Sometimes, two dozen fakes are all you need, even on large lakes and rivers
Big-water duck hunting calls for large decoy spreads, but hunters can’t always oblige. Whether you’re lugging blocks to a prairie slough or hunting a vast lake for an hour before work, sometimes you just have to deploy a small rig and hope for the best. And the truth is, small rigs don’t necessarily spell disaster. In some situations, these rigs — say, two-dozen dekes or fewer — work well on large waters. Consider these examples and how you can still adjust your spread even when none of them apply.
1. When You’ve Really Found the X
Ducks sometimes home in on relatively small areas of big water because of hunting pressure, food sources or weather conditions. On a huge lake I hunt, for example, the mallards often congregate in tiny bays or inlets where they don’t get harassed. When I can access those spots, a simple spread of one- or two-dozen decoys works just fine. That’s because the ducks are already attracted to the spot, and my decoys merely offer some reassurance.
This can also hold true with divers, especially when they use narrow waters to travel between two larger bodies, such as a river mouth or a tight channel that connects a pair of big sloughs. In those cases, just a few decoys can also lure curious passers-by closer. Divers won’t often try to land in those little spreads, but they might at least swing over or dip for a look, providing some shots.
2. When the Weather’s Perfect
Most days, you need loads of decoys on big water to attract ducks from relatively long distances. It also creates the illusion of a safe, content raft of birds. But the right weather can change that rule.
When the wind howls or the bottom drops out of the barometer, ducks often move throughout the day, seeking sheltered areas or looking to feed before they bug out. Translation: the birds are somewhat desperate, and a meager spread of 20-some decoys might be all it takes to bring them in. Of course, positioning is still critical. Play the wind, and set your spread at likely travel routes where birds can see your blocks, such as mid-lake islands, creek mouths, windswept shorelines and points jutting off leeward bays.
3. When the World is Frozen
Small rigs work fine when frigid weather locks bays and shorelines in ice, concentrating ducks into relatively small areas of open water. I’ll often use micro-spreads in such situations, tossing out a dozen or fewer blocks just to reassure ducks. They’ll be searching for open areas, so you don’t need 100 fakes to attract them. A few swimming decoys and a half-dozen full-bodies on the ice or a nearby shoreline often does the trick.
If the situation still isn’t ideal and you’re simply stuck with a small spread on big water, a few tricks can help your cause. First, spread decoys out horizontally — that is, to the left and right of your hide — as much as possible. This greatly increases long-range visibility, especially if you’re using bright-white diver blocks.
Next, be sure to emphasize motion, whether it’s with spinners, a jerk string or a motorized feeder decoy. This is especially important during early mornings, when the wind hasn’t kicked in yet. A bit of movement might lure in a few passing birds at shooting light.
If you don’t have enough diver decoys to create a tail, consider using an ultra-large and highly visible decoy downwind of your spread to attract attention. Old-timers called this a tolling decoy. My buddies and I used to deploy a hand-carved super-magnum drake canvasback block about 30 yards downwind from our main rig. It sometimes attracted birds from afar and led them into our main body of decoys, much like a tail would.
Click here for more Realtree waterfowl hunting content. And check us out on Facebook.
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.