May 13, 2020
By Ken Bailey
Long line decoy spreads, once referred to as “stringers,” were a common decoying strategy in the days of market hunting. In his 1971 classic The Outlaw Gunner, Harry Walsh revealed, “Such a stringer may extend several hundred yards away from the blind. …In theory, the ducks follow the stringer to the head of the decoys. By the time the toll is over the blind, it is too late for the ducks to avoid the deception.”
That long lines are effective for attracting diving ducks is as true today as it was 100 years ago, yet few modern hunters seem to use them. That’s a mistake, as long lines will bring in birds that would otherwise fly past. Further, building and running a long line is much easier than many believe.
To be clear, we’re not talking simply about rigging your decoys from a main line, although that’s part of the equation. Most commercially-available “long line” rigs are too short, with main lines anywhere from 60 to 150 feet in length. Those have their application, but are not well-suited for true long line applications, such as those Walsh describes that extend 100 yards and more.
Building Your Long Line
Begin with a main line. I recommend using ¼” diameter line. It should be dark in color, black or green, as these blend in with the marsh bottom; light-colored lines are too visible from above. It’s important, too, that the line not float, as floating long lines spell disaster when your retriever attempts to swim through it.
It can be difficult to find these sinking lines; search specialty waterfowl hunting or commercial fishing houses to find them. You might have to splice lines together as they often come in lengths of 50 yards and you’ll want up to 200 yards in total. I like mine in 100-yard lengths as I can rig them end-to-end to create a single 200-yard line or run two separate 100-yard lines. At each end I tie on a brass snap swivel for affixing an anchor.
I occasionally use lead-filled soup cans for anchors, but more recently have converted to downrigger balls, available at most fishing retailers. Five- or six-pound balls are about right. Any less and you risk your line drifting on windy days.
Each decoy must be rigged with a line that will be used to attach it to the main line. Don’t make the mistake of having this line too short, as dogs won’t be able to swim over it. I prefer five or six feet of sinking line. Use a brass snap swivel at the decoy. At the other end, which will attach to the mainline, tie on what is commonly called a swordfish or halibut clip. They’re quick to use and can be managed with one hand, even when wearing bulky gloves.
When it comes to the decoys for your long-line rig, select your biggest and brightest drake decoys. To be most effective at attracting birds from a distance, these blocks must be visible at long range.
When & Where
Long lines offer a distinct advantage over traditional decoy spreads under several scenarios. They’re best-suited to hunting large marshes and big expanses of open water, or where there’s very little shallow water adjacent to your blind that makes using large numbers of individually-strung decoys difficult.
The long line experience is all about attracting ducks that would otherwise not see your decoy spread. Diving ducks fly low to the water and often don’t see a traditional decoy set no matter how carefully placed. A long line functions to attract birds from a distance. In my experience, they’re at their best when hunting scaup, ring-necked ducks and redheads, diving ducks that tend to fly low to the water, which is why they are effective on sea ducks too. Though I’ve used long lines successfully when hunting canvasbacks, they don’t respond nearly as reliably. I believe it’s because cans tend to fly higher than do the other pochards.
Dabblers don’t respond to long lines very well. Again, they tend to fly higher than divers and can see a traditional decoy spread, making a long line unnecessary. They’re also not as tuned-in to specific flight paths on large marshes as divers are. Further, they don’t like to fly over decoys, whereas divers will often fly over your blocks and land at the head. For reasons I can’t explain, however, shovelers seem to be the exception; I’ve had many occasions when shovelers have turned and flown straight up my long line, much like a flight of bluebills.
While the most common use of a long line is to attract diving ducks on large bodies of water where birds may be a long way off, another strategic application is when you have a natural pinch point, between two islands or points of land, where you know ducks like to fly. A long line set across that gap acts like a fence, and keeps birds on the preferred side, where your blind is located.
Setting The Rig
When you set your long line, work from the blind out. This allows you to see the whole line from a duck’s point of view. Don’t like what you see? You can easily tow the line into position if necessary. Most often I set my first block about 60 yards out and slightly upwind of my blind, so a 150-yard line ends about 200 yards away.
One of the common mistakes in laying out long lines is placing your decoys too closely together. Set them about 10 yards apart; any closer and you increase the risk that incoming ducks will land in the line, short of where you want them.
If you’re running 150 yards of long line, you’ll use about 12 to 14 decoys, depending upon how deep the water is and whether you’re running one or two anchors. In terms of total line length, I let the wind dictate that. When the prevailing wind tells me ducks may prefer to be on the far shore, I’ll set an extra-long line, 200 to 250 yards. It takes two-dozen blocks, but can be set relatively quickly. It’s amazing how often cruising birds will see your furthest block, turn on it, then follow the bread crumbs right to your landing zone.
Whenever possible, I prefer to anchor just the shore end of my long line, allowing the line to swing with the wind. There are times, however, because of your blind location, when you’ll need the birds to fly across the wind, not directly upwind. In these circumstances set your line exactly as you want it, anchoring both ends to prevent the line from swinging downwind.
It’s critical that birds flying up the line do not see land as they’re approaching your landing area. Diving ducks just don’t like to fly over land, and you want them feeling comfortable. If necessary, bend the line at the shore end to run parallel to the land if you’re shooting from a shore blind. They will bank crosswind if you encourage them to do so.
As much as we like to think that ducks always fly upwind, it just isn’t so. If it were, they’d all eventually fly off the lake. If I’m set up near one end of a marsh I usually run a single long line. But if I’m stationed mid-lake, I’ll often use two long lines, in a “V-shaped” pattern, funneling birds approaching from both directions into my landing zone.
Once your long line is set, you can add additional decoys on individual lines, usually a pod of a dozen or so blocks on either side of the landing zone. A common mistake is setting these decoys too close to your blind. You don’t want approaching birds looking at you; having the landing zone in the right spot is far more important than the distance from your blind to the pods. Ensure you establish the landing zone at the appropriate distance from the blind, usually about 30 to 35 yards. Some days divers will pile straight in, but most often they’ll buzz through for a look before swinging back for a potential second approach. It’s a crapshoot whether they’ll come fully around, so if they’re over the landing zone on their initial approach, I shoot.
MOJOS work great with long line sets. Last year, I set up twice with only a long line rig and two floating MOJO bluebills—both great shoots.
When picking up your long line, do so with the wind at your back. That way you can drift with the line, picking up your blocks and concurrently pulling up the main line. I unhook my anchor, then coil the mainline into a pail. Carefully stored this way, it never tangles.
Long line hunting is all about choreographing ducks to fly where you want them to, as opposed to where they might otherwise prefer to fly. It’s a finesse game, however, and if ducks aren’t responding the way you want, make changes accordingly. Usually that means towing your long line rig a little upwind, downwind or further out, depending upon the situation, or occasionally making more room in the landing zone. Once you’ve had a little experience setting out your long line rig, and see how the birds respond, you’ll never again want to hunt a diver marsh without one.