By Bill Buckley
The key to an awesome duck spread is making it stand out as much as possible. You can set up in a great spot and know how to call ducks like an old-time Arkansas guide, but if your decoys aren’t visible from hundreds of yards away, or if they look lifeless, they’re not going to do their job. That’s where customizing your spread really pays off.
Adding contrast is the easiest way to make your spread pop, so start with blacks and whites. A hen duck’s monotone color is designed to blend in, not stand out, so how can you make your hen decoys more impactful? Since black is more visible than brown, paint some of your hens flat black. On mud flats, off-color water, and under an overcast sky, dark hens will stand out better than those with natural coloration. While you’re at it, make those drake mallard decoys more vivid with blacker tails and a wider collar of white on their necks.
Try mixing in a variety of species as well. Greenheads may be your top target, but pintails, wigeon, shovelers, black ducks, and various diver decoys will add lots of black and white to your spread. Using different species also helps avoid that cookie-cutter look. Somewhere during the migration, most ducks, especially mallards, have mixed with all sorts of other species.
For more realism, incorporate different body positions, from resting and feeding to relaxed and semi-alert decoys. Coupled with different-sized species clustered here and there, your spread will look more natural.
Canada goose decoys, both floaters and full-bodies, will significantly boost a spread’s impact. Canada geese are visible from great distances and frequently mix with ducks. In field setups they’re a huge duck magnet. Don’t overlook snow goose decoys either; all that white is like a neon sign telling ducks it’s safe and there is food here.
Movement is the other key way to increase the visibility of your spread and make it look more lifelike. Part of the reason calm days are so tough is that all that glassy water acts like a giant mirror, reflecting the sky and hiding your decoys. While some mechanical decoys work well to churn up the surface, a simple and inexpensive jerk cord with five or six decoys also works great. With a jerk cord, you can vary the amount of movement and adjust the timing based on how the ducks are reacting, which is something you can’t do with spinning-wing decoys.
Place a jerk cord strategically among your decoys and pull it aggressively to displace lots of water and create movement throughout your spread. Some hunters clip feeder decoys to a separate jerk cord and use smaller, more rapid tugs to simulate puddle ducks feeding just under the surface.
Keels and Cords
You can also make your spread look alive and less uniform by varying the points at which you attach cords to your decoys’ keels. Cords can be looped around the keels so they are tied at different places. Tying the cord toward the middle or tail end of the keel will make decoys face a different direction from decoys with cords connected at the front. This will also affect how decoys move. In wind or in mild river currents, decoys with the cord attached a third to midway down the keel will zigzag side to side. The advantage of experimenting with keels is that you can customize decoy movement to specific conditions.
It’s important to experiment and have fun. Who would have thought painted jugs would work on ducks? Yet some hunters still bag lots of birds over them. For that matter, who would have thought spinning-wing decoys would be so effective? The more you experiment, the greater your chances of coming up with that perfect spread.