By Teresa Milner

Waterfowl hunter sitting near decoy spread. By Jim Thompson_Decoy Lead.jpg

Jim Thompson

Decoys are important tools in most waterfowling scenarios. But putting together your first decoy spread from scratch can seem overwhelming. What kinds of decoys do you need? How many? How should you store them? How much will this all cost? It’s enough to mire any hunter in the muck of indecision.

But assembling a good spread isn’t that complicated and can actually be fun. It’s another way you can put your waterfowl knowledge to use and improve your skills. Following are some basic tips and ideas to get you started.

The Basics

The first rule of decoys is that there are no hard and fast rules. Different hunters have different preferences and strategies, and different situations call for different approaches. Choosing and using decoys is very subjective. Think of it like building the perfect salad at a salad bar. Everyone has the same basic ingredients to choose from, but everyone’s definition of perfect is going to be slightly different. Don’t be afraid to add to, subtract from, tinker, and tweak your spread to find the right blend for you on any given hunt.

Waterfowl hunter making decoys. By DougSteinke.com_Silhouette Decoys.jpg

Decoy types

There are two basic types of decoys—floating and field. Floating decoys float on the water. You tie one end of a length of decoy line to the decoy and the other end to an anchor. When you put the decoy in the water, the anchor keeps your decoy from drifting away. Floating decoys can be made of plastic, wood, or other materials.

Field decoys don’t float. Instead, they’re made for hunting on dry ground, such as in a grain field. Field decoys can be full-bodies, silhouettes, or even wind socks, which are lightweight and easy to transport.

Motion decoys are special decoys that move in some way, and they can add extra realism to your spread. Some are designed specifically for water, and others can be used in water or on dry land. Many of the most popular motion decoys have wings that spin or flap. Others are designed to replicate a swimming or feeding bird. Decoys that splash and create ripples on the water can be especially helpful on calm days. Motion decoys might be powered by batteries or hard-wired to a power source, or they might use the wind to make them move. Some are even activated with a remote control.

Hunters placing decoys in wetland. By DougSteinke.com_Decoys.jpg

Decoy species

Decoys are made to look like certain species of waterfowl, and many are incredibly realistic. But which species should you select for your rig? Fred Zink, owner of Avian-X decoys and Zink Calls, suggests choosing your decoys based on the species of ducks you’re after and to go for versatility rather than specificity. Decide if you’re going to concentrate on puddle ducks like mallards, teal, or pintails, or if you’re after diving ducks, like canvasbacks or bluebills.

“When you’re hunting puddle ducks, I would recommend purchasing mallard decoys,” Zink says. “All puddle ducks will decoy to mallard decoys.” Mallards are the most prevalent duck in North America, making mallard decoys the most versatile, Zink explains. He says that most ducks will congregate with mallards at some point as they migrate and settle on wintering areas.

For diving ducks, Zink recommends using bluebill (scaup) decoys. “Bluebills are the most prevalent of the diver species,” Zink says. “All the other divers are used to feeding with them and seeing them on a daily basis, so they’ll decoy to bluebills very well.”

Some decoys are made to resemble species that aren’t even waterfowl. They are known as “confidence decoys.” That term refers to decoys that imitate species you don’t intend to shoot but are often found hanging around waterfowl. Coots, herons, and even seagulls can make great confidence decoys.

Motion decoys

Waterfowl hunter setting up motion decoy in a decoy spread. By Travis Mueller Avery Outdoors_Motion decoy.jpg

Travis Mueller/Avery Outdoors

Motion decoys add another level of realism to your spread and help catch the attention of passing ducks and geese. Zink recommends using a spinning-wing decoy anytime you’re field hunting. He uses the Avian-X Powerflight Spinner in his spreads. “When the sun is out and bright on a clear day, motion decoys like the Powerflight Spinner are more effective,” he says. “When it gets cloudy, they are less effective.”

A simple jerk string is an economical way to add motion to your setup. To make a jerk string, attach three or four decoys to a line that is connected to a bungee cord and an anchor out in the water. Run the line back to your blind and pull it to move the decoys and send ripples throughout your spread.

Decoy numbers

A hunter can spend as much as he or she wants buying decoys. But how many do you really need to get started? Zink says to start small and add to your spread as you learn and find your own preferences. “For puddle ducks, the first thing I would buy is a dozen mallard field decoys and at least one spinning-wing decoy,” he says. Next, he recommends purchasing as many floating decoys as you can afford. “I think you can be really effective with a dozen or two dozen floating decoys and a spinner.”

A motion decoy adds to your cost but gets you more in return when it comes to luring ducks into range, Zink says. A spinning-wing decoy can make a big difference in some situations, especially earlier in the season. “There are times when we’re field hunting and we just grab a spinner or two and don’t even take any field decoys,” he says.

Decoy Strategies

There are many, many different strategies for arranging your decoys on the water or land, but Zink says one of the most important concepts to understand when first learning about placing decoys is duck behavior. “Ducks like to land in a hole in the middle of the flock, because they like to put other ducks between themselves and potential danger. The safety zone for ducks, geese, and other waterfowl is always somewhere in the middle of the flock,” he explains.

Knowing that will help you understand how to arrange your spread. “When placing decoys, try putting them in some type of U configuration, with an opening in the middle. Put the open part of the U downwind,” Zink says. That helps you control where the birds naturally want to land and puts them in a good place for an effective shot.

A second strategy is to mimic what you’re seeing in real life. “The best rule of thumb is what you see Friday night scouting is what you do Saturday morning with your decoys,” Zink says. “Being in the right spot and setting your decoys in a natural spread is one of the easiest and most successful strategies you can use.”

Hunters picking up decoys after a hunt. By DougSteinke.com_Texas rig.jpg

But don’t set it and forget it. Lots of hunters place their decoys in a standard arrangement, like a U, X, or V pattern. “As the ducks get hunted throughout the season, they get more educated, and standard patterns don’t work as well,” Zink explains. “As the ducks get smarter, it can be much more effective to watch what you see and duplicate that.”

Temperature will also dictate your decoy strategies. Zink sets his decoys close together when it’s cold and farther apart in warm temperatures, taking his cues from what he’s seeing live ducks doing on the water.

Zink also advises placing spinning-wing decoys strategically. “Early in the year, put your spinner right where you want to shoot,” he says. “The ducks will tend to land right by the spinner.” Later in the season, as ducks get smarter, Zink uses a motion decoy as an attractant rather than a finishing decoy. “I’ll put the motion decoy in a hole in the cattails adjacent to the blind, so when passing ducks are overhead, they see it and are attracted to it,” he says. “As the ducks circle to come down and look at the spread, that spinning decoy is no longer visible to them, and they will work the other decoys.”

Zink’s final advice when it comes to decoys is that it’s best to spend more time scouting than hunting. “Spend your money on gas for scouting locations and not on a lot of gadgets. Being in the right location at the right time is more important than all the gear and gadgets out there,” he says.

Bargain Shopping

There’s always someone out there with more money and gear than you. Take advantage of someone else’s need for the latest and greatest decoys and buy their old ones. Buying used decoys can be a great way to acquire lots of decoys for less money. Check Facebook for sale sites, garage sales, and estate auctions for used decoys. Some cleaning and touchup paint can be a big help to hunters who want to build a spread quickly and economically.

You can also simply put the word out that you’re a new hunter looking for some decoys to get you started. There are lots of veteran hunters out there with decoys they don’t use anymore, and they just might donate them to you. It never hurts to ask!

Storage and Transportation

Waterfowl hunter picking up decoy spread. By DougSteinke.com_Transportation.jpg

Make your investment last by treating your decoys right. Here are some tips on how to transport your spread and keep your decoys looking their best.

1. Simple mesh bags can haul a lot of decoys, and they drain well. They’re also inexpensive and usually have shoulder straps that make them easy to pack from the truck to your hunting spot.

2. Slotted bags are more expensive but give your decoys more protection. Each decoy sits in its own slot or compartment. The bags lie flat, making them great for stacking.

3. If you do a lot of walk-in hunting, use a game cart or plastic sled to haul your decoys. Put your bag on the cart or plastic sled, use a ratchet or bungee strap to secure the load, and haul your gear in quickly and easily.

4. Store flocked-head decoys with a small bag or sock over the head to avoid damage and to keep it clean.

5. Dry and secure is the name of the game when it comes to storing decoys. Make sure the decoys and the bag are dry before putting them away for the season.

6. Decoys can be stored hanging in a bag, stacked in slotted bags, or strung on carabiners. Use the method that works for your space. As long as the decoys are dry and safe from pests, the best method is what works for you.