying two dozen decoys, are a reasonable load for a 16-foot boat.

Sometimes, especially on public areas, competition dictates that bigger spreads be used. This isn't to say that waterfowl won't work to smaller spreads in choice spots. But all things being equal, they will generally work a bigger spread over a smaller one.

Then, there is the financial factor. Several dozen good quality decoys can run a hefty tab. Building a big decoy spread might take a few years of budgeted buying, or the combined contributions of several partners who split the expense.

Specialty Decoys

Hunters have many specialty decoys to consider when building a spread: shells, silhouettes, full-body stand-ups, inflatables, soft foam decoys, confidence decoys.

Shell and silhouette decoys are stackable, and they're a good option for carrying a lot of decoys in a small package. These are used primarily in fields, on mudflats or sandbars, or in very shallow water. They are realistic in appearance, in spite of the silhouette's two-dimensional quality.

Full-body stand-ups are very realistic, but they're bulky. They are best suited for field use (when they can be trailered to the hunting site) or in permanent spreads.

Two specialty decoys for freelance hunters are inflatables and soft foam decoys. Inflatables are either blown up by the hunter, or they trap air and self-inflate when dropped onto the water. Soft foam decoys have shell bodies and heads that insert into holes at the neck. Both inflatables and soft foam decoys weigh next to nothing, and they are very compact. A walk-in/wade-in hunter can carry several of these in a small backpack. Also, inflatable and soft foam decoys move seductively on the lightest breeze.

Their downsides are that they aren't as realistic in appearance as regular decoys, and they require some time and effort to set out (blowing them up, fitting the heads to the bodies). Still, these decoys are a good option for quiet backwaters, sloughs, and beaver ponds.

Confidence decoys include other types of birds – crows, herons, gulls, coots – that add to a spread's realism and communicate to incoming ducks or geese that everything is natural and safe. How effective are they? Only the birds know. If a hunter tries a confidence decoy and has success with it, he should continue using it. However, use of confidence decoys certainly isn't required for hunting success.

(One confidence trick I've used for several years is floating a log at the edge of my permanent spread and nailing a line of full-body standup duck decoys along its top. Real ducks love to loaf and preen on a log or muskrat lodge. I believe that imitating this in my spread imparts a sense of safety and serenity to circling ducks.)

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