Get Your Blocks Right to Fool More Ducks and Geese
Yeah, I know it's only May, but it's never too early to start plotting your decoy strategy for this fall's duck and goose seasons. In that spirit, here's a brief rundown of the five biggest decoy mistakes to avoid.
Don't place decoys too close together. Give each block enough space to maximize visibility and define the shape of your spread. Ducks and geese usually don't bunch tightly together unless they're on edge or the weather is bad. The latter situation is an exception to this rule. I'm not afraid to group decoys close together during high winds or wavy conditions.
There's no hard-and-fast rule about the minimum distance between blocks. Just space decoys so the rig appears natural. If it's relatively calm, spread them out more, making it appear that birds are loafing.
Try to create a defined landing area in large goose and puddle duck spreads. Otherwise, birds tend to land outside the decoys or merely pass over while looking for a spot. The hole can be a pocket formed by a U- or J-shaped spread, an open area between two or three groups of decoys or simply an open hole amid a mass of blocks. Also, make sure to position the landing hole correctly: in easy range of the shooters but slightly offset from your boat or blinds. You don't want birds looking right at you as they cruise upwind toward the landing area.
Diving ducks love to fly over others of their kind on approach. That's why J-hook spreads or a mass of multiple lines with a long tail extending downwind are popular, proven setups. But recently, some guides on hard-hunted waters — Wisconsin's portion of the Mississippi River, for example — believe that divers shy away from such spreads because they see them so often. Instead, the guides use a long, loose mass of decoys to create the illusion of a raft of feeding or loafing birds. Gauge the pressure on your favorite diver water, and use the approach that makes sense.
Here's one diver decoy gaffe to avoid at all costs: Never set your spread so ducks cannot see some open water behind (directly upwind) the decoys. Divers associate open water with safety, and they're much more comfortable committing to setups with water visible beyond the decoys. That's no problem when hunting open water, but it's tricky on shore, like when you're hunting the western shore of a lake in a stiff westerly breeze. Try to angle your spread so some water, not shore, lies beyond the blocks. You'll finish more birds.
What's the right number of decoys? Whatever works that day. But generally, large spreads work best for big-water ducks or high-volume mallard and honker field shoots. A spread with 200 decoys isn't out of the question in either situation.
Conversely, when hunting streams or small potholes, a dozen or fewer suffice. Packing too many blocks in a small area won't look natural. Just make sure decoys are visible and look relaxed.
Use common sense for in-between scenarios. Two to four dozen blocks will probably work fine in marsh or river backwater situations. However, if most hunters are using such spreads — and they might, because boats made for those scenarios only hold so many decoys — consider cutting down or beefing up your rig to be different.
Ducks and geese usually flare at decoys that look like … well, decoys. Lifeless, still spreads on days with light winds don't work. Consider adding motion to your rig, whether it's a feeder or two on jerk strings, one of the many motion machines available nowadays or even the tried-and-true spinning-wing decoys. Spinners don't work like they used to — trust me, they were money in the day — but they're great in some situations, especially on big water or when hunting fields. Make sure you use models with remote-controlled on-off switches so you can stop the wings as ducks begin their final approach — say at about 60 yards. Ducks finish better when you do that. For geese, avoid spinners. Instead, use full-body decoys that balance and bob on motion stakes to create the illusion of an actively feeding flock.
This list represents just a few decoy blunders to avoid. Others — including rigging blocks that mimic the wrong species for a situation, running too many colorful drakes early in the season, or using faded or otherwise poorly maintained decoys — can also hinder your hunt. I'll concede that most decoy approaches work fine if you have a good spot and conditions are right. However, paying attention to decoy details will net you more birds when things aren't perfect.