Waterfowl decoys spring from an ancient family tree with many branches. The 2,000-year-old decoys discovered in Nevada's Lovelock Cave-the oldest existing examples-were fashioned of reeds in a manner typical of basket weaving of the period. The Tule Indian hunters lay in wait under water, breathing through hollow reed stems. When ducks were lured into range, they were netted, speared, or plucked from the water.

While bound reeds, stuffed skins, piled stones, and even clumps of kelp along tidal flats have all been used to lure waterfowl to stealthy hunters, the era of the modern decoy in America began with the golden age of waterfowling, a period that roughly encompassed the second half of the 19th century. While we disdain the wanton slaughter of the market gunners, the decoys they created become the forerunners of the modern synthetic blocks we use today.

The early decoys were often crude facsimiles, hewn roughly from local stands of cedar. With time, the market hunters increasingly improved their proficiency at killing ducks and at making lifelike decoys. While market gunners used large spreads of wooden decoys, sport hunters employed live ducks and geese. Living decoys could also call birds to gun-a practice so effective it was banned nationwide in 1935.

A few dedicated waterfowlers who adhere to the traditionalist's approach still carve their own decoys, yet few would argue that, in practical terms, modern decoys are a radical improvement over the old wooden blocks. For the many waterfowlers who believe it is impossible for a decoy to spread to be too large, the innovative new lightweight, stackable, and compactable designs allow a single hunter to carry and deploy dozens of decoys with the same effort it once took to rig a handful of the hefty blocks of yesteryear.

But decoys alone cannot always be counted on to pull birds within range. Where you hunt is at least as critical as how you hunt, for if birds don't find the area surrounding your decoys inviting, they will fly on until they find another flock in a more enticing locale. This is where scouting is critical whether hunting ducks or geese. Veteran hunters pay close attention to flight patterns throughout the day, noting when birds frequent favorite waters or fields.

As you study the movement of birds in your area, you'll begin to recognize identifiable patterns. This is all part of becoming a successful waterfowler, for even the best calling and decoy placements cannot compensate for a lack of scouting. Here is some advice on placing your decoys once you have found several areas to hunt.

Decoying Ducks
Just as ducks develop identifiable behavioral patterns, so too do duck hunters. It doesn't take birds long to associate shotgun fire with calls and decoys; by repeatedly using the same spreads and calls, hunters often wind up teaching ducks to avoid a given area. Savvy hunters alternate their call-decoy delivery.

Tricks to the Spread
You will want to vary the size of your spread according to the size of the water and the species of ducks you are most likely to encounter. When hunting pressure is intense, ducks often search for small, secluded wetlands or pockets of hidden, flooded timber where they can escape the barrage. Small spreads can be highly inviting under these circumstances; ducks might be wary of an overabundance of decoys crammed into a tiny waterhole. Despite what some believe, it is possible to over-decoy just as it is possible to over-call.

Rather than always using a large spread, try adding movement to a smaller decoy rig. One time-honored method involves placing a brick with a hole in it under your decoys. Tie a string to the decoy and run it through the hole in the brick, then back to your blind. The brick and string will keep the decoy in place, and with a few short jerks on the string the decoy will bob about like a live bird. This can be especially seductive to ducks on calm days, when decoys typically look as flaccid as the water upon which they are floating. The added movement might be the edge you need to convince skeptical birds to approach. To make your spread even more convincing, rig several decoys this way and your marionette routine will begin to show results in your daily bag. Black or dark-colored string is the best, for the birds might detect light-colored twine.

Another common trick that can help turn wary birds your way when hunting in flooded timber is to perform the duck stroke, splashing your feet in the water as birds make their initial pass over the decoys. Ducks are apt to notice the ripples the same waves they associate with feeding ducks. Some hunters also like to stir up the marsh or woodland bottom with their feet as they walk through the water placing decoys. The floating debris imitates water where a flock of ducks is busily feeding and churning up the bottom.

Many hunters have added "flying" decoys to their spreads to heighten the element of realism. These decoys, designed to imitate ducks or geese in flight, give spreads an accentuated, three-dimensional appearance. Some hunters would not be without such decoys; others remain skeptical. As with any waterfowling technique, it's best to test the method yourself under conditions you commonly experience.

When thinking about your decoy presentation, remember that how you set a rig can be as important as how many decoys you deploy. Too often, waterfowlers neglect the subtle details. For instance, cluttering the water in front of your blind with a haphazard arrangement of decoys may keep birds away from your gun instead of bringing them in. Think of decoys as airport landing lights for ducks; they should direct birds to a certain spot near the blind preferably to a location that will take them within easy shotgun range. That, simplified, is the essence of decoying ducks.

Be Species Conscious
Remember also that each species of duck reacts differently to decoy spreads, depending on how they feed. Puddle ducks do not commonly feed in a long line on the water, diving ducks do. Deploy your decoy spread accordingly and your retriever will be more likely to find work.

We know that birds can perceive color, and most experienced waterfowlers believe that puddle ducks are much more likely to be fooled by decoys whose colors closely mimic those of real birds. Diving ducks, on the other hand, routinely decoy to black jugs tied to a long rope. Since any duck must be able to see your blocks before it will approach them, there is much debate over whether clear dawns or foggy mornings provide the best conditions for duck hunting. Wildlife artists are fond of portraying waterfowling scenes fit for a polar bear-snow and rain blowing horizontally against a backdrop of rough seas. Most decoy manufacturers I've talked with, however, agree that well-lit days are the best times to decoy ducks. Of course, if the birds can see the decoys better, they can also spot movement in a nearby blind more easily. Properly placed decoys help draw attention away from movements in the blind, becoming both attractions and distractions.

Finally, leaving decoys in the same position for the entire season will likely mean increasingly less shooting; ducks soon learn to tell a static spread from live ducks. In many states it's illegal to leave decoys unattended in the water, but if for no other reason, decoys should be picked up to keep from educating birds.

Decoying Geese
The remarkable resurgence of geese across North America has created unprecedented hunting opportunities in areas where the birds were never before seen. Geese have found crop residue from the continent's extensive cereal grain production to their liking, converting the high calorie food into added weight as the birds enter the breeding season.

Unlike many duck species, which often nest in agricultural regions, geese nest farther north, away from areas prone to wetland drainage and development. This allows goose populations to thrive even when duck numbers dwindle during the droughts that afflict the Prairie Pothole Country of the Great Plains, a region known as North America's Duck Factory.

Increases in goose numbers have interested a whole new generation of wildfowlers in goose decoys. Consequently, several manufacturers have introduced new assortments that are both more lifelike and considerably lighter and easier to carry than decoys used by their early ancestors. This has made it far easier to deploy large numbers of decoys in a short amount of time-an important consideration for waterfowlers who want to hunt over the largest possible decoy spreads.

Supernormal Stimuli
When surveying the ever-growing field of goose decoys, it's important to understand that what might look good to a hunter might not look so good to a goose. Manufacturers know that geese don't buy decoys, hunters do. Conversely, what may look ridiculous to hunters might, in fact, prove an effective goose attractant. For instance, out sized decoys, many times the size of normal geese, often prove more effective than standard-size decoys.

Geese lured by gigantic decoys are responding to what animal behavioralists call supernormal stimuli. In one study, scientists placed a wooden egg, identical in shape and color to a typical herring gull egg but 20 times normal size, next to a normal-size egg in front of a nesting herring gull. The gull repeatedly tried to incubate the outsized egg, awkwardly falling off in the process. So strong was its urge to incubate the huge egg that it abandoned its own egg. Scientists believe that form and size are the two key elements to attracting birds important points when shopping for goose decoys.

Other than this notion of supernormal stimuli, there is little scientific evidence to tell us how geese react as they fly over a flock of decoys. Consequently, there is much speculation about what types of decoys and presentations work best. One of the most basic guidelines to follow is to look for forms with paint that won't flake off, and that have been treated to prevent ultraviolet light damage.

If you are hunting geese over water, note the movement of floating geese. In waves, geese tip from front to back, so you'll want to buy decoys that do the same, avoiding those that roll from side to side. Success in waterfowling is often found in attending to these seemingly minor details.

As with duck decoys, adding movement to a goose spread can be effective in conning gun-shy geese. Hunters have long known that flagging can be a superb way to capture the attention of a distant flock of passing geese. A waving flag does not draw the birds per se; they are catching a glimpse of movement in the flock not unlike a bird flapping its wings. Flagging has been further refined to include a wide selection of "flying" decoys, which are fitted with attachments designed to resemble wings. Hunters can even flap the wings of some models by pulling on a cord. Other decoys have movable heads and necks, again recognition of the importance of movement in decoys.

The size of a decoy spread is a primary consideration and a source of great debate among goose hunters. Most agree that the larger the spread, the greater a hunter's chance of taking geese. Others contend that it's better to use a small spread and continually move the decoys to new hunting areas. If you are hunting in a permanent blind near a refuge, you won't have the option of relocating your decoys, but you can alternate the size of your spread and its position. Whatever type of spread you prefer, it's wise to gather your decoys when you finish shooting; the longer geese become accustomed to the blocks, the less likely they are to visit them. Moreover, leaving decoys out overnight invites theft, and if frost forms on the stool, geese often avoid them; real geese don't reflect light like iced decoys.

Many guides like to mix silhouette and full-body decoys to give a spread the varied look of a flock. It is widely accepted that a spread's overall look is far more important than the appearance of an individual decoy, though the two are certainly related for geese are not looking at a single decoy as much as they are the appearance of the whole flock. When geese fly past silhouette decoys, the two-dimensional forms appear to move, looking as though they are geese turning away, depending on the angle from which they are viewed. Most hunters avoid combining large and small-shell decoys, for if they appear incongruous to us, think how they must appear to geese.

Rags vs. Full-Bodied Decoys
Depending on how many decoys you feel you will need to lure geese, you will have to determine which kind of stool you can readily deploy. From the stubble fields of North Dakota to the rice prairies of southern Texas, rags have traditionally been used to decoy snow geese. It's easy to cover the ground with white rags in a fraction of the time it takes to deploy full-body or shell decoys. The question, though, is whether more rags are better at decoying geese than are fewer numbers of full-body or shell decoys. The rags are certainly cheaper, but are they lifelike enough to fool sophisticated geese that have been hunted since leaving their breeding grounds in northern Canada? Rags, too, often blow across fields in the wind and may snap in a heavy breeze, spooking geese as the birds approach within earshot.

This question was on the minds of several south Texas goose guides one year when an especially cold and wet spring in the subarctic resulted in an unusually poor goose hatch. The birds migrating south over the hunting fields were predominantly two or more years old, veteran geese that had seen their share of rag spreads. Log entries at goose clubs across Texas indicated it was one of the worst harvest years on record, though there were plenty of geese around. Toward the end of the frustrating season, some guides began to abandon their rag spreads in favor of full-body, silhouette, or shell decoys. For many, the results were astounding. While yearling birds seem perfectly willing to decoy to rags, older birds tend to flare from them before approaching within shotgun range.

For hunters who want a large spread without using rags, stackable decoys are available that can be deployed in almost the same amount of time it takes to throw rags on the ground. Some of these models not only give a full-body look, but also mount on stakes that allow the decoys to fidget with the wind, adding movement to the stool. Again, before purchasing your goose decoys consider these questions:

  • How large a spread do I want?
  • How long does it take to deploy prospective decoys?
  • How lifelike do the birds appear?
  • Do the decoys have inherent movement?
  • Can I achieve the flock effect using these decoys?
  • How much do the decoys cost versus how long they can be expected to last?

While skillful calling may overcome some inadequacies in decoy presentation, nothing beats a good decoy spread in a prime location like a freshly picked cornfield or newly cut wheatfield. Goose hunters know that geese, especially Canadas, usually return in the morning to where they were feeding the previous night. Hunters who want good shooting in the morning will need to spend time scouting the previous evening. Though you cannot control the birds, your calling, decoys and location can greatly influence their movement. If there is an art to goose hunting, it is in blending all three of these components effectively.

[Information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]