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Waterfowl Decoy Magic: The Strategic 6

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Use these tried-and-true spreads to lure birds sure-kill close

Decoy spreads are only limited by your imagination, but some configurations work better than others.

Through almost 40 years of waterfowl hunting, I’ve identified seven sets that produce time after time in specific situations. Be ready if you use them, though. You’ll soon be covered up in birds.

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The J-Hook

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1 | The J-Hook

This is probably the best all-around decoy spread ever devised. It works great for puddle ducks or divers, and it’s effective on large or small waters. Further, you can make a J-hook with 18 decoys or 180 blocks.

A J-hook consists of a large main group of blocks with a long tail of decoys — at least as long if not longer than the main body — stretching downwind from the main set. The tail should always go on the inside (that is, closest to the shooters) of the spread. A small hook — perhaps two to four decoys — opposite the tail forms the small hook on the J and further defines the landing area.

The J-hook works so well because it features every element for decoying birds. The large main body attracts ducks, and the area between the tail and the small hook serves as a large, open landing area. The long tail acts as a landing strip for diving ducks, which love to fly over their own kind. Basically, divers approach from downwind and fly over the tail, which leads them directly to the landing area in front of the main body.

Unlike divers, puddle ducks typically don’t fly over their own kind during their approach. However, the shape of the j-hook lets puddlers approach from the open area directly in front of the main body.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

The Crab

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2 | The Crab

This puddle-duck rig works great on potholes, sloughs, creeks and small marshes.

Essentially, it’s just a U-shaped set, which, by nature, forms a large landing area directly in front of your blind. Like the J-hook, it features a relatively large main body of decoys, and then two arms stretching downwind from either side of the main rig, much like the front pincers extend outward from a crab’s body. Don’t make the arms as long as the tail on a j-hook. Usually, three or four decoys suffice. You’re not trying to lead ducks in. Rather, you’re shaping a landing hole.

Puddlers are attracted by the large main body and usually want to land in the open area defined by the U-shape. They’ll usually approach from directly downwind of the open landing area or, if the wind is light, pitch directly down into the hole.

The crab spread works best with about two to five dozen decoys. In sloughs or potholes, it’s best to run the arms along the edges of the surrounding cover; far enough from vegetation so ducks can see the decoys but close enough to leave ducks a large landing area.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

Open-Water Spread

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3 | Open-Water Spread

Open-water hunting — whether done from motorboats, layout boats or open-water blinds — is becoming more popular, and why not? Many diving ducks love to loaf, feed and roost in open water, far from cover and most hunters.

Open-water decoy spreads don’t have to be complex, but they must be visible. You should use lots of decoys to attract ducks, but you probably don’t need 200 because ducks are usually more comfortable flying over and landing in open-water areas. Typically, my partners and I use about 80. Actually, that’s probably about as many as we can transport in my 20-foot boat. When placing decoys by boat, you must space them liberally, and 80 decoys pretty much cover the extent of our shooting range.

Most open-water rigs are designed for diving ducks, so they should include an approach path — typically a tail — and an ample landing area. The spread I’ve used most when layout hunting consists of six mother lines with 12 to 14 decoys attached via lobster clips and 3-foot leaders. You can easily use this spread with any type of boat or open-water blind.

My partners and I usually stagger two lines to the right of the layout boat, the closest slightly behind the boat and the farthest extending about 25 to 30 yard downwind. Then, we stagger four lines to the left, the first of which is the farthest upwind, and the last of which is the farthest downwind. This typically induces divers to land in the hole between the left and right portions of the spread, or at least attracts them so they fly over the mass of decoys on the left. Also, it never hurts to throw out one or two V-boards (essentially floating silhouettes) in front of the layout boat to hide it.

The spread also provides versatility. We try to run our strings so they stretch out directly downwind. However, if the wind switches — which it often does — we’re still usually OK. If we’re set up for a south wind, for example, and the wind switches from the west, birds can still approach from the east and might land in the hole. If it switched from the east, they would approach from the west and hopefully hit the hole. This provides more crossing shots, of course, but that’s duck hunting.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

The Dry Spread

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4 | The Dry Spread

Honestly, you can shoot lots of mallards and other puddle ducks in ag fields over nothing but goose decoys (not vice versa, incidentally; geese want their own kind). However, when you’re targeting honkers and mallards, it never hurts to add some ducks to your set for realism.

Most good field decoy sets resemble the aforementioned crab spread or a giant U-shaped rig. Field spreads are usually larger because you’re in the open, you want to use lots of decoys to attract birds and you might have several shooters in your group.

For duck and goose field hunts, I’ll generally form the arms and downwind body of the spread with geese and fill in the upwind portion of the main body — usually around and upwind of the layout blinds — with mallards. Often, it seems ducks try to stay ahead of geese when both are feeding in a field. Put some spinning-wing duck decoys at the head of the hole. Just make sure to turn them off when geese are in the air. Honkers don't like them.

The key to this spread — as with any — is the landing area. Fields often attract huge flocks of mallards and honkers, and for those birds to commit, you must have ample space for them to land. Further, if you’re hunting with three or four shooters, you want to give everyone plenty of opportunity.

The number of decoys in your spread depends on many considerations. If you’ve found a hot field, you can decoy loads of birds with a few dozen fakes. However, it’s usually best to go larger with field spreads. I recommend using six to 10 dozen decoys. Some folks, namely snow-goose hunters, use many more.

Full-body decoys work best, but it’s difficult to transport several dozen of them. Often, I’ll use a mixture of two dozen full-bodied honkers, two dozen full-bodied mallards, a dozen or two large goose shells, and a few windsocks or wind-activated full-body motion decoys on the downwind edge of the spread for movement. Silhouettes also work great if you need numbers but don’t want to break your back.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

Land/Water Combination Set

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5 | Land/Water Combination Set

When ducks and geese loaf during midday in areas with ample shorelines, many birds often climb onto land and take a snooze. You’ll see this on many large prairie pothole sloughs when honkers and puddlers — especially mallards — find an undisturbed area to get a drink of water and kick back after feeding in a grain field.

This scenario calls for a mixed spread of field and floating decoys. When I hunt a loafing hole, I’ll often position two dozen full-body mallards in small groups along the shoreline. Then, I’ll throw out two or three dozen water blocks in loose groups near the shoreline. This mixture gives the illusion of ducks that are relaxed and content.

If geese are also using a loafing spot, I’ll throw out some full-body goose decoys on land, but I’ll keep them separate from the ducks. Although they mix in fields, geese and ducks tend to avoid each other somewhat on water.

The spread doesn’t define an approach or landing area like many others, but you’re hunting the spot more than you’re hunting a spread. Ducks and geese associate loafing holes with security, so giving that impression is much more important than formulating the “perfect” spread. Often, because they feel safe at loafing holes, birds will pitch right in anyway. And even if they land in open water, many will swim in, letting you jump them.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

The Late Mixer

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6 | The Late Mixer

Late in the season, when you’re hunting creeks, rivers, ice holes or big water for puddlers and divers, you want a spread that works for both. This usually involves throwing out two groups — one of puddlers, the other of divers — to attract both brands.

Mallards and black ducks are the most common late-season puddlers, of course, so I’ll usually use a stool of mallards blocks upwind of and relatively close to my boat or blind. How many I use depends on the situation. If I’m hunting a small river or spring hole, or if I’ve chopped a hole in skim ice, I won’t use many — maybe two dozen. I’ll throw some in the water and even rest a few atop the shoreline ice. If I’m hunting big water, I’ll double that number.

I’ll throw the divers about 25 to 30 yards from the mallards, but I don’t mess with j-hooks or fat-Ls — just a stool. Often, diving ducks will see the highly visible diver decoys, swing over them and land in the open hole between the diver and mallard decoys.

Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

Start With the Six

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7 | Start With the Six

Of course, these spreads won’t be perfect every day, but they provide great starting points for several common scenarios. Experiment with your own decoy setups this season, and get ready for feet-down, wings-back gunning.

Photo © Brian Lovett

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