Whether you are just starting out, or are a seasoned hunter, deciding on an investing in your own decoys can be one of the largest expenses of all your gear. This can be especially true if you are looking for American made decoys. Choosing the right duck decoy for your needs is about establishing what is important to you and balancing those considerations against your budget. The actual process for selecting the best duck decoy for you is an easy two-step process. First, identify your hunting situation or situations. Second, choose the right species for your area. That is simple enough, but before you start answering those questions you should first consider what is important to you. To help you decide we put together four essential considerations you should make when buying decoys.
Duck decoy buying considerations
In this article we focus on choosing duck decoys, but these criteria can be used to inform any of your gear-buying decisions. Ultimately, there is no right answer. The answer is, of course, “it depends.” Every hunter will weight each consideration differently depending on their preferences. Choose what is right for you.
Have you ever heard “I’m too cheap to buy cheap things”? The wisdom of this idiom comes from the truth that lower quality gear often needs to be replaced more frequently than higher quality gear. Maybe you have heard someone say “Buy once. Cry once.” That principle holds true in choosing decoys, perhaps more than any other piece of waterfowling gear. The variables that affect duck decoy quality are durability, paint adhesion, rust prevention, anchor points, and serviceability.
Duck hunters are tough on their gear; really tough! Will your decoys handle getting tossed around a boat, stepped on, and shot up by your friends? Choose a decoy that can stand up to all the abuse you will throw at it.
There is nothing more frustrating than pulling a bright new decoy out of the plastic then watching the paint flake off after the first use. Many plastic decoys use that are chemically engineered to repel paint. They require a specific flame treatment for paint to be applied. Choose a decoy that has proven to hold paint well or is designed to be easily repainted every few years.
Rust prevention (saltwater users)
If you hunt open saltwater or brackish water like we do out on the coast of NC, you will want your decoys to last year after year in these harsh conditions. Rusty hardware or keel weights can quickly destroy a decoy from the inside out. Find a decoy with stainless steel components.
One of the most common failure points that send decoys to the trash bin is the point where the anchor line attaches to the decoy keel. This is a high stress area that is often the most thin and flimsy portion of a keel. Choose a decoy with a substantial anchor point that will stand up to constant tugging on the anchor line.
Every decoy, no matter how good it was when you purchased it, is going to require maintenance. Whether it be chipped paint, shot holes, or broken parts, even the best new duck decoys will eventually require repair. In the case of most plastic decoys your options are very limited. Patching shot holes has varied success because water will find a way through a hole no matter how well you patched it. If the anchor point breaks you could drill a new one, but that will change where the decoy pulls from, adversely affecting the ride quality. Certain decoys are designed with interchangeable parts that can be repaired or replaced. Foam or cork decoys don’t seem to mind being shot, and they can be repainted an infinite number of times to keep them looking new as you abuse them year after year.
2. Duck Decoy Performance
Contrary to popular belief, heavier decoys move more naturally in the water. They ride smooth and don’t wobble unnecessarily, but if you are walking in 2 miles to your public land spot a lighter decoy might work better for you. If you hunt from a boat and weight isn’t a problem, then consider a heavier decoy for a better ride.
Does your decoy self-right (flip itself over if tossed on its back)? Does it bob up and down wildly with every ripple? Look for a decoy that tracks naturally into current and doesn’t move erratically.
Both weight and ride quality factor in to the overall realism of the decoy. No matter how “real” a decoy is painted, it will never compete with a flock of natural ducks. Eye-catching size, natural movement, and a lack of sound is what matters when considering realism. Hollow plastic decoys tend to be quite loud when even small ripples of water slap against them.
3. Quality vs. Quantity
If you’re like most new waterfowlers, you are dealing with a limited budget. You will be tempted to grab any decoy financially available to you so you can acquire the most decoys in the shortest amount of time. During this period, you likely aren’t considering quality, but you should. Generally higher quality gear, of any kind, is going to cost more up front. In the case of decoys, however, this cost can be spread across years or even generations.
Whatever you decide, no number of decoys will ever be as effective as being where the ducks want to be. If you have found the “X” then the use of decoys really becomes a matter of getting ducks to finish in a more specific location where you can take a shot. In some cases, like open water diver hunting, it really can be a numbers game. This is a balance you must determine given your resources, but here is a plan you might use to accumulate numbers of decoys while gradually improving the quality of your decoy rig.
Decoy buying schedule
To keep the math simple, let’s say your goal is to acquire 100 decoys. Every year you buy 25 decoys (1/4 of your total goal). Of those 25 you buy 6 high quality decoys that you will never have to replace. At year 4 you have built your entire rig, and now one quarter of that rig is comprised of high-quality decoys. As your cheap decoys become unserviceable you gradually replace them with the higher quality decoys ok that’s that will last you the rest of your hunting career and will be something you can pass down to your kids and grandkids.
4. Confidence in your gear
Let’s be clear. There is no peer reviewed science to show that one type of decoy is better. All we have are historical use cases and anecdotes passed down from hunter to hunter. It comes down to what makes you the most comfortable. Being comfortable and confident with your gear means you will sit still, adjust your decoys less, and ultimately have a more enjoyable experience that is unclouded by doubt.
This is where you can account for those less tangible product attributes that affect your satisfaction. If, for example, having American Made products is important to you there are certainly options that can satisfy that requirement.
Steps to choosing your decoys
Now that you have prioritized your criteria its time to select the best decoys for you and your needs. Follow these two steps to pick the right waterfowl decoy for you.
Identify your hunting scenario
The first thing to think about is where and how you will be hunting. This is where you take in to account some of the performance factors like weight and ride quality. If you are trying to beat guys out to a hole 4 miles inside of a swamp, you might want a lighter decoy. If you are hunting open water where there is a little more chop you might want a heavier decoy to handle the water’s movement. Look at the gear of guys who have been doing this for a long time and ask them what they have learned in the area where you hunt.
Identify your target species
Most retailers will carry mallards because they are the most populous and most popular duck in North America, but in many cases, there might only be 3 mallards in the entire county where you hunt. Ask around and learn what folks are seeing when they hunt, but more importantly, get out there and scout for yourself. The cool thing about repainting foam decoys is you can change the species composition of your hunting rig by repainting what you already have. A mallard head will work for pintails, gadwall, black ducks, and many others (bufflehead). The Herters series of foam decoys (arguably the most widely effective decoy ever made) used the same mallard style head to cover everything from mallards to bufflehead, and they are still some of the most sought-after decoys today.
So now its time to get out there and do your research. Ask around to see what is working for others and adapt their gear choices to your unique circumstances and hunting situation. The most important thing to consider is not to feel pressured about what you “should” or “must” have. This sport is not about the gear, its about the experience. So get out there and enjoy the experience!