Time certainly doesn’t stand still. When it comes to waterfowl hunting the landscape is much different today than it was when I first started hunting for web feet in the ’70s. Year to year, waterfowl numbers are up some years and down on others. Biologists tell us this is due to natural population cycles associated with changing habitat, predation and other forms of mortality.
Waterfowl populations may suffer from natural cycles, but the big picture is a little more disconcerting. Overall waterfowl numbers in the Mississippi flyway have dropped considerably since peaks in the ’70s and ’80s when hunters were treated to the most liberal limits of our generation. With fewer ducks and geese to target, hunters have been forced to up their game to better fool the birds trading up and down the flyways.
Spinning Wing Decoys
When the spinning wing decoy first hit the market I had to have one. It only took a couple hunting trips to discover the bird attracting powers of those flashing wings could be described as almost criminal. Speaking logically, if one spinning wing decoy is good, then two of these motion decoys would certainly be better? It wasn’t long before I was using four spinners on both my dry land and water hunts.
As the popularity of spinning wing decoys caught on with hunters, it wasn’t long before the effectiveness of these unique hunting tools started to wane. A lot of waterfowl hunters have abandoned “spinners” entirely; especially those guys who hunt public marshes and waterfowl management units that see a lot of gunning pressure.
My approach to the spinning wing decoy has evolved a number of times in my hunting career. My first evolution was to rig my spinners with momentary timer switches that enable the wings to spin for a few seconds and then suddenly stop.
This stop and go approach to spinners makes it tougher for birds to zero in on one continuous working spinner, keeping the birds guessing as they are approaching. The same remote control that allows me to run my spinners intermittently also allows me to shut off all the spinners at one time when the birds are closing those last few yards. If the birds peel off and don’t commit, I simply start the spinners again to pull the birds around for another pass.
Another important evolution associated with spinning wing decoys is to use them more sparingly with water hunts and more aggressively with dry land sets. For reasons I can’t explain, ducks are far less likely to finish to a spinner over water than they are to a spinner working on a picked grain field.
In water hunts I’m leaning towards using swimming and spitting decoys over spinners. Swimmers and spitters create ripples on the water that simulate live birds feeding and moving around contentedly. Using swimmers and spitters in combination with skillful calling seems to finish more ducks over water than using the spinning wing decoy.
While I’m less likely to use spinners over water, I’m convinced that using them appropriately in field hunts is essential to finishing mallards, black ducks, pintail and even wood ducks that have acquired a taste for grain. The key to getting the most from spinners over land is to scatter several throughout your spread and run them all on one remote control.
I keep my spinners running constantly until a flock of birds is spotted and makes the turn towards my decoy spread. When the birds are 60 to 80 yards out, turning off the spinners prevents these birds from getting too good a look and becoming suspicious. Rarely do puddle ducks like mallards finish on the first pass anyway. When these birds break off, it’s time to turn the spinners back on and send out some pleading and excited “come back” calls.
This “one-two punch” style of working birds at a distance with the spinner and up close with calling has helped me finish more ducks over picked grain.
This year I’m taking another evolution in my use of spinning wing decoys. I’ve rigged all my decoys with lithium batteries that last longer and charge quicker than the lead acid batteries these units are factory shipped with. While lithium batteries are more expensive and must be charged with special lithium charging units, the benefits of being able to charge quickly and also to charge a single battery up to 2000 times more than pays for the investment.
I’ve also rigged each of my spinners with an external battery charging port that allows me to charge the batteries without having to open the decoy or remove the wiring connectors. This saves time and also a lot of wear and tear on the decoy wiring. I have shore power wired to my decoy trailer and also a bank of AC plugs so I can charge all of my spinners and electric motion decoys at one time between hunts.
Being in the place where ducks or geese naturally want to be is the single most important element to success as a waterfowl hunter. Being effectively hidden is a close second when it comes to skill sets associated with waterfowl hunting success.
Back before commercially produced layout blinds were available, my field hunts were conducted using a lounge style lawn chair and a sheet of burlap covered with small bundles of stubble cable tied into place. Crude, but effective; the key to successful field hunts is keeping the hunters as hidden as possible.
Commercially produced layout style blinds have made the process of hiding in plain sight easier over the years, but layout blinds have some significant handicaps. From a sitting position in a layout blind hunters are only able to shoot in a rather narrow window. If the birds are right or left of this window you can shoot at them, but hitting many is another story.
To shoot a shotgun successfully the gun must be kept moving smoothly. The range of movement a hunter experiences from a sitting position is seriously compromised, meaning a lot of birds appear in gun range, but are in such a position they are challenging to shoot at.
I still use layout blinds for field shoots, but I carefully position the blinds so that the wind is straight over my back. This forces incoming birds to set up as close to the center of the spread as possible.
In a field hunting situation the last thing you want are birds that are trying to land on the flanks. Dealing with crossing winds makes it much harder to finish birds in the middle of the spread because even modest changes in wind direction will impact dramatically on where the birds want to set down.
The same strategy of keeping the wind at your back and the decoys at your toes also works for using layout blinds with water hunts. In this case, I like to position my layout blinds as close to the water edge as possible to be effectively hidden. This is an important step because over water ducks and also geese are far more likely to land outside the decoys than among the blocks.
Shaving off just five yards of distance can make all the difference in how many birds are killed outright and how many cripples glide off before crashing down.
In recent years a lot more waterfowl hunters have turned to the comforts of upright blinds for waterfowl hunting. While A-Frame style blinds are clearly more challenging to hide in plain sight as compared to layout blinds, in many situations it doesn’t seem to matter. The “boxy and sore thumb” appearance of a grassed up A-Frame blind may look unnatural to our eyes, but the birds don’t seem to have any issues decoying to this latest generation of waterfowl blinds.
The key to having success with upright blinds is to thatch them in such a way as to have enough overhead cover to prevent incoming birds from looking down into the blind and spotting the hunters as they jockey for position.
While some might argue that birds don’t finish as well to upright blinds when hunting over water and also over picked grain, there is a huge advantage to these blinds most hunters have not discovered. From an upright blind, hunters have their feet beneath them and they can stand quickly and shoot in a much wider range of motion.
Birds that are working to the flanks are often impossible to shoot at with a layout blind set up, but from an upright blind, these birds are chip shots. Also, because standing is a more natural way of shooting than sitting down, the average hunter is going to bust more birds from an upright blind than he or she might have from a layout blind.
Another advantage of using upright blinds is they typically allow enough room for hunters and dogs to be concealed inside. A hunter moving at the wrong instant often spooks incoming birds and the same is true of retrievers. Upright blinds simply do a better job of eliminating unnatural movement from man and beast in both water and field hunts.
I’m also convinced that because upright blinds are more comfortable to hunt from, hunters tend to sit still and remain under cover better than with layout blinds. The problem with layout blinds is they put hunters in a tough spot when it comes to watching for incoming birds. Often on slow days the hunters get bored and sit up with the blind doors open. About that time birds suddenly show up out of nowhere and catch the hunters with their pants down.
Because upright or A-Frame style blinds are more comfortable to sit in, hunters tend to stay put and not expose themselves to the birds nearly as often.
My early field hunting experiences were conducted over modest spreads of shell type decoys. Then came the era of the silhouette decoy and the ability to set out a larger spread. Little did we know at the time that to make a silhouette spread work requires setting out about four times as many decoys as a shell or full body spread.
Most hunters would argue that the best decoy for field hunting are full body blocks and that includes geese and duck set ups. I would have agreed with that strategy if it weren’t for a new generation of decoy that has completely changed my way of thinking.
Rag decoys or what some hunters simply call “socks” have changed my hunting rig dramatically in recent years. Rags in my opinion are the ultimate motion decoy because they are light enough that the slightest breeze has them “walking” like real birds.
The best way to appreciate rags is to set out a few and then get back about 100 yards to watch them. As the wind naturally changes in direction and intensity the rag decoys move in such a way as to very closely imitate live birds jockeying for position on the ground. A few rag decoys scattered among full bodies, shells or even silhouettes makes a huge difference in how “alive” a decoy spread looks from a distance. This natural walking motion tends to keep incoming birds focused
on the decoy spread and not so much on the blinds, dogs and
At first I invested in a few rags to add motion to my spread. The success of that experiment lead me to expand the number of rags a few more each year. These days, my spread is largely rags with a few full body decoys mixed in to give the spread depth and also to hedge against calm day hunts.
Not only do rags provide a bunch of natural motion in a decoy spread, they are easy to set up, tear down and better yet store between hunts. Six dozen rags fit nicely in one of the small sizes of the Shappel “Jet Sled” ice fishing sleds.
Because rags sit up off the ground a little higher than shells and full body decoys, they have another useful feature. Grouping rags around the blinds does an excellent job of hiding the blinds and making it more difficult for incoming birds to spot hunter movement. Also, because rags are lightweight they are idea for walk-in hunts that require humping everything in and out of the field.
Rags also work amazingly well on sheet water often found in low spots in field hunts or even along the edges of a shallow pond shoot. In short, if I was tasked with using just one decoy type for field hunts and shallow water shoots, I would opt for rags and not feel handicapped in any way.
Summing It Up
In my lifetime, waterfowl hunting tactics and gear have changed dramatically. While we may have fewer birds to work with, the improvements in gear and hunting strategies available today makes it possible to finish far more birds to our feet than ever before. For me the waterfowl game is all about fooling birds into being bowed up and feet down. When that happens it’s easy to understand why our grandfathers called waterfowl hunting the sport of kings.