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The Decoy Factor

The Decoy Factor

To the author, it's more than "just a Spread"

Scrubbing and cleaning decoys is imperative before applying a new coat of paint.

What a satisfying morning in a duck marsh! I was hunting with my 12 year old grandson Cord Given in a small piece of water surrounded by acres of tules that were interspersed with small openings. It was early January and the ducks were wise to the ways of hunters after a long season, yet we had just finished having a great duck shoot, shooting a mixed bird limit with a mallard, two gadwall, two spoonies and nine teal. Back at camp, we found out there had been few limits taken, making our morning seem more special.

I did not have one of the top draws this morning, so when it was my pick, I chose a blind in the back of the club and away from most other shooters. I gambled that the ducks would be looking for small hidey holes once the shooting began.

As Cord and I sloshed through the shallows to our blind, we could make out and hear ducks as they took off in the early gloom, so I felt good about my blind choice for the morning shoot. I carefully placed my decoys in the smaller pockets of water, visible, but yet not glaringly in the middle of the limited, wide open water. When birds would approach us, we called, but sparingly. Just letting the ducks know they were welcome to join us if they so desired. The only intense calling made was if birds were passing out of range or seemed to be departing after looking us over.

Fortunately, we had enough birds decide to come within range that we had a grand time, whooping and high fiving with each successful shot. I believe having attractive decoys, strategically placed and toned-down calling, was what helped create our successful shoot.

By referencing dried duck skins, the author is able to duplicate the colors of live fowl.

Decoys, in my opinion, probably help the waterfowler more than any other tool available. Sure, good calling will often put ducks or geese right in our face. However, once the waterfowl have reached a certain point, I believe it's the decoys that do the final sell.

Decoys close the deal
I've hunted with good callers, and at times I have been astonished by the responses these callers had gotten from hard hunted, late season, decoy wise and call wise birds. As for me, I know my ability with a call will generally pull enough birds within range, that I most often can get a decent shoot. However, the ace in the hole that I count on to help seal the deal is to have a realistic decoy spread--decoys that are attractive and seem to say, "come on down, all's well."


Let me summarize what I believe constitutes a good decoy setup. First, the decoys should be clean and realistically painted. Dull, dirty, chipped and slow sinking deeks just won't get the job done. Secondly, decoys should be placed so they appear to be contented, relaxed, happy birds. Tightly grouped decoys most often suggest they are alerted birds, bunched together for safety.

That's not what you want to convey to birds seeking a safe haven. Thirdly, always watch where birds take off from when you get to your hunting spot. Even in the dark, close ducks can usually be seen and heard, as they take off. Those were relaxed bids you just scared, that chose the spots they were in because of a food source or they felt protected and safe. If possible, placing a few decoys in the same locations could be a good idea, even if only a seemingly contented pair placed here and there.

Teal recognize their kind and will gravitate to a colorful spread.

Maybe the spots where departing ducks took off from was not exactly where you planned on placing the bulk of your decoys, so place your decoys in the planned waters. However, the spots the ducks left should be close enough that any bird thinking of landing in one of them could pass within range of you as they make that final pass. A decoy or two, placed in one of these spots, just might convince an extra bird into range.

Storing Decoys
Hunters often pick up their decoys at seasons end and store them away. Possibly not thinking about them again, until perhaps a week or two before the next season opener. As for me, I never store my decoys until they are prepped and painted, ready for the next fall opener. Only then will I actually have them tied in bunches, put away and ready to go on a moments notice.

Generally my decoys remain in a disarrayed pile in a corner of my garage for some time. Usually not getting any attention until the winter blahs have passed and/or I get tired of stepping over or around them. However, they are never hung in the rafters until I've checked the anchor lines and anchors, washed and scrubbed each one, and I've given each decoy a new coat of paint.

When preparing to paint decoys, I try to consider what are the eye-catching markings of the drakes of the species of the decoys I use. Those are the areas I intend to concentrate most on when it comes to painting them. I want those areas of my decoys to be resplendent and eye catching, in the most natural looking colors as I can find.

Paint sources
There are paint kits that can be purchased that do an adequate touchup job for most species of duck and goose decoys. However, I've found my best matching colors for my decoys by going to two sources. For the larger areas of a decoy to be painted, such as the head, chest and back areas of a mallard, pintail or teal, the three species of duck decoys I use the most, I find my colors of choice in the spray paint department of one of the large hardware stores. They have such an array of flat spray paint colors that a person can match almost any desirable shade.

Two good examples are the chest and head colors of a drake mallard and the chest color of a drake greenwing teal. I had never been entirely satisfied with the colors that came in kits I bought, so I shopped around. Finally, I found Rust-oleum "camouflage" spray paints in earth brown and khaki. The earth brown perfectly matches a mallard's chest coloring and the khaki is a good match for the buff color of a greenwing drake's chest. As for the green head coloring of a drake mallard, I found Rust-oleum chalkboard green a suitable choice.

These handsome fellows were enticed by a colorful spread.

A good example of how poorly chosen colors can hurt your hunt happened on a duck hunt I participated in a few seasons ago. A good friend had invited me to hunt with him at Kesterson Refuge in central California, as he had the number one draw at Kesterson and it had been shooting well. Kesterson consists of all pit blinds that are well spaced and no roaming by hunters is allowed, so you don't worry about someone being too close. There were plenty of birds that worked above us that morning, but most shied away before coming into shooting range.

I began to think something was amiss with our blind, so I got out and did a visual inspection, checking for shiny shells or shell cartons, but all appeared to be ok. However, when picking up the decoys at the end of our hunt, I noticed all my host's mallard drake decoys had a "distinctive" orange-ish brown chest instead of the dark chestnut brown color live mallards have. When I inquired about the different color, his reply was he thought it was close enough at the time he painted them. Needless to say, I always take some of my decoys with me now, even when invited on a hunt by someone else.

You might ask how can I be so confident of my color choices. Well I skin and then dry the skins of most ducks that frequent the area I shoot. With the dried skins as a reference, I feel very confident in my color choices. Mounted birds can give you the same accurate color reference as dried skins, but would be difficult to carry in a bag to the hardware store. I know most people are not going to skin out ducks for color comparison when painting decoys and I'm not suggesting they do. However, I believe accuracy in coloring does help at times, especially during the late season.

A word of warning, if you should take a bird skin with you when shopping for paints, tell the clerk ahead of time as to what you have in the bag. It could save you some embarrassment when you pull out a dead bird and the clerk utters a startled shriek or gasp.

As for the smaller areas that need to be painted on a decoy, a good source is a craft store. The diversity of acrylic colors they have is mind-boggling. I don't believe there is a color in nature that can't be duplicated with acrylic paints, such as the slash of green on a greenwing teal's head, the white neck ring on a mallard, the white crescent on a bluewing teal or the blue on a pintail, widgeon or redhead's beak. These small colored areas are identifying markings on different ducks. Therefore, I go to the time to duplicate them accurately. Acrylic paints allow me to easily replicate these eye-catching colors.

Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that all the smaller colored details of a decoy are often not needed to present a realistic looking decoy to approaching birds. However, it gives me some assurance of closing the deal on closer, decoy-wise birds, so I spend the extra time needed with some detailed colors on my decoys.

Pretty dekes and an enticing call...a recipe for success.

I certainly don't feel the need to replicate each small color on a duck decoy as necessary, but I also believe it doesn't hurt, especially during the late season when ducks have been hammered for months and the drakes are showing their most vivid mating colors, trying to attract a mate. I want my decoys to closely imitate the species that frequent my area and the colors they are sporting.

Certain details definitely help with the allusion of realism however. A good example is the top of a drake mallard's head. At first glance, you might say it's green, which it is, but viewed from directly above, the green appears to be black. Therefore, just a slash of black on top of the green head will look more realistic to birds passing overhead. Details like this seem small, but it might help convince some late season, decoy wary birds, that your decoys are the real deal.

If you don't believe smaller detailing is necessary, just ask any serious good hunter why he spends the time to flock the heads of his honker decoys, instead of using just black paint.

When painting the larger white colored, more easily seen areas on some ducks, such as the white breast of pintail and spoonbills, or white wing spots on gadwall or widgeon, I believe an exaggeration of that white area might help attract birds from a distance. So I enlarge the white areas on these decoys. Mother Nature gave the drakes the easily seen white areas for a reason, so other might recognize them from afar. So, let them be seen.

When I describe painting decoys, almost exclusively I am referring to painting drake decoys. As long as my hen decoys are not badly scuffed or have not lost most of their factory color, the only areas I paint on hens are the beaks and sometimes a slash of color where the legs would enter the water, such as on mallards.

Think about it. How often do you immediately see and recognize a live drake duck, either in the park or marsh, yet not see the hen unless she moves? It's nature's way of protecting the ladies, so make your decoys appear to be natural too, both drakes and hens.

Decoys, whether it be a choice of species, size of spread, mingling or separation of species, carefully placing them or randomly tossing them, are all subjects waterfowl hunters can disagree on. However, I believe all hunters will agree, decoys are necessary for success on most hunt days.

I want my decoys to look as realistic as possible when it comes to coloration. I usually don't change my decoys for at least the first half of the season, as most birds can be gullible during these times, because of innocence and youth. However, by late season, I inspect my decoys after each hunt, as I know the ducks will, and replace any that are scuffed or chipped. I want all my decoys to look and appear natural.

Spend some extra time painting your decoys this year, making them appear real to at least your eyes. I'm sure you will reap rewards for your efforts.

Editor's tip: Flambeau's new UVision Decoy Paint is designed to match the reflectance of real feathers, especially white areas as described above.

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