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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Late-Season Decoy Spreads

Overcoming the challenges of winter waterfowling requires both realism and creativity.
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  • photo by Chris Jennings
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By Wade Bourne

If there’s one constant in waterfowl hunting, it’s change. Weather and water conditions change. The birds’ food preferences change. Their flight patterns change. As winter wears on, ducks begin pair-bonding, and bigger flocks break up into smaller groups and pairs. Weeks of hunting pressure make birds wary. For all these reasons, pursuing late-season ducks and geese isn’t the same as hunting them earlier in the season.

Successful hunters adjust their tactics as waterfowl go through this transition. And this is particularly true with decoy spreads. By adapting spreads to specific late-season conditions and hunting situations, waterfowlers can continue to enjoy good shooting until the season closes.

Ducks in Flooded Timber

Few places receive more gunning pressure than Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area southwest of Stuttgart, Arkansas. But despite considerable competition, Greg Churan of Little Rock enjoys consistent shooting in this huge maze of flooded timber, and he does so over a minimal decoy spread.

“My partners and I usually hunt the same general area,” Churan says. “We wade in at dawn and watch where ducks are working. Then we’ll make a quick move to set up where they’re going.”

Churan and his hunting partners take in only six to 18 decoys. “We use the lightest standard-size mallard decoys we can buy, and we set mostly drakes because they show up better in the dark woods,” Churan says. He believes that big spreads scare heavily pressured ducks in the late season. And because he and his partners must change locations frequently, fewer and lighter decoys make fast moves easier.

“We typically set up beneath a little crease or thin area in the overhead canopy,” Churan explains. “This might be where a tree has blown down or where the trees are shorter than the surrounding woods. But these are not well-defined holes in the forest cover.” Churan scatters his decoys randomly where he expects ducks to land. “I leave a lot of space between my decoys,” he says. “I don’t want them bunched up.”

Sometimes he also rigs a jerk string by tying a bungee cord to a tree, running a line back through the landing zone, and attaching two or three decoys to it. “You’ve got to have ripples on the water,” Churan stresses. “We always kick water, and the jerk string adds more movement to convince circling birds to come in.”

Ducks and Geese on Free-Flowing Rivers

Jim Reid hunts on the Arkansas River northwest of his home in Wichita, Kansas. He says that late in the season, when local wetlands and ponds freeze over, mallards and Canada geese flock to this free-flowing river in large numbers. Reid sets up to hunt where he finds the right combination of open water, a favorable wind, and good cover.

“We’ve studied how the birds pack around open water, sitting on adjacent ice or frozen sandbars,” Reid says. “They gang up in some really big numbers, so we use a lot of decoys—75 to 100 ducks and up to 50 geese. Most are shells or full-body field decoys on motion stakes. When it is cold, birds rest very close to each other, so this is how we arrange our decoys. We also put two or three dozen duck floaters in the water, and the final touch is a wing-spinner or two near the ice or sand where we want ducks to land.”

Reid typically places his duck decoys in a crescent shape with the goose decoys clustered upwind at the head of the set. “You have to leave plenty of open water for the birds to land,” he advises. “If there’s just a little open water available, we’ll cut back on the floaters. It’s a sight to behold when 200 or 300 mallards are backpedaling down into your landing area.” 

Don’t Show the Same Spread Twice

Marc Pierce of Manhattan, Montana, owns a spring-fed creek that remains open in the late season, and mallards flock to it when adjacent wetlands freeze over. Pierce frequently hunts from the same blind on the inside of a horseshoe bend on the creek. “I’m hunting many of the same ducks day after day, so I continually change my decoy spread so the birds don’t get used to the same look,” he says.

One day Pierce may put out 36 mallard decoys divided into two groups. The next day he may set out a dozen mallards, a few goldeneyes, and two or three Canada geese. The following morning he might deploy a handful of ducks and a blue heron confidence decoy or a spinning-wing decoy.

“I’m constantly giving the ducks a new look,” he explains. “And I try to make my spread look as natural as possible. If I’m hunting in the morning when more ducks are usually on the creek, I put out a larger spread. If I’m out for a quick afternoon hunt, there are usually fewer ducks around then, so I go with just a few decoys. I’ve been places where guides hunt every day in the same spot over the same spread, and I think ducks get wary of this show. But I don’t give them a chance to get suspicious on my little creek. They never see the same spread twice.”

Pierce also uses the most lifelike decoys he can purchase. “What my spread lacks in size, it makes up for in realism,” he adds.

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