Decoying Iowa Waterfowl: What You Need, and What You Need to Know

By Nick Johnson

One of the most exciting aspects of waterfowl hunting is undoubtedly the use of decoys in fooling your quarry. Some make it simple and hike in or use a canoe or sneak boat to deploy a dozen or so decoys. Others take it to the extreme and invest in enclosed trailers and big Jon boats with mud motors, both capable of hauling a stockpile of goose or duck decoys. Both extremes and anywhere in between work just fine in Iowa, what it comes down to is what best fits your style of hunting and budget.

For those hunters that like to hunt on the simple side, Iowa is blessed with loads of opportunity to do so. Often, this style of hunting is perfectly suited for the smaller public tracts, smaller rivers, lakes and ponds. When I first started duck hunting on my own as a teenager this was how I hunted, a bag of decoys, gun, blind bag, camo and that was it. That was all I could afford! And I had some really good hunts after putting in the time to find birds and get their pattern figured out. I also had many skunk days but hey, that’s all part of hunting.

Hunters that have the resources to run dozens of decoys and the equipment to help deploy them get to experience a different side of waterfowling. Big spreads offer hunters an edge to decoying birds that have seen recent hunting pressure and birds that are flying by that were not originally headed for your location, also called “running traffic”. This style of hunting truly shines in late season, especially hunting geese and public waters.

So What Do You Need?
As I mentioned before, the biggest thing to keep in mind is doing what fits your budget. If you are new to waterfowling, dip a few toes in the water on decoys before diving straight for the deep end. If you like to field hunt geese, start with a half dozen to a dozen good quality fullbodies and then bulk up the spread with a dozen or so goose shells to help cut some of the cost. As time goes on you can add more if need be. It’s helpful to have friends in this case to divide up the expenses on decoys and if you are lucky, one person may have an enclosed trailer to help haul everything.

If you prefer to duck hunt then starting out is even easier. Pick up a dozen good quality mallards and then mix in a half dozen or so of another species whether that’s wood ducks, gadwall or divers. Strap some weights on them and you should be good to go for many situations that Iowa can offer. One other type of decoy I will say helps is a motion decoy whether that’s a mojo, lucky duck, pulsator or others. Jerk rigs are also nice to have if the weather is calm or you are hunting in flooded timber.

Find the Birds
Your biggest asset in any waterfowl situation is finding birds and where they are feeding or hanging out and at what time. Without finding birds you are taking a gamble which can sometimes still provide success but in most cases, it won’t. When you find where the birds want to be then your next objective is to determine where you wish to set up given the forecasted wind and position of the sun, creating a quality concealed hide and deploying the decoy spread. In a nut shell that is the basis for waterfowl hunting. Scout, prepare, set up.

If you are hunting the “X” this can often greatly reduce the number of decoys you truly need, especially when hunting in the earlier seasons. Even hunting late season geese, if you are absolutely where they want to be then as long as you have a good concealed hide you really don’t need more than a couple dozen decoys to be successful.

What gets tricky is when you find the birds but have no means of physically or legally accessing them. So often is the case later in the season when ducks and geese start to figure out where they are safe and which fields they won’t be bothered in. The objective here is to ideally get under the flight path of where they are leaving a roost to go feed, or if hunting water, getting as close to the birds as legally and safely as possible.

If you can’t get under the birds in their flight path then try to get as close as possible and be as visible as possible with decoys and motion. By motion I’m talking about flags for geese and even grabbing the attention of a distant mallard flock in some cases. Run a big spread and make the footprint of that spread large by spacing out the decoys with 5-10 feet in between them. Be aggressive with the flags when geese or ducks are at a distance, standing up to flag if you must, to help increase their chances of seeing the flags motion. If you’ve never flagged before the concept is very simple, just wave the flag rod up and down in short bursts to simulate a flapping goose. Start high and end with it at the ground. As geese and ducks get close only flag if you feel they are losing interest and keep this flagging subtle. A flick of the flag wing or a single flap.

One exception to the big spread little spread topic that I have found through my own excursions is hunting smaller rivers and large streams which Iowa has plenty of. The duck species often found here are wood ducks, mallards and occasionally a smattering of others. You will also find geese, especially later in the season when the ponds and small lakes begin to freeze up. If you find a group of birds using a section of river or stream then you struck gold and can have one of the best hunts of the season. More often is the case where you will catch singles, pairs and small groups trading up or down the river. In either case, it doesn’t take a tremendous number of decoys to be successful in these hunting situations.

Basic Spread Shape and Setup
There are three basic variables that I consider when setting up a decoy spread. First is wind direction, second is where you are able to hide, and third being the position of the sun. In any situation, I like to try and avoid having the sun shining directly into my face. This makes the decoys visible but it also makes you and any movement more visible as well, not to mention trying to shoot at moving targets with the sun in your eyes. Sometimes this can’t be avoided due to wind direction which I consider to be most important when laying out a spread. Waterfowl will almost always land into the wind if they can so you want the spread to allow them a safe spot to set down.

Spread shape goes along with wind direction and ties into where you can hide. Sometimes a location where the birds want to be offers no other option than to hunt with a crosswind. That is OK, just cater the spread to suit and offer everyone a safe and available shooting window.
The shape of your spread is largely user preference but a few basic shapes which you can easily find with a quick Google search resemble the letters “U”, “W”, “O” and “J”. What all of these letter shapes have in common is a pocket or hole for birds to land in which is critical. The “U” and “W” are most common for field and water hunters with the “U” being a better shape for smaller spreads and a “W” better suited for large spreads. An “O” shape spread can also be used in water, especially when hunting a micro island type situation, or hunting small rivers and streams but generally this shape is best utilized in field hunting. The “J” comes into play when hunting a crosswind or point on the water. It can also be used in fields but that strategy is less common. If you like to Diver hunt then the “J” shape with an extra-long tail on the J can be an awesome shape to employ.

If there are two key takeaways from this article that I could give you it would be 1) Use decoys how your budget allows, and 2) do your best to be where the birds want to be. The latter having the biggest impact on success regardless of topic or strategy. If you are like me then eventually you will need to build a shed for all your decoys amassed over the years which I told my wife was for the “lawnmower” but that’s a topic for another discussion. Best of luck this season and stay safe!