Movers 'N Shakers

On bluebird days, when there's no wind to move your otherwise immobile decoys, resort to these motion decoys to add some action to your spread.

When I was a neophyte duck hunter several decades ago, I noticed something unusual about the behavior of decoying waterfowl. While hunting in a vast marsh where anything that stuck up above the scant grass cover was treated with suspicion by ducks decoying at close range, I would move the boat or wade out to adjust the decoys, stand up to catch the warm sun or send my retriever out to fetch a downed duck.

Many modern motion decoys balance on heavy, stable bases, rocking and swiveling like feeding ducks.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

Waterfowl hunters are routinely told to sit still and keep movement to a minimum, but I found that doing the opposite could actually prove useful from time to time. Suddenly ducks would appear above the decoys, catching me off guard. In the beginning, I seldom had my shotgun close at hand, so I learned to use a sling to carry it at all times.

Over those first few seasons, I tested my duck-attraction theory. Sometimes merely raising my arms above the boat's camouflaged covering and waving to the birds caught their attention; at other times I'd rock the boat by shifting my body, or use a paddle to create ripples. Sometimes, I'd occasionally send my Lab after a bumper for a quick retrieve.

To the amazement of hunting companions still mired in the traditions of staying still and keeping out of sight, these tactics worked -- and worked extremely well, such that we'd fill our limits on bluebird days during which not a whisper of wind rippled the water to make the decoys appear realistic.

In this heyday of gadgetry, it's frequently difficult to believe that some hunters stick to the old ways. Nevertheless, conventional methods for imparting motion to decoys or the water surrounding them remain extremely effective.

A hunter in a flooded-timber situation, whether it's in a river bottom during flood conditions or a beaver swamp, may not need any decoys at all: Motion alone can lead to full bag limits of ducks. The tried-and-true method of hunting in areas of thick cover is simply to kick your foot while simultaneously using a call. The call attracts attention to the concentric circles created by the hunter's foot movements. Deceived into believing that ducks swimming unseen in the standing trees are responsible for the movement, birds on the wing will drop right down to the water for a look. Grabbing a limber sapling that extends into the water and shaking it, or tossing sticks or stones into the water are equally effective ways of setting off ripples in flooded timber situations.

The next step up in the primitive-motion category is the pull-string or "wiggle string." Tying a string to a decoy and twitching the string makes the decoy dip and wiggle. Some hunters simply tie the string to the forward eye of the decoy's keel or around the decoy's neck and jerk the string using nothing but the decoy's standard water anchor as a counterweight; others stab a piece of limber wood or a fiberglass rod into the bottom and tie a connecting string to the rear of the decoy's keel to add a rearward return motion that helps to keep the decoy in position.

I've even seen counterweight and pulley contraptions that make it possible to "swim" the decoy to the blind by pulling the string; when the hunter lets it go, the counterweight drops and pulls the decoy back into position. Wiggle strings can be added to field decoys as well. The decoy is placed on a limber metal, wood or fiberglass rod and rocked back and forth by a string leading to the blind.

Using a wiggle string has its downsides: The string can snare a retriever (or even an overly excited shotgunner) in the act of fetching a downed bird. Setting one up also takes a bit of effort and time and also requires the use of at least one hand, or possible a foot.

Another way of adding motion: Wave a flag. In the past, a black stocking cap or just the arms proved effective for this, but now the use of commercially manufactured banners for attracting the notice of distant geese is now standard practice for waterfowling. Open-water duck hunters also use flags, especially when diving ducks and sea ducks head the quarry list. Inexpensive and durable, easily stowed and very light in weight, the flags sport extremely realistic contours and color schemes tailored to specific species, and so can dupe even close-range birds in need of further convincing that a spread is real.

Any waterfowler knows that windy days are best for creating motion in decoys set on the water. But there are other ways to add motion to decoys, especially when the decoys are set on land.

When hunting for greater snow geese resumed along the Atlantic Flyway in the early 1970s, the season had been closed for so long that no species-specific decoys were available. The answer was found inside rolls of white kitchen garbage bags and bundles of cut reeds. A bag was shaken open and its open end knotted around the top of a reed stuck into the marsh bottom or soft soil of an agricultural field. The tag end of the bag resembled the head of a snow goose, with the rest of the bag serviceably mimicking its body. A slight breeze would set the plastic "goose balloons" rippling, thus creating a lifelike decoy spread. This was probably the first of the "windsock" decoys.

Hunters can now buy windsock decoys with plastic or metal stakes and plastic heads that are much easier to set up and store than reeds and plastic bags (which were usually just tossed out with the garbage after a hunt). The typical windsock decoy is a fabric balloon that catches any wind through an opening of hard circular plastic held by the stake at the approximate location of the decoy's lower neck. (Continued)

Windsock decoys are amazingly convincing, imprinted with the color patterns of the various species they're intended to target. They fill, waddle, rotate and shake, orienting into the wind, moving at the slightest breeze. They also compress, taking up little storage space compared to shell or full-bodied decoys, and are remarkably light in weight, making them the best decoys for large field spreads. Their only disadvantage: In the absence of wind, they deflate, presenting a shrunken silhouette. Other decoys are therefore usually mixed in with a windsock spread.

It was only a matter of time before someone thought of using a kite as a decoy. Kites move as the velocity and direction of the wind shifts, and their very high profile makes them extremely effective at attracting waterfowl; too, several kites can be flown over a large water or land spread, creating the illusion of waterfowl cupping their wings. The several models currently on the market resemble th

e various waterfowl species.

A hybrid of the kite and the windsock is the wind-powered "flapper." Elevated on a stick, this type of decoy features wings made of fabric stretched on frames that appear to move like those of a real bird when the wind blows.

Several manufacturers have introduced extremely realistic wind-powered spinning-wing decoys that are less prone than are battery-powered models to stop spinning because of malfunctions. It really wasn't a long leap from a child's windmill toy, or the spinning-wing duck seen on many mailboxes across the country, to a decoy with wind-propelled wings. Wind-wing decoys are quieter, lighter and more resistant to damage during transportation to a hunting area than are electric models. The downside: A windless interlude can render them immobile.

Setting a decoy or decoys above the rest of the ground-based spread on a limber fiberglass, reed or wooden rod is a great idea. The illusion of waterfowl rising up and setting down, essentially playing hopscotch during competitive feeding activity, is very realistic when using these.

Limber sticks for raising decoys above the grass or stubble are nothing new; long reeds were used for this purpose with the old primitive garbage-bag balloons. At least one manufacturer makes accessory poles designed specifically for the purpose. Shorter versions inserted into shell decoys make the decoy bodies move up and down as if they're dipping to feed.

For many years, enterprising hunters have cut, shaped, strung and wired hard-bodied decoys onto pivoting or swivel bases to create motion in land and water sets. But some of the newer full-bodied decoys introduced by the top decoy makers have to be seen in action to be appreciated. Equipped with bases made of heavy steel rods bent to provide a stable platform, and so well balanced that they pivot and turn with the slightest of breezes, these decoys feature bodies painted in incredibly lifelike colors and patterns. Especially suitable for shallow water such as is found in flooded rice fields or on sandbars, they impart an air of realism to any spread even when set along the bank of a water spread.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows the use of electric decoys for hunting waterfowl, several states -- Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington -- have enacted complete or partial bans on the use of electric decoys for hunting waterfowl. Check with your state game department for regulations regarding the use of electric decoys since they may change at any time.

An effort to ban electric decoys on the Mississippi Flyway failed. Some have argued that the take of waterfowl is too high in the northern states along the flyway, as the birds passing through these have yet to become wary of them, with the educated survivors continuing on into more southerly states. Certain studies have shown that these electric decoys are only effective during the initial portions of the hunting seasons, which may back up the argument. But no documentation of electric decoys detrimentally affecting the overall status of waterfowl populations is known to exist, and hunters can use them in most states.

The first class of electric decoys comprises the electric accessories. Some of these accessories aren't actually decoys, or even attached to decoys, but are simple plastic containers with an off-balance rotating "wobble" motor inside them. The motorized device functions just like a hunter's foot-sloshing, yet may be even more effective, because when the device is placed in the center of a water-decoy spread, the ripples originate among the decoys and, bouncing off the decoys, impart motion to them as well.

Other accessories are simple diving motors attached to decoys. Placed in the water with decoys attached to it, such a device pulls the decoys beneath the water at the touch of a remote control, making them appear to be diving, bathing or feeding.

A wobble device can be placed inside a hollow decoy to add an even more-lifelike appearance. At least one manufacturer also makes a device that is placed inside shell decoys that makes the decoy appear to be walking, feeding and preening.

The spinning-wing decoys that started the craze for electronic gadgetry also prompted the most controversy -- not least because they've proved highly effective.

While spinning-wing decoys come in a variety of species configurations, most work well for attracting other species. One manufacturer's handheld gizmo features a "wing" that spins as the device is raised above the blind for waterfowl to see. While it appears to be a new invention, it's essentially an electronic version of the fabric flag.

For those who don't want -- or are prohibited by regulations from using -- electronic gadgetry for hunting waterfowl, a manual version operated by the time-tested pull string is available. The wings rotate at a speed chosen by the hunter as he or she pulls and releases the string. Since the hunter can experiment with the speed of rotation and timing of rotation as while watching an approaching flock, using the manual pull-string rotating wing decoy is very similar to calling to them while gauging their response.

These pull-string spinning-wing models bring full circle the blend of old methods of hunting with new methods of manufacturing plastic decoys, adding yet another level of fun to any waterfowl hunting expedition.

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