One specialty spread Howell sometimes uses is four dozen coots and a smattering of wigeon and mallard decoys set close to the coots. "This spread is especially effective in the late season, when ducks are getting decoy shy. This is a very natural look. Wigeon like to hang around coots and steal their food."
Another of Howell's late-season strategies is to slim down his spread. "Last year between migration days, ducks got really spooky, and we wound up hunting over nine decoys and calling very little. We set them (mallards) together in pairs, because they had already pair-bonded. We put two drakes with one hen, since live ducks group like this when they're competing for a mate.
"But when a cold front would bring new birds, we'd beef back up to five to six dozen decoys. When ducks are in a working mood, more decoys are better than fewer decoys."
Howell has some very specific opinions about using motion in his spread. "I believe ducks are learning to avoid motion-wing decoys, and I've gotten away from them. Now, I still want decoy movement and water disturbance, but I get that with Quiver Magnets (ripple makers) and swimming decoys. And I'm a big advocate of the old-fashioned jerk string. Frequently, I'll rig two or three lines with up to three decoys each, and I'll yank on these to add some 'life' to my spread."
Another thing Howell is meticulous about is keeping his decoys clean. "You don't see any dirty ducks in nature, and you won't see any dirty decoys in my spread," he insists. He washes his decoys with a hose and sponge as need dictates.
But more than anything else, Howell believes decoy placement is the critical element in getting ducks to finish. "You've got to have the natural look and movement, but beyond these things, you've got to set your spread so it's comforting and inviting to incoming birds, and this may take a lot of experimenting. Every location and every day are different in terms of what the ducks want. This is why, if they're not committing, I'll change something. Experience has taught me not to sit there and watch them flare. A lot of times moving my decoys one more time has meant the difference in making the birds comfortable enough to come on in."