Spread 'em: Hunters are serious about how they set up duck decoys

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Nov. 3, 2017 1:15 pm

QUINCY -- Clinton Baxter never understood why his uncle said there were rules to follow when they went duck hunting, but he followed them anyway.

And he still follows them today.

Baxter's uncle, Bruce Johnson, hunted along the Mississippi River for dozens of years, usually along the Missouri banks. A Marine Corps veteran, Johnson was described as a stickler for detail with an unwavering personality.

"He wasn't very flexible," Baxter said with a chuckle. "It was his way or no way at all."

That was especially true when they went hunting.

Most times, Baxter would spend the weekends at his uncle's riverfront cabin. He called it the perfect hunting hideaway, especially since it meant about a 10-minute boat ride from the dock to the blind.

But there were rules to follow when staying there.

All gear was laid out and double checked before going to bed. No time was wasted looking for a flashlight, a box of shells or anything else in the morning.

"My uncle always said there'd be no surprises," Baxter said.

When the alarm sounded at 5 a.m., you got out of bed. No hitting snooze. No lingering under the covers.

"My uncle would always say, ‘No good man sleeps more than is necessary,'" Baxter said shaking his head.

And there was a specific way decoys were tied, laid in the boat and put in the water. Johnson put out and collected 70 or more decoys every time he hunted, and he was very specific in the manner in which he did it.

He wanted his decoy spread to be exactly the same every time.

"He called it a family secret," Baxter said. "He wouldn't tell anyone how he did things."

Whatever he did worked, as evidenced the number of birds he harvested each season.

"The man was a great hunter," Baxter said. "He knew how to call in ducks, and he rarely missed. I just wish I knew the family secret for his decoy strategy. He never showed exactly what he did and he died before imparting that knowledge.

"Too bad drone technology didn't come along 30 years ago so I could have had a picture of what he tried to do."

Decoy strategy is something some hunters take seriously. Others don't worry about how the spread looks.

"I just throw my decoys out there," said Jimmy Swanson, who hunts the Illinois River. "If you watch ducks, they fly in a pattern. If you look at them on water, they're looking for food. They don't worry about lining up or creating a pattern. They're hungry. If they don't care, why should I?

"All I care about is getting a wide enough spread so ducks think there is a reason to land there."

The spread is often determined by where you're hunting. If you're sitting in a pothole blind on the edge of a corn field near a lake or pond, you're going to have a different appraoch than someone on the open water of a river.

One strategy several hunters suggest is placing decoys in a circle on a lake or a pond and try to get a variety of decoys facing inward and the rest facing outward. It gives the illusion food can be found in either direction, and it gives ducks a quality landing spot right in the middle.

"We might go exactly in a circle, but we spread things out so there is a landing area in the middle," said Chris Jenkins, who hunts a lake in Hancock County.

"We built our blind in some trees overlooking the lake and created a moon around the blind. It seems to work. We kill ducks doing it this way."

In the end, that's all that truly matters. It doesn't have to be the perfect spread. It doesn't have to be the perfect call.

All those things have to do is lure in the ducks.

"I wish that was the case," Baxter said. "My uncle wanted things perfect. I guess I still do, too."

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