Making a case for waterfowling simplicity

by Bob Bailey | July 7, 2021
Hunter walks through muddy and grassy open trail towards sunlight.

Less often turns out to be more in waterfowling. Present day snow goose field-hunting rigs fall just short of an amusement park in terms of size, set-up, and complexity. During my research years on the Prairies, snows would come readily to six or a dozen decoys anywhere close to where they wanted to be. It seems this cycle is starting to reappear as I hear more about successful snow goose hunts with good cover and a mere sprinkling of strategically placed decoys.

Over the years, flexible thinking and mobility have brought more ducks to the bag for me than blind faith in big rig set-ups. Simplicity allows the hunter to gauge duck potential and move on when opportunity is lacking. Under the correct set of circumstances, big rigs do get attention. Wary mid-season divers rafting offshore, or late fall mallards can sometimes be lured into a fatal attraction built on dozens of decoys. Other times, success lies in a simple approach, with a few good quality decoys combined with skillful calling, great cover, and deceptive hunter positioning.

Big or small

A big advantage of simple set-ups is that they allow older hunters to continue hunting on their own. A half-dozen mallard decoys can be slung over the shoulder and walked into a backwater or beaver pond. Six ring-neck decoys can weave the same magic for these delightful birds.

Simple presentation concepts depend upon external factors, like how many birds are around, was it a good production year with plenty of young produced, what kind of places they are using, and whether the birds are new arrivals or seasoned veterans, with a lot of gunning exposure in the area. When black duck numbers were dropping and hunting pressure was extremely high, my father used a decoying technique he developed on the St. Lawrence River. I have continued to use it for wary mallards and black ducks conditioned to heavy gunning pressure. He placed two black duck decoys close to shore, and another a bit further back, then concealed himself in natural cover. Blacks would normally land at a safe distance, then slowly swim in to join the birds along the shoreline.

Simple over elaborate

My formative years as a goose hunter also confirmed that on occasion, simple, well-thought out plans could outperform more elaborate concepts, especially with a little biology tossed in the mix. I lived in Manitoba and Saskatchewan for nearly two decades, while snow geese went from easy limits for anyone with a few decoys, to one of the most highly sensitized birds in gunning situations.

3 black duck decoys on a pond close to the shore.
My father’s decoying technique with 3 black duck decoys. I learned that this social arrangement or “triplet” usually indicated a pair of black ducks are accompanied by a lone drake. It is the most basic and widely observed social structure for black ducks, mallards, and many other species.

I had often observed how snow geese selected a field and then circled it endlessly before finally one to three birds would light, followed by three or four more, until the entire sky was a toppling blizzard of landing snow geese. One day, while sitting along a fence row guarding six dozen white goose decoys without firing a shot, I decided to experiment. I picked up six snow goose shells and headed out into the field. I put my pack and gear down in the center of the field, and walked about 100 yards straight upwind to set up four decoys, imitating a small family group. I walked back to my pack then drew an imaginary line from the upwind decoys straight downwind to my pack. I then followed the line downwind to place the remaining two decoys 100 yards from where I would be lying on the ground with my pack under cover. This simple set-up with the decoys over 200 yards apart allowed me to take a limit of birds while my friends hunkered down along the fence row.

Diagram of duck decoy positioning relative to hunting spot. 4 decoys 100 yards upwind and 2 decoys 100 yards downwind.
My experimental snow goose family group set-up really paid off when the big decoy spread was not tempting birds down.

The most important part of this simple deception is that the birds coming into the field could not see any evidence of hidden hunters within 100 yards of the downwind decoys. Sometimes the downwind decoys pulled the birds closer to the ground, but even right over the downwind decoys, most geese were out of range. A heavy wind and low, wet sky kept incoming birds on track, especially as they moved up the line, crossing over the downwind pair, and began to focus on the four upwind decoys. With no hunter activity evident near the upwind decoys, several birds flew over me in good range.

Good decisions depend upon a flexible mind, and often one that is able to perceive opportunity in adversity. Simplicity gives hunters more chances to respond to change and get it right. Finding simple solutions is the road less travelled for waterfowl hunters, and it can sure feel funny, standing in the weeds, often alone…until the greenheads start falling.

Dr. Bob Bailey began his career as a waterfowl biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service before becoming an advocate for conservation and the future of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Bob has written for OOD for over 30 years. Reach Bob at mail@oodmag.com

Originally published in the August 2020 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine

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