by Wade Bourne
Duck decoys can take on a dull, unnatural look after a few seasons of hard use. Exposure to sun robs their luster. Rubbing and bumping against other decoys and ice causes paint to chip off. Dried mud can leave a grimy film over decoy bodies.
In these days of increased hunting pressure and wariness on the birds' part, hunters should do all they can to keep their decoys fresh and natural looking. Clean decoys with crisp paint jobs will invariably pull more birds than those that are grubby and dull. Here are some easy tips for pre-season maintenance to ensure a brighter, more realistic spread when ducks head south.
First, wash decoys thoroughly to remove last year's grunge. Bag them in mesh decoy bags, and take them to the local car wash. Wash them while in the bags, spraying through the mesh with hot soapy water under high pressure. After a few minutes of washing, dump the decoys out, rebag them, and wash again to spray from a different angle. After washing, take the decoys home, and hang the bags so the decoys can air-dry.
Next, do a simple paint touch-up to restore the decoys' bright look.
Purchase one small- to medium-sized can of satin finish black latex paint and another can of satin-finish white latex paint. (Be sure to purchase satin finish, not gloss or semi-gloss. Satin finish has just the right sheen for painting decoys.) Also, buy a small assortment of brushes 1 inch wide or less. Brushes with exploded-tip nylon bristles are best. Artists' brushes are usually too soft to work with the rough finish on decoys.
Separate decoys according to sex, and work on the hens in one session and the drakes in another session.
To touch up a mallard hen, use a small brush to lengthen and widen the two white wing bars on each side of the body (bordering the speculum). Paint these wing bars so they are approximately twice as wide as their original paint job (i.e., 1/4 in. wide instead of 1/8 in. wide).
Next, add white paint on the upper rear tail feathers. The best way to do this is by dry brushing. Load a small amount of paint on the brush, then make repeated light passes over the tail feather area to impart streaks, not solid white. These two steps alone will add brightness and contrast to mallard hen decoys.
For drakes, paint the top of the head and down the back of the neck with satin black. Dry brush the edges to feather the black into the green along the upper sides of the head. Paint the rump and tail feathers with satin black paint. Then set the decoys aside for the black paint to dry.
After the paint dries, use white satin paint to enlarge and define the neckband (on live mallard drakes this white ring is incomplete at the back of the neck) the wing bars bordering the speculum, the crescents behind the legs, and the upper rear tail feathers. Again, upper rear tail feathers should be dry brushed, so they are streaky rather than solid white.
Take a black permanent magic marker to highlight the nail (bump on the tip of the beak) and the nasal openings on the upper bill. Also, the black marker may be used to add thin wing bars inside the white wing bars. Real mallards have two sets of color bars bordering the speculum – white on the outside and black on the inside.
Use model builder's black lacquer marker to add a gloss finish to the eyes.
Finally, to brighten faded breast or back areas, daub Vasoline onto a soft cloth and rub chalky areas as though polishing. The Vasoline will renew colors almost to their original brightness. Wipe off all excess after "shining."
Touching up decoys in this manner is a time-consuming process. Mallard drakes require approximately twice as much time as hens, because more detail is required.
But the rewards of this work more than justify the efforts when the first flight of ducks comes into your refurbished spread. There is a sense of satisfaction in a job well done, whether camouflaging a blind, training a retriever, or touching up last year's decoys to give them a new look for realism and a new degree of persuasion.