Iowa’s 5 Hardest Waterfowl to Decoy

By Nick Johnson

In my 20 years hunting waterfowl in Iowa I have experienced the whole gamut of failure to success in a wide range of hunting scenarios. Sometimes it seems as though you have to fight the birds off your spread but those times are rare, at least in my experience. Some of the most rewarding hunts for me come in late season when it takes good scouting, good concealment and the right forecast to put all the pieces together, and even still the birds may change their minds or become wise to tricks.

If you are in the right spot, the so-called “X”, waterfowl by-and-large are not that difficult to pull into a decoy spread if other ingredients such as concealment are done right. If you are where the ducks or the geese want to be, at the right time, your odds of hunting success are amplified. So many things can play into this however. The weather can change, maybe something disturbed them the evening before and they changed locations. A simple shift in wind direction can have surprisingly negative effects as well.

Through my experiences, I have observed a few different species that are routinely difficult to coax into a spread. Some of you reading this may agree or disagree but in my eyes, these are the fowl that have left me stupefied, scratching my head more-so than any other. These aren’t in any order or rank, just a list of the tricky, frustrating and wise. Snow geese and White Fronted geese get honorable mention here but aren’t included. Snows can be incredibly hard to decoy unless you have a huge decoy spread and White Fronts, or specks just aren’t all that common in Iowa in the fall and often travel with Snows or Lesser Canadas.

Pintails
I have had some fantastic Pintail hunts in North Dakota while field hunting and scratched a few out here and there in Iowa but for the most part these birds are tricky to decoy, especially later in the season and hunting water sets. They give you plenty of looks and often seem like they are planning to commit but just keep circling and analyzing, leaving and returning again to do the same thing all over. It happens to me multiple times every year and each time I think, this is going to be the one to do it, except they bail out like they just spent 5 minutes looking at the buffet and decided they were going to eat at the steak house across the street.

Once in a while you catch them off guard though. New birds, young birds or first light are the opportunities I’ve had to harvest a few in Iowa. One thing I’ve found that helps increase their commitment is soft calling and being absolutely still. Coax them in with soft Mallard chatter and subtle quacks, maybe throw in a few Pintail peeps on the whistle. If you are truly after a Pintail in this state, then the best odds are finding some mixed in with Mallards feeding in a field and hunting them there. For whatever reason, Pintails, Wigeon and Mallard behave much more readily to decoying in a field than a water set.

Lesser Canadas
Lessers aren’t overly abundant in many parts of the state during the fall but they definitely come through! The western half of Iowa sees more than the eastern half no doubt. My experiences hunting these little screechy sounding geese involves a healthy decoy spread and aggressive calling to pull a flock of them in. Most of the ones I’ve shot in Iowa were mixed in as a single or smaller bunch with the big Canadas and never took special treatment to decoy.

They can be frustrating birds though and sometimes appear to have no rhyme or reason to what they are doing or where they go. The ones mixed in with the big geese aren’t the tough guys, it’s the big wads of just Lessers that are challenging in my eyes. If you have a group of hunters that can throw together a chorus of goose chatter, utilize flags and get under a passing flock then you might just get a crack at a few of them.

Wood Ducks
Now these guys go either way for me and usually its one extreme or the other. I’ve had hunts where they are coming in at first light like mosquitos at a campground on a muggy July evening. Then the opposite happens where they cruise by just out of gun range without so much as a glance at your setup. My experience with wood ducks is all or nothing and there is no middle ground of working a flock of them in like mallards or other puddle ducks. I can recall only a handful of encounters where a few notes on the call actually got their attention and had them come in, presumably younger ducks.

Wood ducks sure seem to have a mind of their own but there are ways to have success in hunting them. If you find an oxbow, pond, stretch of river, etc.. where they are frequenting you can try to set up to decoy them early in the morning. It often doesn’t take more than a dozen decoys to do so. Other ways that are less conventional would be to slowly walk creeks and streams and jump shoot them when flushed. You can even float rivers on a canoe or kayak and pass shoot them as they flush, just make sure you know what is behind the target before pulling the trigger.

Scaup
Scaup, or Blue Bills as they are often called are another duck that to me is more challenging to decoy. Not so much because they aren’t willing to do so, they are pretty decoy friendly birds – mostly because they frequent areas of open water which is difficult to hunt unless you have a layout boat or a lot of decoys to pull birds in closer to the shoreline. Hunting for them in Iowa can be pretty good if the weather is right. Areas like the Mississippi River and some of the bigger reservoirs load up with them in the fall and huge rafts of them mixed with other divers can be observed out in the middle of these water bodies.

What makes them challenging is simply the areas that they prefer to be in, which aren’t necessarily along shallow shoreline features. If you get a real windy, nasty day then hunting from points that offer calmer water on the leeward side can be good, and use a lot of decoys! You’ll often get a few cracks at some birds first thing in the morning as they trade around looking for a place to feed. After getting their butts kicked in the waves out in open water they will start to trade around a bit throughout mid-morning and you can pick up a few more looking for a sheltered area. Combine this with an approaching weather front and some new birds and the gun barrels can get hot in short order, often with a mixed bag of various diver species.

Bufflehead
Last but surely not least is one of my favorite ducks, the Bufflehead. Much like wood ducks these little guys also seem to have a mind of their own and it’s a rare treat that I have a flock come in to the decoys like the script spells out. In north central Iowa where I grew up duck hunting, Buffleheads were a semi-common sight mid to late season on the pothole lakes and it wasn’t unusual to decoy a solo hen, but to get a group of them with the beautiful drakes present was special. The routine usually involves a flock or pair swinging by, low on the water only to plop down and be typical divers a few hundred yards out.

The one thing over years of seeing this unfold that increased my chances on them by a small percentage was to run a group of Bufflehead and Bluebill decoys off to the side of my main decoy spread. Nine times out of ten if I have some commitment they will land right with the diver decoys. As an added bonus this also seems to coax in a random flock of Ring Necks or Redheads once in a while.

Whether you prefer to hunt fields, rivers, lakes or ponds, there will always be ups and downs to the level of success experienced. To me it’s not so much about the number of birds taken at the end of the day as it is about the experience and camaraderie that goes along with waterfowl hunting. Any species of waterfowl can be challenging to hunt and if I had to make space for more entries, common species like mallards would definitely be mentioned. Being where the birds want to be was the single best advice I received when I first started hunting ducks and geese. Good luck this fall!