October 20, 2021
We were sitting in flooded timber in a hardwood creek bottom in the piney hills area of East Texas anxiously waiting for first light. The ranch foreman had told us that there were probably a thousand mallards feeding there every morning. The only drawback would be if they all came at once. About the time we could see them only as black silhouettes, they came. There were mallards as far as I could see, making it obvious they were all in one group. I told my hunting partner and my cameraman we were not going to shoot, but just watch and film them. My hunting partner sounded somewhat like an over-excited retriever, so I put my hand on his gun to prevent him from shooting and we let them land.
There are few things that will disrupt sleep like the sight of a group of mallards locked and floating into the decoys—fully committed. Once you see it, your brain just will not let it go and you will see it over and over. It’s hard to explain. I guess it’s similar to what they say about a woman having a baby—you just cannot explain it to someone who has not experienced it.
I am blessed to be able to hunt a lot of different game in a lot of locations, and I love it all, but decoying ducks has become my passion. By decoying, I mean causing them to commit to landing in the decoys, not just attracting them close enough to basically “pass shoot.”
Why do I do this? Good question. It’s not always easy and often impossible. Let’s think about that for a minute. It’s trendy today to say we hunt for food. And while game as food is an important part of hunting, I doubt many would lay awake at night, not being able to sleep waiting for time to get up to hunt just for food. I live in the Mississippi River Delta of Louisiana and if I were only hunting for food, I would only hunt whitetails and hogs for obvious reasons. And while I do hunt them, they are not my passion. That brings us to the answer. I do it because I like it, it’s in our genes, in our blood, and I happen to like decoying ducks.
Decoying has all the aspects of a sport that will get in your blood. It is interesting, challenging, and different every day. There are many factors in play at the same time, most of which we have no control over, but we learn to succeed despite them. I don’t play golf, but it reminds me somewhat of my friends who do. They get frustrated and give up, only to decide in the night that they are not going to let golf beat them and the next day they are after it again.
To get better, and I try to do that every time I hunt—we need to determine where we are in our knowledge of decoying and what we need to do. So, let’s talk about factors that affect it. I’m going to jump over the main factors for now: the hunter and the blind. Past those, without question, the main factors are location, hunting pressure and weather.
Location was listed first for a reason. It’s importance cannot be overstated. Location covers from the general right down to a specific point. In waterfowling this is known as the X.
Clearly you must be in a general area used by ducks. The X does not require much explanation, except to say that at times 50 to 100 yards makes a big difference. And even if you are on the X, ducks will be different every day, so your tactics must be different, and the X today may well not be the favored spot tomorrow. Location in any area is mostly about the food. Once you find them using the food then you must find the X within that food source. That is done by scouting.
The hunting pressure the ducks have been exposed to makes a huge difference in their willingness to decoy. This is not only pressure during the current season, but lessons learned in previous years. It is believed that aged hens mostly lead the flock, and those that survive their first season become much more suspicious. Most of the ducks killed are juveniles, and years when there is a good hatch tend to be better hunting years because there are more juveniles. A few years ago, numbers were high, resulting in a returning strong population of ducks to the breeding grounds. However, it was a bad hatch year, so fall migration numbers were high, but first year ducks were in short supply, and hunting was tough.
Then there is pressure from the current season starting in the far north where they are first hunted and increasing as they migrate south and experience more pressure. By the time they arrive here in Louisiana they are nearing a PhD in anti-decoying.
Ducks have a quirk not easy to rationalize. As they move down the migration route, they basically stop and lay over for a short period at various locations. The longer they stay at any location, the more suspicious they become, which is to be expected. It's why we call them "stale ducks.” When they move to a new location, they seem to lose some of their suspicion and are easier to decoy for a few days.
The weather is what it is, and we can’t change it, but we can learn to succeed despite it. On many days, it will be the main factor. However, on any given day, any of these three factors can be the main factor, but mostly they are all mixed up and play varying parts in any plan to talk ducks into landing in your decoys.
When I was a young hunter, most depictions of waterfowl hunting would be in inclement weather and show snow, sleet, ice-covered hunters and the like. But today a cold blue bird day following a front that moves ducks is the best day. You have fresh ducks and the sun makes them easier to decoy.
On cloudy days, especially with a low ceiling, they cannot see your decoys as well. There are no shadows to help you hide and the spinning wing concept does not work as well.
A low ceiling will often distort sound and many sounds scare the birds. I have seen times when you blow the call they will jerk as if shot at. On those days you can usually hear the sound bouncing off the bottom of the clouds. On those days, calling must be very soft.
Bottom line is a sunny day is better.
One of the hardest times to decoy ducks is when there is no wind. They are not forced to get into a pattern to land and tend to circle and hesitate until they see something they do not like, then leave.
Once ducks are pressured, they are basically looking for hunters, blinds, fake decoys and other man-made items and they learn to recognize those. Creatures in nature are geared to survive. Ducks have a very small brain. Like most wild creatures, they only do a few things, but they do them very well. With their eyes on the sides of their heads, they do not see an object with both eyes as we do, so they do not have the depth perception that we have, but they see in the UV range in which the human skin is said to glow. Most duck blinds are not that hard to recognize plus they have a birds-eye view. Most blinds consist of straight lines and especially horizontal straight lines that do not exist in nature.
Think of what your spread looks like compared to live ducks, which tend to have a lot of motion and sound, unless they are quietly roosting, but are rarely ever totally still. If you will sneak up on a group you will easily see this, and you can also see the moment they detect you. Even with little motion, it looks nothing like a set of static decoys. When they are just slowly swimming, they make that “V” of ripples in the water that can be seen for long distances. On tough days. you must have a life-like decoy spread to resemble live birds if you want to be successful.
Through the years, hunting pressure has changed ducks, and more and more of their habitat is man-made instead of natural, leaving the ducks with fewer remote places to escape hunters. This makes them more suspicious and thus decoys spreads need to be more life-like. Fortunately, the market has developed products intended to help with this. They range from the simple jerk chord (one of the most effective aids to duck hunting) all the way to elaborate motorized motion devices. The most significant advancement was the advent of the spinning wing concept. The flash given off by a properly operated spinning wind decoy can be seen by ducks much farther than they can see any other object. It is how ducks find other ducks. The highest and best use is and has always been long range attraction. In the beginning they would also want to land close to it and that led many hunters to look at them as a finishing device, but their main benefit is long range attraction. I think over time they have come to recognize that the strobe from a spinner is more than a live duck can do, but they must get close to it before they realize this. Once this happens, ducks tend to flare. Many will remove it from their spread, but this is generally a mistake, because it gives up your long-range attraction. Instead, move it outside of your killing hole whatever distance is needed to prevent flaring.
Past the spinning wing concept, often the most effective products offer movement of both the decoy and the water. I have seen many times when ducks were attracted to nothing but the sound of splashing water.
There are more things to help you than I can discuss here, so simply do the best you can to make your spread look like live ducks to the extent needed. Some days your static decoys will work fine, other times you need something more life-like.
We must keep in mind that there will be days when the ducks will just not let you kill them, no matter what you do. That is part of hunting.
But there will be those magic days when they just want your location and they seem easy. But to decoy ducks on a regular basis you will need to let them tell you what they want. Successful decoying has many moving parts that must be considered and that’s what makes it interesting and challenging, but when you get it right, it’s worth it.