Tips & Hints for November 2012

Phil Hardman's Decoying Tips

Phil Hardman's Decoying Tips

13 November 2012

Decoying Woodpigeons is, for me, the absolute pinnacle of our sport. It encapsulates every one of the skills needed to be a successful hunter and throws them all together into one single session where the outcome relies on a lot more than just being able to find your target and make a successful shot. Fieldcraft, knowledge of the crops and your quarry, positioning, hide building and reconnaissance all play a vital role. The end result relies more on the hours you put in beforehand than it does your actual performance on the day, get it wrong and you might well spend a frustrating afternoon wishing you hadn't bothered, but get it right and you will be rewarded with some of the finest shooting an airgunner could have, with bags of 20 to 30 not uncommon. My personal best came last summer while decoying over wheat stubble on flight line that lead to an uncut Bean field, between me and my shooting partner we managed 66 kills in a single session, that's not bad going for a shotgunner never mind 2 blokes with legal limit airguns.

For those of you who have never tried decoying Woodpigeons let me explain a little bit about it. In its rawest sense, decoying is simply the tactic of using plastic 'decoy' birds to lure passing pigeons into your kill zone. When a bird sees what it believes to be a flock of its fellow kind it assumes 2 things, number one, that there must be good food in that area, and secondly that it must be a safe area to land. On that assumption the bird usually has enough confidence to drop in and join its plastic friends, swooping down into your kill zone where you are hidden and ready for it. That's the theory anyway. The reality is that Woodpigeons are very wary birds and are not easily fooled. Setting up your decoy pattern just anywhere will not work. First you must find an area that the birds are already using, and the way to do that is by going out and looking. By far the most productive areas are crop fields, and for an air gunner freshly cut stubble is usually the easiest because, unlike a shotgunner who can take birds in the air, we must wait until they land and any long crops will make shooting them all but impossible. The best time to begin planning your trip is just before harvest, the crops to look for are Wheat, Rape and Barley and you’ll know when they are almost ready to be cut because they will turn a golden brown. It's around this time that the Pigeons really begin to pay attention to them and they can easily be seen amassing in large numbers on any trees, telephone lines or power cables that border the field. Beans are also an excellent crop for attracting pigeons, these are usually harvested slightly later in the year and can provide some of the biggest bags but it's up to you to find out what is growing on your shoot and at what time of year it's attracting pigeons.

Once you have identified an area that is attracting the birds its time to do some serious reconnaissance, Pigeons use invisible highways known as 'flightlines' to navigate from place to place. These flightlines are just like our roads, some are major routes, like motorways, while others are lesser used and harder to spot but given enough time spent watching, it becomes pretty easy to see which of these flightlines the birds are using to enter and exit the field. Once you have identified the routes make a note of the wind direction on the day because this can often have a bearing on which flightline they use and if the wind changes they might use a different one. While you're doing your recce also make a note of any 'sitty' trees the birds are using or hedges they land in before attacking the crops. Some days I end up with just as many kills taken from these trees as I do from my actual decoy pattern. If you can, try to get out on a few different days and at differing times you can really build up a picture of what the birds are doing and when. I usually start this process before the fields are cut so it always gives me a few weeks to gather as much information as I can before the actual day of the shoot, and the more work you put in at this stage, the more successful you'll be later on.

The next stage is finding a suitable place for your hide, this can either be a purpose built hide, or simply an area of natural cover that you will use on the day, either way it is very important that you get its positioning right. Firstly you want it underneath or as close to, and incoming flight line as you can so that the first thing the birds see as they arrive are your decoys. In the past I've used everything from a stack of cleverly placed hay bales to a hand built natural hide and on the odd occasion simply lying in long grass with no other cover at all. What you lack in hide, you will have to make up for in fieldcraft, and personal camouflage so if you can, find somewhere that affords you good cover. The better the hide, the more comfortable your day will be. However, do not be tempted to choose a place that looks good for a hide at the expense of having it near to a flight line; it’s more important to have poor hide in the right place, than it is to have a magnificent hide in the wrong place. By far the simplest way to construct a hide is to use a piece of ready made camouflage netting, either the army surplus stuff, or the purpose built hide netting that most gun shops sell. A piece of this stretched across a section of hedge or bush with some natural plant material weaved in for added cover should suffice in most cases, just be careful that no light is shining through from behind otherwise the birds might spot you moving inside. On the outside you'll have a trade off between visibility and concealment, the thicker your cover and the less shooting ports you have, the harder it will be for the incoming birds to see you but it also means it will be harder for you to see them and to get the gun on aim. There are no hard and fast rules and to be honest hide construction could be an article all of it's own but try to make it look as natural and inconspicuous as you can while affording you some concealment yet still giving you good visibility and the angles needed to get your shots. As with everything, practice makes perfect and it always pays to be adaptable on the day.

Ok, so you've studied the birds hard for weeks, you've found the best area and its right underneath a good flightline, your hide is built and the field has been cut. All you need to do now is get yourself some decoys and your ready to roll, but which decoys should you buy? These days there are a vast array of decoys on the market ranging from plastic painted shell decoys through to flock coated full bodied versions and even neoprene fold-up types that can be set up in differing poses. I'm yet to try all of the different types but over the years I have had a lot of success from using a mix of full bodied and shell decoys, the full bodied one's look more realistic but are bulky to carry so I tend use them for half of my pattern and for the other half I use shells. This gives the appearance of some with their heads up alert (sentry birds) while the shell I sit lower to look like they have their heads down feeding, what type you choose will depend on how you plan to transport them and also your budget. I generally use 10-14 deeks in my pattern and on mine I have repainted the white wing and neck bars to make them more visible to incoming birds. The actual pattern depends on the day. If you have a good breeze coming in from one fixed direction then you will need to face them into the wind, Birds do not like the wind blowing up their backside and any facing the wrong way will look unnatural and spook the real birds long before they land. Don't set them up all facing the exact same way though, have a few slightly at an angle to the wind, just enough to make it appear natural. If there is no wind you can face them in all directions at random. The actual pattern to set them out in is another thing that varies on the day. The easiest pattern to start with is a staggered horseshoe shape with its open end downwind and the deeks space around one or two yards apart. This works well because birds always land into the wind and the open end and clear centre of the horseshoe pattern means most birds will tend to land in the middle of the pattern, right where you want them. Don't be afraid to experiment with your pattern, I have found over the years by simply watching real birds on the ground feeding I get a 'feel' for what makes a realistic looking spread and I've had some brilliant days by simply trying to mimic their natural feeding behaviour. You'll know pretty quickly if the birds do not like the pattern you’re using because they will jink away at the last minute or fail to land despite a lot of interest, in which case rearranging the pattern usually does the trick. I tend to situate my decoys around 25 yards from my hide with the furthest deek sitting about 35 yards away and the closest around 15. Adding a single decoy to the hedge, tree or fencepost near your hide on a lofting poll or bamboo cane is a good idea because it copies the behaviour of a sentry bird on overwatch and helps to make the incoming birds feel more confident.

All things going to plan your hard work should have paid off and the birds should begin to arrive; now it's time to start bagging them. I find the best technique to use is this; try to spot the birds early and ready the rifle before they land. When they do touch down they will pause for a few seconds looking for danger before beginning to feed and this is the perfect chance to take your shot. They will be stationary and sat upright presenting a relatively easy target, once they begin feeding they move around constantly which makes for a much more difficult shot. When you do shoot a bird pay particular attention to how it fell, if it slumped forwards resist the urge to retrieve it, there may well be other birds incoming and a shot bird laying belly down only serves to add more realism to your pattern. However, be sure to retrieve any shot birds that land on their backs because a bird lying belly up will send out a huge warning sign to the rest. As the day progresses you can gradually replace your plastic decoys with real shot birds, a sharpened stick placed through the bird's chin and into the ground ensures a good, realistic pose.

Decoying is often referred to as a 'black art' and quite rightly so, it's not something you can perfect by reading a book but hopefully this will help you with the basics which you can then build upon or modify to suit your own experiences gained out in the field. Get out there and give it a try...