How to Make Small Decoy Spreads Work for You
May 05, 2016
It's become a common sight come November here in the Midwest. Elsewhere too, I reckon, but I'm most familiar with it right here in eastern Iowa, the heart of the Heartland. Big white enclosed trailers, most emblazoned with stickers promoting Outdoor Company A-Z, pulled by F250 diesel monsters and crewed by four to a dozen camo-clad individuals.
Like a clown car at the circus, these modern age mammoths churn their way into the center of Cornfield X, where they disgorge said individuals, along with roughly 2.83 million full body Canada goose decoys. Ninety minutes later, the trucks drive away, but not before there has been created a massive black blob sure to show up on the next satellite pass for GOOGLE Earth.
But goose hunters aren't the only ones prone to throwing dozens upon dozens'¦upon dozens'¦of plastics on the ground. Many duck hunters, too, are big on big spreads.
Diver enthusiasts have long had the reputation for running rigs of 100 or more blocks; why, because canvasbacks, redheads, and bluebills lounge around all day in huge rafts. Apparently, they enjoy the company of others, so it makes sense for the hopeful 'fowler to cover the water.
Look at any pit on a levee in a southern rice field, and the chances are good you'll see it surrounded by 10 dozen fakes. A permanent blind, be it in the middle of the Mississippi or the edge of a timber hole on Reelfoot Lake? Check out a selection, and my guess is you could walk for 150 yards in any direction, give or take, and never set foot off a decoy.
Now I understand necessity. Big Canada spreads are often necessary, particularly when hunter competition is high or you're dealing with huge flocks of high-flying migrators. Big duck rigs, the same explanation.
It's all about drawing power; the more decoys, the more visible the spread. The more visible the spread, the more likely it is to attract attention, especially that of birds who aren't really interested in being where you have set down roots for the morning.
Grab their attention. Keep their attention. Put 'em feet down in the spread. And decoys numbering 100 or more — well, it's often a recipe for that kind of success.
But can the opposite hold true? Can a man be successful afield — and consistently successful afield — during the latter part of the season with only a handful of decoys? A dozen duck floaters or full body dryland mallards? Maybe 24 honkers? Or 14? Or — Heaven forbid — six?
Most men with experience in the ways of waterfowl will say yes; however, all will be quick to say that these smaller rigs — these'¦Micro-Spreads'¦come with their own considerations, challenges, and, if set correctly, their pay-offs.
Small Spreads, By Definition
Ask 100 'fowlers the same question — Define small decoy spreads, please — and I'm sure you'll get at least 95 different answers. The reason is simple. To the Oregonian gunning the Willamette Valley for cacklers and little lesser, a small rig is 15 dozen; all that plastic, they'll tell you, a product of the birds themselves, and these particular subspecies' love of company.
Lots and lots and lots of company. Query the man focusing on late December honkers in eastern Iowa, i.e. me, and I'll tell you small is 18; maybe only a dozen. Small, it seems, all depends on the situation, the species, and, if a man's going to be truthful, the amount of time and effort he wants to spend putting out and picking up faux ducks and/or geese.
"Small? That's as few as a pair of duck decoys. Maybe six duck decoys," says Luke Clark, 21, the public relations guru for Matthew Cagle's Rig 'Em Right outfit. With roots in Oakley, Illinois, Clark has darn near two decades of waterfowling history in his back pocket.
"I've had a lot of success," he told me, "hunting small ponds and river channels. But it's all about scouting. And once you start that scouting — really looking — you'll notice birds coming to these places in flocks of five or six or seven. So I'm setting small, trying to duplicate the fresh group — the new birds — as opposed to the entire big mass."
Down Kentucky way, Field Hudnall seems to adhere to the aforementioned situational theory of small. "A small spread," says the call-builder and well-known calling champion, "is relative to what you're accustomed to, the way I see it. If a man's running 1,100 decoys on Reelfoot, then 50 is small. On the Ohio River where we spend a lot of our time, three dozen is small."
Seven hundred fifty miles due west of Hudnall's Ohio River haunts, 29-year-old Zach White, owner and proprietor of Prairie Thunder Outfitters, scores hits on both schools of thought. "My favorite way to hunt ducks is over a tiny creek or river late in the year," says White. "And a small spread for me here is six to eight decoys. I just want to show new birds that there's birds already there. Big honkers? Two dozen decoys, but a small spread for little geese like our lesser? Fifteen dozen is small. It all comes down to differences among the (goose) subspecies."
And then there's the scientific approach to the question — How small is small? Or perhaps biological is more precise. "I've always let the birds determine what my spread looks like," says Mike Galloway. Now 47 and the vice-president of sales and product development for Hard Core Brands, Galloway spent his formative 'fowling years not far from my stomping grounds in northeast Ohio.
"I can put out 100 dozen decoys, if I want," he laughs, "but when I see birds in the late season breaking up — again — into groups of six, eight and 10, then that's what I set. A lot of times I'll carry two bags — 12 full-bodies — into the field, and set eight of them."
But why set a small spread, especially if it's possible to run a larger one? A much larger one. Sometimes, it's a matter of logistics.
"I love big spreads," says Hudnall, "but there's a great pond we hunt that the owner won't let us drive into. That, and it gets terrible muddy. So we run a small spread because that's what we can carry. It's X-number of decoys, often silhouettes if we're hunting geese, per man. Or maybe it's two guys with two six-slot bags of full-bodies each, and the rest with silhouettes," he continued.
Galloway agrees, saying "the key to being successful, regardless of the number of decoys you set, is to mimic what you're seeing at that particular time of the season. I don't know as though the 'Bigger is Better' Theory is good. You take a five-acre wheat field and put out 20 dozen decoys, and it's just not going to look natural."
Downsizing for Ducks
Here, let's begin with divers. Traditionally, diver spreads and large numbers of decoys — Say, 100-plus rigged on Old School longlines — were thought of as synonymous terms. And the aforementioned reasons are easy to understand — Big water, the need for decoy visibility at a distance, and divers' tendency to raft in often immense groups. That said, can a small spread be effective on such a "Bigger Is Better" species?
I know of a spot, a small sandy spit of land jutting out into the mainstem Columbia River in Washington state we've taken to calling The Beach, where, with only 22 bluebill decoys, we can, when the birds come down in December and throughout all of January, shoot our limits of greaters and lessers, day in and day out, with little or no problem whatsoever.
Six decoys on each of two longlines; the first angled out to mid-river and downstream, and the second paralleling the shoreline pointed upstream. Between the two and directly in front of the blinds is The Blob, 10 individually rigged blocks set as tight — touching, even — as possible. Birds approaching from downstream hit the lower line and follow it into The Blob.
This minimalist diver rig works for three reasons: one, small rafts of scaup loaf just off The Beach, without fail, from year to year. Not huge numbers, but with a daily bag limit of just three — NOTE: 2013/14 limit — we never need 1,000-bird flocks. The birds are already there; we just need a few plastics to set them at ease.
Two, we use all oversized drake decoys, both for the physical size and the high-visibility white. And three, divers are as greedy as snows when it comes to feeding; thus, The Blob simulates an active food source, appealing to the birds' almost constant need to feed.
As for puddlers, they can be quite susceptible to small spreads, especially for the 'fowler who's done his homework. "It's all about being in the right spot," says Hudnall. "If you've found a pond that the birds are already accustomed to, then the only thing that can screw that up is you. You set too many decoys. You don't pay attention to your concealment.
The birds want to be there; you're giving them reason not to want to be there."
When using small spreads on bigger water, e.g. the Ohio River, Hudnall suggests a departure from what he calls the human way of setting decoys. "Small clusters of decoys," says the calling champ, "are more visible at a distance than are individual decoys. When we hunt the river, we'll set little pods of ducks — three here, five there, six there — instead of one here and then another three feet away and then another three feet away. That type of precise spacing is what I call the human way of setting decoys. Real ducks don't sit that way."
For those hunting the same spot of water throughout the course of the duck season, changing things up is, as Galloway claims, an important, but oft-overlooked element for success. "As the season processes," the VP says, "I make sure I change my spread. Maybe I'll go from the 36 decoys I've started with to four decoys on a jerk string, and another four set off to one side. Six to 10 floaters is all."
But success with a small spread isn't just about the decoys. "I really don't think there's a disadvantage to running a small duck spread," says White. "But a guy has to have a good game plan when he walks into a situation where he's carrying the whole of his spread on his back. Ducks or geese. He needs to assess how he's going to set up. How he's going to hide. Strategy," White continues, "becomes very important, and it becomes important before he goes in to set up."
Perhaps most interestingly is White's theory on the psychological difference between the 'fowler running a big spread and the man who tosses 12 decoys onto a pothole. "This man," says the outfitter, "needs to be more patient. And he needs confidence in the process. He's decided to do something different, so his entire outlook on the hunt has to be different. He's not looking for big flocks to finish, but rather two here and two there that work close. And work well."
A trick I've used over the years when running small duck spreads in shallow water is to combine silhouettes — ducks or geese — with my traditional floaters. One, the skinnies provide enhanced visibility at a distance to the on-the-water floaters, especially when I include Canada goose silhouettes.
Two, the appear/disappear nature of the two-dimensional silhouettes imparts the illusion of movement within the spread; coupled with a jerk cord, it can be a killer combination — and quite different from the modern '24 Mallards and Two Spinners' rigs the birds are used to seeing from Canada down to southern Louisiana.
No, skinnies can't be used in a water spread in every situation, but where they can, they can really make a difference.
Micro-Spreads for Canadas
Years ago and in a conversation with Ron Latshaw, the man behind the original Eliminator layout blind — a man who truly knows geese and goose hunting — I was introduced to the concept of using eight'¦yes, eight'¦decoys during the late season.
And this mini-rig is designed for educated Pacific Northwest geese, birds that Latschaw said begin earning their diplomas in September, and don't stop learning until well into February.
"Three feeders, four sentries, and (maybe) one rester; that's it. One rester, three heads down, and four heads up. A small family group in survival mode that's off by itself. It's interesting," Latschaw explained, "that big flocks of geese — cautious geese — find these small groups so intriguing. Often, they'll come right to them."
Latschaw elaborated on his eight-fake spread by explaining how everyone — every gun in the group, be it two or 12 — cashes in on Canadas fooled by these meager offerings.
"When geese commit to a spread of eight decoys, they're right there," he said. "Everybody's going to get a shot at them because the birds aren't spread (out) across the decoys. With 100 decoys, the birds can land on the left side. They can land on the right side. But it's magic," he continued, "when they commit to eight decoys. They've had it. There's no getting away."
Luke Clark takes Latschaw's mini-rig one step further. "I've had a lot of success later in the year," the young man says, "running just a pair of ultra-realistic Dave Smith (Canada) full-bodies. Why does it work? For one, it's different from all the 'black hole' spreads the birds see. It breaks the mold from today's industry standard.
Guys want to unload the trailer, but in areas where there's a lot of (hunting) pressure, you'll notice the birds starting to seclude or isolate themselves in small — very small — groups. When guys set a mass of decoys," he continued, "they'll often sacrifice realism. It becomes a quantity rather than quality thing."
Galloway agrees. "I'd much rather have quality than quantity," he says. "It's got to look natural. Completely natural." The VP went on to describe one of his favorite late-season micro-spreads for Buckeye State Canadas, one that adheres entirely to his Theory of Realism. "It's a loafing pond situation," he started.
"I'll use four floaters — just four — with the first close to the shoreline, and rig them in a line. At the last floater, I'll put a standing full body. Two or three full bodies on the shoreline, along with two or three sleepers. I've created a scene where birds have landed and are swimming to shore, one has just landed, and a half dozen others are already on the bank. It's all relaxed and content."
Some 'fowlers, Galloway says, want to fill the pond with decoys, subscribing, he assumes, to the principle of Bigger Is Better. "With 100 decoys," he says, "birds expect to hear the noise of 100 birds. See more splashing. One hundred silent geese doesn't look right, even to a goose. But if you're using eight decoys — well, you're making enough noise (with the call) for eight geese. Or enough movement in the water for eight geese. It's all about being natural."
Like Hudnall, I'm partial to my 18 full bodies when gunning dry ground during December and January.
"I'll set one pod of eight feeders," says the Kentuckian. "Then one of five, three, and then a pair. I'll concentrate the feeders tight, like they've found a good feed, and use the smaller pods to create a rough hole where I want the birds to light."
My go-to rig is similar, yet different — 10 feeders in a loose ball, with three pairs of feeders/actives widely spaced and "walking" into the ball.
Finally, an active/sentry pair, set as if they'd just landed and are working to catch up to the feeder/actives. For whatever reason, geese seem to key in on the just-landed pair, so I'll set those as my "hole," quartering the wind with the blind so the birds, on-approach, are staring at the decoys, not at me.
The Key to Small Spread Success
It's funny that given a story on small spreads and minimalist decoy rigs, the most significant detail — THE common denominator and key to success — has nothing to do with decoys.
"If you're going to use a small spread," says White, "you have to hide really well."
The man behind Field Proven Calls echoes the young 'fowler from Kansas. "The smaller the spread," says Hudnall, "the more you have to concentrate on your hide. It's like trying to hide layout blinds in a bean field. There's just nothing to take the birds' attention off the blinds when you're running a small spread, so you have to hide well."
And from Ohio — "If I take 30 minutes putting out the decoys," says Galloway, "I spend an hour camouflaging the blind. An hour for decoys means two hours on the blinds. And when I talk about using small spreads, I'm not talking about me and four other guys. It's just too much to cover up. It's me and my son. Or me and my Dad. With small spreads, I'm specifically targeting small groups of birds."
But I think young Lucas Clark put it best. "You can run the prettiest goose decoys on the planet," he says, "be that 100 or two, but if you're not hidden well, they might as well be painted blaze orange. If you want to be successful, hide first. Decoy placement is indeed important. Scouting reveals all the answers. But," he continued, with words of wisdom beyond his 21 years, "if you're not hidden, you're not shooting."
Simple as that.