By M.D. Johnson

Clint Eastwood said these words in his movie, Heartbreak Ridge, as he attempted to ready his raw recruits for the rigors of combat. What Dirty Harry was spotlighting was the importance of noting the situation, evaluating the situation, and only then, reacting to that specific situation in a manner applicable to those unique circumstances.

When it comes to ducks and decoy spreads, perhaps the best advice is Eastwood's words. No one rig and its variables of numbers, placement, movement, type, species, sex or any of a dozen other factors, works all the time; however, there are a handful of elemental spreads that will produce under most conditions, coast to coast. Every time? No, sir, but with enough consistency as to qualify them as Old Standbys.


I look at coot decoys and their role in the waterfowler's arsenal in three ways. First, there aren't many men brave enough to deploy an all-coot spread, and as such, all-coot spreads are few and far between. Thus, the so-called good ducks don't encounter such rigs often and theoretically won't hesitate to decoy.

Second, all-coot spreads are extremely natural in appearance. How many times has your fancy mallard or mallard-mix rig been out-shone by 30 live coots? When I've done it, I've set 20 to 25 coot decoys in a tight-feeding mass, with a minimum of two pair of those tethered to jerk cords. A pull of the string sets the whole knot to thrashing as if to say, "Hey! There's a pile of good eats down here!" Birds, particularly widgeon, can't seem to resist.

And finally, there are coots and the public land waterfowler. I mean, who isn't going to give a wide berth to the man who arrives at the ramp with a bag full of coot blocks over his shoulder?

Try a unique species

A unique "possibly occurring or secondary" species within your duck spread serves a couple purposes. Six widgeon, sprig, grey ducks, or spoonbills in your blocks separate your rig from the countless all-mallard rigs that birds have encountered throughout the season. A small knot of bluebills off to one side or a cluster of four or five drake pintails not only accomplishes this air of distinction, but these species' predominantly white coloration makes your spread highly visible. It stands out, and that's what you want it to do.

It's nice, too, to know that if you do encounter these non-mallards, you have those same non-mallards in your spread. It's like Steve Sutton, an avid sea-ducker from Washington State who includes a European smew and an extinct Labrador duck in his scoter spread, told me. "If," he said with a laugh, "a smew happens by, I want to know that I've got at least one smew decoy out there."

Roll your own decoys

Making your own decoys, like including a unique species in your spread, accomplishes one goal when the blocks are put into the field-it makes your spread different than all the rest. Your mallards look different, your 'cans look different, and your Canadas, they look different, too. The same Steve Sutton who religiously clips his smew and Labrador duck decoys to the main lines fashions his fakes from wood, cork, and old crab floats. Freddie Zink carves details and paints mirror images of Canadas so real, you'd have to ask which is wood and which is flesh and blood. Eastern Washington's Ben Holten, a wonderful young man and talented taxidermist, hunts over self-worked stuffer Canadas. It's all about realism, and at the risk of repeating myself, it's all about giving the birds something different.

Be a jerk!

I'll never forget the day Buck Gardner-NOTE: Buck, in case you've lived under a rock for the past 40 years, has made his living and his reputation crafting and blowing duck calls-told me in no uncertain terms, "If I had to choose between a duck call and a jerk cord, I'd choose a jerk cord 100 percent of the time." Coming from a World Champion and the Champion of Champions"well, that says a whole lot about jerk cords.

The problem with even today's ultra-realistic decoys is they lack movement. Throw a simple-to-make, inexpensive, and very portable jerk cord into the mix, and you've eliminated this problem entirely. I'm with Buck on this one, regardless of what or where I'm gunning.

My favorite: The Random Placement Theory

My personal favorite rig for puddlers? Well, in most cases, I'm walking into my hunting area, so my rig is small in number - a dozen, perhaps 18 at the most. Species and sex? I run a little bit of everything in terms of species, including widgeon, gadwall, shovelers, ringnecks and three subspecies of teal, as well as the obligatory mallards and pintails. As for gender, mine's a 50/50 mix of drakes to hens, give or take; however, I will use drake spoonbills and sprig because the white does show at a distance.

And now, the arrangement itself. Under most circumstances, I subscribe to what I call The Random Placement Theory of decoy rigging. Standing in front of my blind for the day, and taking into consideration the wind direction, I randomly pitch decoys until they're gone, minding not to throw any more than 30 or so yards from my hide. Then I go back to the blind, give the dog a Little Debbie Snack Cake, pour a cup of coffee and settle down to wait. After all, I hunt so as to relax. It's not, as Mr. Gardner says, rocket science.