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.
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.”