With fog so thick you can scoop it up and throw it against the wall like a tennis ball hunters can see the decoy spread before them. On the horizon are small specks of black that mean birds coming in. This is the kind of anticipation and excitement that is waterfowl hunting. Decoys play a vital part in the sport and are a simple aspect to understand.
Deployment of decoys is an often discussed subject wherever hunters meet. Do you place the spread in an “I,” “J,” or “V” pattern? Do you place a couple dozen dekes or just a few? Are full body ones essential or can some silhouettes be integrated into the spread? More recently the question of kite decoys and motion decoys add to the equation.
Following some several seasons of interviewing some of the foremost callers and guides, resulted in a conclusion that nobody but the waterfowl know what works best. There are so many variables to the situation. Are they on migration of just returning from a feed run? Are they resting birds or are they actively seeking a feeding area? Are they flight birds in huge numbers, or just a family flock exercising their flight muscles? Is it early in the season or late? What is the weather like?
For a hunter the answer seems to be the spread that is working today is best. It might not work well tomorrow. One has to be flexible and adapt his spread to the wants and desires of the birds he is hunting.
The following basic information from which hunters begin provides ideas being that will adapt later.
One basic of waterfowl hunting is that birds like to land into the wind. This is especially true when there is a wind. On a dead calm day, you have a problem deciding just where the birds will approach your position. Then you must consider factors like feeding and loafing locations.
Birds that loaf on a refuge and fly out each day for food will follow a pattern going and coming from the refuge and you must place decoys accordingly. Migrating birds coming in ahead of a storm will often land right into the decoys without circling. Less stressed birds will circle and find a place to approach the decoys from downwind.
On windy days you can manage their approach. They approach into the wind and you can arrange your decoys to encourage them to fly right to your position.
So the basic set up is into the wind. Leave space so that the birds are encouraged to land in a “kill zone.”
With geese it is a good idea to mix up the types of decoys with the dekes in a variety of positions. Generally speaking you mix five to 10 feeding decoys with one sentinel bird. The sentry decoy goes on the outside edge of family groups. Place full body decoys with most of them facing into the wind. Geese tend to feed into the wind. For variety and placed cross wind to the hunter you can use silhouettes.
Early in the season, fewer decoys are best. Perhaps four to 5 dozen would be an ideal number. Later in the year the birds tend to become more social and you might need eight to 10 dozen decoys.
Most hunters seem to prefer the full body decoys. However, the use of silhouettes has become popular. These can be the basic black decoy or some of the more modern ones with birds in a variety of positions to present a lifelike presentation. The silhouettes attract the approaching birds’ attention and then vanish in favor of the full body decoys as the birds get over the set up.
Late season birds tend to prefer oversized decoys. Waterfowl do not seem to judge size very well. The oversized decoys catch the flock’s attention more quickly from a longer distance.
Another attractant for geese is the kite decoy. This works well with a good caller. The kite attracts the attention of approaching birds and the caller provides the sound that helps sell the situation. The kite presents movement that is more natural looking. It can dive, swoop or just hang motionlessly in the air. Perhaps seeing the “flyer” land safely in the decoys provides a sense of safety to the approaching birds.
Most hunters seem to agree that it is important to move your dekes around from day to day. The idea is present a variety of situations. This helps avoid educating the birds to the fact that you are there. You can also adapt to changing wind conditions or to the fact that birds travel one direction in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Windy days keep the birds flying low as it is easier to fly where the wind is less due to physical conditions on the ground. On calm days they often fly very high and require more work by the caller to lure them down. Being cognizant of the weather conditions, the hunter must adapt his spread and technique to those conditions.
The science of decoy spreads is really more of an art. An art fine-tuned by hours of observing the birds in action and trying to determine what best will attract their attention. It is what makes waterfowl hunting the enjoyable pastime that draws hunters out of warm homes on cold winter days.