Hunting is generally about understanding a game species and developing strategies that maximize your chance of harvest. There are a few animals, such as deer, elk and turkeys that can be lured closer by calling when they are mating.
The range of most game birds and animals during the hunting season is measured in square miles. A much different pursuit is waterfowl. To be successful in this endeavor, you not only need to know something about these animal’s 1000-mile migrations, but how to find a location to place decoys and use a call to divert flocks of these animals from their migration to land in front of you.
One of the primary requirements of duck hunting is the use of decoys. Given the gregarious nature of waterfowl, it is likely hunters have always tried to use decoys to attract these birds into range. Exactly how long this practice has been going on, however, is difficult to determine as decoys historically were constructed of reeds, mud or some other organic material that decomposes quickly. Even with this problem, decoys found in a Nevada cave suggest their use goes back at least a couple thousand years.
There was a time when an even more realistic decoy – live ducks – were used by hunters in the United States. These “decoys” were by definition life like and would also handle the calling. Due in part to their effectiveness, the use of live ducks as decoys were banned in the mid 1930s. As the primary rational of waterfowl hunters shifted from providing for markets (such as restaurants) to recreational, wood and cork decoys became the standard.
From the late 1800s into the mid 1900s, being able to construct decoys was an important aspect of many waterfowlers skill base. Not only were wooden decoys functional they became an art form. Several of the most valuable decoys from this era have sold for over $800,000. Plastic decoys started to show up in the late 1940s but became the standard by the early 1970s.
Floating decoys are all hunters need in most situations. A mix of mallards with a few male pintails increases visibility of a decoy spread. Once it starts to freeze, it is nice to have some shell decoys so they can sit flat on the ice. If you are hunting shallow mud flats, field decoys with stakes work best in water less than 6 inches deep. This may seem like a lot of decoys, but if you want to be a successful duck hunter in a variety of places at a variety of times, having a variety of decoys helps.
The primary improvement in decoys over the last 20 years has been the addition of motion. Hunters use to add movement to their spread by tying a jerk line to one of their decoys. This all changed as battery size and reliability increased. It is now possible to purchase spinning wing, paddle wheel, vibrating, and even diving decoys. All it takes to get this movement is the connection of wires and a push of a button. The movement caused by these decoys allows flying birds to spot your spread at far greater distances.
There are lots of ideas about how to best arrange decoys. Most of these patterns are based on dividing your decoys in to two groups and placing them to the left and right of your blind. To help ducks decide to land in the open area, this is where the motion decoy should be placed. As most ducks focus on motion and won’t land in a group of duck, this layout will get more ducks to land in front of the hunter.
Duck calls followed the same trajectory of rapid improvement as decoys. The first patents for calls showed up in the mid-1800s. Few hunters used calls in the 1970s as it was a hard skill to learn. Now with YouTube and other videos, anybody can learn to call. What has changed recently, is the addition of high priced (>$100) duck calls. My forty years of calling have not convinced me a duck can tell the difference between a $20 or $140 call – so I stick to cheap calls.
With the area’s waters staying mostly ice free for at least another week, there is still time to get your decoys on the water and spend some time in the blind. While it is impossible to guarantee success in terms of harvested bird, there are few places where it is easier to commune with nature than a marsh on a late November or early December day.