September 21, 2022
Mike McElroy is a man of few words. He wears the same duck jacket my dad owns, ones they got from a box store in the 1980s. And though I have hunted waterfowl for 46 years, he was about to give me a first-hand lesson in the importance of letting your decoys do the talking, something all of us should do more whenever possible. Mike has decades of waterfowl hunting experience, but he’d never tell you that.
A Word to the Waterfowl Wise
Last September in Cold Bay, Alaska, Mike and I were helping good friend Jeff Wasley with his Four Flyways Outfitters camp. After a few days of work, Mike and I went brant hunting. We grabbed some floater decoys, hiked down the beach and were ready when the tide shifted.
The first wave of brant flew by and I told Mike to shoot. He didn’t raise his gun. Nor did he shoot the next flock, or the next. “You shoot into that line and you’ll likely kill more than your two brant limit,” Mike noted. “Plus, they’re not decoying yet, and I didn’t come all this way to pass shoot.”
He had my attention, and I agreed. Finally, a flock cupped into the decoys and Mike took one shot and killed one brant. “Your turn,” Mike smiled, showing me the green band on the leg of the brant he’d just retrieved.
Another flock came in and I dropped an adult inside the line of decoys.
Then I shot a single that came in from my side; two shots, two birds. Then Mike shot his final bird, winging it before dropping it stone dead with a quick follow-up.
“Man, I just hate that,” Mike said under his breath in all seriousness. “Hate what, that was a good shot?” I followed. “The second one, maybe, but not the first shot,” he came back. “That was so close to a perfect hunt,” he shook his head. To Mike, the perfect hunt is clean kills with minimal shots; I respect that.
In a matter of minutes, we were done and sat on the salty shore of the bay watching eel grass undulate with the surging surf while thousands of brant flocked by, many banking into the decoys. That’s when I looked at the empties Mike had, 2 3/4” 4 shot. He answered my question before I even asked. “I think the 3” shell was one of the worst inventions because it creates a sense that hunters need to shoot birds far away, when decoying them in close, for a clean, ethical shot, is what it’s all about.”
I shoot 3” and 3 1/2” shells because of the increased pellet count, not to reach out further. Mike’s point is that waterfowl hunting over decoys is to outsmart birds, not get them to swing by and pass shoot them.
Take Your Sweet Time
Hunt enough, be it on public or private land, even clubs, and you quickly get what decoying is about and how effective it can be. One club I hunted had six blinds crammed inside 75 acres, when one blind for every 50 acres is a good rule of thumb. While everyone had decoys out, the mentality was to shoot before the other guys, and if you didn’t shoot birds on the first pass, someone would surely shoot and flare them, botching any chance you might have had. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Another place I hunted, all the hunters got it. The agreement was to shoot only birds that had the landing gear down. None of these hunters were about the numbers, they were about making decoy spreads work and fooling ducks.
On the second to last day of duck season I took my homemade one-man blind, one of my dogs, a dozen floater decoys and some wigeon silhouettes to a flooded field. I’d been scouting and seeing three gorgeous Eurasian wigeon. I vowed to not shoot a duck until noon, unless it was a Euro’.
From shooting time until 11:55 a.m. I didn’t fire a shot, and quit counting at 600 ducks that landed in the decoys, mostly wigeon. I had binoculars to check their heads in the low light, but didn’t see a red head. Then a massive flock of teal landed, followed by a wad of wigeon. Kona, my pudelpointer, hadn’t moved the entire time, despite numerous ducks being less than 30 yards from him, so I rewarded him with a dandy drake cotton top.
As the wind changed throughout the day I adjusted the decoys four times and moved the blind three times. No Euro’s came in but birds landed in the decoys all day. I shot selectively, taking my last duck five minutes before closing time. What I confirmed about managing decoys spreads and blind position made for my most memorable day of duck hunting alone, ever.
Once you get what it’s all about, and how it’s supposed to work, it’s hard to find another approach that matches the challenging thrill and breathtaking beauty that decoying provides. You just gotta give ‘em a chance.