By Wade Bourne
You can't blame late-season ducks and geese for being skittish. By this time of year they've seen lots of decoys, heard plenty of calling, and experienced a great deal of gunfire up and down the flyways. Naturally, the birds have grown extra cautious about which enticements they respond to and where they land.
In return, hunters must adjust their tactics accordingly if they want to stay in the game. Simply tossing out a few weathered decoys in a haphazard pattern will not bring in the birds. But building a realistic-looking spread and setting it in the right location can work wonders. Here are five decoy spreads that will help you bag more waterfowl during the waning days of the season.
Expert #1 Spencer Holzfaster's
Gravel Bar Spread
In bitter-cold conditions, ducks and geese often feed in dry fields in the morning and rest on creeks or small rivers at midday. Spencer Holzfaster, an avid waterfowler who hunts on the north and south forks of the Platte River in western Nebraska, enjoys good duck and goose hunting action by setting up on gravel bars and sandbars.
"We hunt from a permanent blind at the edge of the river, which is knee-deep and around 20 yards wide," Holzfaster says. "A gravel bar extends several yards from our blind out into the moving water. At this time of year, we shoot a mixed bag of ducks and geese over a spread of mostly Canada goose decoys on the gravel bar and a few duck and goose floaters just off the bank in the water."
The spread deployed by Holzfaster and his hunting partners consists of more than 10 dozen Canada goose decoys and up to three dozen duck decoys positioned to simulate resting birds. For the sake of realism, all of the Canada goose decoys are fully flocked.
"We start by setting a big group of Canada goose sleeper shells on the upriver point of the gravel bar," Holzfaster says. "We place them six inches apart and string them down the bar. The idea is to make them look like geese that are sleeping and trying to stay warm."
Next the hunters scatter full-body goose decoys throughout the spread-a sentinel here, a couple of resters there. "This adds realism. In an actual flock, there are always a few geese standing up and looking around when most of the birds are sleeping," Holzfaster says.
Full-body mallard decoys are placed along the edge of the gravel bar near the center of the goose spread. Some floating duck decoys are set on the water just upriver from the gravel bar. And goose floaters are sprinkled in here and there along the edge of the gravel bar, just beyond the sleepers.
"We'll leave 15 to 20 yards of open water at the edge of the goose spread, then add a small assortment of Canada goose sleeper shells, one or two full-body geese, four to six full-body mallards, and a couple of goose floaters," Holzfaster says. "We try to make it look like another small concentration of birds is starting to build up."
As a final ploy, Holzfaster strings together two or three duck floaters and places them in the middle of the current. "The idea is to make it look like ducks have landed and are swimming into the spread," he says. "That's what live birds do-land on the water and swim to the bank. When they're landing in that hole, we have some close-in, quality shots."
Expert #2 Terry Denmon's
During the final days of the season, ducks have been exposed to all manner of motion decoys, including wing-spinners, flappers, tippers, and other mechanical devices. Hunters can still use such contrivances to attract and finish birds, but they have to deploy them carefully, says Terry Denmon, founding partner of Mojo Outdoors, which makes and markets spinning-wing decoys and other motion devices.
Denmon, who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, hunts ducks in a variety of settings, including buck-brush swamps, flooded fields, marshes, and shoreline blinds on lakes and rivers. Whatever the venue, his late-season spread is always the same.
He sets out three to four dozen decoys-mostly mallards, with a smattering of pintails and green-winged teal on the edges of the setup. He arranges the decoys in a V pattern, leaving a landing hole 15 to 25 yards in front and downwind of the blind. He drops a group of pintails on one side of the V and several green-winged teal on the other. "Passing ducks can really see the white on the pintail decoys," he says.
For added visibility, Denmon positions a number of wing-spinners (usually three or more) upwind from the blind. "Wing-spinners are meant to attract ducks' attention at long distances," Denmon explains. "They're not meant to finish ducks.
I still use them late in the year, but I position them as far from the landing zone as necessary to keep them from flaring birds I'm trying to finish. I may set them 60 yards away to start with, and if they cause the ducks to flare, I'll move them back even farther. I'll position the spinners where ducks can see them from long range, but where they won't have to fly over them to work my spread."
Denmon watches the reactions of working ducks and changes things as needed. "I may conceal my wing-spinners in brush or trees. I may try setting one spinner on a tall pole. I may put out more spinners or take some up. The point is, don't just sit in the blind and watch ducks flare over and over. If what you're doing isn't working, try something else," he says.
To finish ducks, Denmon incorporates other motion ploys into his spread. "I'll rig a jerk string, several feeder butts, a Mallard Machine, swimming decoys, or something else to make movement and waves in the decoys," he says. "The wing-spinners are the attractors, and these decoys are the finishers."
Expert #3 Bill Willroth's
Dry-Field Goose Spread
Bill Willroth, owner of Dakota Decoy Company, in Vermillion, South Dakota, avidly pursues Canada geese in corn and winter wheat fields in the upper Midwest. During the late season, he increases the size of his spread to imitate the behavior of what he calls "super families" of geese feeding in grainfields.
"In the early season, we put out 60 to 80 decoys, arranging them in small groups of 12 to 18 birds," Willroth explains. "When it's colder and the geese need more carbohydrates, they band together into bigger feeding groups. So in the late season, we put out spreads with 200 to 400 decoys to imitate what the geese are doing naturally."
To make their spread look as realistic as possible, Willroth and his hunting buddies deploy more than twice as many feeder decoys as sentry decoys. "As the weather gets colder, the geese feed more aggressively, and that's the look we try to mimic," Willroth says.
The hunters arrange their standard late-season goose spread in a C pattern. "The whole spread may stretch 125 yards long and 80 yards wide," Willroth says. "We'll put the large mass of feeders and a few sentry decoys in the upwind part of the spread, and we'll have fewer, loosely scattered decoys in the downwind arms. We also set a few decoys in the landing zone, and we'll add a Lucky Duck goose flapper in the hole to focus the attention of incoming geese on where we want them to land."
If snow is covering the fields, the group goes one step further. "We mix a lot of sleeper shells throughout the spread," Willroth says. "In bitter cold weather, geese hunker down with their heads under their wings to rest and conserve energy." In addition, Willroth and his hunting partners clear away snow in the decoys to make the spread appear like a large number of geese that are actively feeding.
As the season winds down, Willroth and his hunting partners usually set up along field edges where natural cover is plentiful. "One of our favorite tactics is to run our spread along a fencerow where the wind is blowing parallel to the fence," he says. "We'll hide our layout blinds along the fencerow near the upwind edge of the landing zone. With this arrangement, the geese will be coming from our left or right, depending on wind direction, instead of head-on. They're less likely to see us that way. We also try to set up with the sun at our back, if at all possible. Bright sunshine in the birds' eyes is the best camouflage you can get."
Expert #4 Ethan Lee's
Ethan Lee of Paris, Tennessee, is a flyway manager for Drake Waterfowl. When the big chill arrives, he shifts from hunting shallow backwaters to nearby Kentucky Lake, the largest reservoir in the Tennessee River chain, where he and his partners set out a large, highly visible decoy spread to appeal to waterfowl moving up and down the lake.
"As the last waters to freeze, big rivers and lakes can really pull in ducks and geese that were forced to vacate iced-over sloughs and marshes," Lee explains. "We get a mix of mallards, pintails, canvasbacks, teal, and other waterfowl species during the late season. We put out 700 to 1,000 decoys around our blind, because a big spread is the most effective way to draw the birds in."
Lee calls his open-water setup the "U & V" spread because it consists of a mix of puddle and diving duck decoys set in those two basic patterns. The first pattern, an assortment of mallards and other puddlers, is deployed in a large U shape around the blind, which faces the opening of the U. Two long rows of decoys stretch approximately 100 yards from the blind toward the river channel. "Some of the decoys are placed out of shooting range, but the ducks usually work between the arms of the U to come in close to the blind," Lee says. In addition, he places two groups of Canada goose floaters off the back corners of the U to entice any honkers passing by. The diver decoys are rigged in two lines that converge in front of the blind to form a V. Canvasback decoys, whose white bodies can be seen from great distances, are the main species on the diver lines. Lee sets around 100 decoys in each arm of the V.
"Setting out and maintaining such a large spread requires a lot of work, but it's worth it," Lee adds. "The late season is when we get our best shooting on the big water. With this spread we regularly pull both puddle ducks and divers into the landing zone in front of the blind."
Expert #5 Larry Lauck's
When cold weather sets in, flooded rice, corn, and soybean fields can become magnets for ducks that crave carbohydrates to stoke their internal furnaces. The late season, however, is not a time to be lackadaisical when hunting flooded grainfields. "Hunters have to get creative and try a fresh approach," says Drake Waterfowl field expert Larry Lauck.
Lauck, who grew up in central Arkansas, makes drastic changes to his decoy spread when hunting ducks in flooded rice fields as the season winds down. In the early season, he hunts over five to six dozen decoys, but when ducks get suspicious of this large spread, he shows them a new look. "I'll cut back to only a dozen decoys, usually a pair of pintails, a pair of gadwalls, and four pairs of mallards," he explains. "And I'll use my very best decoys, with full flocking or perfect paint jobs. Ducks are in bright mating plumage in the late season, and I want my decoys to have vivid colors and feather patterns."
Lauck sets the spread downwind of his pit blind, placing half the decoys to the left and half to the right of the pit. He matches drakes with hens to simulate pairs, and is careful to leave plenty of space between the pairs. He also places a couple of unpaired mallard hens to the far right of his spread to serve as confidence decoys. And on calm days with little wind, he adds a couple of wobbling feeder decoys to his spread to provide movement and surface agitation.
"I keep my spread as realistic as I can, and if ducks are still shying away from the decoys, I'll quickly move things around to give them yet another look," Lauck says. "Sometimes just a little change in your decoy configuration can make a big difference in how the birds work."
It's all about showing the ducks something they're not used to seeing. "During the late season, ducks usually shy away from big spreads where I hunt," Lauck says. "But that little spread looks natural, and it's not threatening to them. With just a few decoys and minimal calling, I can still lure those wary late-season birds into easy shooting range."