Lining Up For Ducks - Understanding Long Line Decoying
By Jason Reid
“You are moving that appointment right now Jay,” Austen’s stern voice shot out from the giant ice crack we were hiding in. Ducks scuttling no more than a foot off the water’s surface buzzed by our decoy spread just out of gun range. Thousands of birds peppered the broken gray skies above making my humble childhood hunting grounds look like a video from the Mississippi flyway. I had no choice but to call and re-schedule a doctors appointment. I hadn’t been home for nine hours after the ATA show in Nashville and the synapses in my brain felt like a dying car battery, struggling to turn over. After two cups of coffee though, my brother, a friend, and I were slipping with each step carrying decoys, packs, guns, and a red kayak onto the icepack which had formed about 100 yards out from the shore. These frozen waves on Lake Ontario were well over 10 feet thick and fractured cracks in the ice pack offered incredible ambush points to hunt late season waterfowl.
We were not chasing typical high flying mallards or whistling wood ducks. These were wildly colored diving ducks. Pushing down from the arctic as the deadly weather of winter encompasses the landscape, bluebills, goldeneyes, redheads, old squaws and the beautiful tuxedo duck, buffleheads, presented an entirely different challenge on big waters. One of the biggest challenges in diver duck hunting is understanding the style of decoying. Instead of setting up a in an open pattern with individual bomber decoys, the key to big water diver duck hunting is understanding long lines.
“The old cliche saying about birds of a feather flock together shows it’s merit in this situation,” says New York State Waterfowl guide Tyler Breen. “Decide well before you get into the field what types of birds you want to chase and adjust your decoy spread accordingly.” For far too long, my brothers and I would hunt the late duck season on big water using mallard decoys while over 95% of the birds we saw were diver ducks. Every once in a while mallards would fly high over our spread and in an even far rarer case we would get a shot. The divers would rarely come within shooting distance. “Ducks are finicky,” says Breen. “Having the species specific decoys will make or break your hunt.”
“Dude straighten that line out, it’s all messed up,” my brother barked at me from the ice pack. The red kayak I was using to set decoys sat dangerously low to the hypothermic water. “Dude move the golden eye line over another ten yards, don’t tangle the mother line!”
Up until this point in life, setting decoys meant chucking single “bombers” into something roughly resembling a circle. This “long line” style of decoying was totally new. “Long line decoying goes back to the days of market hunting,” says Breen. “It is an easy way to string tons of decoys out and retrieve.” This is true, the set up and retrieval of these “long lines” of golden eyes and red heads was far more efficient than having to retrieve single mallard decoys.
So how do you rig a long line set? Breen sets his long lines by creating an anchor line with 50 feet of line. Folding grapnel anchors work well in this situation. He then attaches the anchor line to a one-hundred foot decoy line. He then attaches his decoys off of the mother line with about three feet of individual line. This allows the mother line to sink just enough to let his dog swim over without getting tangled. As a disclaimer, you don’t necessarily need to have one hundred foot lines, we made it work with a few ten foot lines.
One of the real keys to understanding long line decoying is what its purpose is. Diver ducks fly low to the water whereas mallards fly high. So what is the point? Diver ducks create giant rafts where they will group in thousands. The sheer size of these giant black blobs sitting hundreds of yards off shore resemble pictures you might see out of a Ducks Unlimited magazine. How does this relate to decoying? “Diver ducks fly low and you have to remember what their line of sight is,” says Breen. “Because they fly low, having several lines of decoys resembles these giant rafts which form on open water. Stagger your lines to create the visual deception of more birds,” says Breen.
Hunting late season, big water diver ducks gives you a chance to experience a totally different style of hunting. Especially as the swamps and creeks you hunted early in the season are frozen over, understanding the nature of diver ducks can provide you with the opportunity for incredible adventure in the dead of winter.