by Wade Bourne
The following are creative decoy strategies from four experts: Reid Howell, Ross Malone, Ed McCoy, and Larry Smittle. They range from employing large spreads to putting out less than two dozen decoys. Their strategies apply to big waters and small, to open lakes and tree- and stump-cluttered beaver swamps. And tucked into these descriptions are decoy ideas and tips that other hunters can use anywhere.
They should learn from these masters and apply their advice for greater hunting success.
Reid Howell: Go for the Natural Look
Reid Howell runs the Pinhook Hunting Club in southeastern Missouri. Some of his blinds are in flooded fields; others are in timber. And when the nearby Mississippi River overflows its banks, Howell and his partners freelance hunt wherever ducks are working. Mallards are the predominant ducks they seek, though gadwalls, wigeon, pintails and other species also winter in this area.
When it comes to decoys, Howell believes in setting out a spread that's as natural as possible. "I've studied ducks a lot over the years, both from the air and also by spending time at a nearby refuge, observing what they look like, how they sit on the water, which ones show up better than others. By doing this, I've come up with some decoy ideas that are a little offbeat, but which have proven very effective over the years."
First, Howell mixes decoys of several brands in his spread. "I'll put out Flambeaus, G&H blocks, Greenheads, Carry-Lites. Each brand of decoy has its own 'look.' If you use all one brand in your spread, they all have the same general appearance. But if you mix several brands, you get variation in body style and color. This is a lot more natural looking than having all the same brand.
"Also, I'll mix different-size decoys—standards, magnums, and super-magnums. When you look at ducks on the water, some appear bigger than others. Setting out different size decoys gives this appearance."
Howell is a strong believer in using several species in his spread. "My normal spread includes from five to six dozen decoys. Most will be mallards, but one dozen will be black duck decoys for extra visibility. Black or dark-colored decoys stand out better. They're easier for passing ducks to see, so I add these in to increase my spread's visibility.
"Also, sometimes I put out a couple of pairs of shovelers, maybe some pintails and some teal. I've learned by watching real ducks that a lot of times these species will segregate themselves from the mallards. For instance, the teal will usually be on the shallow side of the pond, next to the weeds. Same with the shovelers. They'll be shallower than the mallards. And pintails prefer to be on the outside of a concentration of mallards, closer to deeper water. So I take these preferences into account when I'm setting my spread."
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."
Ed McCoy, Ross Malone: Swamp Setup for Gadwalls
Ed McCoy and Ross Malone hunt in a beaver swamp that borders the Tennessee River in north Alabama, which is a major wintering area for gadwalls. This swamp rises adjacent to the main river channel. Each morning at first light, many of these "gray ducks" fly into the swamp to feed. Several times each season, McCoy, Malone, and their cohorts are waiting there with a decoy setup designed specifically to lure these birds into close range.
"We've done a lot of experimenting over the years, and the system we've come up with is very effective," McCoy explains. "It's based on the fact that movement is very important, but you can overdo it. We start out with a lot of movement at shooting time, then we tone it down as the light gets brighter and the ducks get a better look."
These hunters' spread consists of 21 decoys, including a dozen tied onto two jerk strings, two wing-spinners, four wobbling decoys, one swimmer, and two regular floating decoys. All these decoys are gadwalls except the wing-spinners, which are mallards.
McCoy and Malone use such a small spread for two reasons. First, access into the swamp is difficult. They wade in, pulling a loaded canoe over several beaver dams. A smaller spread is easier to transport. And second, these hunters believe that motion is more important than numbers. Experience has taught them that there is no real need for more blocks than the 21 they put out.
They arrive at their hole approximately an hour before shooting time, and job one is to rig the jerk strings. "We use Jerk-A-Spreaders, which are X-shaped frames that accommodate four decoys each," Malone says. "We'll rig two jerk strings, one with one frame (four decoys) and the other with two frames (eight decoys).
"We rig these jerk strings by jamming a piece of conduit into the mud, looping a bungee cord around it, then running a heavy line from the opposite end of the bungee cord. The decoy frames are attached to this line. When you tug on the line, all the decoys move and make ripples."
The other decoys are placed around the jerk strings. The wing-spinners are set on poles within 10 yards of the hunters' hiding spots behind the trees at the edge of the hole. The wobblers, floaters, and lone swimmer are dropped adjacent to the jerk strings. The hunters are careful to leave an open landing zone between the two groups of decoys.
"Our best shooting comes early. Ducks are usually in the air when shooting time arrives," McCoy continues. "When we see a flight, we'll all start barking and grunting with our natural voices to make gadwall calls ('nat, nat, na'"). When they hear those sounds and see the motion down on the still water, they usually come in with little suspicion."
Thirty to 40 minutes after shooting time begins, when daylight gets brighter, the hunters make a fundamental change in their decoys. They reposition their wing-spinners behind them in the trees. "When the ducks get a better look at our Robo Ducks, they tend to shy away from them, so we move them back in the cover. We still want that glint of movement, something to catch their eye but not as obvious and in their face as wings flashing out in the wide open."
Later in the season, when mallards start showing up, these hunters may add a half-dozen mallard decoys out to the side of the gadwalls, but they don't "corrupt" the gadwall spread with mallards. Also, they never call to gadwalls with mallard calls.
Malone's and McCoy's methods are proven through years of testing. "We've got another group of hunters that sets up near us on occasion, and they just toss out mallard decoys and blow mallard calls at the gadwalls," McCoy relates. "With our gadwall spread and subtle calling, we kill a lot more birds than they do. And this is because of how we hunt, not where we hunt. A few times they've beaten us to our hole, so we've set up in their spot, and we still kill more than they do. By setting out a natural-looking spread, using motion judiciously, and making subtle gadwall calls, we get 'em to pour in."
Larry Smittle: Fewer, Bigger Decoys for Open Water
Larry Smittle specializes in boat-blind hunting on Oklahoma's Lake Eufaula and Kerr Reservoir. Both these lakes offer big wide-open water, where passing mallards and other ducks can see and be seen for hundreds of yards. Thus, Smittle's spread is geared toward high visibility – large profile and sharply contrasting colors. This combination has paid off in spades over the past couple of seasons.
"I'm a big fan of oversized decoys," Smittle says. "Passing ducks can spot 'em from longer distances. Plus with big decoys, you don't have to put out as many. This cuts down on work and time when setting out your spread or changing locations."
Smittle's open-water spread consists of nine Canada goose floaters, 12 super- magnum mallards, six super-magnum black ducks and 12 super-magnum bluebill decoys. In the early season, he will also set out 24 coot decoys. Coots are abundant on Oklahoma lakes in November and December.
Typically, Smittle will hunt from a Fast Grass-covered boat anchored next to a cattail island out in the lake. With the wind at his back, he will deploy his decoys in distinct groups: mallards and black ducks off one corner of the blind and bluebills off the other corner (leaving an open hole between the two groups), Canada geese to the side of the mallards, and coots in a long downwind string leading into the open hole. The last coot decoy may be 100 yards from the boat.
"Everything is geared toward high visibility," Smittle explains. "The Canada geese are big, dark decoys that passing ducks can see from a long distance. The super- magnum ducks stand out a lot better than standard decoys or magnums. The black ducks are a lot more obvious at long distance than decoys with regular colors. And the same is true of the bluebill decoys. That black-and-white contrast on the bluebills really stands out." (In the early season, Smittle frequently adds four pintail drakes in with his mallards and black ducks for the visibility afforded by this species' mottled white coloration.)
"Also, I think the bluebills serve another purpose," Smittle continues. "By the time ducks get to Oklahoma, they've flown over a lot of decoys and they're pretty leery of spreads that look like what they've seen all the way down the flyway. But not many hunters use diver decoys anymore. I think the divers give the ducks a different look, something they're not used to seeing, but which is very natural and appealing to them. Whatever the reason, they really respond to them."
What about motion decoys? "I quit using spinning-wing decoys a year ago," Smittle answers. "I started seeing ducks flare from them, so I didn't use one last season. Also, on open water where we hunt there's usually some wind blowing and wave action that makes the decoys bob around and look real, so adding motion isn't as important as it might be on a quiet wind-protected pothole.
All Things Considered...
Obviously, not many hunters will set out the number of decoys that Ronnie Capps uses. Nine hundred decoys? Twenty-four wing spinners? Eighteen swimmers and 18 Pulsators? No way!
Not many hunters around the country will hunt where gadwalls predominate and it's wise to set a decoy spread specifically for this species. Most hunters target mallards; other species are an afterthought.
Not many hunters will ditch their old decoys and buy all super-magnums to have a spread like Larry Smittle's. They may replace lost decoys with the oversized decoys a few at a time, but the smaller dekes still have a lot of wear left in them. They're too valuable to toss.
But the important thing is to study these hunters' decoy ideas and tactics and see how they relate to your situation. There are effective ways to add motion – judiciously - without going overboard. There are times when fine-tuning a spread to a particular species is as simple as adding some wood duck or pintail decoys. Painting a few mallard decoys flat black might increase a spread's visibility.
Too many hunters just toss out their decoys, hide and start calling. But by fine-tuning a spread, they can add to its realism and bolster its attraction to ducks that most experts agree are becoming increasingly wary. The time to be haphazard with decoys is gone. Creativity is now required to fool birds into thinking that your decoys are the real McCoys.
Editor's Note: The use of electronically powered or controlled decoys is strictly prohibited in some states and prohibited during certain time periods in others. Check with state wildlife law enforcement official in any state or province where you plan to hunt in regarding the legalities of using these devices.