Man, that decoy spread looks good in the dark. Illuminated by your truck's headlights, you are sure all the hard work will pay off. Then failure. The birds don't come or don't land where you want 'em. Disaster strikes hard as No. 2 steel.
Are your sure-bet Canadas landing behind your field setup? Your easy-come greenheads cupping down outside your spread? You can be on the imagined X but still blow the deal. But a slight adjustment might be all you need. Pull up a chair. Waterfowl class is in session.
The problem: Geese and ducks land outside your genius spread. What now?
The solution: Call maker Sean Mann says to first figure out why this is happening. Did you miss the right spot by a few yards in the dark? Mann asks. If you are on the X, then try opening the spread up by either (1) removing decoys from the outer edges or (2) simply creating more space in the pockets. They call it a spread for a reason, and I have seen very few situations when opening things up wouldn't help.
Amp It Up
The problem: Not lugging in enough decoys in for the job.
The solution: As usual this past season I'd been hunting solo at times and only packing in a dozen, maybe 18 goose decoy shells max. This particular farm on the Atlantic Flyway didn't permit four-wheeler access or hauling in 100-plus fakes with a trailer. It was best hunted during the week, but when all my other buds were busy. Eighteen dekes. That's not always enough to interest honkers well into the season. You need more eye appeal. Doubling that number might do it. So I did. The next time out, my lightweight spread looked solid with more than 30 fakes. When eight honkers appeared at a distance and seemed tentative, my pleading calls matched the visual, and they turned and sailed right in. My day's limit of Maine Canada geese was satisfied.
The problem: All the good spots are getting hammered.
The solution: No matter what flyway you hunt, pressure dictates waterfowl movement. To go with this seasonal flow, set small spreads on back-country rivers, streams and creeks. Farm ponds. Beaver dam waters. Bust out ice if necessary in the pre-dawn. Put some loafing full-body mallard fakes on the sandbar if available. Have woodies mixed in among deadfalls beneath oaks. You may not kill a limit this way, but it's action when before you had none.
Make it Real
The problem: Honkers seem wary of staked out shells during out-of-range flyovers.
The solution: Make a seasonal adjustment, which can aid your setup time and add realism. Dump the stakes—static, motion, whatever. Stop staking fakes, and simply use natural materials (grass, cornstalks, dirt) to elevate each one slightly with a natural look. This past early goose season, I hunted a grassy pasture field where a spread of inexpensive and highly portable goose shell dekes arranged as if looking, loafing and feeding did the trick. Don't just toss your fakes out there and hope they plant themselves. Design the spread based on your knowledge of waterfowl behavior.
Think Like a Duck
The problem: You're not giving the species what it wants.
The solution: Decoys are only effective if the species you're hunting wants to be with the fakes in your spread. Wood ducks, for example, like acorn-rich waters, are somewhat aloof and are often apart from other species. Numerous wood duck dekes may enhance the visual pleasure you have looking out on that spot, but a minimalist set of single-species pairs might be just right: hen and drake woodie. Or mostly drakes, say three to five, with an odd hen in there. Don't push it. Mallards mix well with other flooded field, marsh and river puddlers though. Three-dozen greenheads paired with susies and a few pintails, gadwalls, wigeon or teal fakes isn't pushing it, geography depending. I hunt Atlantic Flyway inshore saltwater in the late-season; just a few matching pairs of goldeneye decoys and a seagoing black duck or two bobbing in a low-tide cove works. At other times, go big with your mix-and-match spread as the location dictates. What would you like to see if you were a duck?
Odd Duck In
The problem: Your single-species spread looks cold and uninviting.
The solution: Throw some Canadas in your mallard spread. Drop a few wigeon, pintails, black ducks and even shovelers in there. Coot fakes should be somewhere in your basement's waterfowling warehouse. Ducks are used to loafing with coots, so adding some to your spread can help.
The problem: Wary ducks avoid your flooded timber spot. Maybe the problem is you.
The solution: Three-time World Duck-Calling Champion Barnie Calef puts it simply: Flooded timber presents one of the easiest hunting situations if the mallards want to be there. It can be tougher at times though. Like many waterfowlers, Calef might first put dekes to one end of the hole to simulate ducks that have landed and are swimming away. In such a situation, he suggests another way to ensure spread success. Stay still until you're ready to shoot, he emphasizes. Unnecessary movement away from the dekes can tip ducks off. Don't fidget. Tighten up.
The problem: Ducks aren't drawn to your spread, but land nearby.
The solution: Mann opens things up in this situation. Rod Haydel of Haydel's Game Calls might also move the pocket. To fix this, I might make my pocket right next to the blind using a hook-type set. I try to put several duck species in close, especially those ducks I'm targeting and imitating with my calling. Ducks can then reference the decoys tight to the blind when I call. Also if ducks are lighting to the right side of the blind, I can move the decoys to the left side and vice versa.
The problem: Geese wing into the area, but drop into other spots.
The solution: Are you setting big spreads, then finding you missed the X when birds dump in out of range? My buddy Dan, a honker-hunting contact, walks in on groups of geese, flushes them, then puts out a small quickie spread of a dozen dekes. Well hidden in nearby natural cover, he waits. Earlier this season, he and a friend doubled down on two Maine goose limits using this flash-hunt tactic.
Vary the Look
The problem: You favor a particular decoy spread, but the birds have started to ignore it.
The solution: Mix it up. Like some of you, I lie awake making multiple geometric spread configurations in the dark: X, G, I, J and so on. It's part of the fun; the game of it. Clearly some spreads don't interest particular birds. Others do. When I get in a funk, I vary my spread. Sometimes it pays to do the opposite.
The problem: Field geese detect your hide.
The solution: Sure, layout blinds work. Natural cover is even better. Swampy areas in the middle of pastures, ignored by farmers due to maneuvering difficulties, make prime setup spots. Slip in, set decoys at the appropriate distance, and you're in business. Scout to find these spots in high-travel goose areas, and you might get a chance at intercepting birds looking for a new spot to land.
The problem: Your spots have all dried up as action goes. You've burned them out. Decoys don't matter. The ducks buzz on by, ignoring them.
The solution: Think wet. After major weather events, spots that once seemed useless to you as a waterfowler now become prime. Hit those washed-out fields ASAP. If mallards are likely to use them, go armed with many decoys. Set up fakes on the periphery of your kill zone, but also close to your hide. Bring plenty of shotgun shells.
Pack It In
The problem: You want ducks to decoy to small potholes.
The solution: If you're hunting a small pothole, Calef says, try filling it with decoys. Don't leave an open spot anywhere. This will make for a flooded timber-like situation where ducks have to look hard for a place to land. Why don't hunters do this more often? Some guys, me included, tend to avoid filling a hole completely so that the landers have more room. He concludes that if you fill a hole with dekes, ducks will first commit and try to land, but then will spread out to look for open spots. That's when you take 'em.
Longtime Realtree.com contributor Steve Hickoff has been known to draw decoy spread plans on diner napkins. He hunts waterfowl in a bunch of states.
Decoys by the alphabet...
Always have a Plan B in mind should your sure-bet decoy spread fail.
Bright days should have the decoys out in front and you on the shady side of trees in flooded timber.
Children's snow sleds can haul your load of decoys to and from your spots, strapped down with bungee cords.
Decoy bags should be roomy and comfortable to carry. You can never have enough of them.
Eliminate ice on your floaters by placing them carefully on the water in cold weather.
Feeder dekes should face the wind.
Great blue heron, crow, seagull, even wild turkey decoys can add variety to your waterfowl spread. You're hunting ducks and geese but the other species might make your set look more realistic.
Hay bales can add realism to your setups and are great ways to hide.
Ice is nice. When other guys sleep in, you and your decoys should be out, set and ready to rock.
Jerk strings attached to your floaters can add movement and a realistic look.
Kill zones should be established when you hunt alone or with blind buddies. Set decoys as range distance cues for shots.
Looker goose fakes should often stand at attention on the outside of your spread.
Motion might move geese your way, and flagging can add this visual appeal.
No calling is needed if honkers are committed to your spread and sailing in.
On windless days, station blind buddies in different directions since geese aren't influenced by wind direction then. Safety rules. Put guys back to back. Call out shots.
Place calls to your landowner contacts to maintain the connection and get fresh scouting information.
Question your setup when things go stale. Ask your buddies, What would you do?
Rotate goose fields and duck holes to keep from burning out a spot. Quit early. Don't shoot limits.
Steel, the liquid kind sold in tubes, can patch holey decoys.
Touch up those decoys with paint during downtime.
Unless you prefer a work week without hunting, go with a small spread, say a dozen dekes, before you punch the time clock. Throw the essentials in the back of your truck (plus a change of clothes) and have at it. An hour or two of hunting before the 9-5 grind will do you good.
Vary your choice of decoys. Full bodies = realism. Shells and silhouettes add to that trickery.
Wind direction should always be noted. Set your dekes so that waterfowl can approach from downwind, with room to circle your spread. Winds shift during hunts. Pay attention and adjust.
X marks the spot where you should put your decoys.
Yellow molded plastic ears of corn are one dirty trick you can use in goose fields to add realism.
Zen and the art of waterfowling takes on many meanings. Decoying tricks and solutions are but one part of the puzzle. Your enlightenment can only be attained by hunting hard, so get on it!