Advice for new duck hunters on decoy spreads
When you get any waterfowlers to talk about the best decoy spreads for a given scenario, you’re likely to get a few different answers, which can be frustrating but also makes sense. There are so many factors in play while duck hunting, and any or all of them can impact what is ultimately the best or most effective decoy setup. For new duck hunters especially, it can be really confusing. On top of figuring out which and how many waterfowl decoys to buy, you also need to figure out how to arrange them while hunting. It’s a lot to consider. Here are some common duck decoy strategies that work for puddle ducks and diving ducks, as well as some other tips to make the most of your next hunting season.
Duck Decoy Options
When you start buying duck decoys to match the type of duck hunting you’ll be doing, you’ll quickly realize there are a lot of options. There are decoys to resemble different species, different sexes, and varying degrees of realistic touches. But there are also several different types or styles of decoys, which is just another piece of the puzzle. Common duck decoys come in floating, standing, laying, or flying configurations, and some are arranged in feeding positions or designed to spin or move in some way. Here’s a quick breakdown of the best scenarios for each type:
- Species – it should be a no-brainer that you should try to use decoys that match the species you’re hunting, but that’s not a universal rule. For example, you can attract most puddle ducks by using mallard decoys alone. But for the best luck, you may try using a mixed-species spread to attract the largest variety.
- Genders – there’s no hard and fast rule to this one, either. Drake decoys tend to be flashier and can attract ducks from further away, but it’s a good idea to incorporate some hen decoys to ensure the spread looks realistic.
- Size – while you can find many decoys that are lifelike in proportions (referred to as “standard” decoys), there are also “magnum” or even “super magnum” duck decoys that are much larger than a real duck. The benefit of larger decoys is that flocks can see them from farther away than smaller decoys. The drawback is that they are more cumbersome to carry around and you can’t fit as many in a decoy bag.
- Style – the best duck decoy style depends on where you’re hunting. For example, floating decoys are obvious choices for hunting on the water, while full body standing or field decoys work better in very shallow water or on dry land. There are also silhouettes, wind socks, and shell decoys.
- Action – in many cases, you can get the upper hand on ducks by incorporating some kind of motion into your decoys. Flying versions with spinning wings are a common choice for that, but pay attention to your state’s regulations on the use of motorized decoys. Using a feeding style decoy or tipped up (rear end only) decoy floating on the water can impart some action, especially if you use a jerk rig connected to a raft of decoys.
- Keels – along the bottom of floating decoys, you will find a ridge, called a keel, which is what keeps the decoys from flipping over in the water. Solid keels are heavier than water keels (which fill with water for use as ballast), but can be more convenient to use.
Decoy Spreads for Puddle Ducks
Across most of the interior of the country, you have a good chance to hunt dabbling ducks, also called puddle ducks. Species in this group include mallards, teal, pintails, wigeons, wood ducks, and black ducks. As a new hunter interested in hunting puddle ducks, you’re in luck. Most of these species will usually approach a set of mallard decoys alone, so you don’t need to invest a ton of money right off the bat. But it definitely won’t hurt to mix a few other puddle duck decoys into your spread. Many people use a mix of mallards, black ducks, and pintails for their visibility and good pulling power.
As far as the number of decoys to use, 12 to 24 puddle duck decoys is a good range for most people, with fewer than 18 being about right for a solo hunter to set up alone. For permanent blinds on private land or areas you can access with a hunting partner from a boat, more and larger (magnum) decoys are almost always a better thing. But if you want to sneak into a public land area, you will need to carry fewer, standard size decoys. Likewise, you should try to use larger decoys in more open environments (e.g., large waterbodies and bays, flooded farm fields, open marshes, etc.) because you need maximum visibility from far away. However, standard decoys are often better for smaller marshes/ponds, sloughs/ditches, or flooded timber.
Ducks like to approach with the wind in their faces, so your landing zone (where you want the ducks to land) should be open with a barricade of ducks upwind. Try to keep small groups or pairs of mallards, black ducks, and pintails clustered upwind of the landing zone, near your hunting blind location. Alternatively, you can use a large raft of decoys upwind with a few smaller clusters downwind of the landing zone. Keep wood duck decoys clustered together by themselves on the edge of the spread as they tend to be more exclusive in their groupings. And again, feel free to pepper in some other puddle duck decoys or Canada goose decoys as you desire. This setup will generally funnel ducks to approach from your side or directly at you depending on the wind and how you arrange them.
Decoy Spreads for Diving Ducks
Diving ducks are species that actively dive underwater to feed, which include canvasback, bluebill, redhead, goldeneye, or bufflehead ducks. Canvasback drake decoys are often used in greater numbers because the bright pop of their white body is eye-catching from a distance. Bluebill and redhead decoys are used to fill in most of the rest of the spread, while some hunters also use other diving duck or mallard decoys on the perimeters.
Conventional wisdom with hunting diving ducks says you need to put out large decoy spreads. It’s not uncommon for people to use more than 100 decoys at a time. But again, since you’ll typically find diving ducks on very large bodies of water, it makes sense that you would need much larger decoys and much bigger spreads to get the attention of a flock. In some cases, you can use a smaller number of standard decoys when hunting in tighter areas, but that’s more the exception than the rule.
Some of the same principles apply from the puddle duck example above. You generally want to keep larger rafts of decoys clustered around your blind or boat location, with an open landing zone extending downwind. But there are some other nuanced ideas for diving ducks, too. One example is to use a long line (out to more than 75 yards) of decoys on one edge of your spread, which guides incoming ducks like a runway. When you lay the long line out somewhat offset to the wind (rather than straight downwind), this J-hook or fish hook design is a very visible spread, and thus very effective. During particularly rough conditions (like high winds, choppy water), use heavier weights to keep your decoys anchored, and stay closer to shore, which imitates birds trying to stay out of the weather.
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to invest a fortune on decoys right from the start. Building up your stock of decoys ideally is spread over several seasons, because you’ll learn about what works and what doesn’t, and tweak your approach over time. You might discover you’re satisfied with just using a dozen puddle duck decoys, or you might get addicted and add more decoys every year until you have a whole flock. That customization and opportunity to experiment can be one of the really fun aspects of duck hunting.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.