Sometimes, messing with decoys is just more trouble than it’s worth — but you have to know what you’re looking at
Most waterfowling is straightforward. After mallards in green timber? Set up at a likely hole, and work that call. Honkers in cut corn? Set the layout blinds and full-bodies before dawn. Divers on big water? Launch in the dark, and have a layout spread ready at first light.
But areas rich with small, ducky waters can present a conundrum (think the Dakotas, or regions dotted with sloughs, streams and lakes). Some folks prefer to jump-shoot ducks at those spots, bagging a few birds quickly and then moving on. Others deploy small decoy spreads, hoping for extended action. Either approach can work, but deciding which tactic is right for the situation can prove tricky. Here’s a quick guide on which path to take.
I prefer to jump-shoot streams and small rivers, whether it’s for early season wood ducks or freeze-up mallards. It usually gives you more opportunities on ducks, and you can often jump-shoot a large section of stream several times before birds relocate. Conversely, decoy hunting at a small backwater or oxbow concentrates pressure and typically blows ducks out of that spot for the season.
If you’re on the fence, you can combine the strategies. Pass-shoot wood ducks or decoy mallards for the first half-hour of light, and then launch the canoe and head downstream.
Prairie Potholes: Decoy
Classic pothole strategy involves flushing ducks off small waters, setting up decoys and then waiting for birds to return. And in many cases, this still works, especially if you’re hunting mixed-bag puddlers or diving ducks. If you jump-shoot these spots, you’ll typically drop one or two birds on the flush and permanently burn the hole.
A few caveats: Mallards don’t always play well with this strategy (more on that in a bit). It doesn’t work as well during wet years, when ducks can simply escape to other waters and loaf there. It also loses effectiveness when hunting pressure is heavy, as wary birds have been flushed enough that they don’t return in numbers.
Finishing a Limit: Jump
When you’re one or two ducks shy of a limit, jump-shooting any water makes sense. Assuming a stealthy approach and decent shooting, you’ll likely fill up and won’t waste time and effort by lugging in decoys, flushing birds, setting up and waiting.
Just be sure to choose your jump-shooting spots carefully. It’s much wiser to jump a small slough holding five wood ducks than to blow up a spring hole with 75 mallards. The former is a one-chance deal, but the latter might provide more extensive decoy gunning later.
Small-Water Mallards: Decoy
This applies to the prairies and many Midwestern scenarios, where mallards might congregate on spring holes, riverbanks or stock ponds. Mallards are extremely sensitive to pressure, and they don’t play the return-in-an-hour game like prairie wigeon or greenwings. When you find numbers of greenheads at a small spot, it’s usually best to slip in well before dawn and set decoys. Ideally, hunt loafing or feeding spots where birds don’t roost. And if you must flush mallards, do it in the dark, and then make hay during the first half-hour of light.
Big-Water Shorelines: It Depends
During freeze-up or when the wind howls, you’ll sometimes locate flocks of ducks tucked into open or lee shorelines. These situations don’t last long, so you’ll have to make a tough decision during daylight. Generally, I’ve found that it’s best to treat mallards and black ducks with special care, as they might not return after being spooked. It’s probably best to jump-shoot spots holding a handful of those birds. Decoys, however, might be a better option if a spot holds 50-plus ducks, especially when dealing with divers or smaller puddle ducks, such as wigeon, gadwall or teal.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.