By John Pollmann
Changing conditions means that one decoy strategy may not be the best option day in and day out. Modifying decoy spreads based on weather conditions mimics lifelike waterfowl behavior and may improve your odds. These five expert tips will allow you to know when, and how, to give your decoys a new look.
1. No Wind, No Worries
Few conditions stir feelings of uncertainty in the heart of a waterfowl hunter like a day without wind, but South Dakota hunter Ben Fujan has an answer for this dreaded dilemma.
"It seems that both ducks and geese don't decoy as well on those days with little or no wind, but it's also a case where there's little predictability about how they are going to finish," says Fujan. "So if there is no wind I'm going to move the entire decoy spread out in front of the blinds, leaving just enough to cover the backs of the blinds and break up the outline of hunters on the ground. By having the spread out in front I know that if the birds finish from behind, left or right, there'll be a shot.
The strategy is especially true, Fujan says, if a hunter is using a spinning-wing decoy to decoy ducks in a dry field.
"I'll keep the spinners probably twenty yards off the blinds, otherwise you've got ducks crashing in from all angles and you can't keep track of when the flock is in good shooting range," he explains. "The big thing is just keeping the action out in front of you so that no matter how the birds hit the decoys, you've got time to make the right decision on when to take the shot."
2. Shells in the Cold
Kevin Addy is no stranger to cold weather hunts for Canada geese in Pennsylvania, and experience has taught him that when the temperature drops and snow covers the ground, his decoy spread has to start sending a different message. This becomes even more important for wary late-season birds.
"With the cold weather and pressured birds, it becomes even more important to create a decoy spread that communicates a realistic, relaxed situation," Addy says. "And shell decoys become very important part of my spread during this time of the year for that reason."
What Addy has observed while scouting is a tendency for live birds to hit the field and immediately lay down to thaw the snow and make it easier to reach the food source beneath.
"I'll mix in full bodies, too, to imitate birds walking or stretching before finding a new spot," Addy says. "At this point of the year, the decoys aren't just there to get the attention of the birds, they really become important at communicating a message that the coast is clear on the ground."
3. Mix It Up
Ducks are the primary focus when Dallas Branch goes hunting in northern Oklahoma, but you wouldn't know it by looking at his decoy spread.
"I primarily use Canada goose floaters with a few duck floaters mixed in," Branch explains. "Ducks are very comfortable around geese, and the bigger decoys add extra visibility."
Using Canada goose decoys also provides a fresh look for the ducks, Branch says, which is important after birds have seen typical duck spreads all along their migration route.
"It's a good look, too, if birds have been in the area for an extended period of time," Branch says. "It is something they have not seen, and staying one step ahead is pretty important to stay successful."
4. Raising the Stakes
Minnesota waterfowler Ben Cade has encountered a number of unique hunting circumstances while targeting Canada geese in the congested metropolitan areas near his home in central Minnesota, but some of his most difficult hunts take place in wide-open spaces.
"Every season it seems I run into a situation where the geese are using a field that has absolutely no cover to hide the blinds," says Cade. "The decoys then become as much a tool for concealment as they are to attract the geese."
Cade has noticed that when geese are landing they will often target a heavier concentration of decoys that give the appearance of aggressive feeding behavior on the ground.
"I'll create two or more of these groups of decoys out away from the blinds to keep the birds' attention away from the hunters - anything we can do to shift their eyes away from our hide," says Cade. "And then we've modified a number of decoy stakes for situations like this that will raise the decoy off the ground high enough that we can place them around and amongst the blinds to create the illusion that the decoys are almost walking on top of the hunters."
5. Stand Out In the Crowd
Free-flowing rivers are a natural place to target hardy mallards when the weather turns cold, says Doug Steinke, but his approach to decoy spreads for these late season hunts is somewhat out-of-the-box.
"I probably put out six full-body mallard decoys or more on the sandbars for every floater I put in the water," says Steinke. "When I see real ducks on the river this time of the year they are just stacked up on the sandbars or a frozen mudflat. Rarely will I see ducks sitting in the water when there is ice and slush."
Steinke balances this realistic approach to a decoy spread with an unusual take on decoy color.
"Of those hundred or so full-bodies I put out, one-third to one-half are black ducks," says Steinke. "Especially on the ice or snow, those decoys just stand out and add mass to the spread. It's a different look than the ducks are used to seeing, and it works. That's the most important thing."