Lynn Burkhead — Details, realism key for November decoy spreads
Don't look now, but the Nov. 13-28 first split of duck season is off and running in the Texas North Zone and Oklahoma’s Zone 2.
And in general, the results from the opening week action have been mixed. Some hunters have found decent shooting and others have not.
The big key right now, of course, is weather, as waterfowlers look to the skies and the weather map for cold, snowy weather in the northern Central Flyway, conditions that should drive birds south towards the Lone Star State.
But if weather is one key for a good November duck shoot, so too is getting the decoy rig just right. After all, it’s the fake plastic blocks in a decoy spread that either prove to be the siren song for an early season duck, or an encouragement to keep flying south.
How can you get your early season decoy spread right as Thanksgiving Day approaches? For the answer to that question, allow me to turn to the time-honored advice of my old waterfowling friend, the late J.J. Kent, who was a master at hunting ducks no matter what time of the season it happened to be.
Kent, who operated J.J. Kent Outdoors before complications from heart surgery led to his early passing, believed that bigger spreads were a key earlier in the fall when the birds began to push down the Central Flyway.
In general, as the early birds pushed into and out of Texomaland — think gadwalls, wigeon, green-winged teal, pintails, and only a few mallards — they would be in fairly large groups.
Or at least willing to respond to large decoy spread — say 7 to 10 dozen, depending on the size of the water body being hunted — since they had seen such large flocks staging up and down the Great Plains as they push south towards the Gulf Coast.
"You can have success with a smaller number of decoys, but if you've got them and have the ability to put them out there, go ahead and put out a larger rig because it can't hurt things early on in the season,” Kent told me once upon a time.
As mentioned, the size of a decoy spread is typically based upon the size of the water being hunted, not to mention the time of the season. If you’re hunting on Lake Texoma in November, you want to go big or go home. But if you’re hunting in late January on a local stock tank, a dozen or less blocks might be all that’s necessary.
"The bigger the water, I want more decoys out there," said my late friend, a pro-staffer with Zink Game Calls and Avian-X decoys, as well as Mossy Oak camouflage. "Again, birds are staging a lot as they move south, so a big spread says 'Hey, this is where you want to be!', especially on big waters. Now on smaller waters, you might want to adjust downward in terms of numbers."
In days gone by, mallards were much more of a bread-and-butter kind of duck here in the Texoma region, even early in the fall campaign. By in the two-plus decades since peanut farming went away from Grayson County and the surrounding area, fewer and fewer greenheads tend to show up.
While greenheads can still show up from Christmas and beyond, right now, you’ll want to keep your rig comprised of other puddle duck, and even diver duck, species. Kent believed in matching the hatch, particularly in November.
"My typical rig, early on in the season, will follow that idea that birds of a feather flock together," he once told me. "Since there are various species flying through — ducks like gadwalls, teal, wigeon, pintails, spoonies, a few mallards and some divers like redheads — my early season spread is going to reflect that and be pretty diverse."
If diversity of duck species is one consideration in what Kent put into his decoy bag for an early season hunt, so too was the ability of those decoys to attract the attention of migrators that are pushing through.
To get the attention of those traffic-birds, he worked hard to ensure there were some decoys that added to a spread’s overall visibility from the air.
"I like to have some white showing up in my spread because migrating birds can see such decoys easier at a distance," said the late Kent. "Early on, you'll see plenty of pintails, wigeon, bluebills, species like that in my spread because if a particular decoy has a lot of white paint showing, I think that's a good thing that will help to lure ducks in."
If highly visible color schemes were important to my late guide friend early on in the season, so too was the size of the decoy. He was particularly fond of some of Avian-X’s redhead and canvasback blocks, key additions to the Kent rig in the month of November.
"The thing I like about these decoys is that they are a bit oversized, they have great paint schemes, and all of that makes it easier for birds to see the spread at a distance."
When possible, my late guide friend subscribed to the idea that bigger can be better in terms of early season decoys. I know that well, because every once in a while, when he trusted me or time was running short in the pre-dawn gloom, J.J. would get me to help him toss our or pick up the rig.
"I do like using oversized magnum decoys rather than standard sized decoys, again because I think ducks can seem them easier at a distance," said the late Grayson County guide.
That being said, Kent also worked hard to avoid the "tin soldier, cookie cutter" look where every decoy was basically the same size in a decoy rig. Meaning that there were often different sized blocks, as well as a mix of puddle ducks and diving ducks in his November spread.
"Since there are so many redheads that roar through here early on as they head for the Texas Gulf Coast, I'll almost always have some diver decoys set out in November," said the late Kent.
"And as opposed to the standard two groups of dabbler decoys with an empty pocket in the middle that most hunters set out around here, when I've got some diver decoys in the rig, I'll usually set out the decoys in a fish hook, or J-hook, kind of pattern."
Why is that?
"Because when divers fly in, you want some sort of line that will lead them right to the pocket in front of you," said my late friend, who usually grinned big and shook his head slowly when yours truly asked a question that had an obvious answer.
"They'll fly that line, so you want to make sure that if you want to shoot some divers, you've got your spread set out correctly."
Because even in the early season days of November, if you don't get your spread put out correctly, the ducks are sure to notice. And when they do, odds are, they'll fly right on by and never give your spread a second look.