When Awful Decoy Setups Work

By author of The Duck Blog

Even a lame duck spread can bring in birds if you’re where they want to be

Decoy placement can make or break a hunt. But some days, good fortune covers up your mistakes. Photo © Forrest Carpenter

Decoy nuts fuss and sweat about the placement of every block, but ducks often laugh at our plans, flaring from textbook spreads. Now and then, however, they finish like champs to decoy configurations we’re embarrassed to claim.

I’ve been a decoy nerd for more than three decades, but willing ducks have bailed me out on several occasions when I failed epically at spread design. Of course, I succeeded only because I was hunting spots where ducks wanted to be, but I was OK with that. Consider these memorable days over laughably awful spreads.

The Thin White Line

Dozens of black-and-white ducks shimmered on the rippling South Dakota slough, so I grabbed my decoy bag, slipped under a fence, and headed for a bulrush-covered point. My optimism faded when I floundered in chest-deep water just 5 feet from shore.

Too deep, I thought. I’ll never get the decoys out.

Still, birds continued to crisscross the point within range, and I only needed three more to fill my daily limit. With little to lose, I placed six canvasback decoys ridiculously close to shore in a line and then stuck a spinner on land. Anyone watching from the nearby road would have choked with laughter.

Most of the bluebills at the slough ignored my pathetic attempt, but two drake buffleheads and a drake ringneck bought the program well enough to let me finish the day. As a bonus, decoy pickup was astoundingly easy.

Ducks don't recognize finely configured J-hooks. They simply react to realistic situations — even when hunters might think they've failed. Photo © Jeff Gudenkauf

A Pair Apart

Daylight was breaking as I struggled to lug my skiff through thick shoreline cattails. I was running late, and only minutes remained until shooting hours opened. I’d intended to toss out a loose spread of puddle duck decoys to entice the mallards and wood ducks that had been using the small lake, but I quickly scrapped that plan.

Just throw a couple out, I thought. I need to be ready at first light.

So I tossed a drake mallard fake to the south and a hen mallard block to the north and then paddled hard for the shoreline. I’d barely loaded my gun when hissing wings sliced through the early fall air and a dozen mallards descended on my “spread.” Two fell. Two wood ducks and a pintail soon joined them in the boat. And just 15 minutes later, the flight was finished.

I chuckled at having taken five birds over two blocks, one of which rested on its side. Those ducks wanted that spot so badly that I needn’t have bothered with any decoys.

Tangled Up (and Bluebills)

Youth and stubbornness go hand in hand, often excluding common sense. For example, when my buddy and I began layout hunting 30-some years ago, we determined we needed to set two or three lines of decoys perpendicularly behind the boat to act as blockers in our spread. That worked fine the first two days we hunted, but day three brought a stiff wind and building waves. And because we sucked at boat control, we quickly tangled three mother lines — 36 decoys — into a twisted mess that resembled the chaotic rubber-duck pond at a children’s playground.

“To heck with it, let’s hunt,” I said. “We can untangle them later.”

So we did. And we quickly piled our bluebill limit in that old boat.

It took us about three hours with frozen fingers to remove every decoy, separate the lines and reassemble the mess. We did it cheerfully because we’d succeeded despite our stupidity. But we never ran lines behind the boat again.

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