Multi-Species Decoy Spreads

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Do Birds of a Feather Flock Together? That Depends, Experts Say

You'll often boost success by mixing decoys of various duck species — and even geese. However, birds sometimes stick with their own kind. Photo © Tom Rassuchine/Banded

Most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing which duck species we want to shoot. We hunt ducks, so we gladly take any legal bird that flies over the decoys. But there’s more to hunting ducks than tossing out a random mix of decoys and hoping for the best. Success depends on realism; mimicking what occurs in nature. That can mean using a variety of species in your spread.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you can grab various species of decoys and toss them in front of the blind randomly. Sometimes, ducks mingle as they feed and loaf. Sometimes, they stick with their own species.

Watch real ducks and you’ll see. Mallards will swim among pintails, and flocks of teal will settle in with big ducks, but there are times when they seem to favor their own kind. Pintails will stick together. So will teal and gadwall.

So does it matter if you mix decoy species? Should you segregate them? Depends, according to three experts. Mixing duck species and even geese with ducks can prove deadly when it’s done at the right time and during the right situations. Keeping them apart can be your best bet, too.

Duck, Duck, Goose

Goose seasons overlap duck seasons for at least part of winter in almost every state, offering a mixed-bag opportunity. Who doesn’t like the idea of shooting ducks and geese during the same hunt?

Does that mean you should mix duck and goose decoys? For Field Proven Calls co-owner Field Hudnall, the answer is simple: Sort of. He’s not convinced you need duck decoys when you have goose decoys out. In fact, he will sometimes hunt ducks over nothing but Canada goose decoys.

“Goose decoys draw ducks, but geese rarely come in to just a spread of duck decoys, so it can’t hurt to use both,” said Hudnall, of Westport, Kentucky.

When he’s hunting the Ohio River, his home water, Hudnall starts by setting out 100 or so goose decoys, as if he was preparing for a goose-only hunt. He leaves a hole for a landing zone and then mixes in small pods of duck decoys among the goose decoys. It’s not unusual to see real ducks swimming among real geese, but they often stay with their own kind.

“I’ll put four or five mallards together and a couple of pintails together somewhere else among the geese and maybe a pod of black ducks off to the side but within shooting range,” he said. “It’s not a steadfast rule, but ducks often land with their own kind.”

Banded-Avery Outdoors territory pro-staff assistant manager Ben Cade does the same thing. When he’s hunting ducks and geese over water, he typically puts the geese in deeper water and ducks closer to shore.

“Ducks typically feed in shallower water, so that’s where I will put my duck decoys,” he said. “I basically put them in spots that just look duckier while the geese go in deeper water.”

Dry Ducks and Geese

Dry-field hunts are different. Sort of. In places such as the Dakotas, for example, dry cornfields mean one thing: swarms of mallards. When things are good, it’s not unusual to dump a limit of greenheads in a matter of two flocks. However, there are almost always a handful of pintails and even a few wigeon mixed with those mallards. What hunter wouldn’t mind finishing out a six-bird limit with a pintail or a wigeon?

Do you need those species in your spread to coax them into shooting range? Probably not. When a bunch of mallards land, they all try to land, no matter what species is tagging along.

Throw the opportunity at geese into the mix and things are a bit different, Cade said. He travels to the Dakotas frequently, targeting ducks and geese at the same time.

“I do mix duck decoys among the goose decoys, but I keep the duck decoys together within the goose decoys,” he said. “It’s not out of the question for ducks to spread out and mix in with the geese as they feed, but I want my spread to look like the ducks just landed.”

Because other species often travel with large flocks of mallards, he isn’t too worried about separating his duck decoys by species.

“I just put them out as I grab them out of the bag,” he said. “I’m not worried about putting a pintail in among a group of mallards because that’s what they often do when they feed in fields.”

Light Goose, Dark Goose

Various goose species will also mingle, but the farther north Derek Rambo travels, the less he encounters mixed species. Light geese — snows and Ross’s — travel in massive flocks and typically keep to themselves as they migrate south. However, when they reach Rambo’s home state of Texas, they are more likely to mix with lesser and even larger subspecies of Canada geese.

“It’s usually a small bunch of snows mixed in with a larger group of lesser Canada geese, which is why I pretty much always add two dozen or so snow goose decoys with my Canada goose spread when I hunt Texas,” said the Avery Outdoor territory manager. “If I’m in Canada or the Dakotas, I typically only use Canada goose decoys.”

Visibility Factors

Even if he doesn’t expect snows to show up when he’s in Texas, Rambo likes the contrast of light decoys to dark decoys. No matter the light conditions, his spread will stand out.

He and Hudnall do the same thing with duck decoys. They’ll almost always add drake pintail or shoveler decoys because the bright white chests of those birds shine like a beacon on cloudy and bright days. That flash of white can attract the attention of distant birds.

“If I’m hunting big water and there might be some divers, I’ll put out canvasback decoys for the same reason,” he said. “Most diver species will come to other diver decoys, so I just want the most visibility I can get.”

Don’t Bother?

Hudnall said one species of puddle duck will usually land among decoys of a different variety most of the time where he hunts. That’s most apparent when a wide variety of birds are using the area. Rambo agreed.

“The farther south I hunt, the less likely it seems to matter,” he said. “I think the longer they stay in an area, the more likely they are to mix and mingle with other species because they eat the same foods. They all use the same places throughout the winter. Fresh flocks tend to stay together, but once they find good food sources, they mix.”

But what if there’s only one primary species around?

In many regions, especially during the earliest seasons, wood ducks are by far the most abundant and available bird. Should you toss out nothing but woodie decoys? Nah. They’ll bomb any spread, Cade said. He even kills them in dry fields over nothing but goose decoys.

“Wood ducks are going to come in if they want to,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of decoys you have out. I kill them all the time, and I don’t even own any wood duck decoys.”

Early-season teal are similar. Although some hunters insist on using species-specific decoys during early teal seasons, many others don’t. And they kill plenty of birds.

“I’ll use diver decoys when I’m diver hunting, and they might be all redheads and canvasbacks, because that’s what we have the most of on the Texas coast,” Rambo said.

In other words, you can’t go wrong using decoys that match the species you expect to encounter. On the other hand, it doesn’t always matter. Use what gives you confidence. If it doesn’t seem to be working, make a change. Mix your species, or put them into separate groups, but don’t be afraid to try something new.

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