By David Hart
Are you a duck hunter or are you a goose hunter? If you are like most waterfowlers, the answer is "yes." You get just as much thrill from watching a dozen honkers cup their wings and teeter into the decoys as you do from a flock of mallards dropping feet-down into your spread.
The good news is that you don't always have to choose between duck hunting and goose hunting. Seasons overlap throughout much of the fall and winter, giving you an opportunity to hunt geese and ducks concurrently. Also, these birds spend much of the year in close proximity, feeding and loafing side by side in a variety of habitats.
Hunting both ducks and geese at the same time is not the same as hunting them separately, however. We talked to four experts who have mastered this specialized pursuit. Follow their advice to improve your chances for a memorable mixed-bag hunt.
Set Spreads Strategically
By mixing duck and goose decoys, you can create an incredibly realistic spread, but don't do it randomly. Though live birds will mingle, ducks in particular tend to stick together even when they are sharing an area with geese. Setting a couple of loose clusters of mallard decoys within the goose decoys or even off to the side of the geese looks more natural than sprinkling single duck decoys among the geese.
When setting a combination spread, Dive Bomb Industries Marketing Specialist Kile Jones creates a traditional J-hook with his goose decoys and then clusters the duck decoys into a small area fairly close to his blind. That not only brings the ducks closer to him, it prevents geese from landing short. Geese don't like to fly low over ducks, Jones says, so he makes sure to keep the duck decoys upwind of the landing hole.
"Geese will cross low over other geese, but for some reason they don't like to finish directly over ducks. Geese are much more choosy about where they will land, and they often sit down outside duck decoys instead of passing over them," Jones explains. "Ducks will sit down almost anywhere within the spread. They do tend to land close to other ducks, but they aren't afraid to land in the middle of the goose decoys."
When he's hunting a point or an island, veteran waterfowler Ben Cade says he puts his duck decoys in a shallower protected area and then strings the geese out in front of the blind. "I might also put a few geese near the ducks in the calmer water for realism," he notes. "Ducks need to feed in shallower water than geese do, so I'll take that into consideration when I'm putting out decoys."
Chestertown, Maryland, resident Kenny Gray also places his goose decoys in deeper water, creating a landing hole 10 to 15 yards wide. He sets the duck decoys in smaller groups closer to shore and inside his preferred shooting range. "If I'm hunting a farm pond, I might put some full-body goose decoys on the shore like they are walking up out of the water to feed in the field behind me," Gray says.
Ditch the Duck Dekes
In some situations, Cade employs a simplified decoy strategy. "A lot of times, I use almost nothing but goose decoys," he says. "Geese just stand out more, and it seems like they always draw ducks, but duck decoys by themselves hardly ever draw geese."
Under certain conditions, Jones subscribes to a similar philosophy, relying mostly on goose decoys when duck and goose seasons overlap. "There are times when I hunt with nothing but full-body Canada goose decoys and maybe one spinning-wing duck decoy," he says. "The goose decoys are darker and stand out better. That's often enough to get the attention of passing ducks, and one spinner is all it takes to get them to finish."
Practice Spin Control
Spinning-wing decoys can be deadly on ducks, and they are a common tool in dry fields and water setups. For reasons known only to the birds, though, geese often don't like duck spinners. That's why Jones keeps his spinner within arm's reach of his layout blind when he is hunting a dry field. When he sees geese, he simply reaches up and flicks the switch to the off position. Another option is to turn spinning-wing decoys on and off with a remote control. "Geese don't care if the decoy is still up off the ground on a pole, but they won't finish if the wings are spinning," Jones says. Decoys that move water are different. The ripples from a half-dozen duck decoys on a jerk cord will not only help entice finicky ducks, they will pull in leery geese too.
Specialize for Specks
Haydel's Game Calls President Rod Haydel uses mixed spreads when white-fronted goose seasons overlap with duck seasons. The Bossier City, Louisiana, resident will separate his specklebelly and mallard decoys, but how he separates them depends on the situation. He usually hunts pit blinds built into levees between rice fields. If a field on one side of the levee is dry and the other is wet, he places the goose decoys on the dry side and the ducks in the water. "If I'm surrounded by water, I'll place them in small groups separated by species but close enough to the blind so they are all within shooting range," he says. "I always put a couple of goose decoys right next to the blind too. Specks really key in on sound, so they need to see where the calls are coming from in order to finish well."
How many decoys he uses depends on what's going on with real birds. When specklebellies are abundant, Haydel will set out six or seven dozen decoys. When fewer geese are around, he may drop down to just a half-dozen. "It's mostly a matter of personal preference," he says. "Specks tend to travel in smaller flocks, and we typically have them come to our spread in groups of five or less, so you can often get by with smaller numbers of decoys."
Go for Numbers
For Canada geese, as for specks, more isn't always better. Cade typically uses about three dozen Canada goose floaters and a dozen or so mallard and black duck decoys when he hunts a pond or a tidal creek. "Canadas will gather in much larger numbers in fields, but when I'm hunting ducks and geese together, I'm usually hunting smaller water where birds gather in smaller groups," he says.
Cade prefers to deploy more decoys when he is hunting big water, especially later in the season, using as many duck and goose decoys as he can cram into his boat. That can be up to 80 goose floaters and two dozen duck decoys. For him, a big spread with lots of goose decoys stands out better to ducks and is more likely to attract passing geese.
He goes even bigger when he is hunting a late-season cornfield, sometimes putting out a hundred or more full-body Canada goose decoys and twice as many full-body duck decoys. How many he puts out might depend on who he hunts with. "If we all have decoys, we will put more out. I definitely want to go as big as I can, though," Cade explains.
Jones also increases his spread size as the season progresses. He typically starts out with three dozen or so, but he may end up with a hundred or more full-bodies if he is field hunting late in the season, depending on what the real birds are doing. "If there are several hundred birds in the field, I'm going to put out as many decoys as I can, but there is a point where it becomes a lot of work," Jones says.
Cade agrees, adding that a massive spread is ideal in at least one other situation. "More is definitely better when I'm running traffic. A really big spread can be the only way to pull in birds that may have no interest in coming by for a look otherwise," he says. "The bigger the spread, the more likely passing ducks and geese are to swing by for a closer look. I'll try to get friends with decoys so we can increase the size of the spread if we need to."
Play Small Ball
There are times, however, when just a dozen or so goose decoys and half as many duck decoys can be just the ticket. In some situations, ducks and geese travel in small groups, so using a small number of duck and goose decoys looks more realistic. The same holds true for areas where bird numbers are low.
For Jones, spread size is determined entirely by what he has been seeing during scouting trips, or by the size of the water he plans to hunt. "Last season I hunted a pond that was about 60 yards by 60 yards. I used just two goose floaters and I got my two-goose limit," he says. "More decoys would have been fine, but you certainly don't want to use so many that you crowd the water. I've seen that happen before. They need a good hole to land in, and piling in a whole bunch of decoys on a small pond can keep them from finishing."
Pick a Load
What do the experts shoot when they have a chance at a 10-pound Canada goose one minute and a two-pound gadwall the next? Switching loads for specific birds is not only a recipe for a complicated day in the blind, it isn't necessary. "Ducks tend to fly earlier in the day than geese, so I used to start with a smaller shot size and then switch to larger shot later in the morning," Jones says. "Now I just use steel 2s all the time, unless I'm expecting to see larger Canada geese. Then I'll use BBs."
In other words, choose a single load that works in your gun and shoot it for both types of birds. Generally, that means a shot size large enough to handle the biggest bird you expect to see. "You definitely don't want to go too small," Jones says, "or you run the risk of crippling geese."
Cade agrees. When he's hunting big birds and small ones at the same time, he uses 3-inch steel 1s. Haydel favors steel 4s for specks and ducks. Whatever you choose, make sure to pattern your loads and understand the limits of your load and your gun. Don't take shots that won't put a bird on the ground or water reliably.
Call Them All
Skilled calling can mean the difference between close shots and long shots. Use a goose call when you see geese and a duck call when you see ducks. But what about those situations when both geese and ducks are flying? "If there are ducks and geese flying at the same time and I'm with friends, one of us will blow a goose call and the other will be on the duck call," Cade says. "I guess it also depends on where we are in relation to our limits or what we are more interested in shooting that day."
That's a dilemma any waterfowler would be happy to face.