Ask a half dozen duck hunting veterans to set decoys for the same spot and conditions, and chances are the result would be six different layouts. Setting decoys is a very subjective "art." Each hunter usually has his own ideas about spread design, number of decoys needed, rigging, etc.
However, some decoy spreads will toll in birds on any marsh, lake or timber hole regardless of location. Of course, each spread must be fine-tuned according to wind, terrain, current, blind position and other variables. But the designs are still effective from California to Maine to Florida, and all points in between.
Realistic decoys and natural placement are two keys to pulling ducks and geese in close, regardless of where a hunter sets up. Photo by Avery Outdoors
Following are four basic decoy spreads for four different settings: small marshes, open water, flooded timber and big rivers. Hunters who apply these designs to their own particular spots and circumstances can be sure that the birds will love them.
Small Waters Portable Spread
Small, secluded waters – potholes, swamps, marshes, beaver ponds, etc. – can offer high quality gunning for freelance hunters who make the effort to find them. Oftentimes, accessing these places involves hiking, wading or push-poling in a shallow draft boat, and a down-sized, portable decoy spread is most practical. One bag holding 20 standard decoys can be toted or floated into most out-of-the-way spots with minimal effort. Set properly, this number of decoys is sufficient for most small water situations.
Now the emphasis is on realism. Ducks will probably be up close before they spot the spread, so they'll get a good look. Decoys should be clean and have bright, fresh paint jobs. Add 2-3 pintail drakes and a half dozen black ducks for extra visibility and appeal (if these species occur naturally where you hunt). Rig these decoys with no-tangle plastic lines and light weights for ease in setting out and picking up.
Arrange these decoys as realistically as possible. On small waters, live ducks typically loaf in little random groups, not in fish hook or horseshoe patterns. If ducks flush from a pothole when you arrive, toss your decoys where they were sitting, three here, six there, four more a few yards down the bank. Then hide in the best, closest cover upwind or crosswind from the decoys, and get ready to shoot.
If no ducks are present when you arrive, move to the upwind side of the hole, pick your shooting spot, then set your decoys in small clusters to the left and right, leaving an opening in the middle. If the wind shifts to quartering or crossing, rearrange your decoys so most are downwind from the blind. The goal is to have incoming ducks land short of the decoys, right in front of the blind.
(Key to success: On calm-wind days, rig some means of decoy movement, either a swimming decoy, jerk string, ripple maker, etc. Live ducks on the water create ripples when swimming and feeding. Circling birds may become suspicious if decoys are sitting lifeless with no surface agitation. So provide for decoy movement, and this spread will be more convincing.)
Open Water Big Rig
High visibility is essential for pulling ducks over long distances of open water (lakes, reservoirs, etc.). Thus, the idea with this permanent rig is to simulate a large, very noticeable raft of resting waterfowl. It consists of 200-400 decoys, and the bigger the better. A 70/30 ratio of super magnum or magnum decoys and no-glare black plastic jugs will gain the attention of waterfowl passing several hundred yards away.
Black jugs? Don't laugh! These "decoys" greatly add to a spread's visibility at long distance, and ducks show no hesitation in working to a mixed spread of regular decoys and jugs. Also, because of their light weight and buoyancy, black jugs "swim" on the lightest breeze, thus adding extra realism.
This spread's design is like a giant doughnut - a circular pattern with an open hole in the middle. A floating blind is anchored in this hole and rigged so it will pivot in shifting winds around a fixed anchor in the center of the hole. (To do this, attach a steel cable from one back corner of the blind to the other with a little slack in the middle. Then couple a second cable to the mid-point of the first to form a Y. The other end of this second cable is attached to the anchor.) This rigging will allow the blind to swing like a weather vane with the front always facing downwind toward incoming birds.
Decoys should be spaced approximately five feet apart. Mix decoys and plastic jugs randomly. Decoys must be rigged with strong cord and heavy anchors (at least a pound) so they will stay put in strong winds.
The outer edge of the spread should be no farther than 40 yards from the blind. Also, thin or open holes should be left inside the spread for landing zones.
(Key to success: If ducks try to land outside the spread, use the call to lure them in for closer shots. Blow sharp, continuous quacks in rapid cadence to grab the ducks' attention and guide them toward the blind, like an airplane following a homing beacon.)
Decoys in Flooded Timber
Mallards, especially, are drawn to flooded green timber like bees to a hive. A combination of rising water and living woods/brush provides these birds with fresh food and sanctuary. This is why, when floodwaters rise in a bottomland forest, the ducks pour in, and smart hunters follow after them.
Most timber hunters boat or wade in and set up around "holes," openings in the forest canopy through which ducks can descend. A hole may exist where a tree has fallen, where loggers have made a clearing, or where hunters have hacked out a spot specifically for the birds to land. (This practice is barred on most public lands!) Hunters place decoys in the hole so the ducks can see them, then they hide and call a few feet back in the woods in the shadows of trees trunks or root wads.
It's a mistake to set decoys in the middle of the hole. Instead, it's better to scatter them along the upwind and crosswind edges of the hole, leaving the middle open. This simulates that ducks have landed and are swimming out into the timber. Also, circling ducks can scrutinize the hole from any angle and still see decoys, plus they have an uncluttered landing zone in the middle of the hole. Shaker or wing-spinner decoys should be used on slack-wind days to add motion, and hunters can also kick water to create surface ripples.
Savvy hunters know how to match their decoy spreads to different hunting situations. For instance, when hunting quiet backwaters, a small, realistic, highly natural spread will be more effective. Photo by Avery Outdoors
For most holes, a spread of 20-60 decoys is sufficient. These decoys should be bagged up no more than 20 per mesh bag so the load isn't too great if a lot of wading is required to get to where ducks are working. Four-foot strings and light anchors are sufficient for most flooded timber situations.
(Key to success: Ducks work into flooded timber much better on sunny days than on cloudy days. Watch the weather forecast, and if possible, plan your timber hunts for those mornings when the sun is bright.)
Multi-Rig River Spread
Sometimes – especially when shallow marshes and potholes freeze – ducks and geese raft up on big rivers. Boat-blind hunters who follow them there can enjoy super shooting on birds returning from feeding areas during mid-morning.
The trick is setting out decoys in water that may be deep and current-filled. Rigging with single lines and heavy anchors can be cumbersome, and decoys with long lines tend to tangle.
This is where a multi-rig spread comes in. From eight to 12 decoys are attached to one long "mother line," which is anchored on the front and back ends. Each decoy is rigged with a 1-foot line with a metal ring on the end. Then the decoys are attached to snaps that are tied along the mother line at 6-foot intervals.
To deploy, the upstream anchor is tossed out, then decoys are snapped on as the boat drifts downcurrent and the mother line plays out. When the last decoy is attached, the downstream leader is stretched and the second anchor is dropped so the line has little slack. This operation is similar to setting out a trotline for catfish.
Two or three multi-rig lines should be deployed parallel to each other and staggered so the decoys aren't lined up in rows. Super magnum decoys are recommended, since high visibility is a goal of this spread. Also, goose floaters can be substituted on the lines if geese are working the river.
This multi-rig spread should be set out near island points, along eddy pockets or anywhere that the birds show a tendency to work. Then the boat should be hidden in the best, nearest cover for shooting, or hunters can fashion a temporary blind on the bank.
(Key to success: One sure way of setting up in a good spot is to run the river until you find a raft of ducks or geese, then scare them up and set a multi-rig spread exactly where they were resting.)
Wade Bourne is the author of "Decoys and Proven Methods for Using Them," published by Ducks Unlimited.