August 27, 2012
There is a magic about duck hunting in that we enjoy it as much now as when we were young boys. There are few other activities for which this is true. Nothing serves as a better reminder of this fact than when the first ducks of the season bank just outside my spread. The excitement is practically unpleasant. My shotgun suddenly feels foreign in my hands, and I'm just certain I'll botch the greeting call.
But on a cool September morning outside Saskatoon, my quick, excited calling cadence turns the mallards, their bright blue speculums shining gorgeously as they veer back into the wind for a final approach to the pea field. For a moment, I admire them so intently that I don't realize someone has called the shot. I mount my gun just in time to drop a fourth drake from the bunch. Over the next three days, four friends and I limit on ducks and also do well on snows, Canadas and even sandhill cranes.
It was the first time I had hunted Canada, and so I was intrigued that most hunters there seemed to use huge goose spreads, with little to no ducks, yet the mallards poured in. Why does the setup seem to work? Ducks staging for migration need to pack on fat for the grand passage south, and they know that where there's geese there's sure to be protein-rich grains. Plus, geese are far larger and more visible than ducks, attracting them from great distances.
Yet despite all the success Canadians have shooting ducks over goose spreads, Americans rarely use the strategy. It's as if we believe we don't hunt the same birds. However, if ducks look to geese to find food when they're staging for migration, doesn't it stand to reason that a goose spread would work anytime ducks are starved for calories (you know, like pretty much the entire waterfowl season)?
Turns out, a couple of the best waterfowl hunters I know have spent the last decade experimenting with goose spreads to target ducks. Here's what they've learned, and how a bundle of big goose decoys can jumpstart your duck season.
Don't Be Old Fashioned
"I'm no biologist, so I really can't explain it," says Field Hudnall, an Avery pro staffer and founder of Field Proven Calls. "But mallards absolutely pitch to geese and we shoot way more over goose decoys than we would with just ducks."
Hudnall came to this realization mostly by chance. Early in his teens, he saw few geese on his northern swath of the Ohio River, so his spread looked probably a lot like yours: three- or four-dozen ducks arranged in a J- or U-rig, with a dozen geese pitched off to the side in hopes of killing a "bonus goose." But each season Field noticed more and more geese on the river.
"So we began putting out a spread of half ducks, half geese," he recalls. "Our goose harvest went way up, and we shot just as many ducks. So one day we thought, 'What the heck, let's put out almost all goose decoys.' "
Their duck and goose bags both went through the roof. Field couldn't believe it. It changed the way he hunts.
"Now, even in the early duck season, before geese are even in, we run a huge goose spread," Hudnall said. "I'll bet on a couple occasions we had a warden somewhere watching, just waiting for us to pop a goose, but we think goose spreads are the most effective way to decoy ducks."
What advice would he give someone who insists on using a duck spread with just a few geese?
"The problem is you won't kill hardly any geese that way and you could be killing a lot more ducks," says Hudnall. "Most often, migratory geese go to water to rest, not to feed, and they do so in large groups. A dozen decoys just aren't going to pull them. It's not a visible spread, and it's not a realistic spread. Real migrating geese don't rest or travel in such small numbers, and they don't decoy to duck spreads."
When It Works Best
Hudnall uses a large goose spread all season long, but the beauty of this strategy is it peaks at the same time hunting peaks — when the migrators are on the move. Such birds are tired, hungry and nervously seeking safe harbor to land. Think how relieved they would be to spot your goose spread.
"Everyone knows that sometimes the key to killing sky-high, migrating mallards is just getting their attention," Hudnall says. "So guys go out and buy these $150 'ringing' type duck calls, but guess what: Ducks can see a lot farther than they can hear. So don't waste your money on a loud call — and this is coming from a duck callmaker — spend it on some nice goose decoys, as many as you can afford and cram into your boat. I'm amazed at how far away we've pulled passing mallards from. Goose decoys' massive size and black-on-white contrast make them visible from a long way. And given that ducks will key on them as well as their own species, I think goose decoys make magnum mallards obsolete."
For similar reasons, a goose spread can also be used to your advantage on those frequent occasions that you aren't hunting the "X." Some other lucky devil who probably knows a lot less about ducks than you (or at least you'll convince yourself of that by day's end) will probably still end up shooting more ducks. Ah, but your big ol' goose spread will gain the attention of plenty of birds originally heading his way.
Three years ago, I began adding far more geese to my spread while hunting public areas outside Washington, D.C., and mallards, pintails and gadwalls — practically every dabbling species — all decoyed more readily. I speculated that the goose spread worked because my section of the Potomac River is highly pressured; maybe my spread didn't look like those of every other hunter.
"Could be, but I've never bought into the idea of looking different just for the sake of looking different," Hudnall told me. "What I care about is realism. The goal is to make your spread look like a nice, big refuge area, and a large group of geese just looks natural. Next time you spot a big group of Canadas or even snow geese, look closely: I'll bet you never even noticed how many ducks were milling about with them."
How to Hunt Water
Lakes, rivers and other large water where a variety of waterfowl are trading and loafing are the ideal spots for a big goose spread. Sean Hammock, owner of Big Sean Championship Calls, puts out a spread of 60-80 Canada goose floaters and a dozen mallards, positioning the ducks close to his calling location.
"The ducks will come to the goose decoys, but they also pinpoint sound a lot better than geese," Hammock said. "So if you don't have any duck decoys near you, it may throw them off a bit. As long as you use good quality dekes, the ducks may finish right in your little pocket."
Like Hudnall, Hammock's goal when hunting over water is to establish the look of a big, safe refuge. "Goose decoys will bring your spread alive, but they still have to look relaxed to be natural. Use mostly resters and sleepers. They're the ultimate confidence decoy for both ducks and geese. I don't use any spinning-wing decoys over water. I think ducks get conditioned to being shot over them, but more importantly, I just don't think all that movement is natural. Ducks relax and loaf more than they feed on the water."
If that sounds like a lot of decoys to pack into a boat, well, it is, but Hammock would use even more if he could. After all, hunting over water limits you to how many decoys you can pack in your boat and position within gun range.
"That's just another reason you should use geese," Hammock says. "You can only take so many decoys with you, so you may as well use the most visible ones possible. We end up using more duck decoys than I'd prefer just because they fit in the boat."
Hammock's field setup is a heck of a sight. He wants his water spread to look like a relaxed refuge, but in the field he wants to simulate a wild feeding frenzy. He'll put out about three-dozen geese per three hunters for visibility and to hide the layout blinds. Now, here's where it gets interesting: He rounds out the spread with seven to 10 mallards — all of them spinning-wing decoys.
"For some reason, the mallards' mentality is totally different when they're dry feeding," Hammock said. "They just get stupid, and really competitive for food. Spinning-wing decoys flare a lot of ducks on the water, but all that movement is completely natural if you're hunting a field. I crank up my Lucky Ducks as fast as they'll go. When real birds are dry feeding, they constantly move about excitedly, sort of playing hopscotch as they skip over one another feeding. Just make sure you position the spinners out in front of the shooters, because incoming mallards will want to land in front of them to beat them to the food. If the spinners are right on top of you, the ducks might land behind you."
So, you've sold all your duck decoys and here you are trying to shoot ducks over a big goose spread. How do you call ducks to geese — would using your goose call be more natural (if not further convince other hunters you've lost your mind)?
"I know guys who swear by calling ducks with a goose call, especially pintails," Hudnall says. "I'm not going to say it works or doesn't work, but if I'm hunting over water with a couple guys, we may have one guy make some simple goose clucks while the other guys focus on the duck calling. Sometimes it seems like the ducks will circle and circle, then they hear a goose cluck and commit. It could be a coincidence, who knows, but we think it may work."
As with his decoy spreads, Hammock's calling strategies for water versus fields couldn't be more different.
"My immediate goal over water is to get the ducks' attention and tell them there's other ducks down here among the geese," he explains. "I'll hit them with a string of three to seven quacks or a greeting call to say, yep, here we are. There's no real need to do any feeding chatter. Just finish them with some little quacks, because real hen mallards often make a few quacks when they first land in the decoys."
Hammock says ducks that have landed in dry fields are too focused on feeding to bother with such social niceties.
"They're far quieter," he said. "You want to let the visibility of your goose spread do the work for you. I'll hit the ducks with a few short strings of quacks on the corners, but for the most part I'm just making some aggressive feeding chatter."
"There's no doubt buying several dozen geese is a big investment, especially when you know your duck spread works or you aren't even seeing many geese," Hudnall acknowledges. "It's a real leap of faith to sell off your duck decoys and give a goose spread a try. A lot of guys aren't comfortable doing that. However, ever since we proposed this idea, we've heard so much positive feedback. We know guys are trying it, and they're having as much success with it as we are."
Hammock actually sees the goose spread as a way to shave costs.
"I started using goose spreads as a teenager, because I had no money," he recalls. "I bought goose decoys, because I'm more of a goose hunter, and I couldn't afford duck decoys too. That's when I discovered that ducks decoy great to geese. So, if you're on a limited budget and can only afford so many decoys, go with geese."
Plenty of people argue that goose spreads don't work. And perhaps for certain people, in certain areas, they don't. If you should encounter such an individual, here is my advice: Buy every last goose decoy he'll sell you, as a favor to him of course, and pack as many as you can fit into your boat on opening day. You'll enjoy the investment.