by Wade Bourne
Late in the season, duck hunters must adapt to changes in the birds' behavior brought on by hunting pressure and pair-bonding
It's a frustration every duck hunter experiences: Passing birds see your decoys or hear your calling, and they lock up. The ducks look totally committed as they sail downwind. But when they turn back toward your spread, they level off and circle again instead of finishing. Then, inexplicably, the birds keep going. Your decoys just failed the reality test. This is especially common late in the season, when hunting pressure makes ducks decoy-shy.
"You're in trouble when ducks get higher on that second swing," says Jackie Van Cleave, a full-time guide on duck-rich Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee. "They don't usually come back. If this becomes a pattern, you should change your decoys or calling style."
Adapting to variations in the birds' behavior is one of the keys to successful duck hunting. The following tips from 10 seasoned waterfowlers may help you form an effective strategy for hunting decoy-shy ducks.
By modifying these suggestions to fit your situation, you should be able to bag increasingly cautious birds as the season wears on.
1. Jackie Van Cleave, Samburg, Tenn.
Van Cleave spends virtually every day of the duck season in his Reelfoot Lake blind. It sits at the edge of a one-acre pothole bordered by thick brush and is on a flyway between a national wildlife refuge and nearby feeding areas. When the feeding flight is on, action in Van Cleave's blind can be spectacular.
He begins the season with 300 decoys scattered around the pothole with an open landing zone in front of the blind. But when ducks get decoy-shy—usually after three or four weeks of hunting pressure—Van Cleave radically changes his setup.
"I pull half my spread and set the remaining decoys in a wad in the middle of the hole, right in front of the blind," he says. "I really clump them close together. When ducks are swinging this spread, I use more motion (with a Mallard Machine or jerk-string) and a lot less calling. I don't know why this is more convincing, but it is. Ducks will try to land at the edge of the spread, which gives everybody in the blind a good shot. I've done this for years, and it works."
2. Dr. Brian Davis, Little Rock, Ark.
Davis, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, is a lifelong hunter who has pursued ducks throughout Arkansas and many other states. When birds get decoy-shy, Davis, like Van Cleave, makes a major adjustment in his spread.
"I hunt in rice fields, where many hunters leave huge spreads out all year," Davis says. "They work well early in the season. But by late December and January, the ducks have started pair-bonding. Then I do better with a small spread that mimics this change in the birds' behavior."
Specifically, Davis sets 6 to 12 decoys in widely scattered pairs. "I'll put a drake and a hen right in front of my layout blind," he says. "I'll rig the hen on a jerk-string to give her some movement. Then I'll set the other pairs up to 30 yards away both upwind and downwind.
"This time of year, the hens are starting to avoid the big flocks," he continues. "Instead, they are dispersing out with their mates and fattening up for their return trip north. So having just a few decoys in scattered pairs is more realistic for working mostly singles and doubles. Also, I call very little over this spread. Late in the season, the ducks work better to a subtle approach than to more aggressive tactics."
3. Skipper Dickson, Shreveport, La.
Dickson primarily hunts mallards in flooded fields and brush thickets in northwest Louisiana. "These are the most educated ducks there are," he notes. "By the time they get here, they have been called to and shot at all the way from Canada. They're tough!"
Still, Dickson maintains a high rate of success when hunting these birds by employing increasing degrees of subtlety and realism. "When ducks get decoy-shy, I start hunting over six or eight decoys that I set each morning," he says. "I don't put these in the middle of the pocket. Instead, I put them where they are in the shade or partially obscured by brush. I want the ducks to see them, but not get a good look.
"I always use motion," Dickson continues. "I want subtle water movement—ripples instead of noisy splashing. So I go with a jerk-string or a feeder decoy with a bilge pump that spews water out the back, like a Pulsator. And when things get really tough, I go to my secret weapon—a dozen mallard stuffers. They are a lot of trouble, but I think they're worth the effort."
Dickson also pays attention to the number of drakes and hens when setting decoys. Sometimes he sets bachelor groups of drakes. Other times he sets more hens than drakes. "I like some of the hens to be alone and look available to circling drakes," he explains.
And finally, Dickson calls sparingly and quietly. "I want ducks to have to strain to hear the call," he says. "With shy ducks, it's better to give them too little calling than too much.
4. Jim Thomas, Key West, Fla.
A professional duck guide, Thomas has hunted on Florida's Lake Okeechobee for three decades. He shoots mostly ringnecks with a smattering of bluebills, redheads, canvasbacks and wigeon. In years past, he mainly hunted open hydrilla flats, where he put out decoy spreads numbering 200 or more blocks.
But today conditions have changed, and so have Thomas's methods of hunting these birds. "The big hydrilla flats are mostly gone, and the large rafts of ducks that fed on them have dispersed into smaller openings in the marsh," he explains. "Also, hunting pressure has increased dramatically."
Now, Thomas depends on good scouting to find where ducks want to be, and then he sets up in that exact spot. "It's easier to hunt decoy-shy birds if you go to them instead of trying to make them come to you," he says. In so doing, Thomas uses a small spread—as few as six decoys. "These decoys are freshly painted; they look good," he says. "Also, I don't use magnums. I want something that looks exactly like real ducks on the water."
5. Dr. Bobby Cox, Ipswich, S. Dak.
A waterfowl biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Cox is also a fanatical duck hunter. In recent years, he has seen mallard behavior on the prairies change—a result, he is convinced, of increased hunting pressure.
"Now mallards are more herdish," he explains. "They are acting like snow geese, resting and feeding in huge concentrations. There are fewer small flights and stragglers than there used to be—birds you can work."
Cox is careful not to disturb the big bunches of ducks. Instead, he sets up in small satellite wetlands between resting and feeding areas. He typically hunts alone, setting out as many decoys as he can pack to a hunting site. "Two bags of decoys are better than one," he says. Cox sets these in a J-hook formation off the bank in the middle of the pond. Then he hides in a coffin blind or a circle of hog wire that is brushed with local vegetation.
Cox says some hunters make the mistake of jumping ducks huddled next to the lee bank and then throwing their decoys out where the birds flushed. "Usually the ducks will land in the middle of the pond and swim to the lea bank, so that is where I set my spread," he explains.
Cox avoids using spinning-wing decoys on heavily pressured ducks. The only motion he adds is a jerk-string on calm days. His calling style is equally restrained. "I only blow four- and five-note greeting calls—no single quacks or feeding chuckles," he says. "If ducks are locked and coming, I stay quiet unless they show signs of pulling away. Then I'll blow a three-note series to regain their attention and keep them coming.
6. Scott Turpen, Clarksville, Tenn.
An Avery Outdoors pro-staffer, Turpen hunts both ducks and Canada geese on farm ponds in middle Tennessee. He sets out a combination of land and water decoys. If birds get decoy-shy, he makes subtle changes to restore their confidence in his spread.
"I'll add up to a dozen full-body duck decoys on the shore, like an extension of my floaters," he says. "I'll set these from the water's edge to 10 yards up the bank and out to the side of my goose decoys. I use Greenhead Gear's new Full Body Rester mallards. I'll set them with their breasts facing the sun, like real birds sit. Late in the season, I also set more hens than drakes to draw in drakes looking for mates, and I use more goose sleeper shells in my spread."
Turpen and his partners call very little to decoy-shy ducks. In fact, they are more prone to cluck occasionally on a goose call than to blow a duck call. And they use no wing-spinners in the late season but rely instead on a Mallard Machine to ripple the water.
7. Mark Schupp, Boonville, Mo.
A layout boat hunter, Schupp hunts ducks mainly in central Missouri. He typically deploys a spread of 120 standard decoys, but at the first indication that ducks are becoming decoy-shy, he changes his spread to find an arrangement the birds like better.
"I may pick up half my decoys and move or spread out those that remain," he says. "I may rearrange them into small groups—a little cluster here, another there. I might move some decoys 75 to 100 yards away, but I still keep the biggest concentration right at my feet. I'll also set some pairs out by themselves. I'll just experiment to find a setup they like."
Schupp adds that if ducks are consistently hitting outside his spread, he leaves his decoys where they are and repositions his layout boat to cover the area where the birds are landing. Or he might set decoys where the ducks want to land, effectively blocking them from hitting that spot, and try to shift the birds toward the center of his spread.
In the process, Schupp calls as little as necessary. "If the birds are coming, I don't call at all," he says. "But if a soft calling approach doesn't work, I'll increase the volume and pick up the cadence. But typically, I'll call less and softer as the season wears on."
8. Geof Walker, Newbury, MA
Walker is a decoy carver and boat builder who carries on the traditions of old-time New England waterfowlers. He hunts in the Great Marsh at the confluence of the Merrimack and Parker rivers in northeastern Massachusetts. He mainly targets black ducks, which live up to their legendary reputation for wariness.
"Black ducks are born decoy-shy," he says, "and a hunter must utilize all his skills to fool these birds consistently. I trade decoys with other carvers, so my hunting spread has decoys with different sizes and attitudes. My most common spread is eight decoys. I'll set two close to the grass, two farther out, and one by itself. Then I'll rig three feeders on a swim line so their beaks are barely touching the water. When the tide's running, they will swing back and forth and ripple the water with a very natural look."
Walker says the slightest gunning pressure will cause black ducks to change locations in the marsh, so his main strategy is simply scouting and following the birds. "Black ducks work different areas of the marsh because they want to," he says. "The decoys simply provide confidence that the spot is safe. Also, I'm a stickler for detail. I don't allow ice to build up on the bills, and I use dark decoy line to match the mud on the marsh bottom. I call sparingly. I know the marsh and where the feed is, and I set up where the birds want to go."
9. Paul Sullivan, Pasco, WA
A professional guide for 35 years, Sullivan is also co-owner of Aero Outdoors, which manufactures Full-Curl Decoys. He hunts the same pond 80 to 90 days of the Pacific Flyway's 107-day season. "Our ducks get very shy in the latter half of the season," Sullivan says, "but here's what we do to continue to enjoy good shooting.
"First, we use realistic decoys," he explains. "Second, we cut way back on our calling. And third, we relocate the blind around the pond. (Sullivan hunts from a tube-framed blind that can easily be moved.) I don't want the ducks to figure out that the calling is coming from the same clump of brush," he explains.
Also, Sullivan doesn't place much emphasis on water movement, but he does use a Flutter-Wing motion decoy mounted on a pole inside the spread. (When he pulls a string, the wings flap.) "I can pull it and let it rest when I want to," he says. "When it's resting, the wings always reposition so the dark side is up and the white side is down."
Sullivan says the main thing to remember for decoy-shy ducks is not to show them the same setup every day. "Change the number of decoys and the shape of the spread," he advises. "Move the blind. Just keep changing things up so the birds don’t get used to the same old set day after day."
10. Billy Gianquinto, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Gianquinto is a retired schoolteacher, coach and TV-show host who now travels the West Coast running duck-calling seminars. He hunts mainly along the California coast north of San Francisco and also in the Central Valley. He says the birds in these areas become "notoriously decoy-shy" from heavy hunting pressure. "I've learned how to hunt these birds out of necessity," he says. "You either adapt or you go home empty-handed."
"First, I scale down my spread," he explains. "By the last few weeks of the duck season, I may be setting out only 12 to 18 decoys. I also put out all drakes because the colors show up better. And I don't set any decoys farther than 25 yards from my blind. Decoy-shy ducks tend to swing the outer edges of the spread. If the spread is in close, you might still get a good passing shot. I place my decoys three to four feet apart. I like a relaxed look. And I start hunting from a coffin boat to eliminate above-ground blinds that can spook pressured ducks. My coffin boat shows only eight inches of freeboard. By camouflaging the opening and lying back in the boat, I have no profile. The ducks never know I'm there, and they come in without fear."