It is easy to go to the store and purchase a bunch of decoys. It is also quite simple to rig and throw them. What is humbling is when your spread is put to the test with other hunters in the area. Nothing makes you question your decoy setting ability more than sitting and watching birds fly right past you, and land in someone’s spread only a few hundred yards away. Immediately, you might say that those guys, must be better callers, or your blind needs more brush. Those might be true, but more often than not it’s the way you set your decoys.
Let’s examine the calling first. Ask any avid waterfowl-er about calling, you will almost be guaranteed a different answer. From I don’t call at all—to my calls are attached to my mouth with Velcro. There is no correct answer for calling. What I can tell you is that if you guess wrong on a call, the birds will almost surely leave as fast as they came. Thus, so many hunters don’t call much. I personally call, at 5 min b4 shooting time. A good 3 min cadence using all my calls not just mallard. Then I shut up…. until there is enough light to without question know what I am calling at. If the birds don’t seem to be responding to the call, I change to a different one, or shut up. If the birds like the call, they will respond almost instantly. Some say don’t call if the birds are coming your way, and call if they are leaving. I say if the birds are responding to the call to come in, keep calling. As they get closer, get softer and softer. If they haven’t shut up till, they are flying away. Last thing on calls. If you asked any world champion caller who is a hunter to choose between 12 decoys or their calls. They would choose the decoys 90% to 100% of the time. Why you ask? Decoy’s are more most of the time, and birds that hear calls will come looking for birds. If they don’t see birds they don’t tend to land. Case in point, birds don’t land on the callers, they land in the decoys most of the time.
So decoys are important!!!! Very important. So how to we use them effectively.
First, know your wind. More importantly, know what your wind is gonna do. No point in setting on a north wind, that is expected to change to the west at first light. If the direction of the wind changes…. reset your decoys. Birds will land cross wind, but they won’t if your neighbor is set correctly.
Next, Decoys! Don’t throw away old decoys. Early to mid season birds don’t have full plumage. No sense in putting out a whole spread of brand new deks, November 7. The birds will tend to flare, because it is not a real setup. Save those nice new ones for mid December on, when the birds more match the decoy. Also, buy good decoys. I suggest G and H or full curl decoys. In my opinion they are the best made, and will out last all the other competition. I have G and H decoys that have been used every day of season for ten years that still work well.
When to set big or small?
This question is so difficult to answer, sometimes I get it wrong to this day. In general, if the birds want to be where I am at, which I know because I scouted the area. I set smaller spreads. Some guys talk about it as being on the X. If I am on the X, I set small spreads dozen or less. Never all the same birds, maybe some teal, mallards, pin tail, and spoonbills in my area. If I am off the X by as much as 75 yards, I set larger spreads. That being said, if I feel we need to go big 6-10 dozen would be in the spread. When you go big, the quality of the decoys is not near an issue. That is of course if you have some that are high quality. Flambou, carry lite, and game winner all make it to my big spreads. Right along side my full curl and G&H decoys.
More about when to set big. Large water flats, large flooded fields, large open oak flats. When I have lots of other hunters competing with me.
More about when I set small. Small flooded fields the birds are going to anyway, heavy cover flooded timber with small landing zones, small farm ponds. Wood duck slews.
Types of sets-
Not going to mention much on spread setups i.e. swoosh, pod, fly through, wagon wheel, cross wind. This info is everywhere on the net. How people go wrong in these sets though is a better topic.
Swoosh or fish hook– save this set for open water. It doesn’t have to be big water, but cut up with timber or reeds makes it less effective. It can be set with the leg close to the blind, or with the leg out in the water creating a pocket by the blind. Advantages of close set. Birds will land closer to blind more often. Less birds flaring or landing out of range. Disadvantages, Movement in the blind has to be at min., and blind cover has to be at the max. This set is wind dependent and will take time to change if the wind shifts.
Pass through with or with out blockers- the pass through is a great cross wind set. Make sure you don’t set your outside birds out of your gun range. Some birds will flare the landing zone, but land on the outside of the spread. If you make your big pod have just a little cup in the middle you will land more birds on a variable wind. In steady hard wind days set a blocker pod up wind in your spread. This will close off the pass through. It has both good and bad effects. Birds will be forced to land before the pod, or flare earlier. This set can be adjusted very quickly if conditions change.
Horse shoe- if you are hunting dead down wind this set works well. The biggest mistake people make is not putting many birds behind and around the blind. do yourself a favor and set birds 20 yards upwind of your blind.
Pod and Pod- Effective just about anywhere. remember to group pods of different birds within the pods. also set pairs of birds together close later in the season. These pairs can be mixed in with other types of birds. Make sure you set some lonesome hens when setting pods.
Know your ducks mating seasons. When are they courting, pairing, and looking for a nest. This makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of your spreads.
Wagon wheel is an open water tactic. I use this often off small islands. I use 10dz of more birds when setting wagon wheels. The Idea is to leave spokes on all points of wind. This doens’t work well first light, but at like 8am when the birds start to raft up it is killer.
Bend you spokes out more like a horseshoe than this picture. It will land more birds in range.
I could wright a book with all the different setups. If you learn how to deploy these well, in the right conditions your success will only go up.