Fine Tuning Your Spread
With Jason Mitchell
The formation of the decoy spread and how the pocket is positioned contributes tremendously to how birds approach and drop into the spread. Hunters as a rule worry about or place a heavy emphasis on many details that aren’t nearly as important as the shape and size of the landing spot which needs to be adjusted accordingly to different situations that arise.
Many hunters are familiar with the traditional horseshoe or “V” formation that creates a nice open pocket. There are many variations of this basic concept and what is most important is a hole or runway for approaching birds to land. A nice open pocket pinpoints where finished birds will attempt to land which creates a shooting opportunity but also, birds that have an obvious destination to land don’t have to look harder or make multiple passes attempting to find a spot to sit down. The more birds have to swing around you and the harder they have to look, the more that can go wrong. Success at pulling in birds within shooting range increases dramatically when the spread is set up in a fashion where the birds drop into the pocket without swinging or circling multiple times.
Several factors can influence how this basic spread formation can be adjusted. There are some basic rules of thumb many hunters follow. Some hunters routinely stress placing the decoys in family groups for example. Some hunters stress facing the decoys into the wind. I like to mimic with my decoys what I see in the field while scouting. If birds are scattered with lots of open space between family groups, I will set up decoys accordingly. If birds are packed shoulder to shoulder or leap frogging towards the edges of the field, I will try and copy what I see with the decoy spread. As far as what direction to place decoys, I do like the concept of placing a high percentage facing the wind if the wind is strong but I believe the spread is much more realistic by not being predictable.
Family groups often seem to walk in one general direction when active and feeding but they often walk down wind or cross wind. Canada goose decoys for example are sometimes more visible to approaching birds by facing some of the decoys downwind as the lighter breast is easy to see against dark fields. I like to face the decoys in a variety of directions just to make the spread look real but on the upwind edge of the pocket where I want to finish birds, I believe birds finish and drop in better if the birds in that area are facing upwind, the same direction as finishing birds will land. For some reason, birds have a harder time dropping down and landing next to decoys that are facing them.
What direction the birds are approaching the field combined with wind direction and how high or far the birds are traveling really fine tunes everything else. For example, say the roost is upwind behind you and the birds are flying with the wind towards the spread. In this situation, the birds get a really good long look at the spread because they have to either fly over or past the entire spread before flying downwind and hooking around to approach the pocket. In this situation, I have had tremendous success simply turning the blinds and shooting at the birds on the upwind side of the spread as they were traveling with the wind but you can also move the pocket in such a fashion where the birds are flying over fewer decoys and turning over the top of the pocket to descend against the wind. This can be accomplished by exaggerating the size of the pocket and rimming the downwind side of the pocket with a few more decoys.
How high the birds are as they approach the spread also can dictate a much larger and exaggerated pocket where the hunter can be more successful by scattering more decoys downwind of the pocket. Birds that have to travel from further distances or come at you high need a big pocket because as they loose elevation, they often don’t drop fast enough and miss you, when this happens, the birds are often at their lowest behind you on the upwind edge of the spread and at that point, the birds have to circle. This is when good calling can shine but you still have to make it as easy as possible for birds to finish. If birds are missing the pocket and dropping down behind you, stretch and exaggerate the pocket and scatter loose groups of decoys further down wind of you.
This exact same spread however will backfire if most of the birds are coming at you really low. When you are in a situation where most of the birds are coming at telephone pole height across the horizon, a high number of decoys down wind of you are going to cause birds to finish short of your blind or they are going to eventually flare off the spread outside of shooting range. Again, good calling can sometimes keep birds moving up the pipe but you will be much more successful if you match the spread to what most of the birds are giving you.
One other aspect to consider when placing decoys, creating pockets and hiding blinds in the spread is that birds will often key and focus on the largest bunch of closely placed decoys in the spread.. Thus you don’t want to have decoys down wind of the pocket really stacked together tight. Keep these birds loose. Typically, the upwind edge of the pocket is where you want the most bodies, placed closest together. Now traditionally, this is also where people will generally position their blinds or pit. This is going to be the location and angle to get the best in your face shots. There are times however with worked up fields or situations with frost where concealment has to be adjusted because birds are flaring off hunters because they are looking right at you the entire final approach.
Hunters can sometimes create some success by repositioning the blinds so that they are off the attention zone where birds are focusing and these shots will often be cross wind. Another top strategy is to position the blinds and pocket in such a fashion where the birds are always looking into the sun when they look towards the blinds. Even when using flocked decoys, frost creates a tough situation because our own body head will melt or warm whatever we are using for concealment whether we are using natural cover or a layout blind. Thus it is very hard to hide so certain situations also require the hunter to reposition the spread so that the birds aren’t concentrating on our location.
Editors Note: The author, Jason Mitchell, host the outdoor television program, Jason Mitchell Outdoors which airs across the upper Midwest on Fox Sport North and Fox Sports Midwest. Find out more information on air times at www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.