As hunters huddled in the frosty blind, a flock of gadwalls rocketed high over the reclaimed catfish pond and circled, deciding whether to land or not.
Surely, the 150 mallard decoys that had been spread over every square inch of the pond since late October would attract these birds.
The ducks circled again, scrutinizing the decoy spread before kicking in afterburners without committing to land. Seeing something they didn’t like, they flew over the old fallow field and eventually settled into a soggy pothole in the corner of an adjacent field.
Disgruntled hunters cursed their luck and asked each other, “What happened? Why didn’t they lock up to land?”
Too often, similar scenarios play repeatedly during duck season. After running a gauntlet of gunfire from Canada to the Gulf Coast, migrating waterfowl learn to recognize every tantalizing decoy spread imaginable. Mallards, pintails, gadwall and wigeons don’t grow old by acting stupid.
Today, with fewer ducks and more hunters competing for limited hunting territory, successful waterfowlers need to reach deep into their decoy sack of tricks to fool sharp-eyed old birds.
Decoy species matter
For starters, consider the decoy species. On any given day, hunters might lure in a few birds with just about any type of decoy, but the most-successful sportsmen pick the species known to inhabit that particular area. For instance, in flooded timber, sportsmen might use more mallard, green-winged teal and wood duck decoys; in marshes, rice fields and ponds, bring gadwalls, pintails and wigeons decoys, while diving-duck dekes should be used in large lakes or coastal bays.
“Where we hunt, we get a good variety of ducks,” said Jacob Sartain of Madison, who hunts the Mississippi Delta near Greenville. “I like to mix up my duck species, but that mostly depends upon what I find in scouting. I use decoy types that correspond with the types of birds I see when scouting.
“If I see a lot of mallards in an area, I’ll use mallard decoys. If I see mostly gadwalls in an area, I’ll come back with mostly gadwall decoys, but I may use some other decoys, as well, just to give the spread some diversity.”
Across North America, a majority of hunters probably use mallard decoys. Since so many people use them, ducks might equate bobbing green heads with death. Varying the species of decoys can help. A few teal might reassure spooked ducks.
Even if birds cannot discern the paint job from high altitude or in low-light conditions, they can detect size differences between mallards and teal.
In coastal marsh pot holes, sportsmen might want to use mallard hen decoys to simulate mottled ducks instead of greenheads. Mottled ducks generally stick to themselves and typically travel in pairs. They might land on the opposite side of a pond but typically won’t land in the middle of a decoy spread. Supplement the main spread with two or three pairs of mallard hens placed next to each other at diverse places in the pond.
Although many sportsmen hold spoonbills or shovelers in low regard, decoys representing these species can work effectively. Since so few people use shoveler decoys, ducks learn to associate flocks of these birds with safety.
“People laughed at me when I started putting out shoveler decoys, but they are colorful ducks,” veteran guide Charles “Hammertime” Snapp said. “Birds can see the colors and their big, wide bills. Ducks aren’t used to seeing shoveler decoys. All kinds of ducks come to shoveler decoys.”
Other decoys with splashes of white — pintails, canvasbacks or wigeons, for example — provide good flash in the spreads and stand out when birds lock up on final approach. Ironically, though, darker colors create more silhouettes, making them highly visible from long distances over rice fields or marsh country.
“White decoys like pintails are highly visible up close, but from a distance, ducks can more easily see black decoys than white ones,” Sartain said. “Black has a lot more reflection power off the water at a distance; that’s why I like to use dark decoys, like hen mallards and gadwalls, but I also use some whiter decoys to give ducks more comfort up close.”
Sportsmen can add more color to mallard decoys. Few floating duck decoys come with feet, but from the air, those big, orange, webbed mallard toes glow like beacons in clear water. Glue a 3- to 4-inch strip of orange ribbon to each side of a mallard decoy to simulate legs kicking in the water. A small weight added to the end of the ribbon will keep them down.
Where they go
Next on the list of tricks is effective decoy placement. Many old-time, traditional hunters suggest setting decoys in V, Y, J, L or I patterns. That works, but don’t fret so much over the shape. In the wild, ducks group in pairs or clusters and constantly swim back and forth, obliterating any tidy patterns.
Instead, arrange similar species together in small bunches or pairs. For instance, place several teal in a tight, little wad off to one side, close to the grass. Put some gadwalls on the other side of the blind. Add a few diving ducks in open water at extreme range to serve as shooting markers. Regardless of pattern, leave enough open water in the best shooting zone to give newcomers a place to land, right at optimum range.
“I like to build two different blocks of decoys with a landing zone in the middle where the hunters hide,” Sartain said. “I put decoys in the shape of a V or a Y so I can work the ducks right into the landing area where the hunters are in position.
“I always like to position some decoys in shallow water right near the shoreline so it looks like ducks feeding near the grass. We’ll string the decoys out from there to lead the birds into the landing zone.”
Ducks typically land facing into the wind, so put decoys downwind of the blind or leave a zone where birds can land into the wind. Whenever possible, set up spreads so incoming birds must look into the rising or setting sun behind the hiding sportsmen. The sun turns hunters into silhouettes and forces birds to look elsewhere — outside of the blind!
Lay of the land
Geography often determines decoy patterns. For instance, hunters on large reservoirs completely surround their blinds with several hundred decoys. On rivers, islands and sandbars can block the current, creating eddies where ducks can land. Place decoys in slack water downstream of islands, points or other obstructions.
When hunting a point, throw decoys on both sides and a few out front. With water on three sides, sportsmen can pick off birds attempting to land into the wind from various directions.
Sportsmen hunting flooded timber should scatter some mallard decoys around their positions. Put some decoys in the timber pothole and some greenheads back in the woods in heavy cover so incoming birds see ducks throughout the timber.
Hunters venturing onto large, coastal waters require immense spreads. In open water, diving ducks like redheads, scaup, ring necks and canvasbacks frequently congregate in huge rafts, so sportsmen need plenty of decoys to pull in birds from long distances.
“I usually put out about 150 decoys,” said guide Robert Brodie, who often hunts the Mississippi Sound out of Biloxi. “I use about 40% redheads, 40% scaup and 20% canvasback decoys. Although we only shoot a few canvasbacks, the white coloration of the drake decoys is highly visible from long distances. I’ll also use a few mallard, teal, pintail and gadwall decoys.
“I use a lot of magnum-sized decoys, extremely oversized birds that ducks can detect from farther off than standard decoys. I put these on the edge of the spread and include some big bufflehead decoys.”
Whether hunting in the woods, a marshy pothole, rice field or open water, adding a little motion to a static spread can help bring in birds. More than a decade ago, the electronic decoy phenomenon swept the waterfowl world as companies scrambled to create battery-powered birds with spinning wings or swimming and diving motion. These devices worked, but perhaps lost some effectiveness as so many hunters started using them.
But motion decoys still have their place.
“Putting movement in the decoy spread is essential to convince ducks to land,” Sartain said. “Ducks can fly by still decoys and figure out pretty quickly that they are not alive. Many people use spinning-wing decoys, but I’m not really fond of them; ducks see them from the time they leave Canada until they reach the Gulf Coast.
“Some days, I use spinning-wing decoys, especially when I’m using several hundred decoys. Spinning-wing decoys are very effective when hunting in the woods.”
Always deploy a spinning-wing or other mechanical decoy off to one side out in the pond, never directly in front of the blind. The motion draws the attention of birds coming in to land, making them focus their attention away from the blind so they don’t see any moving hunters.
To add realistic movement to decoys without placing mechanicals in the spread, some waterfowlers install small electric motors in select dekes to make them vibrate and send ripples across the water.
Other people deploy jerk cords, which consist of one or more decoys anchored to the bottom and tied to a string stretching back to the blind. Pulling the string makes the decoys bob up and down, creating lifelike rippling in the water.
Confidence decoys can complete the illusion of sanctuary. Place one or two heron or white egret decoys along a far shoreline to add color. Ducks get used to seeing herons and know they don’t like to hang around people with shotguns. In places frequented by coots, a small raft of coot decoys in open water at extreme shotgun range might also bring in extra birds.
As the season progresses, large duck concentrations break up into small flocks. Except on big waters, massive rafts in late season usually mean decoys. As birds become more decoy shy, use fewer blocks and try to hunt puddlers in smaller places.
While hunters no longer use live decoys or trained birds, sportsmen today can still find many ways to fool wary waterfowl. Add a few surprises to the decoy spread this winter to keep ducks guessing.