Overcoming the challenges of winter waterfowling requires both realism and creativity
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.
Canadas in Snow-Covered Fields
Late in the season, Canada geese feed in large concentrations, often in snow-covered fields.
When snow falls, Avery pro-staffer Tyson Keller of Pierre, South Dakota, sets as many decoys as he can put out. Keller and his hunting partners frequently deploy 300 to 500 decoys, although 100 to 150 decoys will suffice for most hunters in this situation.
“We mainly use shell decoys and full-bodies without the foot bases, and we set them right on the snow,” Keller notes. “When Canada geese come into a snowy cornfield, they will sit down soon after they hit the ground; they’re not up walking around. So having the shells and full-body decoys sitting on the snow looks natural.”
Keller arranges his spread in a pear shape with the narrow end pointed downwind. Decoys are concentrated close together in the upwind part of the spread. In the downwind part, Keller sets small, tight family clusters with plenty of open space between them. He also mixes in a few full-body decoys with foot stands on the edges of these groups to simulate geese walking from one group to another. His layout blinds (with snow covers) are aligned in the spread about a third of the way from the upwind edge, facing the open landing areas just downwind.
“We kick down the snow and root up dirt to look like feeding activity around the main group of decoys, but we’re careful not to disturb the snow cover around the blinds,” Keller adds.
Coastal Marsh Spread for Ducks
Chester Moore of Orange, Texas, hunts coastal marshes in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. He says that by January, ducks are wary from hunting pressure, and when the birds get tough, most hunters respond by setting bigger spreads. But several seasons ago, Moore discovered that with heavily hunted ducks, using fewer decoys worked better than using more. “I was running late one morning, and as I went out the door, I grabbed just one sack of decoys,” he says. I had a great shoot over them, and that experience led to what I call my ‘Dirty Dozen’ spread, which I continue to use during the late season.”
Moore’s spread consists of eight magnum mallard hen decoys and four drake blue-winged teal decoys. He says the hen mallards will attract any large puddle ducks—gadwalls, mottled ducks, shovelers, and greenheads—and the white crescents on the teal capture passing birds’ attention.
Moore looks for small potholes to set his dozen decoys. He hides on the upwind edge of the pothole. As he faces downwind, the mallard decoys are clumped in the upper right portion of the pothole, while the teal are set in a line on his left, angling toward the mallards. He leaves a 10-yard landing zone between the two groups.
“I want it to look like the teal have just come in and are swimming to the big ducks,” Moore explains. “I don’t know why this spread works so well, but it does.”
Ducks on Big Reservoirs
In the early season, Mark Mayes of Madisonville, Kentucky, usually hunts in nearby river bottoms and swamps. But as the season progresses and these shallow waters freeze, Mayes heads to
Barkley Lake, a Corps of Engineers reservoir on the Cumberland River, and he hunts from the bank where both puddle ducks and divers are trading.
“We look for a small point that juts out into the lake, somewhere that’s not directly exposed to a strong wind,” Mayes says. “I especially like a spot where the breeze is blowing parallel to the bank so we have a crosswind setup. We put out a large spread—up to 10 dozen magnum mallards and 18 canvasbacks or bluebills. We want a lot of visibility because we’re frequently trying to pull ducks from long distances.”
Mayes sets his mallards in a large random cluster on the upwind side of the point. Then he drops two or three decoys along the bank and downwind from the main body in the spot where he wants incoming ducks to land. “These look like ducks that have just come in and are swimming into the main body,” he explains.
Mayes sets diver decoys just a couple of feet outside the main body of mallards. “When mallards come over the lake, the first thing they see is the white on the diver decoys,” he says. “Then when the birds get closer, they can see the rest of the spread. A lot of times they’ll hook downwind and come right in without circling.”
Snow Geese during Spring Migration
Avery pro-staff member Martin Hesby of Brookings, South Dakota, gets serious about hunting snow geese, especially when they are migrating back north in early spring. Hesby’s favorite time to hunt snows is when northerly winds temporarily halt the migration and cause the birds to stick around for a few days in a roosting and feeding pattern.
When Hesby finds where a flock is feeding, he deploys his “cigar spread.” “We set out 400 to 1,500 full-body decoys, about 40 percent blue geese and 60 percent snows,” he says. “We set these in a cigar shape with the ends oriented downwind and upwind. We set our layout blinds in a line four-fifths of the way up the spread from the downwind edge. Then, below the blind line, we pack decoys very tightly 15 yards downwind and from one side of the spread to the other. We leave a 20-yard open space with just a scattering of decoys on the very outside edges. This is our landing hole.
“Below the landing zone is another 20 yards of massed decoys,” he continues. “Both these masses look like geese thronged together on good food sources. From there all the way back to the downwind edge of the spread, we set family groups of four to eight decoys, arranged like they’re walking toward the masses.”
Hesby says incoming geese overfly the lower part of the spread to get to the landing hole. Average shots are at birds 10 to 15 yards out and five to 10 yards high. He adds that this same spread design will work with fewer than 400 decoys. “Just keep the same design, but downsize everything,” he advises. “But remember, with snow geese, realism is the key to getting flocks feet down in the decoys, and the more lifelike decoys you have, the more convincing your spread usually is.”
Ducks in Frozen Potholes
By mid-November, potholes in central North Dakota are usually locked in ice, and hunters must resort to different tactics and decoy spreads to lure in any ducks that haven’t yet migrated.
Troy Shirley of Bismarck employs a lifelike decoy set for hunting frozen potholes. “My hunting partners and I stomp out a circle in the ice 15 feet in diameter,” Shirley explains. “We try to keep the broken-out ice in one big chunk, and we slide it under the ice at the edge of the hole, leaving an ice-free opening in the pothole.
“Then we set two dozen Canada goose sleeper decoys on the ice at the upwind edge of the hole, about one or two feet back from the open water. We also set two Canada goose sentry decoys at the edge of the sleepers. At the side of the hole, we set six full-body duck decoys directly on the ice without using stands. And the final components of our spread are three or four duck floaters in the water in front of the ducks on the ice and three or four goose floaters in front of the geese.
“I think the main thing is to leave the hole in the ice wide open,” he continues. “I want to give incoming birds plenty of room to land.” Shirley and his partners shoot from cattails 20 yards away from the hole.