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Duck Decoys -- What works? What doesn't...

Duck Decoys -- What works? What doesn't...

Hunters have used duck decoys to hunt ducks for thousands of years. More than likely, you'll need to use them in order to bring home ducks for the dinner table, too. 

You can't own too many decoys. More is always better. If you are just starting out, buy as many as you can afford, then add a dozen or two each year. Soon you will have enough. 

Handmade Decoys

Native Americans two thousand years ago made floating decoys out of cattails and bulrushes to lure ducks, geese, and other fowl within range of their nets or bows and arrows. Their decoys were relatively simple in design. (Click HERE for instructions to make your own cattail duck decoys in the tradition of Native Americans.)

Live Decoys

Though the practice has since been banned, it was popular in the early 1900s to use live decoys. The Wisconsin outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie, who wrote in the 1920s and 30s, immortalized the use of live decoys in his story “Minnie the Moocher,” a tale of a pair of mallards he collected at a farm near Frederic, Wisconsin, to be used as live decoys for waterfowling. The two ducks, Minnie and Bill, were quite the characters. Min became a deadly caller to every passing male mallard. Bill was known for growling.

Sportsmen in this day cared for their live callers almost as much as they cared for their hunting dogs. A good caller might be sold for two hundred dollars or more – a lot of money at that time.

Modern Decoys

Today, most hunters use duck decoys made of plastic or other synthetic materials. Some still use wooden decoys. Mostly, however, the lighter the better - plastic doesn't weigh as much as wood.

Decoys come in three basic sizes: standard, magnum, and super mag. Standard mallard decoys are as big or bigger than real ducks, and you can make a good showing with plenty of standard-sized ones.

But it's much more than the actual decoy you use. The spread -- the small differences in decoy setups --has a big impact on how approaching birds react (or not) — and ultimately on the success of your hunt.

There are probably more variables that affect a duck’s behavior over decoys than of us humans understand, but here are some of the most important ones to consider:

  • Wind conditions
  • Water type, levels, and conditions 
  • Temperature, season
  • Daylight and visibility
  • Hunting pressure 
  • Decoy movement

Setting Up the Spread

There are many diagrams on how to set decoys, but the best spreads are set by either common sense or trial and error. What you want is for the ducks to land directly in front of the blind, in the "shooting hole." To do this you need to understand that ducks always bank against the wind and they will almost always land short of the bigger part of your spread.

By spending time watching and hunting waterfowl, you'll find that you will develop instincts for how to set your spread and what kind of adjustments you need to make under changing conditions. This is where hunting with a good guide will be very beneficial. He knows the area he hunts like he knows the back of his hand, and you can learn a lot from him.

Decoy Tips

1. Match duck decoys to the species you are after. That being said, large varieties of ducks will be attracted to a mixture of those that are drab brown or green. It could even be a combination of mallards, pintail, or teal decoys, for example.

2. Use motion decoys strategically. Unless there is total stillness on the water, you really don't need motion decoys. If a breeze is blowing enough to create movement in your regular decoys, you'll do all right. Motion decoys are good in grain fields where the motion helps bring out the profile of the decoy against the background.

3. Consider using a "confidence decoy". A confidence decoy such as crane, heron, or gull decoys, tells the ducks "things are ok here" and "it's safe to land in this spot." These are not necessary, but can make a difference sometimes when ducks are wary. 

4. Pay attention to your spread design and the wind direction. Ducks tend to fly into the wind. This is really handy on those particularly cold mornings when it works out that you can position your blind so that you sit with your back to the wind and face out to the ducks flying into it. 

 

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Resources:

Duck Hunt Nation

WXPR 91.7 FM, Bob Willging, "The Once-Popular Art of Hunting With Live Decoys." Oct 23, 2014

Pro Hunters Journal, Playing the Spread, "The Art and Science of Decoying Ducks"

Wide Open Spaces, "Duck Decoy Spreads That Will Work Every Time"