Waterfowl Decoy Rigging For Water And Weather

Here's your guide to being prepared for all water depths and weather conditions when you put out your decoy spread.

A cold front blasted the early segment of waterfowl season wide open, creating an explosion of blue-winged and green-winged teal around the reservoir where I waited in a shaking stake blind. It was my first year of hunting ducks over decoys and I had worked all summer long to build the blind. A drought lowered the water level enough to allow setting the pilings. Now, my decoys bobbed in front of the blind to tantalize the teal. Or at least they would have, until the northern winds struck suddenly with fury.

These wood duck decoys are displayed with a variety of sizes and types of anchors for use in deep water with fast currents. Photo by Mike Marsh.

My compressed paper pulp decoys cupped wind-generated waves with their concave keels, dragging the bank-style fishing sinkers that had held the blocks under windless conditions. As I impotently watched swarms of teal while collecting my decoys from the downwind shoreline, I figured there must be a better way to hold decoys in place.

That evening, on advice from an old-timer, I fired up a camp stove to melt some lead. Casting anchors consisting of wire loops with round lead bases weighing half a pound, I was certain the answer was at hand.

The next day, the anchors held securely. But as I was picking them up, several of the anchors snagged so tightly on the lake bottom they were impossible to free. During the next drop in water level on the lake I retrieved the anchors from an old wire fence, partially concealed under the muddy bottom.

Sometimes Silence is Golden
In my opinion, one of the most important rules of using duck or goose calls is to know when not to use them. Sometimes it's better to put it away and let the decoys work; sometimes it's the exact opposite.

Watch the birds and let them tell you what they like. Their body language will clue you in. the on hard-and-fast rule about calling ducks and geese is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Every day is different.

Remember to give the birds only enough to keep them interested. You can always add more if you need to, but after you've blown them out, it's very difficult to get them back.

But before you make your first call, make sure you've practice to the point your calls sound like a live bird, and not a "call."

lLarn to add the inflections and cadences of wild birds, and your success ratio will keep going up. -- John Vaca.

That was my first confrontation with this duck hunter's dilemma. A decoy rigging system had to be light enough to transport to the hunting area, easy to set up for the appropriate water depth and hold securely. Yet it must not create problems with retrieval.

Waterfowl occur wherever there is water and are hunted under myriad wind conditions and water depth. It's up to the hunter to decide before heading out which type of decoy rigging system is most efficient for the areas he intends to hunt, or the only thing he will bag will be a limit of disappointment.

Several companies today market decoy rigging systems that cover many of the wide range of conditions waterfowl hunters have to overcome for success. But no rigging system will work for all conditions.

The first thing to consider is water depth. An anchor line that can't reach the bottom is useless. Conversely, dealing with excessive line also represents a problem under shallow water conditions.

Next question is what type of anchor is best for the depth, wind, current and bottom conditions? Let's attack these problems in an orderly fashion, taking the least problematic situations first and the worst case last.

Shallow water situations with light winds and no current flow are the simplest scenario. When setting up in wadeable waters, such as a flooded field or managed impoundment, a short, thin decoy line with a 2-ounce fishing sinker is sufficient. If there is bottom vegetation, the sinker snags it to hold securely. If the bottom is soft, the hunter can stomp the sinker into the mud. Lines can be braided or monofilament. In extremely clear water, heavy monofilament fishing line decreases visibility to waterfowl.

Aquatic vegetation can create problems with anchor retrieval. Plants such as hydrilla and pondweed can create huge masses that must be removed from the anchor and line before the decoy is stowed. A torpedo-shaped anchor like the Tanglefree is a great choice for waterweeds. The line is tied near the center so the anchor rotates to grab the bottom. However, during retrieval, it pivots into a "closed" position for slipping through mats of plants.

Add high winds to the equation and lightweight anchors won't hold. A more aggressive style of anchor, such as a scoop or mushroom, is the better choice. Some lead mushroom anchors have extended shafts that can be wrapped around the decoy neck for easy storage.

For deep water, high winds and strong currents, flimsy lines and lightweight anchors fall into disfavor quickly. Small diameter lines chafe and break and lightweight anchors don't hold. But as line diameter and length increase, both the size of the decoy anchors, and the length of the rig presents stowing problems.

One of the best all-around rigging systems is Greenhead Gear's Decoy Keel Grabber kit. The line is tangle-resistant monofilament. The L-shaped anchors come in 4-ounce and 7.5-ounce weight sizes and are held on the keel with a rubber stretch cord after the line is wrapped around the keel. The small diameter line aids with storage and a line notch at the front of the keel allows limitless adjustment of line length. More than 60 feet of monofilament line can be wound around the decoy keel.

A more aggressive anchor for extreme conditions is the lead strap anchor. After wrapping the line around the keel or body of the decoy, the malleable lead is wrapped around the decoy head or keel. Lead strap anchors are available in many sizes. Like most lead anchors, molds are available for casting them. Strap anchors can be opened flat for use as dead weight or formed into hooks to grip submerged woody structure or for holding in soft mud. If the hook in the lead snags, the hunter can straighten it to free it with a hard tug.

Monofilament lines are no match for boat propellers, can break easily if a decoy anchor becomes snagged and can also be cut by shells and rocks. Stretch cords deteriorate with age and can't stand heavy abuse.

For rugged conditions, polymer l

ines, whether woven or twisted, work well for holding decoys. In river or coastal conditions where underwater objects, strong currents and high winds are facts of waterfowl hunting, braided polypropylene or nylon lines are the norm. An advantage of nylon is that it can be dyed. If polypropylene line is chosen, it should be color impregnated.

The soft, limp qualities of polymer braid lines are advantageous for retrieving large numbers of decoys with long lines because it wraps tightly around the decoy and won't cut your hands. However, these lines are more prone to tangling than monofilament lines. But tar coating (also called dipped line) solves the tangling problem because it stiffens the line. Coated line can be ordered from commercial fishing supply and decoy line sources. Coated lines last a lifetime and take on a dark shade for camouflage.

One advantage of the heavier braided lines is evident when a common and seemingly inevitable mishap occurs. Often a windy day, strong current or a distracted boat operator results in the anchor rat-tat-tatting as the line winds the weight around the boat propeller. A small diameter line will probably be cut, but it could also become lodged between the propeller and the lower unit, perhaps even cutting the lower unit seal. Larger diameter braided lines usually wrap a couple of times and choke down the motor, allowing them to be cut free or unwound without putting the motor out of commission.

For deep water, strong current and high wind conditions individual anchors should be chosen carefully. The over-the-head wire loop anchors with a cast lead base work well for rocky or sandy bottoms. But they can snag on submerged trees, roots and stumps. For heavy river currents, I've found a one-pound lead ingot with a hole drilled at the center of balance is an excellent anchor. Ingot molds can be purchased from bullet mold manufacturers. A 16-ounce ingot is typically 3 inches long by 1 3/8 inches wide at the top and 2 3/4 inches long and 1 inch wide on the bottom. Decoy line is threaded through the center hole with the wider side facing up, toward the decoy. A knot on each side of the ingot prevents it from slipping. Theis ingot anchor holds securely, yet flips free if it gets snagged because of the shape of the ingot and the position of the line. It has no projections to catch protruding objects -- not even a tying eye or loop in the knot.

An 8-ounce, pyramid-style fishing sinker holds well in slower currents. Add a second sinker with a single knot tied through both sinker eyes and you have an excellent 1-pound anchor. Another decoy-specific anchor style that holds well in current, deep water and high winds is made of lead molded into an oval or oblong shape. A center opening fits over the decoy's head to secure the anchor. Some of these molded lead anchors have "ears" on each corner to allow winding on the decoy line. This type of anchor can snag, but the flexibility of the lead usually allows them to deform enough to pull free with strong, braided line.

When rigging for strong currents and high winds, the orientation of the decoy to the direction of wave action or current is extremely important. A decoy that is not properly designed for strong wave action can dip below the surface.

This past hunting season I set a decoy spread on a river with 30-foot depths during floodwater conditions. I knew heavy anchors would be required to hold against the high current velocity, so the decoys were rigged with double stacks of 1-pound lead ingots. The current was so strong it forced the decoys beneath the surface. The problem was solved by punching holes in the decoy keel supports with a knife behind the factory-molded tying eye. Moving the tying point farther back allowed the decoys to surf on the current rather than dive.

While long lengths of lightweight line can be stored around a decoy keel, the 1/4-inch rope I was using was wrapped in a figure-eight around the decoy's body, over the neck and below the tail. Storing large diameter lines used for extreme conditions around the decoy body increases line storage far beyond what the keel will hold and is much faster than winding the line around the rear.

For the roughest, deep-water conditions, a trotline or gang rig is the best bet. Gang rigging involves the use of a heavy boat anchor to hold multiple decoys. A folding canoe anchor works well. Riggem Right makes a 3-pound folding canoe-style anchor specifically made for waterfowl gang rigs. Some hunters also use large boat anchors or concrete blocks.

Gang rigging saves time compared to setting and retrieving tens of yards of line needed for each, individual decoy. Gang rigs are stored in a container such as a plastic bucket, with snaps tied to the main line at intervals using loop knots or short lengths of line.

The anchor is set and the gang line played out as decoys are snapped in place. A second anchor is added to the opposite end if necessary.

Gang rigs have another benefit when used in strong currents and high winds because they flatten the line angle. An oversized decoy or commercial fishing float tied ahead of the first decoy can even create a perfectly horizontal alignment for the entire following gang of decoys, allowing them to ride naturally without nose-diving.

Those first paper pulp decoys still sit as silent sentinels on the top shelf, dominating hundreds of other decoys shelved individually or stowed inside bags and boxes overwhelming my garage walls and floor. My garage is a haven for orphaned decoys that were cast-off by hunters who gave up waterfowling. They are also a museum of what once were the latest decoy models and anchoring systems of their time. Their rigging is as varied as their original owners' hunting styles are from mine. They are rigged for waters shallow and deep, currents still and strong, winds light and variable to gale force. They prove a truth -- that no rigging system is perfect for all conditions. But an ingenious hunter always finds a way to set a spread that spells success.

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