Top 5 duck and goose decoy spreads you have to try
By M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
Ask a hundred waterfowl hunters the same question — “Name your favorite decoy spreads for ducks and/or geese” — and there’s a good chance you’ll get a hundred different responses.
It’s true; we ’fowlers all have our go-to rigs — the ones we set day after day. Why? Because they work, that’s why. And we believe in them.
The truth is, decoy spreads don’t need to be complicated in order to be effective. Wind, always, is a vital part of the equation. So, too, is concealment, cleanliness and a natural-looking spread.
Here are a handful of spreads that have worked well for me. Never forget to play the wind and, most importantly, hide. If you’re not hiding, you’re not shooting.
The Random Placement Theory
Look at a flock of puddle ducks at rest, and you’ll see no rhyme or reason to them. It was upon seeing this one day that the Random Placement Theory (RPT) decoy spread was born. More applicable on smaller bodies of water, the RPT is — as the name implies — random.
To rig it, I’ll stand 15–20 yards from the blind. If the wind is coming from my left, I put my right shoulder to the blind. Wind from my right, and my left shoulder goes toward the blind.
Then, I’ll toss dabbler floaters side to side, along with a handful behind, until the bag is empty. No pattern, no design, random. And here, “random” translates as “realistic.” This creates a sloppy horseshoe shape, with an opening downwind to create a hole directly in front of the blind. Simple, yet effective.
Shoreline Diver Rig
Here in Washington, I often hunt divers from a shore-based blind. When I do, I set the following, using all drakes for long-distance visibility:
- Two long-lines, anchored at each end, with 12 drake bluebills each placed downwind and angled outward, roughly 45 degrees away from my blind.
- Ten yards upwind, and in front of the blind at 20 yards, 18–24 single-rigged drake bluebills packed tight (called The Blob). This is to simulate active birds at a food source, such as fingernail clams or vegetation.
- Another 10 yards upwind, three parallel long-lines — one above the other. The first two hold 12 drake bluebills; the third, six drake ’cans and six drake goldeneyes (the latter two being species-specific as to decoys).
Birds will work from downwind along the two angled lines, landing just outside The Blob or between the three upwind lines. Great drawing power, this one.
Crazy About Coots Decoy Spread
How many times have you watched your spread be ignored, only to have birds decoy to half a dozen coots muddlin’ around 75 yards away? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
This one is like the RPT spread — it’s best on smaller waters. I’ll set a dozen coots tightly around a jerk cord (Rig ‘Em Right’s Step-Up Jerk Rig is a great one), armed with four coot blocks. Coots are extremely active, and this setup duplicates all that motion to a T.
Off to one side, I’ll set two mallards — one drake and one hen. Off to another, a pair of geese — Canadas, usually, or sometimes white-fronts.
This spread is very realistic and presents a secure and inviting setting. Note: Because I’m using so few decoys, I set the most natural blocks I have. Quality, not quantity, is often the ticket to success.
The Carnival Spread
From north to south along the flyways, ducks are bombarded with all-mallard spread after all-mallard spread, each one a mirror image of the last. Sooner or later, those veteran greenheads start to get leery of the same ol’ same ol’. To combat this, I run what a friend of mine calls The Carnival Spread. It’s a little bit of everything in terms of species — mallards, pintails, drakes for visibility, gadwall, widgeon, ringnecks, shovelers, coots and teal. Add in a couple snows or even a swan off to one side, again for visibility.
A jerk cord — no spinning-wings, as I’m trying to break from the same ol’ — and a mix of quacks, whistles, peeps and growls for authenticity round out the illusion.
Goose, Goose, Duck Decoy Spread
I’ll be honest: If I could only set one rig, especially for ducks, I’d set this one.
It begins with 12–18 good-looking Canada floaters set loosely upwind. Think “random.”
Add in a jerk cord with a pair of water-keel green-winged teal out from the blind, and a half dozen mixed mallards, gadwall, and widgeon downwind. I want the geese upwind, as the big birds often hesitate to overfly ducks to get into a spread; however, I want the farthest Canada to still be within shooting range — say, 25 yards?
The goose decoys, too, lend greatly to visibility. Ducks will often work to goose fakes with less hesitation than they will their own kind, especially later in the season.
Decoy Spreads: The Big Four
Decoy spreads themselves, as I mentioned earlier, need not be intricate nor complicated; however, there are a handful of factors to consider when putting together an effective rig. We’ll call it a recipe, per se, with a short list of ingredients and, hopefully, an impressive end result:
#1 – Wind
Ducks and geese, like airplanes, land and take off into the wind, whenever possible. It’s a matter of aerodynamics or, more precisely, lift. As such, and traditionally, we ’fowlers have been taught to put the wind at our backs as much as possible so as to “force” the birds to land toward us, or as they come toward the blind location.
In an ideal world, this is how it works: We have the blind, be it permanent or something portable like a layout hide. We have the wind at our back. And we leave a hole — a space or landing zone — in front of the blind, with decoys to either side. “Land here,” such a spread tells incoming birds. And it works. Sometimes.
But often, the wind changes direction during a hunt, and we’re forced to reposition decoys. Or the wind dies altogether, and the birds land where they will, with no guidance from Mother Nature. It’s a dynamic situation, this wind thing. And we, as ’fowlers, must continually improvise, adapt and adjust to the changing conditions.
Tip: I like to quarter my layout blind or set my spread in front of a permanent blind to quarter the wind. That is, with the wind not behind me, but rather from the left or the right. Then the birds (theoretically) approach left to right or right to left, looking solely at the decoys and the hole, as opposed to the blind and the hunters.
#2 – Blind Location
Sun to your back. Wind to your back. Good visibility in all directions. Established shooting lanes. Excellent cover, including overhead. It’s the perfect scenario, but it doesn’t always work that way. I look at blinds — or blind placement — as being in two categories: portable and permanent.
With a portable or moveable blind, (e.g., a layout blind or layout boat), I set the blind first, taking the wind into consideration. Then I build the spread around the blind, leaving a hole where — again, in a perfect world — the birds will want to alight.
Most permanent blinds, on the other hand, are placed and constructed while taking the prevailing winds and sun into consideration. Short of an apocalyptic event, the sun isn’t going to change; however, the wind might. Moving the permanent blind would be impossible, so you rearrange the spread: close, far, left, right.
Tip: Never hesitate to move elements within a decoy spread or, if possible, the blind or blinds themselves, should the birds not be working as you think they should. Too many hunters sit tight and don’t change up their rig, despite the birds “telling them” that something’s wrong. Experimentation is key.
#3 Decoy Position
Personally, I do believe that decoy position — or rather, the body posture of the decoys that make up the spread — makes a difference in your rig’s effectiveness. Not so much for divers, perhaps, but definitely for ducks and geese.
A group of fowl with all heads raised means DANGER. The birds have seen or heard something that has put them on high alert, and this insecurity, per se, translates to birds deciding whether or not to join those on the water.
Along with a variety of species represented, it’s important that the spread as a whole presents a safe and secure environment. It must be a place birds want to be, be it for security, food, rest or a combination of the three.
Tip: My usual Canada spreads are small (12–24 full-bodies), and I’ll typically run a ratio of 1:4 sentries to feeders, respectively, throughout. Some sentries/lookers or birds on watch are natural and realistic, but the trick is to get the right mix in the spread. It’s my thought that too few high heads is preferable to too many. Again, experimentation is key.
#4 Spinning-wing (SWD) Decoy Placement
As I mentioned, I’m not a big fan of SWDs. I find them inconvenient, heavy, bulky, expensive, overused and often more harmful than good.
That said, I do believe they can work quite well for some species (teal and wood ducks being the first two that come to mind). They’re also an incredibly popular tool in modern ’fowlers’ arsenals, and they are — without question — worthy of a short discussion on placement within the spread.
As a general rule of thumb, SWD placement changes as the season progresses. Many folks say that early on, the SWD is set where the shooting should happen — that is, where you want the ducks to land. Later on, though, the SWD moves farther and farther from the main body of the spread, until it’s positioned essentially where you don’t want the ducks to be.
At this point, it serves almost exclusively as a long-distance visual attractant. Once the birds work closer, the SWD is remotely shut down/off, and the decoys are allowed to do their job.
To this end, some ’fowlers will almost hide the SWD at the edge of the spread using standing vegetation (e.g., cattails, phragmites or buck brush) to further obscure the flash. It’s a hint now — just a tease meant to reach out and grab the birds’ attention, almost out of curiosity.
Some hunters believe there’s a difference between sun and clouds in terms of SWD use. If there’s sun, the flash of the wings can be too much. Covering the wings in light pantyhose may be necessary to deaden the visual.
Tip: Again, it’s all about experimentation and a willingness to change. If your SWD seems to work, so be it. If the day seems a challenge, don’t be too quick to blame the SWD. Have you looked closely at your blind? Could it be the decoys themselves? Calling too much? Or maybe it is the SWD. If you think it is, change it. Move it. Run it momentarily only via remote. Or, as a last resort, pull it entirely.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
Read more from M.D. on Slayer’s Blog: Beyond the quack: Learn the different duck sounds of common species