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The fine art of using decoys

January 17, 2012 at 08:42 AM

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — You’re late. Sure, it’s still dark, but a touch of pink already is painting the eastern horizon, and the air seems to buzz with birds as you push into the pond.

So now you’re reaching into the decoy bag, slinging the plastic ducks over the pond in a wide arc on a first-come, first-serve basis, paying no attention to species, or spread. You’re in a hurry because you know this one thing to be true: If you’re not in that blind in 10 minutes, you’ll miss some of the day’s best opportunities.

It’s a common story, and one that sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to veteran waterfowlers Mike Arnona and Ryan Lambert.

For them, decoy selection and placement isn’t just a skill that has made them among the region’s most successful duck hunters — it’s a critical component to the artistry that makes the sport worth the effort.

“If you’ve got birds in the area, sure you can throw the decoys out any way you want, and you’ll get some shots, but that’s not the point,” Lambert said. “Anyone around here can kill ducks, but the beauty and the art of the sport is using your skills to bring the birds in the right way. That shows respect for the sport and the birds. That’s why it’s important to me.”

Arnona couldn’t agree more.

“The details of the sport — decoying, calling — getting those birds to come right into your lap, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “And on top of that, if you take a little extra time in the morning setting up right, it pays off in a much better hunt.”

The proof of their wisdom is in their results.

Lambert’s Buras-based Cajun Fishing Adventures waterfowling hunts have downed more than 2,800 birds this season. Arnona’s Lafitte-area blind bagged 112 birds in the first split.

Both hunters said the importance of decoying skill rises during the second split, when ducks become much more wary.

Although they hunt in different parts of the vast Mississippi River delta, their decoying success is based on some shared principles that waterfowlers everywhere should keep in mind.

Pre-hunt preparation(equals)

Both hunters have their decoys ready for deployment before they leave the ramp, grouping them by species, and placing them in areas where they can be reached and tossed in the dark. And they make sure the plastic ducks are cleaned, so the species’ trademark plumage is visible from the air.

“I use well-painted decoys, and I take time in the split to clean them all off really good,” Arnona said. “I make sure my pole d’eau decoys are clean, so that white beak shows. The whole idea is to make the real ducks feel comfortable about what they’re seeing, and all that matters. It’s got to look natural.”

Decoy technique(equals)

Your decoying technique should imitate life in the wetlands you hunt.

Lambert often uses spreads of 60 or more decoys because his blinds tend to be in expansive lagoons between the river and the western edges of Black Bay.

“We get a big flight of birds coming in off the open water, and they’re attracted to large groups on the water,” Lambert said.

Arnona hunts small, vegetation-choked freshwater ponds on the northern fringe of Barataria Bay, so he seldom employs more than a dozen duck decoys, but complements those with a large group of pole d’eau.

“That’s what goes on in my marsh,” Arnona said. “You will have 30 or 40 pole d’eau in there feeding together, but maybe three grays and four or five teal. So, that’s what my spread will look like.”

Make adjustments(equals)

Both hunters always deploy decoys by species, but they also make adjustments in the second split as courting rituals become evident.

“I keep them together by species — teals, pintail, gadwall,” Lambert said, “and I try to have a little space between the groups.

“But late in the second split, as the birds begin to pair up, I try to put a little separation within the groups. Like, I’ll have a drake and hen together, and then maybe 2 or 3 feet away another drake who’s trying to compete. Then I’ll have some space, and another group of three of the same species. That’s because late in the season, you’ll see that going on, and I want the spread to look natural.”

Pole d’eau importance(equals)

Pole d’eau (coot) decoys are an essential tool for success, especially late in the season.

“Ducks are attracted to pole d’eaus because it tells them there’s food in that pond,” Arnona said. “In our areas, we often have more pole d’eaus than ducks, so it’s all part of looking natural.”

Work with the wind(equals)

The spread design should lead birds within shooting range by working with the wind.

The first rule is to have the wind at your back because birds land into the wind.

The specific design of the spread will depend on the side of your pond. Because Lambert hunts large lagoons, he likes to use the “fish hook” pattern, with the shank away from the blind and the hook nearest, often within 10 yards. The hope is that birds will follow the long, narrow line of decoys on the shank toward the larger group at the hook, or bowl, of the spread.

But waterfowlers on smaller ponds, such as Arnona’s, won’t always have that option, so they use variations of a “U’’ shaped pattern — one group of decoys to the left, the other to the right, with a landing spot in the middle.

If you can’t have the wind at your back, everything changes.

“In that case you just rotate your basic pattern, so the birds will be coming as close to your shooting position as you can get them,” Lambert said.

Take your time(equals)

While most hunters fall victim to a two-minute drill as shooting time nears, experience tells these successful hunters that taking the time to practice the art of decoy placement leads to two rewards.

“You’ll have a better hunt, no doubt, but you’ll also just have more fun, more enjoyment,” Arnona said.

“That’s what it’s all about.”


Information from: The Times-Picayune,

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