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Playing The Spread
The Art & Science of Decoying Ducks

DuckBuckGoose - PHJ ProStaff-Cincinnati, OH

Being a waterfowl hunter for most of my life I am still fascinated how small differences in decoy setups can have such a big impact on how approaching birds react (or not) — and ultimately on the success of your hunt. To be honest, I can’t tell you I have all the answers (and if anyone says they do they’re lying). But experience tells me that setting up a highly effective decoy spread is indeed both an art and a science. And like most other worthy pursuits, it is something that you can never quite perfect…it requires continuous experimentation and a passion for lifelong learning.Mallards in flight

The Science of Decoying Waterfowl:
While the laws of physics hold constant, waterfowl behavior does not. The variables that make your spread work for you are always changing…and so your approach to setting decoys will need to keep changing too. There are probably more variables that affect a duck’s behavior over decoys than of us humans will ever know, but here are some of the most important ones you need to be thinking about:
• Wind conditions
• Water type & conditions (big water, river or stream, flooded field, flooded timber, slough, creek or ditch…)
• Temperature and time of the season
• Water levels
• Daylight and visibility
• Hunting pressure (In your area and North in the flyway)
• Decoy movement
• Species hunted
• Regional differences

I’ll cover some of these variables here, and encourage all of our members to share their own ideas in the comments area at the end of the article.

Wind Conditions:

Tip #1: OK…so this one is pretty elementary but I have to mention it. Ducks and geese typically (but not always) try to land into the wind. Set up your decoys upwind of where you want them to land so that your “pocket” or landing area allows them to fly into the wind and right into where you want them to “finish” or set down.

Tip #2: If possible, try to hunt with the wind at a quartering angle to your blind. This can keep the birds’ attention on your decoy spread and not on your boat or blind — because they won’t be as likely to try to land looking directly at you if the wind is blowing at a quartering angle from your back.

Tip #3: Wait to call the shot until a flock sets up to land just upwind of your blind. More times than not, this will cause flaring birds to pass back over the top of your blind, giving you a higher percentage shot at making good kill shots.

Water Type & Conditions:

Big Water Setups: Big water can mean big rivers, lakes or coastal hunting. The following setups can work in any of these environments. Other setups can work too. If you have your own ideas to share, we’d love to hear about them, so again, feel free to share your top tactics in the comments area at the end of the article.Boat blind at sunset pic

The Classic J-Hook: In this classic setup you’ll put the bulk of your decoy spread upwind, and then run a line of decoys down wind and past your blind, making a rough “J” shape. IF it is common for different species of birds to feed or rest together in your region, don’t be afraid to mix some geese in with your duck decoys, and use a few different species here and there at different parts of the “J”. This can help add realism to your spread and provide added visibility since some decoy sizes and paint schemes can be more visible than others (like goose deeks and black ducks for example).

The Lucky Horseshoe: This doesn’t always work, but I had a few banner days on early season Greenheads last year at Lake Erie’s Sandusky bay using this technique. With the wind directly at our backs and occasionally quartering off one shoulder or the other, we set up a spread with heavy concentrations of mallard decoys extending out in a “U” shape about 20 yards to the sides each direction and maybe 30-40 yards out, placing our boat blind at the closed end of the horseshoe. Just outside the top ends of the U past the mallards we set a couple of small family groups of 4-5 geese on each side. We also included a spinner mallard in the landing area but closer to one side of the shoe, providing some movement, but a comfortable landing area. Several flocks of early season “local” ducks trading out the bay saw our spread and pulled 90 degree turns to pitch right in front and center, giving use great shots and a three man limit of greenheads.

Rivers & Stream Setups:

If you’re on a river, stream or slough here are some tactics that many experienced hunters swear by.

The Block & Bunch: If you’re on a small river channel or slough and have enough decoys, try to block off the entire channel with a large group of decoys upwind of your blind. Flocks of ducks that are flying up the main artery of a river often fly into these side channels and will dump straight into your setup if you completely block off the stream. The bunch part comes into play by setting a few more small groups of decoys downwind of your stream “blockers” along both sides of the stream. Placing majority of these “bunches” along the opposite bank to forces the decoying birds to land closer to your blind and provides higher percentage shots.

Flooded Timber:

“Honey Holes” in flooded timber can take on many different shapes and sizes, so you’ll have to make adjustments to fit the water you’re hunting, but here are a few tested tips that will help improve your odds.

Tip #1: Go Big To Be Visible: When your hunting flooded timber and you’re in a smaller hole in the trees, flying ducks don’t have a lot of time to see your spread as they wing by. That said, you should make sure your spread is as visible as possible to pull in passing ducks. There are a variety of ways to do this, but when hunting flooded timber try using extra-large or “super-magnum” decoys for maximum visibility. It is also a good idea to make sure your decoy paint is bright and offers good contrast between the light and dark colors on the bird. Dark colored decoys like black ducks can also be helpful to include in your spread, as they can offer the best visibility in many water and light conditions.

Tip #2: Create a Comfort Zone: It is amazing how gracefully ducks can drop into a small landing area in flooded timber. But, you don’t want the ducks to feel crowded. Give them plenty of room to land by placing the majority of your spread on the upwind side of the hole, and leave a larger open area downwind to create a comfortable landing zone. Because ducks in timber often swim around in the cover of the trees when they’re on the water, you can also spread a few small groups in the trees around the perimeter your hole. This gives the spread a realistic look that can provide a sense of comfort among passing ducks and encourages them to drop into your preferred shooting zone.

Temperature and Time of Season:
Some say that ducks huddle closer together later in the season when the temperatures are colder and tend to be more spread out early in the season when the temperature is warmer. I’ve found that to be true sometimes and sometimes not — but it is a good rule of thumb. Try to “glass” real birds to see what they’re doing on the water and adjust accordingly. Also remember that feeding ducks may group closer together than “loafing” ducks — so match your spread to your water depth and the vegetation it holds.

Time of season can also affect how you should call (or not) to approaching ducks. We’ll cover that in a separate article but another basic rule of thumb is to be more aggressive with calling early in the season and be more conservative with the call later in the season when ducks are more likely to be “call shy”.

Water Levels: Again, try to set up your spread so it matches the behavior of ducks in that type of water (are they typically feeding or resting there?). Another factor to consider is the degree of difficulty in which you can set our your decoys. Shallow water with few steep drop-offs are desirable because you can wade out and place decoys right where you want them. Setting them from a boat can be more difficult and take a lot longer to set the specific spread you’re looking for. But…you still have to go where the birds are; so don’t take the easy way out if it is going to significantly lessen your chances for seeing birds. Duck hunting is some of the hardest work you’ll ever love.

Decoy Movement: No matter what type of water you hunt, decoy movement will add life to your spread, and increase the confidence of passing ducks that your spread is safe to land in. There are dozens of techniques for adding movement: motion stakes, spinners, quiver magnets, jerk strings. I’ve heard mixed opinions on just about all of these (more positive than negative) except for the old-fashioned jerk string, which seems to be a time-tested favorite. If you’ve never used a jerk string in your spread, give it a shot and let us know what you think. If you’re hunting an area with low wind or water movement it can make a big difference.

Daylight & Visibility: When hunting big water in the great lakes and midwest I’ve found that cold and cloudy weather conditions usually make for the best duck hunting days. But, open water also allows your decoys to be fairly visible to passing ducks unless the weather conditions are really severe.

In flooded timber however, flying ducks only have a few seconds in some cases to catch a glimpse of your decoys, so making your spread as visible as possible can be even more critical. As discussed above, you can maximize your spread’s visibility by using big decoys with high contrast paint schemes. But the daylight and weather conditions also play a role. For example, a sunny day that “lights up” your decoys and makes them more visible can work in your favor when passing ducks only have a few seconds to spot them. Adjusting the shade or daylight hitting your deeks can also make a difference.

The ART of Decoying:
Just as you cannot really “teach” someone to be a great artist, it is difficult, if not impossible to teach the subtle “art” of decoying ducks. Much of that has to be developed by spending time watching and hunting waterfowl. Over time you’ll find that you develop instincts for how to set your spread and what kind of adjustments you need to make under changing conditions.

When you’re setting your spread or it simply isn’t working try to listen to that that little voice in your gut. Whether you are aware of it or not, part of your mind is always working when you’re on the water or in the field. If you’ve got a feeling you should adjust your spread, do it. You probably know more than you think you do.

Finally, Remember, the smartest hunter of all of us is all of us together. The collective wisdom of all of our readers is amazing, so please feel free to share your own ideas and comments in the comments section.



Posted 11/15/2009
Nice article, very informative!!!
Joined: 5/7/2009
Posted 12/9/2009
Great article Sean!
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Posted 12/25/2009
Nice article. Thanks
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Posted 1/2/2010
Thanks for the a man that is used to hunting with experienced partners, I have found myself to be the straw boss of the group. This helps alot in my decision making
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Posted 1/5/2010
Great article. I us a mojo have had great success with this my spots do not hold alot of ducks don't use alot of decoys 6 to 10. is this anough or should I use more?
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Posted 1/13/2010
Very helpful article! thank you
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Posted 1/19/2010
Very good article. Thanks!
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Posted 1/19/2010
Very good article. Thanks
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Posted 1/21/2010
throw the mojo away
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Posted 10/25/2010
Mojo's are becoming less and less effective. Good to bring them in for a look from far away, but spook them to finish. The goose type flags made with duck wings seem to be doing well to get the same attention from far away, and leave the spread nice and comfy for the finish. The hard part is geese honk and let you know they're coming, ducks just show up. So keep plenty of eyes out, and don't be hanging out waving your flag at ducks a 1/2 mile away and have a group of 7 mallards working you from the rear. (speaking from experience)

Good Article!
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Posted 9/2/2011
Great article!
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Posted 9/3/2011
One thing I didn't see were tips on setting up on small to medium size ponds.
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