Things have changed since the day my grandfather market hunted on the rivers, marshes and ponds around Henry County, Missouri. Back then, flocks of waterfowl darkened the sky. Grandpa would shoot a wagon load of ducks and bring them to Clinton and sell them to the ladies in town. When the government set a limit of twenty-five ducks per day, he thought the world was coming to an end.
At the age of ten, my father was given the job of gathering live English Mallards, from a pen behind the house, into gunny sacks. The ducks didn't mind this treatment, because they learned they were going to water. When he and grandfather reached the area they were going to hunt, Dad would release them and they would happily splash, play and quack, all the time attracting the wild ducks that were passing overhead. They were the best decoys nature every made.
After the hunt my father would call the ducks back to the gunny sacks and prepare for the trip home. Even though the ducks liked being out on water, they were willing to return to the sack, knowing that they would soon be fed.
English Mallards are just a bit smaller than regular Mallards, and most hunters of that time kept their own flocks. There are still a few of these "live decoy" pens standing behind some of the older duck clubs. Those days are gone, and since then decoy companies have attempted to copy life-like replicas from wood, cork, paper, Styrofoam, and plastic. Today's plastic decoys are very effective and can fool about any duck or hunter at just a few feet away.
NUMBERS - Let's first talk about the number of decoys needed. You can't own too many decoys. More is always better. If you are walking into your hunting area, pack as many as you can carry; at least three dozen. If you are just starting out, buy as many as you can afford, then add a dozen or two each year. Soon you will have not quite enough.
SIZE - Decoys come in three basic sizes: standard, magnum and super mag. Bigger decoys can be more effective by showing up better to ducks in the air. Many times, I have had ducks glide over standard size mallard decoys and land among giant Canada goose decoys. But since today's standard mallard decoys are as big or bigger than real ducks, you can make just as good a showing with plenty of standard-sized ones.
PRICE - The decoy business is extremely competitive. Lately, the best buy on the market has been the Flambeau 4500WA. It is an excellent looking, water-keel, standard decoy which is actually a little over-sized. Last year they listed for $60 a dozen. But if you watched for sales you could have bought them for under $30.00 a dozen, just about anywhere. That is an excellent buy.
KEELS - There are basically two types of keels. Water-keel, which is usually hollow or flow through, (and some fill with water), and weighted-keel. A weighted-keel is usually filled with sand and sealed. They are at least $10 per dozen higher and much heavier if you have to pack them in on foot. The only advantage of weighted versus water-keel is that they set upright better if you have to throw your decoys out; as from a boat. The new design water-keel keeps the decoy upright in most waters, and they swim very life-like.
RIGGING - Since Mallards are puddlers and like very shallow water, most of your hunting will be in four foot of water or less. "Tangle-Free" decoy line (a plastic line) works best for trouble free decoying.
As far as weights go, I believe nothing beats the flat strap weight, in 4, 6, and 8 oz. sizes, depending on the wind or current. Most sporting goods stores carry a good selection of these in the fall. Or you can save some money by making your own weights by purchasing 1/2" scrap lead pipe from the junk yard. Pound flat with a hammer or squeeze in a vice. Cut to desired length (I like about 12 inches) and drill a hole in one end. You have just saved yourself about half of the price of ready-made weights. There are also lead molds available for pouring your own.
Cut your "Tangle-Free" lines about six feet long. This leaves plenty of length for the decoys to move around in the wind. Run one end of the line through the keel hole and tie an overhand knot big enough it won't pull back through. Run the other end through the hole in the weight do the same thing. This way, the line is not tied to the decoy or the weight, and the decoy can swim around without twisting up the line. Bend the end of the strap weight in a "J". This will help it to catch in the mud or weeds and hold the decoy in place.
Tie some of the lines through the front hole of the keel and some through the back hole. This will give you decoys that face both ways in the wind, creating a more natural looking spread.
When gathering decoys, wrap the line around keel and then bend the strap weight around keel or the neck of decoy. This keeps them neatly organized until your next hunt.
SETTING DECOYS - I've seen many diagrams on how to set decoys, but the best spreads are set by either common sense or trial and error. What you want is for the ducks to land directly in front of the blind, in the "shooting hole." To do this you need to understand that ducks always bank against the wind and they will almost always land short of the bigger part of your spread.
I like to face my blinds to the north. I love sunny, windy days, but I don't want the sun in my face, plus, many times new flights come in from the north. If the wind is coming from the west and the blind is facing north, put about 3/4 of your decoys on the west side, starting about 15 yards out and ending at about 30 yards out. Spread them at least 4 feet apart so they can move freely without tangling up with each other. Set the rest to the east side, in two or three smaller bunches. Loose groups make them appear more relaxed, like they have been there awhile.
This should leave an good opening directly in front of the blind; "the shooting hole." Set two or three hen decoys (calling hens) nearer the blind to help to distract the ducks from your calling. Different wind conditions will require you to set decoys accordingly.
CALM DAYS - Most of my hunting areas are open prairie lakes. Perfect decoying conditions are sunny, windy days when new ducks are coming down to our area. The worse days are calm days with no wind on the water to bring the decoys alive. Ducks like to see lots of activity on the water before they decide to land. Even professional calling and a huge spread of decoys can't fool a duck that is looking at mirror-calm water with no apparent life.
To solve this problem, there are decoys available that are battery operated. They will quiver, shake, and make waves, adding life to your spread. One model is even in the feeding position. They cost between $25 and $50 each, use one or two "AA" batteries and claim to run for 25 hours or more. I've talked to guys that use these "mechanical ducks" and they say it can save the hunt on those calm days.
A less expensive method is to anchor one or more decoys to the bottom and run string from them to the blind. When you yank on the line it bobs the decoy up and down, creating waves.
ICE - If you've hunted shallow marsh for several seasons, you'll know all about those frozen-up days. And, if you haven't learned already, you should know about the duck hunter's favorite tool ... the shovel. When the ice is only windowpane thick, you can usually sweep it open fairly easily, making waves with the backside of a shovel. When ice is too thick to sweep, you can break out a big circle and shove the piece under the other ice with your shovel. Chunks of ice on top will not look normal to ducks, so be sure to push it underneath.
Even if you can only manage to break out a small hole, it can help when things are frozen up real tight. Ducks still need to water after feeding. When I'm faced with that situation, I set out a dozen or so decoys in a small hole and then add a few of the new standing decoys on top of the ice around it. If you are a true duck hunter, it's never too cold to hunt.
And that's all I've got to say about that. Remember, it's the quality of the hunt, not the quantity. Never take more than you need, have fun, always pack a camera and keep improving your decoying skills.