Tricks of the Trade for Rigging, Hauling & Storing Decoys

Of all the equipment waterfowlers use, decoys are second in importance only to shotguns. Here's how to treat them to ensure quality hunting experiences year after year.

To most North American waterfowl hunters, the use of decoys is the essence of the hunt. A flock of waterfowl setting their wings and slipping into the wind to land among a spread of carefully rigged and set imposters is what gives hunters their adrenaline rush. Anticipation of that moment is what makes them awaken long before a frosty dawn and go through an ages-old ritual of hauling decoys to an area likely to hold ducks or geese and meticulously setting them into a pattern that mimics a feeding or resting flock of their own kind.

Depending upon the thought and attention a hunter gives to rigging, hauling and storing his decoys, that pre-dawn ritual can be a smoothly orchestrated process that makes the hunt enjoyable, or a nightmare that can make him wish he had stayed in bed. Tangled anchor lines, weights that are too light or not properly selected for the conditions encountered, and lines that are too short or too long are some of the major problems besetting hunters while they set decoys. The logistics of getting decoys to the hunting area can likewise be a daunting task, as can keeping them looking lifelike after hauling them for miles and storing them during the off-season and between hunting trips.

Field decoys play a major role in many types of waterfowl hunting. Most of today's hunters use a combination of full-bodied, hard plastic or soft foam shells and windsock or rag-type decoys. The advantage of the full-bodied and shell decoys is that they hold their shapes and color schemes under all conditions. The advantage of the fabric decoys is that they take up less storage volume, are lighter in weight, and add movement to spreads with the slightest breeze.

Most field decoys are hauled to the hunting area in the bed of a pickup or on a trailer behind a tractor all-terrain vehicle. If the vehicle cannot be driven right to the hunting area, the decoys must be hauled some distance on the hunter's back. Large numbers of decoys are necessary for almost all field-hunting conditions. For this reason, field hunts are usually conducted by parties of hunters who pool their efforts and their decoys.

A check of any waterfowl hunting supply catalog turns up several options for hauling field decoys on a field hunt. Shell-type decoys are generally nestled in stacks with the heads removed and placed in a sack. Full-sized decoys generally have weighted feet or a stake that runs from the top of the decoy down into the ground to anchor it against wind. Feet and stakes can be removed and sacked and hauled separately from bodies. Fabric decoys are usually stuffed into bags, with the stakes and heads that hold them attached. Field decoys may number in the hundreds.

This green-winged teal was duped by a teal decoy mixed in a set of many other decoys. Different styles and sizes of decoys dictate how they are hauled, rigged and stored. Photo by Mike Marsh

Therefore, it is tempting to store them on open-weave sacks that are light. However, this may be a mistake. Open mesh can allow the dark soils associated with good farmland to stain fabric decoys. The mesh can also snag on stubble if the sack is dragged long distances. Solid fabric sacks or plastic storage bins are better options. Large plastic storage bins with lids that can be bought at any discount department store can be fitted with wooden runners by bolting them to the bottom, making them great for storing decoys as well as sledding them to hunting areas.

For hunters who do not relish hauling decoys on their backs, commercial options - mainly carts and sleds - are available. A cart can be as simple as a lightweight wheelbarrow. Plastic or fiberglass sleds are commonly used. Some hunters select sleds that double as layout blinds to keep the hunter off soggy or frozen soil. Solid fabric sacks can also be used for the same purpose.

Two conditions can make setting field decoys difficult. Strong wind can topple them and frozen ground can make anchoring them difficult. For fabric decoys, an aluminum arrow shaft offers a sturdier but still lightweight solution to the plastic or wooden stakes. The nock end can be plugged for pounding with a hammer. A field tip can be carried in a pocket for safety, then inserted into the shaft for driving into ground. Rubber bands cut from bicycle inner tubes make securing the arrow shafts to the decoys easy. When staking any field decoy in hard or frozen ground, boring a starter hole with metal rod and hammer can prevent stake damage.

For shell decoys and full-sized decoys, a hole can be drilled into the front edge of the shell or through the feet, and a large nail can be driven into the ground with a hammer. When using pointed objects to secure field decoys, it is mandatory to keep close count of them. Farmers tend not to grant hunting permission if tires on farm machinery get punctured because of objects left by hunters.

Water is half the name "waterfowl." Therefore, by far, the majority of decoys used to hunt them are floating type decoys. Puddle ducks prefer feeding in less than 18 inches of water. Diving ducks can feed in waters of over 40 feet in depth. There seems to be no anchoring scheme that is perfect under all conditions. However, hunters should select anchor weights and styles, and lines and line lengths, for the deepest water and windiest conditions they will encounter over the course of a season.

Rigging for a big-water diving duck hunt is probably the most romantic type of decoying, the kind that sparks a hunter's daydreams. The logistics of such a hunt awe the pothole hunter. Large boats are used to ferry hundreds of decoys and several hunters to blinds or bars where layout boats are anchored for gunning.

Decoys are sacked, stored in boxes, or piled between the seats. Tangles are not only frustrating, but also knotted decoy lines can be downright dangerous if they distract the attention of hunters in wind-chopped water or foul a propeller. Individual decoys are rigged with lines on at least a two-to-one, water depth to line length ratio. Magnum decoys require anchor weights of up to a pound while smaller decoys can be held with half-pound weights. The best lines to use are large diameter braided nylon rope or one of the slick plastic specialty lines that are advertised to prevent tangles. The larger diameter lines tend to be easier to untangle, and tangles with them do not cinch down tight like smaller lines.

My personal preference for decoy lines is 3/16- or 1/4-inch tarred line or line dipped in commercial fishing net treatment. Braided nylon dipped line is stained dark brown, is impervious to rot, and is stiff enough to prevent knotting but supple enough to wrap easily.

There are many knots that hunters tie in decoy lines. I prefer the bowline knot because it is easy to

untie yet never comes undone. The important things to remember are burning the ends of braided lines to prevent unraveling and passing the line through holes in the decoy keel and anchor to prevent chafing.

Storing the line, which may amount to dozens of feet, is done by winding the line in a figure-8 pattern around the decoy's neck and tail. The weight can be an over-the-head style, such as a wrap-around strip of lead, or molded lead anchor with a hole in the center. If not, a free-swinging weight such as a mushroom anchor or pyramid fishing sinker can be secured to the decoy's neck with a rubber band cut from an inner tube.

Many hunters manufacture their own over-the-head anchors of copper or stainless steel wire bent in a U-shape molded into a lump of lead. The molten lead is poured into a "mold" that can be as simple as a hole in dry ground with the wires placed before the lead is poured. Line can also be wrapped around the wire before it is placed around the decoy's neck. Tossed out, the anchor will drop to the bottom while the line unwinds. Some factory-made over-the-head molded lead anchors also have line storage tabs built in. The lead flip flops as the line unwinds. When using anchors on which the line is stored, it pays to make sure the anchor hits bottom and the line is not tangled, or the decoy will drift away.

For many of the massive diving duck spreads, trotline-style rigging is a good method. Decoys are set out along a single line with snap swivels securing them. Some hunters like to use a short length of line tied off a loop knot on the main line to attach the swivel and decoy to give the decoy greater action in wind and current. A heavy weight such as a mushroom-style boat anchor is used to anchor both ends of the main line. It is important to choose sturdy, corrosion-proof snap swivels to prevent decoy loss.

The trotline is wrapped around a board with V-notches in each end or around a spool. After setting the decoy anchor, attached a decoy to each swivel as the line is unspooled. After the hunt, as the decoys are removed from the swivels, it is important to snap the swivels shut to prevent tangles when setting them out again.

Sometimes heavy lines and anchors are unnecessary or inconvenient. Hunting backwater oxbows, potholes, flooded crop fields and beaver ponds can require weights of one or two ounces and small diameter lines. These are less visible to wary ducks and they reduce the weight a hunter must carry. For shallow-water hunting, the rule is, the heavier the decoy and the larger the profile it presents to the wind, the heavier the anchor and longer the line.

Large diameter fishing lines, such as 100-pound-test monofilament leader, make good decoy line in shallow-water situations. Bank sinkers or pyramid sinkers used by fishermen make good decoy anchors in shallow water. The line can be tied using standard fishing knots or with stainless steel leader crimping sleeves. Most floating decoys have keels for wrapping line that will store lots of small diameter line. Line that is not needed can be left on the keel and the line tied with a slipknot around a front hook molded on many keels for the purpose. If there is no hook, the slipknot can be tied around the entire keel. On decoys with no keel, such as suction or soft foam style decoys, line can be wrapped around the decoy neck and tail in a figure-8 for storage.

In shallow-water hunting, hunters commonly get decoys to the water using small pirogues and canoes, drag boats and sleds, or merely by walking through mud. Weight and space are always important considerations under these circumstances. Mesh bags are the best choice because they are almost weightless and don't hold water that can soak a hunter or use up scarce freeboard in a boat. Foam, hollow keel or suction-keel decoys are ideal because they weigh little and nestle tightly in a bag.

During the hunting season, decoys are abused while they are used. Tossing them around in a boat, dragging them across a field, and throwing them from boat, to truck bed, to concrete garage floor can deface paint jobs or break off heads and keels. Hunters should treat their decoys as the important - and expensive - hunting tools that they are. I prefer heavy solid canvas bags for storing all my decoys during the season because they protect the decoys against abrasion. However, it is important to wash decoys that have been used in mud or sand before they are placed in any bag. Dried soil and vegetation act like sandpaper grit. Coupled with the vibration during boat trips, travel in vehicles, and the impact associated with tossing decoys around, this grit can scrape off the decoys' paint.

It is equally important not to over-stuff decoys into a bag. Some free space should be left. Otherwise, plastic pintail tails can be bent, and heads and keels snapped off from the pressure of being sacked too tightly. Stuffing more decoys into a bag than a hunter can carry and set down comfortably is also risky, for two reasons. First, you can't shoot ducks from a chiropractor's table. Second, decoys are most often damaged when a tired hunter allows a decoy bag to thud against a hard surface instead of setting the bag down gently at the end of a long walk.

At the end of the season, many hunters merely leave their decoys bagged and pile them in a garage, attic or storage building. Treated to such abuse, some decoys last only a few seasons. Heat and the weight of other decoys will cause bagged decoys to deteriorate and deform and break apart. Mildew and rot can discolor lines, bags and fabric decoys. Saltwater can rust iron objects that come into contact with decoy bags.

Therefore, after each hunting season, I wash all of my decoys with clean water. A garden hose will usually do the trick. If caked-on mud is especially persistent, a soft bristle brush is used to prevent scouring the paint job. The decoys are left to dry a day or two. Letting them remain overly long in the sun is a mistake. The major cause of shortening the life of a plastic decoy is exposure to sunlight and heat. Plastic exposed to sunlight becomes brittle over the years. Excessive heat blows hollow decoys up like balloons and can cause pinholes that will leak next season.

Washing decoy bags in fresh water is also important for removing corrosive mud and saltwater and abrasive soil and sand. The bags can be draped over a clothesline, tree limb or fence and air-dried. They must be completely dry before storage to prevent mildew and rot. Bags can then be folded and placed on shelves. I always store my hundreds of decoys on shelves along a wall as well. The inexpensive metal shelves available at office supply and discount stores are ideal, as long as decoys are completely dry and clean of saltwater or mud. I learned the hard way that corrosion can destroy shelves, and the heat of corrosion can eat a hole in a plastic decoy.

When storing decoys on shelves, they shouldn't be stacked more than three or four deep. Just as in a bag, the weight of the top decoys on a shelf can deform or break the decoys on the bottom. Excess weight can snap the keels off the decoys on the shelf and deform heads and tails. Decoys on the shelf should be tipped at an angle so the weight is on the side of the decoy and not on the keel.

Lines wrapped tightly around the head and neck in figure-8 can cause the head to permanently turn into a backward tilt.

Therefore, lines stored in this manner should be loosened prior to storage.

Hunters who develop a system of properly caring for, organizing, and storing their decoys have better-looking spreads, save both time and money, and ultimately get chances at more waterfowl. Make such a system part of your hunt routine. You won't regret it.

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