The first step in successful decoying is to choose the correct decoys for the type of waterfowl and conditions. As for species, just about anything will decoy to mallard dekes, including Canada geese — sometimes. I do, however, like to refine my sets for the various species. If gadwalls are present, set a group of five or so gadwall decoys near the blind, but away from the other decoys. Gadwalls are “anti-social.” They like to plop down about 60 yards out and stay out there, infuriatingly swimming around. This can make other birds stop short of your spread to join the “real ducks.” I like getting even with the gadwalls by placing their dekes close to the blind.
In all but secluded pothole and timber hunting, it’s a good idea to add some “color,” or birds with some white, to the set. Depending on the ducks in the area, three excellent choices include shovelers, pintails and canvasbacks. It’s important to use only a half-dozen or less, and again, keep them separate from the mallard decoys. A string of coot decoys off to the downwind side can also be extremely effective.
During the early teal season, I primarily use lots of teal decoys but for their size. Teal hunting in my area is pretty opportunistic, and hunters often cover a lot of ground to find the birds. Two or three dozen teal decoys don’t take a lot of space and are lightweight enough to carry. As the season progresses, we tend to get a lot of green-wings, and I mix them in with the mallards for realism. When possible, I like to add in three floater goose decoys. At the tail end of the duck season, when the birds are super wary, I’ll often hunt with only six floater Canada decoys and a dozen of my best-looking mallards.
Size matters — not to the ducks, but to the circumstances. I’m lucky to live and hunt in an area that has a great variance in hunting situations. Bounded on three sides by Corps of Engineer reservoirs with lots of public hunting lands, a number of rivers, marshes and hundred of ponds and small lakes, along with lots of agricultural lands for feed fields, my waterfowling territory can range from flooded timber to field shooting and from big open water to small marsh holes and ponds, not to mention the rivers. In any given season, we hunt both puddle and diver ducks, Canadas and snows and blues. Hunting the big open water of Truman Reservoir in central Missouri calls for magnum decoys that can be seen from a distance and compete with other hunters. Much of this hunting is done from my duck boat with an Avery Quik-Set Blind, so transporting these bigger decoys is not a problem. Same with hunting grain fields. My ATV can get me and lots of big decoys to the spot. I’ve discovered that magnum decoys also tend to stand out better against the field ground cover. On the other hand, when I’m hunting one of the public waterfowl wade-in areas, I can take in a lot more standard-size decoys, often a third of them teal decoys. When hunting flooded timber, a half-dozen woodies can serve as confidence-building decoys.
The type of decoy also makes a difference, again depending on the circumstances and water conditions. For the most part, weighted-keel decoys are best, because you can throw them out from a boat or the bank and they’ll turn upright — most of the time. When weight is a factor, such as wade-in situations, or when using small skiffs, water-keel decoys are the best choice.
Decoy design is also important. Fixed-head decoys are more economical, but decoys with swivel heads add variety. Decoy body shapes also vary. Some have higher or more upright heads, while others are lower or more tucked into the body. I often mix and match to present a more natural look to the spread. Some “sleeping” decoys mixed in the set give a realistic appearance. The major manufacturers have become increasingly aware of the importance of realism, offering better feather detailing in the molding and more realistic colors. But you can go too far with realism. Drake mallard decoys designed complete with the mallard tail curl can cause utter frustration as they tangle with decoy cords. Some things you might look for when purchasing decoys is a cord hole in both ends of the keel. This allows you to tie off one or two dekes from the rear rather than the front and add more variety to the set. Another good feature is a cord “slot” in the front of the keel and over the cord hole. This allows you to unwrap only the amount of line needed for the depth, push the cord into the slot and instantly set the depth.