Building a Decoy Spread

Story at a Glance
Elements to consider in building a spread:
  • Decoy Species
  • Decoy Size
  • Decoy Materials
  • Solid Keel or Water Keel
  • How Many Decoys?
  • Specialty Decoys
  • What Type of Spread?
  • Rigging Options
  • Thoughts on Movement

My decoy spread is a motley collection, compiled a dozen at a time over four decades of hunting. This past season, I set nearly 350 decoys around a pit in a flooded river bottom field, and what a menagerie!

This spread included super magnum, magnum, and standard decoys, all mixed together; weighted and water keels; decoys made from plastic, hard foam, and cork. I used floaters, shells, and full-body stand-ups. I counted eight different species: mallards, pintails, black ducks, green-winged teal, Canada geese, wood ducks, canvasbacks, redheads, and coots. Then, there were several decoys painted all black for long-range visibility and pulling power. There were also different types of motion-makers (wing-spinners and water agitators).

Building a decoy spread is one of the most enjoyable aspects of waterfowl hunting. It combines imagination and experimentation. There are theories galore on how to increase a spread's attraction to ducks and geese. An array of gadgets are available that make a spread come to life and there are dozens of options for rigging decoys. No wonder beginners need help when it comes to putting their first spread together.

However, most confusion can be avoided if hunters will apply two rules:

  1. The old architect's maxim: Form follows function.
    A freelancer's spread will obviously differ from a big permanent spread around a blind or pit. A run-and-gun hunter has specific needs in decoys and rigging systems. The same is true for hunting in fields, on rivers, on open water, and so on. A decoy spread should be assembled with a specific use in mind.

  2. There are no absolutes in using decoys.
    Some guidelines will apply most of the time, but decoy numbers, size, species, movement, etc., are all subjective in nature. If a spread is working, no matter how different or offbeat it might be, stick with it. But if it's not pulling birds, try something else. Tinkering with a spread is the only way to make it better.

In a sense, building a decoy spread is like a woman putting on makeup. She starts with foundation, then applies the frills – lipstick and eyeliner. Hunters should start with a basic spread, then add innovations when they can. Before they know it, they will have their own menagerie, and hopefully it will be a spread that waterfowl can't resist.

Decoy Species

In most puddle duck spreads, mallards are the predominant species. In nature, these ducks are universal, and other species routinely intermingle with them. Thus, mallard decoys will also draw pintails, teal, gadwalls, widgeons, and other puddle ducks. There's nothing wrong with setting out an all-mallard spread.

However, two refinements can add realism and attraction to a spread. The white on pintail drakes and the all-dark bodies of black ducks will make a spread more visible and help capture passing ducks' attention. Where these birds exist naturally, the addition of either (or both) of these species can enhance a spread's drawing power. Freelancers assembling a portable spread might rig two-dozen mallards, six pintail drakes, and six black ducks. Hunters setting a large permanent spread around a blind or pit should increase these numbers exponentially, depending on how many decoys they're putting out.

Other species can be included in a puddle duck spread: teal, gadwalls, wood ducks, and wigeon. However, there is probably little additional benefit gained by sprinkling an occasional odd species through a spread, especially a large one. I do this, but only because I have these decoys from years gone by, not because I bought them specifically to enhance my spread's attraction to that particular species.

On the other hand, sometimes hunters specifically target wood ducks, pintails, teal, gadwalls, or widgeon, when these are the predominant duck present. In this case, they might assemble a decoy spread solely—or mostly—of their target species. Still, in most places and times, a spread of mallard decoys will work just as well.

With divers, the decision on species is easy. Put out what's natural in your area: bluebills, redheads, and/or canvasbacks. (Even when canvasbacks aren't allowed in the bag, these big, bright decoys will help pull other diving ducks into your spread.) If puddle ducks are working the same area, set a few mallard, black duck, or pintail decoys out to the side of your diver rig.

Decoy Size

Decoys come in standard, magnum, and super magnum sizes. What size should a hunter choose or his spread?

Decoy size relates to visibility. Bigger decoys are more noticeable, especially at long distances. However, bigger decoys are also bulkier and heavier to transport. A hunter must weigh these factors in deciding which size is best for his place and purpose.

For instance, a freelancer backpacking decoys into a beaver pond should stick with standards, which are easier to carry. Ducks will likely be working close in such an environment, and oversized decoys won't be necessary. On the other hand, a freelancer hunting from a boat on a large river or lake should go with super magnums because of their bigger profile. From a distance, 18 super magnums will show up better than three dozen standard-size decoys.

The same logic applies to a large permanent spread. In a cypress brake, slough, pothole, or flooded timber – where ducks will be close before they see the spread, standard decoys are sufficient. On a big lake, flooded field, or dry field where waterfowl may pass at long range, bigger decoys are better, though a mass of decoys (for example, 200 to 400) will have plenty visibility regardless of which size decoy is used.

Decoy Materials

Most modern decoys are molded from thermoplastic resin, and they are hollow inside. This material holds paint well and lends itself to great detail in decoy features. Hollow plastic decoys are reasonably lightweight and tough, but they are somewhat expensive. They are the standard for most hunters in most settings. Their main drawback, however, is vulnerability to stray shot. A misdirected pellet can cause a leak that must be repaired, or the decoy will sink.

The main option to molded plastic decoys is solid foam decoys, which are virtually indestructible and not affected by shot. Solid foam decoys are heavy, however, and expensive. They are used primarily by hunters who set permanent spreads and who desire the ultimate in toughness and seaworthiness.

Wood and cork are traditional materials for making decoys, but both pale in performance to plastic and solid foam decoys. Wood and cork decoys are heavy and very pricey. Some traditionalist hunters still prefer them, especially cork decoys, which ride well in rough water. But decoys of these two materials probably comprise fewer than 1 percent of all gunning decoys in use today.

Solid Keel or Water Keel

Floating decoys come with two types of keels: solid and water keel. Solid keels are sealed with weight inside. Water keels are hollow and fill with water for ballast when they are set out.

Solid keel decoys are more convenient to use. They will roll upright when tossed out. Their disadvantages are that they weigh more, and they're more expensive than water keel decoys.

Water keel decoys, on the other hand, are not self-righting. They must be set on the water right side up to allow the keel to start filling with water, and this can be time-consuming. Also, hunters picking up water keel decoys must drain each decoy, or they will collect water in their boat.

So, if decoys are to be set out and taken up frequently, solid keels are the better choice. They are less bothersome in terms of self-righting, and they don't leak water when taken up. The best use for water keel decoys is in a permanent spread, where they will be left out for long periods. Once deployed, they ride as well as solid keels. The only nuisance with these decoys is in setting them out and picking them up.

How Many Decoys?

Several factors go into determining how many decoys to use in a spread. These include: type of water to be hunted (i.e., small pothole, large lake, river); whether the spread will be taken up daily or left out; means of transporting a portable spread (backpack or boat); competition from other hunters, and financial capabilities of the hunter.

On smaller, confined waters, a spread of six to 36 decoys should be sufficient. On larger waters or dry fields, hunters should put out as many decoys as practical. I never heard of anybody scaring ducks or geese away because they used too many decoys. Typically, the more, the merrier.

Walk-in/wade-in hunters obviously are restricted to smaller spreads. One hunter shouldn't attempt to carry more than 18 standard, rigged decoys in a backpack. You might physically carry more than this, but too many decoys (plus shotgun, shells, etc.) lugged through marsh or muck can be a killer. Boat hunters can put out bigger spreads. Two or three bags, each carrying two dozen decoys, are a reasonable load for a 16-foot boat.

Sometimes, especially on public areas, competition dictates that bigger spreads be used. This isn't to say that waterfowl won't work to smaller spreads in choice spots. But all things being equal, they will generally work a bigger spread over a smaller one.

Then, there is the financial factor. Several dozen good quality decoys can run a hefty tab. Building a big decoy spread might take a few years of budgeted buying, or the combined contributions of several partners who split the expense.

Specialty Decoys

Hunters have many specialty decoys to consider when building a spread: shells, silhouettes, full-body stand-ups, inflatables, soft foam decoys, confidence decoys.

Shell and silhouette decoys are stackable, and they're a good option for carrying a lot of decoys in a small package. These are used primarily in fields, on mudflats or sandbars, or in very shallow water. They are realistic in appearance, in spite of the silhouette's two-dimensional quality.

Full-body stand-ups are very realistic, but they're bulky. They are best suited for field use (when they can be trailered to the hunting site) or in permanent spreads.

Two specialty decoys for freelance hunters are inflatables and soft foam decoys. Inflatables are either blown up by the hunter, or they trap air and self-inflate when dropped onto the water. Soft foam decoys have shell bodies and heads that insert into holes at the neck. Both inflatables and soft foam decoys weigh next to nothing, and they are very compact. A walk-in/wade-in hunter can carry several of these in a small backpack. Also, inflatable and soft foam decoys move seductively on the lightest breeze.

Their downsides are that they aren't as realistic in appearance as regular decoys, and they require some time and effort to set out (blowing them up, fitting the heads to the bodies). Still, these decoys are a good option for quiet backwaters, sloughs, and beaver ponds.

Confidence decoys include other types of birds – crows, herons, gulls, coots – that add to a spread's realism and communicate to incoming ducks or geese that everything is natural and safe. How effective are they? Only the birds know. If a hunter tries a confidence decoy and has success with it, he should continue using it. However, use of confidence decoys certainly isn't required for hunting success.

(One confidence trick I've used for several years is floating a log at the edge of my permanent spread and nailing a line of full-body standup duck decoys along its top. Real ducks love to loaf and preen on a log or muskrat lodge. I believe that imitating this in my spread imparts a sense of safety and serenity to circling ducks.)

So, What Type of Spread?

Back to the original question: How should a beginning hunter assemble his first spread? Based on all the above variables, here's my advice, or rather, here's what I do.

I hunt both freelance-style and from a permanent pit, and I maintain three separate decoy spreads. For freelancing in swamps, floodwaters, and other shallow waters, I use 36 standard decoys that are divided into two mesh bags. These bags have backpack straps in case I need to leave my boat and walk or wade to a hunting site. These decoys include 28 mallards, four pintail drakes, and four black ducks. I keep these decoys mud-free and shiny bright for maximum realism.

When the shallows freeze, I hunt on big water – lakes and rivers – that are still open. Here I use a spread of 24 super magnum mallard decoys and eight Canada goose floaters. Again, these decoys are clean and have good paint jobs. They have extra-long anchor lines and 16-ounce anchors to hold in rough water or strong current.

And as described earlier, the permanent spread around my pit has approximately 350 decoys in a hodgepodge of species, sizes, and materials. This spread sits in a flooded field adjacent to a large river that ducks and geese fly daily. My big spread and loud, persuasive calling are intended to capture passing birds' attention and deter them from their original destination.

How well do these spreads work? They work well some days and not so well on other days. When ducks and geese are in the right mood and I'm in the right spot, they're very effective. But it's my experience that the world's best spread won't work if hunting conditions are bad or birds have their minds set on somewhere else.

Ultimately, building a decoy spread is a means of stacking the odds in your favor. Assemble the most realistic, most effective spread possible. Then, set it out in the best spot you know and hunker down. At this point, you've done all you can. The next move is up to the birds, and hopefully it'll be your way.

Options for Rigging Decoys

Proper rigging will render decoys much more effective and convenient to handle. Decoys rigged with the right components and methods will be easier to set out and retrieve, and they will not drag in waves or current.

Either of two lines are recommended for rigging decoys: plastic "tangle-free" line, and #48 or #60 tarred nylon line. Both these lines are tough, rot-proof, tangle-resistant and easy to unwrap or wrap. Both are also available at reasonable cost. (Use special line crimps to secure plastic line to decoys and anchors, since this line doesn't hold knots well.) 

When it comes to decoy anchors, freelancers hunting in swamps and shallow backwaters can get by with light weights (4-6 oz.). One good anchor is the strap-type weight that wraps around a decoy's neck to prevent line tangles. Two other suitable options are the over-the-head anchor (wire loop protruding from a lead "mushroom") and the neck ring anchor (molded in a circle or "double-H" to ride as a collar around a decoy's neck).

For freelancing on big open water, hunters should opt for over-the-head or neck ring anchors in 12-16 oz. sizes. Extra weight is needed to keep decoys in place when waves or current is rolling.

Thoughts on Decoy Movement

No discussion about decoys is complete without touching on movement. In recent seasons, mechanical wing-spinning decoys have been the rage. And before wing-spinners came along, hunters used an array of jerk strings, dipper decoys, water shakers, and other means of imparting "life" to a static spread. This is especially important on calm wind days when decoys are unnaturally still.

Now, ducks see wing-spinners everywhere, and there's much discussion over whether they're learning to avoid them. Nobody knows for sure, but many hunters are choosing to eliminate them from their spreads or use remote controls to turn them off once ducks start working.

Whether or not to use a wing-spinner is each hunter's call. However, there is no question that having movement makes a decoy spread far more realistic. Agitated water and moving, dipping decoys look like real ducks, and hunters should use any legal means of imparting action that will convince circling birds to come in.

Wade Bourne is the author of Ducks Unlimited's Decoys and Proven Methods for Using Them. Copies may be purchased through DU or from www.wadebourne.com