Waterfowl are a familial bird, and when possible they will choose to rest and feed with other birds. Market hunters found that it was most effective to use live decoys for this purpose. They would use wing-clipped or penned, tame birds to bring the birds in. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, and prohibited the use of live decoys. Therefore, waterfowlers today use plastic, cork, or wood decoys to lure waterfowl in to gun range.
One of the most common questions I am asked is how to set up the "perfect decoy spread." I wish I had the answer. If you asked a dozen seasoned waterfowlers their opinion of the perfect spread, you would get a dozen different answers. Too many factors are involved such as species, where hunted, time of season, time of day, and most of all, personal opinion. I will try to generalize a bit about what I have found to be the best techniques for my hunting situations.
Once again, you are "selling an illusion" of live waterfowl on the ground; therefore, it is best that your spread be as realistic as possible. A good starting point to achieve realism with your decoy spread is to actually observe birds in the wild. Try to sneak in on your hunting spot, and see how birds naturally use the area. Keep in mind the prevailing wind direction and weather conditions and you can begin to pattern the birds. Then, start with a location and grouping that they are already familiar with.
For a more realistic spread, it is also important to use the most life-like decoys you can find or afford. Keep in mind while shopping, that many types and sizes of decoys exist. I always like to use a variety of sizes in my spread; as in the wild, not all birds will look the same sitting on the water. For example, my typical duck spread for ponds and marshes consists of around 12 standard mallards, 6 magnum mallards, 2 feeders, and four sleepers. I also like to place 4-5 standard Canada Goose floaters at the downwind side of the spread to attract any geese in the area, and for added visibility. On a snow goose hunt, I don't like to limit the spread to one type of decoy, such as rags or windsocks. I find that a good mix of shells, silhouettes, windsocks, and rags, makes a more life-like spread. Then, you are not committing yourself to just one type of decoy that the birds may be uninterested in that day. For goose hunting, nothing beats the full-body decoys, but they are also very cumbersome and expensive if you need a large spread.
Lately, many new types of decoys have begun to hit the market, especially motion decoys. These new decoys come in many forms, motorized swimming birds, motorized wing birds, flying kites, and even splashing birds. Do they work? My answer is yes. However, you need to justify your purchases accordingly. Many waterfowlers are still successful with stationary decoys. These motion decoys are just another tool that helps "sell the illusion". If you observe birds in the wild, they are never still; they are usually moving and feeding. Especially on no-wind and clear days, these motion decoys can really help those indecisive birds make up their mind. Do the birds really think these motorized decoys or kites are landing birds? No one but the birds can actually be sure. From testing these decoys and watching the birds in the field, I believe the main reason they are effective is the fact that they attract the bird's attention. The birds seem to look at the motion, and then they are not rubber-necking" and looking to spot you, your dog, or your blind.
The question of how many decoys to use is often asked. The number really depends on where you will be hunting, the time of season, and the birds themselves. The body of water you hunt largely determines this. As I mentioned, I hunt small water and about 30 decoys is enough for me. On large bodies of water some people will use up to 300. As the season goes on, it is important to be aware of the birds. If they are new to the area, your usual spread will work. However, if the migration tends to stall and birds are in the area for a long time, they will become aware of your tactics. Then, a good idea is to change your spread and location a bit so the birds gain some confidence. You may just want to use 5-8 decoys and try a new spot on the marsh. In goose hunting, you will need to use a larger number of decoys, especially if hunting over fields, as geese feed in large family groups. For Canada Geese, I would suggest a minimum of 3 dozen decoys, with 4-5 dozen sometimes being a better choice. For snow geese, I would suggest a starting point of around 100 decoys. They can be wary, and they really like to see a lot of white on the ground. If you ever spot several thousand feeding snow geese, you will usually see them lined up for miles, waiting to come in.
The actual arrangement of a decoy spread is largely a matter of personal opinion. However, the key thing you should remember is to create a large landing area where you want the birds to set their wings and come down. This is the sweet spot that you want the birds to key their attention on. Try to keep this landing area as close to your blind as possible to get the birds to work for you. You should also position your decoys so the birds are coming towards you as they are setting their wings. This exposes their breast, wings, head, and neck and allows clean, humane kills. If the birds were landing away, this results in body shots, which could allow crippled birds to fly away.
It is also important to make the landing area large enough. Many hunters will make the landing area too small, with decoys too close. The birds will then work the decoys; however, when they finally commit, they will glide down at the extreme edge of the spread, safely out of gun range. If this occurs, a good suggestion is to actually move the decoys farther from the blind. This will create a larger pocket in front of the blind, and most likely, convince the birds to land there.
The art of decoying waterfowl is only a matter of "selling the illusion" to the birds. You will encounter many other hunters who may disapprove of your tactics. However, keep in mind that you are not trying to convince them; you are trying to convince the birds! Just make sure your spread looks realistic and you leave a spot for the birds to land. Good Hunting and Take 'Em with Their Wings Cupped!
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