By Phil Bourjaily, Illustrations by Kevin Hand
We could hear waves of teal flushing off the pond behind us, the roar of their wings sounding like crashing surf. As we watched the birds stream overhead, our guide Lance Stancik tossed out the decoys and set a couple of spinners. At shooting light, we backed into the trees bordering the sheltered pond that Stancik called "the thicket." Almost immediately, flights of bluewings started bombing into the decoys, offering challenging shots as the birds pitched into the landing hole in the center of the spread. Half an hour later, all five of us had filled our limits, still in awe at the sheer numbers of teal we had seen.
As my hunting partners and I saw firsthand, the early season can provide some of the best hunting of the year. The weather is mild, waterfowl numbers can be impressive, and the birds aren't as wary as they'll be later in the season. But early-season ducks and geese aren't pushovers, and you'll be more successful if you customize your tactics for the species you'll be hunting and their behavior at that time of year. That includes the types of decoys that you use and how and where you place them.
The following decoy spreads, which were shared by four experts from across the country, will help you make the most of your early-season opportunities this fall.
Lance Stancik's September Teal Spread
Stancik co-owns and manages Pintail Hunting Club in Garwood, Texas. Covering 30,000 acres of rice country, it attracts swarms of bluewings as the migration begins. "You can set a clock by our teal. They start to show up on the third weekend in August, and we manage our place to hold them by leaving our rice fields alone and hunting loafing areas," he says.
Stancik usually sets only two to three dozen decoys for teal, but occasionally bumps up the numbers in places where he needs a little more drawing power. If the wind is blowing directly at his back, like it was during our hunt, he sets two groups of decoys with a landing hole between the groups. In a crosswind he switches to a variation of the classic J-hook. He sets his decoys no closer than 20 yards from his shooting position, so approaching birds focus on the decoys instead of the hunters.
He includes a variety of species in his spread to match the diversity of waterfowl in his area. "I use a combination of teal and big duck decoys to match the hatch," Stancik says. "We have mottled ducks year-round, and pintails show up early, so I like to mix some of those species in. I don't separate the decoys by species because that's not what I see in September. I'll throw out some bull sprigs because I think the white helps teal see the decoys. The old-time guides down here used to throw out a few snow goose floaters for the same reason."
While Stancik's decoys are well maintained, he says realism isn't as important as location is for teal. "We scout every day to find birds, and that's more important than having a spread that looks exactly like real ducks. You don't have to run out and buy teal decoys for teal season. I save my best decoys for the regular duck season and use older decoys for teal hunting because there is usually a lot of shooting and your decoys are going to pick up some pellets."
Spinning-wing decoys work especially well for teal, Stancik says, so he always sets out two or three in his spread. On a calm day he places them right where he wants the teal to land. "When the wind is blowing, I watch to see how the first flock comes in and then move the spinners accordingly," he says. "It's important to take the time to keep the wings clean so you get the brightest flash on sunny days, when they work best."
Ashur Tolliver's Early Canada Goose Spread
Special resident Canada goose seasons give waterfowlers an early start in many states, and these hunts can provide some of the hottest shooting of the year for honkers. Ashur Tolliver, vice president and director of marketing and communications for Dive Bomb Industries, travels the country filming hunts each year. He has had spectacular early goose hunts in the upper Midwest, which he says offers typical opportunities for local populations of geese, and in upstate New York, where big concentrations of staging birds are more common.
In the Midwest, Tolliver sets five to seven dozen silhouettes in family groups of four to six decoys. He positions these groups in a loose W shape, which provides plenty of open spaces for geese to land. Early-season honkers often short-stop decoy spreads, and if the first few flocks of the morning exhibit this behavior, he moves his layout blinds downwind into the front of the spread.
"You might need 60 or 70 percent of your decoys behind you," Tolliver says. "Geese don't like to fly over an A-frame blind, so you're better off hunting from layouts or with backrests and ghillie blankets."
In upstate New York and across the border in Ontario, Tolliver regularly encounters feeding concentrations of several hundred geese during the early season. These big feeds require more decoys and different tactics. A-frames are perfect for the job. "People shoot well out of them," he says, "and if you put three or four A-frames together and brush them, you can hunt in the middle of a field. Geese might be leery of one A-frame, but if you put several together, it is almost as if they are too big to be a threat."
Tolliver prefers to set up for a crosswind so birds aren't looking directly at the blinds on their final approach. He describes his go-to spread as an "organic Nike swoosh" with a long, loose arm running downwind and a heavier concentration of decoys at the top, where he wants geese to land. If birds short-stop the spread, he moves decoys upwind or the blinds downwind.
When it comes to setting silhouettes, Tolliver offers a couple of pointers. "People ask if the silhouettes should all face the same direction," he says. "What I see is that geese will all face into the wind together if it's blowing 15 miles per hour or more, because the birds don't like wind ruffling their feathers. In light winds, they will face in all directions. The most important thing with silhouettes is to leave enough space between them. Set one, take three to five steps, and set another. To get the most out of them, you need a big footprint."
Phil Kahnke's Marsh Combo Spread
Taking a mixed bag of puddle ducks and divers is often possible in early fall on many wetlands in northern latitudes. Phil Kahnke, content and communications manager for Banded Gear, targets "calendar" migrations of diving ducks along with locally produced puddle ducks on marshes near his home in southeast South Dakota.
Although it's possible to find good numbers of dabblers and divers on small potholes and sloughs, Kahnke has more consistent success on slightly bigger waters, such as a 20-acre marsh near his home. On this local wetland, he sets a spread that appeals to both dabblers and divers. He takes as many decoys as he can, typically three dozen when he walks in and as many as 10 dozen if he takes a boat.
"I usually set a 50-50 mix of diver and puddle duck decoys, but you can increase the percentage of divers to 70 to attract more of those species," Kahnke says. "You'll have a better chance of shooting mallards over a lot of diver decoys than you will of shooting divers over a lot of puddle duck decoys."
He sets his decoys in a modified U shape with a long arm of diver decoys on one side and a group of puddle ducks on the other. The divers may run out as far as 75 to 80 yards downwind from his shooting position. While he doesn't rig his decoys on long lines, he says it's still important to set diver decoys at regular intervals. "If you are setting decoys individually, you have to be careful not to set clumps of three or four decoys together or leave gaps in the line, because divers may land in those spots instead of running the length of the spread," he says. "It doesn't look natural to space the decoys evenly, but it makes a difference."
It's also important to use decoys that match the species you are targeting, Kahnke says. In his area, ring-necked ducks, scaup, and redheads are the most common divers, while mallards, gadwalls, teal, and pintails are the most prevalent dabblers. "Any diving duck will come to the spread, but they prefer to land with their own kind. Puddle ducks seem to be less particular, at least early in the season."
Bill Saunder's Prairie Canada Spread
Call maker and guide Bill Saunders ran a guide service in Canada for many years, and the opportunity to pursue light geese continues to lure Saunders to the prairies. "Until a few years ago, we didn't have many light geese where I live in Washington, so I had to go to Canada to hunt them. I love a challenge, and light geese are challenging birds to hunt," he says.
Besides holding large numbers of light geese, Prairie Canada teems with Canadas, white-fronted geese, and ducks, so mixed-bag hunts are always a possibility. Like many freelancers, however, Saunders uses mostly goose decoys when he hunts dry fields on the prairies. When it comes to numbers, Saunders likes to go big. "If it's windy, I might set 1,200 or more wind socks—both light and dark goose decoys. When it's calm, I switch to full-body decoys and set about 500 light geese and a couple hundred darks," he says.
As for decoy placement, Saunders says he has tried everything and has settled on a very basic configuration. "I set the light and dark geese in a sort of yin and yang pattern," he says. "The light goose decoys stretch downwind, and the dark geese run upwind. We set our blinds about five yards inside the mass of dark goose decoys in the center of the spread."
One reason Saunders likes this simple pattern is that it's easy for his crew to deploy. "When they are done, I will move some decoys to create landing holes or take a family group of darks and set them with the lights. It mixes up the spread and makes it look more realistic," he says.
The only duck decoys that Saunders typically uses are spinning-wing decoys, and he places them as inconspicuously as possible. "I make sure the spinners are on a remote so I can shut them off when geese are approaching. I also set my spinners low—no higher than the backs of my goose decoys. Even when they're turned off, geese don't like them."
Saunders adds that in recent years ducks have decoyed more readily to dark goose decoys than to light goose decoys. "If I am hoping to shoot a lot of ducks, I set my dark geese downwind and my light geese upwind," he says.