By Matt Young
Just about the most important decision waterfowlers make on any given morning is where to hunt. Make the right decision, and a good hunt is often guaranteed. Choose poorly, and nothing will convince trading ducks to go where they don't want to be.
Savvy waterfowlers know from experience where to hunt in particular habitats based on the wind direction, weather conditions, water levels, and other factors. They also know how to strategically position their decoys in a manner that not only is attractive to working birds but also maximizes shooting opportunities. In this article, Ducks Unlimited interviewed four highly resourceful waterfowlers—Tony Toye, Jake Latendresse, Jim Thompson, and Kelley Powers—about their favorite hunting areas and the decoy spreads they have devised for hunting in these habitat types.
- Big Water Points and Islands
- Rivers, Streams, and Sloughs
- Ponds and Potholes
- Flooded Timber and Swamps
Big Water Points and Islands
Tony Toye has guided waterfowl hunters for more than a decade on famed Pool 9 of the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. This extensive network of open water, islands, and marsh is renowned for hosting the largest concentration of staging canvasbacks in the world—numbering more than 200,000 birds at peak times—as well as tens of thousands of other ducks, geese, and swans. The birds are drawn to Pool 9 for its abundance of wild celery, a favorite waterfowl food that grows in extensive submersed beds. "During the past five or six years, zebra mussels have really cleaned up the water, producing a bumper crop of wild celery," Toye says. "Now everything feeds on the river. It's been four or five years since we've killed a mallard with corn in its crop, and now even the geese in this area are feeding on celery tubers."
Toye hunts Pool 9 in a sturdy johnboat equipped with an "Odessa-style" permanent blind. Hunting is prohibited more than 100 feet from shore to allow canvasbacks and other waterfowl to rest. Toye hunts on points and islands along the shoreline with a large spread of more than 150 decoys. He positions his rig in a classic J-hook configuration to intercept flocks trading between their open water roosts and vast mats of floating wild celery uprooted by wind and waves.
In most cases, Toye hunts with the wind at a quartering angle to his blind. "I like to hunt crosswinds because it keeps the birds' attention focused on the decoys and off the blind," he says. "I put the bulk of my decoys upwind and then run a long line of decoys downwind past the blind. We don't shoot until flocks set up to land just upwind of the blind. This forces birds to flare right over us, giving us good, clean shots."
Toye's decoy spread reflects the diversity of waterfowl that congregate on Pool 9 in fall. "I typically use about a 50-50 ratio of diver and puddle duck decoys," he says. "I use drake canvasback and bluebill decoys in the tail of the rig, and I put my puddle ducks in a big group to form the hook. I like to set a few dozen Canada geese on the inside of the divers and mix a few geese in with my puddle duck decoys. Everything feeds together on the river, so it doesn't hurt to mix species. I also like to bunch my decoys up tight to look like actively feeding birds."
As an added enticement, Toye sets two spinning-wing decoys among the puddle ducks and positions a Mallard Machine motion decoy system in the landing hole just upwind of the blind. As a finishing touch, he places a few swan decoys on the upwind edge of the spread. "The swans provide a little extra visibility," he says. "There are a lot of swans on the river, so they seem to work well as confidence decoys."
Rivers, Streams, and Sloughs
Waterfowl guide and Avery pro-staffer Jake Latendresse grew up duck hunting in the Camden Bottoms of northwest Tennessee but recently relocated to the Nebraska Panhandle. He has no regrets about making the move, especially in late fall when heavy flights of red-legged mallards sweep down from the northern plains.
"We have some good hunting during the first half of the season on local birds and early migrants, but the best hunting begins around Thanksgiving or the first week of December when our wintering mallards show up," Latendresse says. "The rivers and warm-water sloughs stay open most of the season, and there's lots of corn left in surrounding fields for mallards to feed on. It has to get really cold or we have to get a major snowstorm to push birds out of this area."
Latendresse primarily guides on the historic North Platte River. This shallow, meandering river system is constantly changing course, creating new braided channels as water levels rise and the current cuts into sandy banks. The myriad oxbows, side channels, and spring-fed sloughs along the North Platte are prime habitat for mallards seeking sheltered places to loaf during the day. Latendresse scouts extensively for concentrations of resting waterfowl by running the river in a shallow-drafting johnboat equipped with a Go-Devil mud motor. For concealment, he uses Avery Finishers and Neo Tubs brushed with natural vegetation from the hunting area.
"I like being right in the middle of the action," Latendresse says. "Whenever possible, I set my blinds in flooded weeds right at the water's edge. This allows us to hide in the ducks' comfort zone instead of having to set up on the bank away from the water where we would have longer shots."
While hunting ducks on river channels and sloughs, Latendresse uses a spread of six dozen Greenhead Gear mallard decoys and a dozen drake wigeon decoys. He places most of his mallard decoys in a large group slightly upwind of the blinds. He sets the rest of the mallards, as well as the highly visible drake wigeon decoys, as singles and in pairs and small groups farther downwind.
"Anytime you are hunting a slough or river chute, it's a good idea to completely block the channel with decoys," Latendresse advises. "Flights of ducks typically work along the main river channel and then cut into sloughs and side channels when they see the decoys. If you have the channel completely cut off, they'll often drop right in on the first pass. I also like to place singles, pairs, and smaller groups of decoys downstream along the edges of the channel to look like relaxed, loafing ducks and to create pinch points to funnel landing ducks toward the shooters. The wider the channel, the more decoys I'll place on the opposite side to force birds to land closer to our blinds."
Ponds and Potholes
South Dakota-based wildlife photographer Jim Thompson specializes in hunting prairie potholes and small lakes rimmed by mudflats or exposed banks. While often overlooked by waterfowlers, these open habitats are favorite loafing sites for dabbling ducks, especially mallards and pintails.
"I rarely spook any ducks when I go in and set my decoys," says Thompson, who is also a member of the Avery pro-staff. "The birds usually roost in large concentrations on bigger lakes and marshes and then fly out to feed at first light. After they've finished feeding, they break up into smaller groups and fan out over the countryside to spend the day on smaller wetlands. Many of the mallards I bag don't arrive until the middle of the morning."
Thompson hunts almost exclusively from shore blinds, preferably with the wind at his back. He uses a rig of 50 to 70 Greenhead Gear mallard decoys placed in a crescent formation with an open pocket in the center of the spread. "The whole point of how you position your decoys is to try to encourage the birds to land where you want them to," Thompson explains. "Ducks might work decoys as a flock, but when it comes time to land, it's every bird for itself. That's why I provide a clearly defined landing area for individual birds to focus on when they are making their final approach."
Roughly half of Thompson's spread is composed of full-body mallard decoys, which he believes offer many advantages over traditional floating decoys. "When ducks are loafing, you often see just as many birds standing along the shoreline as you do in the water, and the standing birds are much easier to see than those that are swimming," Thompson attests. "When a duck is sitting on the water, you can see only 60 or 70 percent of its mass, but when a duck is standing up, its whole body is visible. Full-body decoys are much more visible than floaters for the same reason. They just have a lot more surface area. They also come in a greater variety of body positions, which will give your spread a more natural look."
Thompson places most of his full-body decoys along the shoreline, but he also uses several full-body decoys mounted on hardwood dowels in the water. He sets only floaters on the outside edge of the spread and gradually increases the number of full-body decoys closer to the bank. "The main reason I made the extension poles for my full-body decoys was to create movement throughout my spread," Thompson continues. "Unless you've got a really stiff wind, floating decoys don't move very much. But when you have several full-body decoys mounted on motion stakes mixed in with your floaters, the slightest breeze will make your whole spread look alive. Working ducks can't tell how deep the water is, so there's no reason why you can't stake birds farther out in the water than they could naturally stand."
Flooded Timber and Swamps
World champion Canada goose caller Kelley Powers grew up hunting and guiding waterfowl hunters in the river bottoms of west Tennessee. When the Forked Deer and Obion rivers spill out of their banks, flooding extensive tracts of harvested croplands and bottomland hardwood forest, the region offers some of the finest mallard hunting in the lower Mississippi Flyway. And on most sunny mornings during the duck season, Powers and his two brothers, John Ed and Tripp, can be found guiding hunters in the flooded timber near their brand new duck lodge in Midway, Tennessee.
Powers hunts a variety of flooded timber habitats on both public and private land. In seasonally flooded bottomland forest, commonly known as "green timber," he and his clients conceal themselves by leaning against trees in the shade cast by the rising sun. In deeper waters such as permanently flooded cypress swamps, he relies on boat blinds or permanent blinds for concealment. When it comes to decoys, Powers believes that visibility is essential in any flooded timber environment. "Ducks often go to the first decoy spread they see," he says. "I have seen it over and over again in places like Reelfoot Lake. A flock of ducks will see a good decoy spread, and it's like they get tunnel vision. That's why I use the biggest decoys I can find. I would much rather have 30 super magnum decoys than 100 standard-size decoys because birds are going to be able to see the super magnums from much farther away, especially in flooded timber."
Powers typically uses a spread of 75 to 150 decoys, depending on the size of the hole that he's hunting. Mallards make up most of his rig, although he also mixes in a few dozen black duck decoys for extra visibility. "I have aerial photos of decoys that are black and decoys that are painted exactly like real ducks, and the black decoys show up a lot better," he says. "I also repaint my mallard decoys to have greater contrast between darker and lighter colors."
He places most of his decoys on the upwind side of the hole to give working birds plenty of room to land without feeling crowded. "When ducks are resting in the woods, they usually swim back into the trees where there's more cover, so I put some decoys back in the timber around the hole," Powers says. "I also set my decoys in tight bunches with singles and pairs scattered between the main groups of decoys. This has a more natural, relaxed look than decoys that are spaced the same distance apart."
Powers believes that decoy motion is especially important while hunting in flooded timber. "Ducks recognize that stationary decoys are fakes, so you've got to put some ripples on the water while birds are working," he advises. "I have used just about every kind of motion decoy you can imagine, but it's still hard to beat a good jerk string. I hook up a dozen or more decoys rigged on wire spreaders, and with one pull, I can put ripples throughout most of my decoys. I also use several bilge pump-style butt feeders. They are easy to operate and look just like ducks tipping up, which is always a good look to have in your decoys."
For more information about the outfitters mentioned in this story, call Tony Toye at 608-375-7447, Jake Latendresse at 308-355-2793, and Kelley Powers at 731-885-5056. For detailed instructions on how to make deep-water extension poles for full-body decoys, see the article "Raising the Stakes" by Jim Thompson at www.averyoutdoors.com.