The 2:30 a.m. alarm ends the best dream I’ve had in years. All my clothes are neatly laid out, in specific order, so I won’t forget anything in my early morning stupor.
After arising, my black lab, Scoter, follows me everywhere I go. He knows what’s up. In the outside darkness, I feel light rain. The ducks will be flying early. I need to get a move on before another hunter gets my spot.
I sweat it all the way to the launch but, happily, I’m the first one there. Dog, gun, Thermos and accessories are piled in the boat. After I motor upstream in the soupy darkness, I notice a worrying sight — the faint aura of light in the eastern sky. Crap. Get those decoys out, Wass, and fast!
Daylight with ducks winging is on your front porch. Wait a minute. Oh, no! The anchor lines are not only a tangled mess but some decoys are riddled with holes.
I bet that act has been played on the early morning duck-hunting stage more than a few times. You are feverish with opening-day excitement. Your duck-hunting dog is going bananas. Your coffee is hot. Your rain gear is brand new. But the decoys are just how you left them last hunting season, covered in muddy dog prints with decoy lines that look like a rat’s nest.
When hunting puddle ducks I don’t believe you can ever be too fussy about the decoys because, in general, puddlers are much warier than diving ducks. When I was hunting over decoys regularly, I would start prepping them in September, and sometimes earlier. I use five types of decoys: plastic, Styrofoam, cork, wood and motorized, and each type requires specific maintenance.
I took care of the anchors and lines first by separating any tangles, untying any knots, looking for rodent chews and testing every single knot.
Next, I used water and a brush to clean the exterior of every decoy, using soapy water for the worst stains. This involved around 50 decoys in my case, including black duck, mallard, wood duck, goose, whistler and bluebill.
Then I would carefully inspect each decoy to see if any needed a new paint job. Painting duck decoys can be time-consuming, but, typically, most decoys wear well and will last a number of years before needing any touch-up painting. When I repaint decoys, I have reference photos handy and use matte acrylic paints that don’t shine, although I prefer satin paints for bills.
Meticulousness isn’t really needed when painting decoys, but that’s how I do it, and for sure, it’s more for me than the ducks. I have carved and painted a few decoys out of wood and cork, and these are always special to my spread — when I use them. It seems that I more often find them decorating a mantle or bookcase.
One “color” that I touch up more often than any other is white. It shows up well at a long distance and I believe is key to drawing ducks to your decoys, especially divers like whistlers.
Cork decoys are my favorite, since I believe that they look more realistic than any other type. I am partial to my cork black duck decoys because they all were made by my father back in the 1950s from low-density cork. After many years of use, pieces of these old cork decoys can break off. I remedy that problem by mixing sawdust with waterproof glue and patching the damage with that compound. Once it has dried, a good sanding and some touch-up paint make it almost like new.
I also use wooden decoys, and in general, they need little scrutiny except for a washing and occasional repainting.
Hollow plastic decoys need a little more attention since any pellet holes from “friendly fire” can sink them or cause them to sit lopsided in the water. After draining water that may be inside a pellet-ridden plastic decoy, I use a waterproof sealant for patching, then sand and enhance with paint.
Some hunters drill a hole into hollow plastic decoys and fill them with closed-cell, spray Styrofoam to keep them from taking in water after hunters’ errant shots.
My Styrofoam decoys are lightweight and self-righting. I never like the paint jobs that they come with, so I order unpainted ones that I can paint. Self-righting decoys are a big plus, especially when you are in a hurry to get to your blind by shooting time because, invariably, there will be ducks paddling among the decoys at that critical moment.
The mechanical decoys are last on my list. I finally broke down and bought several with wings that turn like a windmill and splash water from battery-powered feet like a puddler does when feeding in shallow water. These are the easiest to maintain. Replace the batteries.
From many years of experience, I have learned that some kind of decoy movement is a key ingredient to attracting puddlers. When watching a group of puddle ducks like mallards and wood ducks, there are always some ripples in the water from their activity.
Before mechanical decoys arrived on the scene, I often used a “jerk string” attached to one or two decoys and would yank on that to create ripples when ducks were heading my way. Another budget-friendly technique I used was to toss a rock or two next to the decoys creating ripples, but if you choose to use that last method, be sure the retrieving sidekick sitting next to you is fully aware of what’s coming up!