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Decoying Waterfowl: The Art and Science
written by James Joslin

Decoying ducks and geese involves using the birds' senses of sight and instinct against them. The following article describes key concepts behind the art and science of decoying waterfowl.
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Decoys in Timber
A duck hunter retrieves a bird after firing into a group of mallards. Note that the decoys include hen and drake dekes placed closely together to simulate the pairing of mates that occurs late in duck season.

"A thousand years ago in the Southwest, an Indian sat in a cave and fashioned a counterfeit canvasback duck. He formed the head and body of reeds, bound them tightly with bulrushes and colored them with pigments. Finally he stuck feathers into the body to make it as lifelike as possible.

"The finished product was what is now the world's oldest known waterfowl decoy. It was discovered in Lovelock Cave, Nevada, in 1924. Today anybody can see it in New York's Museum of the American Indian."

That is how Erwin A. Bauer chose to begin Chapter 8: "Waterfowl Decoys" in his book, The Duck Hunter's Bible.

I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of this work when Mom found one at a flea market during my early teenage years. The purchase cost me only $1, but the purchase price has been returned to me a thousandfold by the information and guidance contained within its pages.

Although the publication date shows 1965, little has truly changed in the basic concept of decoying waterfowl over the 40+ years that have elapsed since this Bible hit the bookstores.

Decoying ducks and geese involves using the birds' senses of sight and instinct against them. Basically, you want the spread of duck and/or goose decoys to look as real as possible -- in the eyes of the ducks and geese.

Over the decades upon decades that man has pursued waterfowl, much advice has been dispensed. And, much of that advice is still valid today.

Colony Waterfowl
Snow and blue geese are colony waterfowl, meaning that they relate to one another in large groups -- sometimes into the hundreds or thousands.

One concept of proper decoying deals with the shape of a decoy setup. In this vein, duck decoys may be arranged in shapes that appear to roughly translate into the letters J, C, O, U or V, or into shapes like a fish hook or a half moon. Meanwhile, goose decoys may be arranged in patterns resembling the letters X, O, Y or V, with some modification based on the wind. The key ingredient found in the idea of decoy setup shapes is that a hole, or landing zone, needs to be left in the setup to provide a spot where the ducks and/or geese can land well within shotgun range.

Other lessons learned by yesteryear's waterfowlers include those of varied decoy sizes and shapes, playing the numbers game, use of color and contrast, high visibility positioning, the allure of movement and the impression of security and comfort. Briefly touching on each of these facets of decoying waterfowl, here are the general ideas behind each concept.

Sizes and Shapes
Decoys of various size and shape offer a look of realism to a decoy spread. After all, all ducks don't look identical, and the same is true of geese. Incorporating different types, brands and species of decoys should accomplish the thrust of this belief. One way I have found to set this idea in motion is to use goose decoys while duck hunting or vice versa. The addition of those other birds seems to translate into more shooting based on my hunting experiences.

Gooseand Duck Decoys
Hunters may find that ducks and geese are more willing to work their decoy spreads by mixing birds to give an appeal to more species and the appearance of available food and security.

The Numbers Game
Most waterfowl are more likely to come to a higher number of bodies, whether on the water or in a field. Think of it like this. Do you want to go to the party where there are only a handful of guests, or would you rather head over to the big party where everybody is having a good time? Enough said. That being said, you may have to go against the grain later in the season when ducks and/or geese become educated and decoy shy.

Color and Contrast
Waterfowl biologists have noted that two colors that (according to the artsy set) aren't even actual colors are the colors that pop out most when doing aerial surveys of waterfowl. Those are black and white. In keeping with this school of thought, some hunters have added white to some of their decoys or have darkened the paint scheme of some mallard hens or Canada geese. The addition of contrast to this equation means that you should keep in mind what will show up when the birds are flying over. Dark bodies against a dark field don't provide much contrast. But, adding, for instance, some snow goose decoys to one side of a spread of Canadas would give those birds something to key in on as they ponder where to land.

High Visibility
Have you ever noticed that when geese or ducks are funneling down into a spot, it seems like every other bird within five miles is drawn in like a magnet? Why? Well, the other birds can see that action. This sort of activity can be accomplished by hunters wanting to add kites to a spread. Or, keeping this a ground game, position the decoys at a spot where the birds can easily see them when passing overhead or fairly near. This could mean a high point in a field for a dry land setup or keeping decoys out of the brush and vegetation when in the water.

How many of us have purchased a Mojo Mallard or similar product? Of course, these spinning-wing decoys can be highly effective, but they are illegal in some areas. There are, however, many other ways to impart movement to waterfowl decoys. One of the oldest tricks for duck hunting is the use of a jerk rig. A string is attached to one or more decoy and run to the blind or other hiding spot of the hunters. When ducks pass by, pulling on the string creates surface action on the water. Meanwhile, decoying geese has included such tactics as flagging. Taking this even one step farther, you can even wave your "wings" to attract the attention of geese still at some distance from your setup.

Goose Decoys
White-fronted geese, commonly referred to as Specklebellies, are familial birds as evidenced by this hunter retrieving his harvest from a group of decoys barely numbering double digits.

Security and Comfort
Just like us humans, waterfowl have their own Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Yes, the birds want food, rest and companionship. All these things can be advertised to ducks and geese through a decoy spread. Security is an issue that can go hand in hand with the numbers game. Food can appear readily available by having the decoys in a spot where harvested grain has been spilled. Rest and companionship go together to provide comfort for the birds. With predators, including man, always on the prowl, ducks and geese look for spots that provide them both security and comfort. Consider a day with high winds, and note that birds will often seek out a place that blocks those winds. Or, think about how waterfowl sometimes choose to land near other birds like herons. That's why manufacturers produce confidence decoys (read Keith Sutton's article Confidence Decoys and Duck Hunting).

In recent years, though, some of the newer generation's waterfowlers have spoken up and noted that bucking the trend is the way to go in decoying ducks and geese. Thus, some have abandoned the idea of certain setup shapes, excessive numbers of decoys and other long held decoying beliefs.

Truthfully, the best way to learn is through trial and error and showing a willingness to adapt to varied situations and learn from more experienced waterfowlers. So, if all else fails, find the oldest, crusty duck and goose hunter in your neighborhood. Offer to buy a steak dinner. Then, get pen and paper ready and beg to tag along for a few trips.

To illustrate the individuality and intelligence that hunters must apply to waterfowl decoying, I turn again to Bauer and The Duck Hunter's Bible. In the latter paragraphs of Chapter 8, he wrote:

"The proper placement of decoys and the arrangement of a good stool (old name for a decoy spread) is a subject for controversy wherever two or more duck hunters gather. Ducks are about as unpredictable as trout in heavily fished waters. To say that one type of placement will work is about like saying a certain fly will always catch trout. Trout fishermen know there is no such fly.

"To tell the truth, entire volumes could be written on the proper placement of waterfowl decoys. But it really boils down to the individual shooter's ingenuity and to his instinct for what will more quickly and more effectively attract waterfowl within shooting range. Some days the ducks will make a man feel he is truly an expert and that he has at last mastered decoy placement. On other days they will make him wish he had stayed home."

Additional Decoying Tips

Late in the duck season, place some mallard drake and hen decoys in pairs. The pairing off of mated mallards coincides with the end of duck season, so this might provide a little more realism for the greenheads and susies you want to bag. As for geese, consider placing dark goose (Canada or white-fronted geese) decoys in family groups of three to eight and light goose (snow and blue geese) decoys in colony groups of 12-50 or more. That's how they tend to relate in real life and why it takes fewer decoys to get Canadas and specklebellies consistently into shotgun range.

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