8 Decoy Tips for Hunting Waterfowl

As the temperatures drop and the snow starts flying here in Colorado, it can mean only one thing, it’s time to hunt waterfowl. Hunting ducks and geese can oftentimes feel like equal parts, luck, skill, and science. In short, it is an art form. A big part of that art form is learning how to set up decoys so that birds fly in and don’t flare off before you can squeeze the trigger.

decoy ducks

Luckily for hunters, setting up an effective decoy spread doesn’t have to be overly complicated. By following the 8 waterfowl hunting tips below you will be well on your way to seeing cupped wings landing in your spread and putting meat in the freezer.


  1. Choose Your Location

Finding a great location is number one on this list for a reason. You can have a great spread with high-quality decoys and have absolutely no birds fly through if it isn’t in an enticing location.

person duck hunting

When selecting the perfect location for your spread it is important to consider a variety of factors including:

  • Wind direction – set up with the wind at your back, this will encourage birds to slow to a stop in your spread. Avoid wind-swept areas as setting up in exposed areas will push your decoys around and make the spread less attractive to income birds.
  • Flight paths – take a bit of time to scout and place decoys where the birds are going to be flying. This may require you to get out the day before and do some scouting, at the very least be willing to adjust your spread location as the morning progresses.
  • Decoy visibility – birds cannot land in your spread if they cannot see your decoys, make sure that your decoys are not hidden by tall grass, trees, or other vegetation.
  • Ice – with the winter hunting conditions that are synonymous with duck and goose hunts, it is important to keep your decoys ice-free. The natural motion of the water makes them more realistic and avoiding ice also allows you to pack up without having to break out a chisel.


  1. Choose Your Shape

Apart from your location, you also need to decide on a general decoy spread shape. This may be dictated by your location in some respects, especially when decoys are in shallow waters or if there is a prevailing wind direction. Some effective shapes include:

  • Double Rings – set your ducks up in two oval shapes with a good amount of space in between. Ducks and geese will land in the zone between the two rings. For geese, you may need more space between the rings to provide a larger landing area.
  • V Shape – create a “V” shape with the decoys extending out towards the wind and, if possible, away from the sun. Birds will land in the middle of the V. This is especially useful in shallow water.
  • J-Hook – create a large letter “J” with your decoys, pointing the long end towards the wind. This classic setup has birds landing in the pocket created by the curved end of the J.
  • U-Shape – for areas that are enclosed or with limited landing space, use a U-shape spread that leaves the middle open for landing and has the decoys lining the outer edge of your hunting area.
decoy ducks in water

Regardless of what spread pattern you choose, it is important to remember to remain flexible. It is always ok to change your pattern mid-hunt if the conditions have changed or if you are seeing ducks flare after peeking in on your decoys.


  1. Observe and Copy the Other Birds

There is only so much that you can do before the hunting day arrives. Local factors such as temperature, wind, sounds, and even the amount of sunlight can change how birds are flying on any given day. This is why it is so important to observe and copy the other birds in the area when setting up decoys.

One area to look for in particular is how the birds are grouped when hunting on a lake or large river. If you see ducks in small groups it may not be a good idea to leave out a large spread, sometimes less is more! On the other hand, if ducks and geese are congregating in huge groups, you may need to use every available decoy. In short, the best spread depends on the conditions on the day of the hunt, by taking some time to look around after the sun rises, you can make adjustments that land more birds in your spread.


  1. Think About the Landing

When birds see your spread, they need a place to land. The whole point of having decoys is to entice waterfowl to come in and hang out with other birds. They cannot do this if they cannot land. Regardless of your pattern, leave the landing area clear and keep it visible from many directions.

For goose hunters, it is important to remember that geese are large animals and require much more room to land than ducks. This means that for all of the patterns that you may use, you need to give much more room to land for geese. If not, the goose may land off to the side, out of range, and attempt to swim in, which will not give you a clean shot.

Your landing zone should also be free of obstacles or obstructions that may get in the way of your shot. Avoid trees, bushes, or large rocks in your landing area to ensure a clean shot attempt can be made.

geese flying


  1. Add Motion

For duck hunters and folks hunting geese over water, there is natural motion added through the floating decoys. However, adding in additional spinners can give a more natural appearance and look less artificial than having floating decoys alone. For goose hunters, there are also large flags that you can purchase that simulate a goose’s wing flapping as it lands.

In general, small amounts of natural-looking motion is a good thing, however, do not overdo it. Ducks and geese can sense when something isn’t right and they are liable to pass your spread by if it has too much motion and commotion within it. This includes humans and dogs, so make sure that Fido stays in the blind!


  1. Vary Your Species

It is uncommon for waterfowl to group with only like species. Mallards, wood ducks, and teal may all swim together, however, geese may also enter the group as well. By keeping a good variety of decoys on hand you can give your spread a more natural look. In addition to placing different decoys within your spread, you can also place a few behind the blind to bring in birds from the rear.

No matter what species you use, make sure you face the birds in all different directions. Nothing gives away an artificial spread faster than every bird facing the same direction. In nature, there are very few patterns like this, and seeing them is a red flag for birds.


  1. Think with a Birds-Eye View

Before setting up anything, it is a good idea to think like a bird. Think about how the birds will fly in, from what direction, and think about what they will see as they fly over your blind and spread. This is especially true when working in areas with hidden turns or large trees that may obstruct the spread.

ducks in lake

It can take a bit of planning to set up your spread so that it is enticing to a bird, however, doing so will yield better results. The goal, of course, is to mimic natural conditions as much as possible so that birds believe that the spread is real and can offer them a safe place to land, close enough to your blind to get a good shot off.


  1. Quality Decoys over Quantity

When purchasing new decoys, you should opt for the highest quality decoys with the most realistic detailing that you can afford. In general, it is better to have a smaller spread with more realistic decoys than it is to have an enormous spread that looks artificial.

It is also important to note that bigger doesn’t always equal better, sometimes it is better to use fewer decoys in a more strategic way that fits with the natural environment rather than jamming in 100 decoys just because you have them available.


Wrapping Up

With all of these waterfowl hunting tips and strategies, you will be well on your way to developing a successful hunting spread. However, don’t worry too much about hitting every item on this list, in general just think about keeping the spread as natural looking as possible. It is all about looking appealing but not perfect. As with anything in hunting, there are no guarantees, you are simply trying to maximize your odds and give yourself a chance to take a shot.

Share This Post:
About The Author
ed matthews Ed Matthews

Ed Matthews is a passionate hunter based in Colorado, where he hunts for elk, dove, waterfowl, and pheasant. Ed loves to write in a number of niches, from insurance to education, but his favorite topic to write about is hunting.