by M.D. Johnson
Waterfowl hunting isn't what it used to be. There was a time when you could throw a dozen #5s in your pocket and, armed with 10 mallard decoys, venture out, secure in the knowledge you'd go home with a bird or two.
But times have changed. Better calls, better callers, ultra-realistic decoys and nearly invisible blinds have transformed waterfowling from a challenging venture to one that's often frustrating. Not impossible, but frustrating.
Still, there are men out there who take it upon themselves to even the odds when it comes to convincing wary waterfowl that everything is as it should be. These are the 21st-century waterfowlers – consistent, efficient, resourceful, innovative and, most of all, successful.
These revolutionaries have taken traditional duck-hunting strategies and thrown them a curve. So read on: these fellows know what they're doing and they're not shy about sharing that knowledge.
Learn to hide
Often, waterfowlers grow complacent in their approach to camouflage and concealment. Duck blinds that looked fine at the start of the season aren't nearly as invisible as they once were.
"When I'm cutting brush for my blinds prior to the season," said four-time Tennessee duck-calling champ Bill Cooksey. "I cut twice as much as I'm going to need. I'll pile the extra nearby, and it'll weather along with what's on the blind. When I need to re-brush, I've already got material that matches perfectly."
Hardcore concealment means paying attention to the details, and remembering that there aren't such things as insignificant details when it comes to hiding. Hands, face, gun, blind, dogs—they're all factors in the grand equation. Overlook one, and you might as well be standing out there in a pair of Spongebob Squarepants boxer shorts. And that's a visual no one needs.
Trust in realism and natural movement
Today's decoys are all about realism and natural movement. Simply put, in order to compete with gunners up and down the flyway, your spread is going to have to look its best, and this translates into movement and stationary visual appeal.
How do you accomplish this? First, as legendary caller and master carver Freddie Zink will say,"You gotta keep 'em clean." It's elemental, but I can't tell you how many spreads I see that include muddy, dirty, broken or otherwise unrealistic decoys. A little clean water—Zink cautions against using any type of soap as it can enhance the ultraviolet characteristics inherent in the plastic—and a stiff-bristled brush will help keep a spread looking good. Care in transportation, too, can help.
Secondly, shop around and get the very best-looking, most natural decoys you can afford. And remember, numbers aren't everything. Two dozen lifelike blocks can, and often will, out produce five dozen duck or goose monsters. In the modern spread, movement along with realism is vital. Get 'em real, keep 'em clean and make 'em move.
Related: Quick Paint Touch Up for Mallard Decoys
Downsize your operation
The waterfowler's rule of thumb has always been, as the season progresses, your decoy spread should increase in number. Today, though, that mantra isn't necessarily true.
"My late-season spreads are changing by numbers," says Ron Latschaw, the man behind Final Approach and the famed Eliminator layout blind. "I've had some of my best shoots ever over just eight decoys. One reason is when birds commit to a spread of eight, they're right there. Everybody's going to have a shot. You put out 100 decoys, and those birds can land on the left side or the right side. It's magic when they come into eight decoys. There's no getting away from you."
Latschaw continues, "I'll put out three feeders, four sentinels, and maybe one rester. That's it. It looks like a small family group—survival mode—standing off by itself. They're not getting into a big group because they're cautious. And it's interesting that the birds that are cautious and in the bigger groups themselves find these small decoy groups really interesting."
One note about smaller spreads: If you're going to downsize, it's vital that you upsize your decoys in terms of realism and natural movement. Here, it's a case of quality versus quantity.