Ever watch a group of mallards, especially larger groups, work a hunters decoys and then slowly drift away? While other factors such as lack of concealment or poor calling may be the cause, many times this occurs simply because there's no place for them to set down as a group or there may be a subtle obstacle downwind. This is especially true with mallards, gadwall, and other larger ducks versus smaller ducks such as teal that seem to just plop down anywhere. A landing zone is an invitation to those birds that are in the air to join the birds that are already on the ground or in the water. It's your "Come On In" sign along with a location that allows the birds to do so that is within shotgun range.
1. This area(s) within your decoys must be approachable downwind and unobstructed of trees, willow bats, or even large clumps of vegetation and also placed where you want the ducks to commit. Blind placement options will also needed to be taken into consideration as this area should provide easy kill shots well within shotgun range. The X's in diagrams 1 and 2 show examples of this.
2. Ensure this opening is large enough to accommodate the size of flocks you'll be working. As a rule of thumb, it's better to have a space that is a little on the large size rather than one that is too small. You will notice that in diagram 1 we have a large area free of decoys, which is what we'd use if we were trying to fool large groups of ducks. Diagram 2, on the other hand, has a number of small pockets and are examples of what we'd use if we were attempting to attract small groups or singles or pairs.
3. Downwind approach must be free of any obstructions that ducks do not feel safe flying near. In a marsh situation versus timber this means no trees, not even small willow bats. When hunting timber it often means a larger opening in the canopy during heavier winds.
Strong winds above 20 mph often change the way ducks will work a decoy spread, often resulting in difficult shots as the birds work unpredictably. We struggled with this scenario on a hunting trip in Missouri until we noticed the mallards were not circling, but rather just hovering downwind just out of shotgun range looking things over or skirting off to the side. Once we widened the opening to our landing area and brought the furthest decoys closer we quickly shot a 3 man limit of greenheads. It was amazing to witness how such a small adjustment turned frustration into a deadly trap.
Getting stuck in a rut will always be the waterfowl hunter's gravest mistake, and this includes setting out decoys in the same pattern hunt after hunt. If the first and second group of mallards work your spread but will not commit it's time to step back and look for what may be wrong. Of course concealment needs to be right, but then it's time to make sure incoming ducks are not being asked to do something they just don't feel comfortable doing.