When to Use a Small Decoy Spread

When to Use a Small Decoy Spread
Photo Credit: Dean Pearson

There are times when ducks are more susceptible to diminutive decoy rigs'here's how YOU can take advantage.

They wing up the river, as subtle and silent as the swelling dawn in the leaden eastern sky. Gliding forms round a bend, silhouettes flickering betwixt patches of lightening clouds and a towering phalanx of streamside cottonwoods. Before I can bring a call to my lips, the neural apparatus in a quartet of shimmering emerald pates has discerned a half-dozen decoys nodding in the lazy current as pleasant companions. Wings cup, tails flare and webbed feet on four pairs of carroty legs extend toward the surface of the river.

They alight in midstream, then turn to paddle placidly in our direction, screened by a tangle of disheveled willows and the cut bank of the islet upon which my wife and I are crouching.

“Now,” I hiss as the real McCoys clear brush and bank to reach the decoys.

The shooting lane is sparse, but we manage to drop two of the four greenheads in three shots as they burst skyward. I lurch from our hiding place and wade into the current to intercept the very dead, downstream drake before it’s swept away into a riffle while the dog retrieves the other to Lisa. With just a couple of hours to hunt before a morning of appointments, I gather six Texas-rigged decoys and clip them to a carabiner while Lisa locates our empties and stuffs them into her pocket. Dinner in hand, we stroll happily back to the truck. When the phone rings less than 60 minutes later I make my best effort to forget the duck hunt and play the role of an engaged participant in a conference call.

Hunting with small decoy spreads such as the one we used to bag a pair of drakes allows an appealing level of simplicity and flexibility for hunters with limited time and resources. However, under some circumstances forsaking a large, elaborate set-up for something understated may actually be superior for drawing waterfowl to a hunter’s position.


“Location is generally more important than the number of decoys,” says Jim Gammonley, a waterfowl biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and an avid hunter himself. “Many duck hunters are successful using a dozen or fewer decoys if they find hunting sites where ducks go to feed or find shelter from the weather.”


Building on Gammonley’s advice it’s possible to parse small-spread hunting into a few basic concepts. Since there are three S’s in both “successful” and “small spreads” let’s use that trio of letters for an alliterated framework.


Scout It Right

Notice the “if” in our seasoned biologist’s conclusion about the potential of small spreads. Success is dependent upon pinpointing areas waterfowl are already using to obtain their most basic needs of food and shelter. The difference between an expansive array of decoys and a half-dozen might be perceived in the brains of a flock of pintails as “wow, look at all those guys feeding in that field, there sure must be something good to eat,” versus “since we were coming anyway, let’s go join that little group that’s here already.” Conceived in another way, small spreads don’t so much attract waterfowl to a location as they direct birds to particular places within habitat they are already using on a regular basis.

Familiarity with current waterfowl use of an area is critical to success with small spreads. Think in specifics. If geese are using a 150-acre cornfield, are there certain places they like better than others? Suppose late-season mallards pile into a sheltered, shallow expanse on a modest river. Are there segments of this loafing area they prefer in general, or favor in certain types of weather?

Scouting for locations in which to set a micro-spread should prompt waterfowlers to look beyond the obvious, such as large reservoirs, major rivers and massive fields where center-pivot irrigation nurtures agricultural crops.


“Places like small streams (especially near larger water bodies) that aren’t normally thought of as waterfowl areas are worth getting to know,” advises Gammonley. Backwaters such as these may concentrate surprising numbers of birds when hunting pressure intensifies in more obvious areas.

waterfowl hunter holding goose

In the Dakotas and elsewhere on the plains, stock ponds and potholes are ideal for diminutive decoy set-ups. I began hunting these in earnest at the suggestion of a waterfowl biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Toss out a handful of decoys at dawn on a pond and wait for the local birds to return,” he told me. Hiding cover can be scarce around these little hotspots, especially in pastures heavily used by livestock. However, this type of hunting is typically best in the early season when birds are less wary. A modicum of concealment and a motionless vigil are often enough to bring ducks (and sometimes geese) within range.

Timing Your Location

If the scouting proved productive, a number of locations have been identified as promising small-spread spots. Which to choose? The normal variables of temperature, weather, wind-speed and direction are as applicable to hunting over five decoys as 50. Sun-lit, warm temperatures in early season will find ducks seeking shade. Cold, bitter breezes in late season push them toward shelter and so on. Beyond those basics, however, the small-spread hunter should carefully consider how hunting pressure affects waterfowl movements in a given area.


Less than an hour’s drive from my home is a broad valley. The serpentine course of a goodly river winds through a fertile plain in the vale, ancient tailings scoured and sifted by the whims of water upon which farmers coax from the soil soybeans, corn and alfalfa. It’s a paradise for resident and migrating waterfowl (most notably copious flocks of Canada geese and mallards) and a pretty snappy destination for the humans who hunt them. Artfully chosen, a scattering of six to a dozen decoys will yield a limit of either species on many a morning.

Hunting pressure during the local waterfowl season is yawningly predictable. Gunfire erupts frequently on the weekends from both the fields and along the river. Ignite the primers of a few No. 2s in the barrel of a 12-gauge during midweek and they may be the only shots heard all day.

For midweek hunting, locations along sandbars, quiet shallows and backwaters behind islands are the favorite lounging areas of greenheads and honkers. True to form, sooty-headed geese and satiated mallards who depart the fields to rest on the river can be coaxed into shooting range by a handful of suggestive decoys placed at one of these places where they congregate day after day.

Small spreads also work on the river during the weekend, but hunting activity often nudges waterfowl to obscure locations where a few decoys become a veritable magnet. One of these is a small, placid creek originating from a hillside that flows for no more than a mile before discharging its crystalline water into the normally cloudy river. Harried by weekend hunting pressure, mallards and other ducks frequently drop into the piddling little creek for cover, seemingly relieved to take their resting cues from as few as a pair of decoys. Small spreads can be effective in most locations, but those placed with an eye toward the overlooked are doubly deadly.

When To Go Small

So you’re ready to downsize on decoys. How many are enough? In many cases a half-dozen or fewer will do. “In our early teal-only season in September, it doesn’t require many decoys at all,” concludes Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. What’s more important is the set, namely placing that smidgen of decoys in a location known to hold teal, in a spot that makes them visible to incoming birds.

The best cue for the set of a small spread is the location and array of birds noted while scouting. A prairie pond I’ve hunted in early season catches prevailing winds from the northwest. A copse of scraggly trees overhangs its southwest corner. Barring a significant shift in the wind and weather, the green-winged teal fond of this humble haven lounge beneath the branches, a handbreadth from the bank. A trio of decoys floating here may attract as many teal or two dozen.

Raedeke is also keen on the effectiveness of small spreads in late season. “By December ducks are already establishing pair bonds and breaking into smaller flocks.” In addition to setting in specific locations, late-season hunters should be aware of this biological trend. A half-dozen decoys placed to resemble a cozy cluster of compatible couples is a natural arrangement.

“Late in the season…just a few goose decoys set up in loose family groups can be effective.” Jim Gammonley’s perspective underlines the efficacy of small spreads, but also instructs regarding the set. For Canada geese, replicating the look of a dominant pair of geese flanked by a few subordinates offers a mirror image of a common arrangement in the real world.

For novice hunters yet to acquire a decoy collection or those intent on offering pressured waterfowl a different look, small spreads can be deadly. Those who place them artfully inevitably encounter more S-words, particularly verbs like “shooting” and “smiling.”

Recommended for You

Take it from a pro: Less is more. For Dogs

Dog Discipline Tips & Gear

Joe Genzel - June 20, 2019

Take it from a pro: Less is more.

Nourish your pup's noggin for elite performance. Retriever

Gun Dog Nutrition & Intelligence

Tony J. Peterson

Nourish your pup's noggin for elite performance.

The sweet, tangy flavor of orange juice combined with spicy jalapeños in this duck recipe will have your taste buds screaming for more. Recipes

Sweet Jalapeño Grilled Duck Recipe

Scott Leysath, "The Sporting Chef"

The sweet, tangy flavor of orange juice combined with spicy jalapeños in this duck recipe will...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

This video is a classic! Take a front row seat with Carson as he hunted back in college. The clips are all either filmed with a GoPro or cell phone!

Browning A5 Shotgun -

Browning A5 Shotgun - 'Gun Stories'

Gun Stories host Joe Mantegna talks about the origin and history of the Browning A5 shotgun.

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call. Calls

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during...

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads Ammo

11 Best New Shotshell Loads For Waterfowl

Wildfowl Online Staff - August 17, 2017

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads

Jim Orth needed'a simple blind for hunting Lake St. Clair. A staffing recruiter and outfitter from How-To

Building a Duck Boat Blind on a Budget

Mike Marsh - May 10, 2016

Jim Orth needed'a simple blind for hunting Lake St. Clair. A staffing recruiter and outfitter...

See More Stories

More Decoy Tips

Hard to believe a week has passed since we did our part to save the arctic tundra, one load of Decoy Tips

Early Snow Goose Shoot-Up: How to Decoy Snow Geese

Skip Knowles - February 13, 2012

Hard to believe a week has passed since we did our part to save the arctic tundra, one load of

Without question, spring snow goose hunting requires a large decoy spread. But the act of merely Decoy Tips

Snow Goose Spread Strategy

P.J. Reilly - February 22, 2016

Without question, spring snow goose hunting requires a large decoy spread. But the act of...

Sean Mann is a silhouette guy. And his explanation is simple for sticking with the flat fakes, Decoy Tips

Silhouette Strategies: Why 2-D Decoys Dominate

P.J. Reilly - February 25, 2015

Sean Mann is a silhouette guy. And his explanation is simple for sticking with the flat fakes,

See More Decoy Tips

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×