Decoying Waterfowl – Costly Mistakes
By Nick Johnson
Waterfowl hunting as a whole is a pretty straightforward concept. It is the different variables that factor in given the time of season that make it challenging and rewarding, maybe even frustrating. The variables that we cannot control such as weather, migration patterns, hunting pressure and even water levels are ones that hunters may curse but also must face regardless. The ones we can control such as scouting, concealment, calling and decoys can be tailored to suit the uncontrolled portions and increase success. It’s all about eliminating the odds that are stacked against us.
If I were to make a list of the most important factors in waterfowl hunting to me, decoys and decoy placement would be third but only by a very close margin to the first two. First being quality scouting and hunting where the birds want to be or where you may intercept them, which I tend to beat to a pulp in many of my articles. The second would be good concealment and really, this should be tied for first because this can truly make or break a hunt if not done properly, especially mid to late season.
Decoys are part of what makes this sport so much fun though, and yes, expensive too. Without decoys, your chances of pulling ducks and geese in close enough for a shot are minimal, unless of course you prefer to pass shoot which I will refrain from comments there. So many things play in to success using decoys from early season to late and I have learned a lot of lessons over the years hunting both public and private ground on fresh and even heavily pressure birds. Let’s dive into a few topics that may help improve your decoys strategy.
The days of killing ducks over a spread of painted milk jugs or geese using trash bags on sticks is long gone. The market is loaded with high quality, realistic decoys that have made waterfowl hunting more competitive than ever. Birds become educated on the most realistic decoys so you shouldn’t settle for using sub-par quality, especially later into the season. Early season you can get away with doing so a bit but it becomes more challenging as the migration sees continued hunting pressure. For those that are budget conscious and have a mixture of old and new decoys, I suggest using the older decoys as filler birds, putting the best and brightest along the edges and along the landing hole. For field hunting geese, I like to scatter these older worn out decoys around and between the blinds to further conceal hunters.
Also, pay attention to what type of birds you will primarily encounter. If you hunt a spot that has a lot of Teal, Gadwall and other smaller puddle ducks then run a spread comprised mostly of those. Mallard decoys serve a broad purpose in many duck scenarios but a diverse spread looks very natural and realistic. If you are hunting larger ducks like Mallards and Pintail, it doesn’t hurt to throw a group of honker decoys into the mix for visibility. Many duck species including divers aren’t shy about landing near geese and it offers the added bonus of pulling a goose or two in as well.
One other thing to note is shine on decoys. This can happen from seasons of wear and rubbing in the decoy bag and is a huge red flag for ducks and geese alike. Even frost on decoys in the morning can be bad news. If your decoys are old and worn out, either buy some new ones or spend a little time to re-paint or even flock them to look fresh again. With frost or snow, dunk them in the water or brush them off periodically to keep them looking natural.
Study the Birds
In any waterfowl hunting scenario it pays to watch the attitude of the birds. The ideal goal is to have them toes down in your spread but that isn’t always the case. Study their behavior and how they approach the spread. If they circle out wide a few times and then leave, something wasn’t right and they didn’t feel safe. Either your concealment was inadequate, the decoys looked off or possibly they have been shot at from this spot before and they remember. If birds are landing short, then it could be decoys or even wind direction. Make adjustments as needed but don’t think too much into it. Look at the blind first and go out into the spread to look back and check it out. If everything looks good, then see how the decoy spread can be modified. Some of the following topics will play into this one.
A Dead Spread
Nothing screams “fake” to an approaching flock of ducks or geese like motionless decoys on flat calm water. I have had this very circumstance trash a hunt for me all because I left the jerk cord at home. After that event, I have never left for the water or field without some type of motion or attention grabbing ploy for my setup. Jerk rigs are incredibly easy to set up and use and they can really change the odds in your favor in calm settings. Other motion systems like a Pulsator, Crazy Kicker or Wonderduck also work great and offer hands free movement. When field hunting geese I always bring a flag to grab their attention at a distance. When a flock approaches, I put the flag down unless they begin to veer off in which case a quick couple flaps or the flick of a wing on the flag can sometimes turn them back towards you.
When these first hit the market years ago they were a total game changer. Even today, they work but mid to late season birds start to become educated and weary. I love to use them through the season but if ducks are unwilling to commit this is one of the first things I put away. They are awesome for grabbing the attention of a flock from a distance but sometimes weary ducks are wise to the tricks when they get closer. One thing you can do if you still wish to utilize one is to place it in sparse reeds or emergent vegetation. This makes the Mojo, Lucky or whatever you use less pronounced and harder to decipher from keen, scrutinizing waterfowl eyes above. Just make sure when geese are en route to turn the spinner off or take it down all-together. Geese are notoriously spinner shy.
Decoys Too Tight
Sometimes in the dark it can be hard to judge distance and how the spread is being placed. Packing decoys in tight can be okay in cold, late season field hunting especially using sleeper shells as this looks natural but doing this on the water can raise some red flags for ducks and geese. If you ever see a flock packed tight together on the water all facing the same direction, chances are they are nervous, unsettled or getting ready to take off. If you look at relaxed feeding or loafing birds on the water, they tend to be more spread out and facing in different directions. Keep decoys far enough apart so they aren’t bumping into each other and be sure to rig them so 1/3 or more are tied to the rear and not just the front.
Leave a Landing Zone
This may seem elementary but many hunters don’t utilize the landing zone or “hole” to their benefit. Not only does this give an approaching flock a target to key in on, it also can take the focus off hunters hiding behind or within the spread. In field hunting situations where geese were landing short I have even used a landing hole behind the blinds which seems outrageous but it can work. The landing zone doesn’t always have to be a hole either. It can be the bend in a “J” shape or possibly multiple pockets in some other arrangement. In any case, position this pocket or hole so that hunters have the best opportunity to make clean shots safely within their shooting lanes.
Keep in mind some of these tips when venturing out and really pay attention to what the birds are telling you. They will let you know right away if something isn’t right to them. Make adjustments to the blind or spread when this happens and don’t be afraid to put in a little extra work and move the entire spread if need be. Good luck this season!