Published Jun 16, 2022 11:00 AM
Ah, yes—duck decoys. If duck hunters were to have their own version of the Down the Rabbit Hole, it would somehow take the form of duck decoys. Most start with a dozen; maybe two. And then it builds from there. Mallards. Non-mallards. Oh, I have to have four or five dozen—minimum—divers. Silhouettes. A spinning wing or two. Or five. And for those field hunts, a couple dozen flocked full-bodies.
And so it goes from there, but it’s a good thing really, for a duck hunter without duck decoys is just another odd fellow who gets up stupid early on the coldest of mornings, dresses funny, and enjoys the company of dogs well above that of people. Something wrong with any of that, eh?
But duck decoys. There’s a lot of ’em out there, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Oh, they’ll all work—to an extent—but some fake decoys are simply destined to work better. To present a more natural illusion. To instill confidence in he or she who tossed them out in the morning, and retrieved them at the end of legal shooting time. The Field & Stream gear team is tackling what just might look right sitting atop the water in front of the old blind of yours, and what really are the best duck decoys you can buy.
Things to Consider Before Buying Duck Decoys
Absolutely, you can rush right out or open up the Internet if you’re prone to such activity and buy the first pretty plastic ducks you come across. But, are those what you really need for your brand of ’fowling? Are they realistic in appearance? Will they hold up to the rigors of day-to-day ducking? Is the paint going to flake off almost immediately? It’s relatively simple, though. Do a little homework, answer a few to-the-point questions, and you’ll be well on your way to filling that shop, floor to ceiling, with dozens upon dozens. Trust me.
Regardless of where you call home, mallard decoys are a safe bet, and will likely produce results. However, are mallards what you’re primarily hunting? Are they the most common duck in your neck of the woods? Maybe you need to think of a pack set—three or four different species of dabblers combined into one multi-species package. Or—what the hell—maybe a dozen mallards, and then a half dozen pintails, gadwall, widgeon, and green-wing teal. Make it look really real. And what about divers, the canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, goldeneyes, and buffleheads? Give it some thought—what are you going to hunt?
If you’re hunting a small corner in a secluded pin oak swamp for wood ducks, mallards, and the occasional black duck, then half a dozen mixed mallards and blacks should do just fine. If it’s Sandusky Bay bluebills on the menu…well, then, eight or 10 dozen—or more—drake ‘bills might be in order. Cornfield greenheads? Ah, now it’s time to dust off the silhouettes and the full-bodies. What you hunt and where you hunt those birds play a major role in what you buy and how many.
Weighted Keel vs. Water Keel
Most floating (floater) decoys today come with weighted keels; that is, the keel or bottom portion of the decoy is weighted, making the decoy self-righting when thrown. They’re nice, but they’re heavy. Water keels are hollow, and fill with water once they’ve landed, head-up. BUT, and it’s a big BUT, they don’t right themselves. Water keel decoys that land on their sides stay on their sides. Water keel decoys are light, though, and make an excellent decoy for the walk-in ‘fowler looking to cut down on weight.
On any given day, a dozen decoys will work … or 100 dozen won’t work. It all depends on the birds, the wind, the pressure, and more. That said, there’s nothing wrong with starting off with a dozen mallards and building from there. Think you enjoy this ’fowling gig? You can always add more decoys; it’s what we do.
Floaters vs. Full-Bodies vs. Silhouettes
Floater decoys are meant for use on the water. That’s where they shine. Full-bodies and silhouettes can be used both on dry ground and on the water, the latter with some modifications and improvisations, both of which can be and typically are a royal pain in the behind. So think: Are you going to hunt over a foot or more of water? Or are you going to hunt dry fields, with an occasional foray onto six inches of temporary sheet water, where full-bodies and/or silhouettes can easily be used?
And finally, there’s the price. Mallard decoys can range from a low of $5 apiece to upwards of $30 per duck. Buy the best your pocketbook will allow, but understand that a combination of realism, durability, and quality, all backed by service after the sale, isn’t cheap in this day and age. Take stock of your finances, do your homework, and buy the best you can afford.
Why it made the cut
When I opened the box and saw them for the first time, I said D..A..M..N! Yeah, they look that good.
- One-piece design
- Extremely rugged
- Excellent paint adhesion
- Slightly oversized
- Six (6) different body postures/positions
- Self-righting weighted keels
- Natural body positions
- True-to-life colors
- Strong anchor attachment points
- Might be a little on the pricey side for some wallets
It’s true. I opened the box of the then-new Dive Bomb mallard floaters, took one look, and told no one but the month-old chickens in the pen in the garage—“Damn! Those will work!”
In my humble opinion, duck decoys are all about two things—visual realism, and durability. First, I need the decoys to look like the real thing, and the Dive Bomb floaters certainly do have that covered. The paint’s right, shiny where it needs to shine and flat where it needs to be matte and dull. Head and bill positions. Body shapes and profiles. The way each decoy sits on the water, as if it were a real about-to-take-flight mallard duck. Now THAT’S how I want my decoys to look.
And tough, duck decoys need to be able to withstand abuse. Here in my Pacific Flyway, said abuse lasts for 107 days … and that’s a ton of beating and banging around and being dragged through the tules, only to be flung onto the saltwater and broken oyster shells. Life’s hard when you’re a duck decoy, but the DBs appear to be handling it well.
As for the price ($175/12), you can get a dozen mallards for $40, and you can find a dozen mallards pushing $200. High end of the ballpark for DB, but not out of the ballpark.
Best on a Budge
Why it made the cut
Fifty bucks at The Walmart, and you can kill ducks over them, I’m guessing, throughout the season.
- Weighted keel
- Good price point (if you shop around a bit)
- Life-size profile
- Six drakes/six hens per dozen
- Great starter/filler decoys
- Self-righting weighted keels
- Solid anchor points
- No serious depression if one breaks free and floats away
- They kinda look like the late Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooners”
- Only offered in one body posture
- All upright heads could create the appearance of “danger”
My very first duck decoys back in The Day, circa 1980, were old Flambeau decoys that I used for years and years. Finally, I repainted most, if not all, of them as drake bluebills, and they enjoyed another life as big water divers.
Shop around, and you can find Flambeau’s Masters Series mallards for $4/each, which isn’t bad in this day and age. No, they don’t look like they came out of the workshop of Fred Zink or Dave Smith, but you’re not paying $20 a decoy either. Paint scheme isn’t your cup o‘ tea? Search knutsondecoys.com or parkercoatings.com, buy some colors that suit you, and touch ’em up. You’ll still be money ahead.
Just getting started ’fowling and on a budget? Here’s some great starter decoys. Or filler decoys, if you’re looking to bulk up a smaller out-all-season spread. Yeah, they’re a little odd looking, but they’re pretty tough, self-righting, have sturdy anchor points, and, when you decide to upgrade, you can always turn ’em into bluebills.
Best Spinning Wing
Why it made the cut
Terry Denmon and the crew at MOJO Outdoors know spinning wing decoys, make a great product, AND stand behind their work 100 percent.
- Stable “no-wobble” design
- Less rattle/unnatural noise
- Magnetic wing attachment system
- Long-lasting 6V rechargeable lithium ion battery
- Bluetooth compatible remote
- Built-in remote allows quick on/off; great for duck/goose combo hunts
- Softer, more realistic “skin”
- Easy on/off via remote options
- Magnetic wing attachments have been a game-changer
- Quick recharge times
- Extremely realistic muted wing color scheme
- Some would say a little spendy at $200
- Still a lot of pack around, especially if you’re on-foot
- Electric decoys not allowed in all states, e.g. Washington
I’ll admit it. I’m not a fan of spinning wing decoys (SWD). Yes, I’m sure they can be effective at times; I’ve just not had that off-the-charts hunt I could attribute to a SWD. Maybe someday.
That said, MOJO’s King Mallard SWD is, as a friend says, all that and a bag of chips, too. Bluetooth remote, long-life 6V lithium ion battery, magnetic wing attachments – SCORE one for the home team there! – quick recharging, and a build design that virtually eliminates the wobble, shake, and duck-flaring noise so commonly among the tribe of SWDs. And while it’s tough to find an exact weight, a common denominator says roughly eight (8) pounds; not light, but not ridiculously heavy either.
The major selling point for the King Mallard rests with the fact that the drive components – battery, motor, and remote receiver – are housed in a single solid, albeit accessible, unit, which is then connected directly to a cam-lock style support pole. Translation? Stability, low shake, and low noise. The bottom line? Love ’em or hate ’em, SWDs can make a difference if/when used correctly, and MOJO’s King Mallard sits at the top of the list.
Best On-The-Water Motion
Why it made the cut
The XS Pulsator does what it’s meant to do: Move water and create motion in an otherwise static decoy spread. Plus, I like the name.
- 12V lithium ion battery
- Speedy 3-hour recharge time
- Built-in digital operation timer
- Seven (7) hour run time
- All internal components
- Shallow (6”) water compatible
- Simple rugged design – Ease of operation
- Weighs less than 3 pounds
- Lifelike body posture and paint scheme
- Excellent water movement
- Anything involving batteries and a motor can prove troublesome
- Electronics prohibited in many western states
Again, I’m not big on electronic duck decoys – What I call “tub toys” – but I’m sure many say they have their place in the spread. And if your intent is realistic on-the-water motion without the, what some might call, inconvenience of pulling on a jerk cord string, then Higdon’s XS Pulsator might just be what you’re looking for.
The 750 gallon-per-hour bilge pump at the heart of the Pulsator is powered by a 12V lithium ion battery, which, says Higdon, will provide up to seven hours of service, and, what’s better, will recharge in 180 minutes. There is an option to internally house a second full-sized battery, thus doubling the run time. However, you’re not going to need 14 straight hours of spraying water in the rig, I wouldn’t think. Nice to know, though.
At 44 ounces, the XS Pulsator is reasonably light, making it a possibility for the mobile ’fowler. And it undoubtedly works as intended, if not just a bit unnaturally, what with the fountain of water and all. Still, the Pulsator does muddle up the surface, making it look like an avian free-for-all. And that, typically, isn’t a bad thing.
Best Jerk Cord Rig
Why it made the cut
It’s simple. It’s inexpensive. It requires NO batteries. And it flat works.
- Lightweight at roughly 2.5 pounds, including anchor
- Strong #550 Paracord
- String winder and drawstring bag included
- Pre-positioned/tied swivels for attaching decoys
- Can be used in a wide variety of water depths
- No moving parts
- Quick in-the-field fix (should) anything break
- Accommodates one to four decoys easily
- Easy transport
- Fits in most blind bags
- Legal everywhere ducks live
So, here’s why, and at the risk of repeating myself, I’m a HUGE fan of jerk cords. They’re simple. They’re inexpensive; in fact, they make quite an easy and even less expensive DIY project. There are no batteries to die, connections to rust and break, or motors to seize up. And – Ready? – they work incredibly well for putting ripples and waves, i.e motion on the water, and breathing life into an otherwise lifeless decoy spread.
Matthew and Heather Cagle, the folks behind Rig ‘Em Right (RMR), are fantastic people, who make great ‘fowling products and then are right there should something go amiss. Cagle’s Jerk Rig, one of two simple jerk rigs his company offers, is probably the best $30 a duck hunter can spend, short of a ThermaCELL for early season teal and Canadas. The unit includes everything—1.5 pound folding (!!) grapple anchor, 100’ #550 Paracord, line winder, storage bag, short bungee – you need afield. Throw it out, set a spread around it, and you’re in the catbird seat.
The RMR Jerk Rig comes factory with four snap swivels to attach four decoys; too many IMHO. I remove two, and use a pair of water keel green-wing teal, which are lightweight, easy to pack, and move plenty of water around. What’s nice is I can use the jerk cord rigged with these smaller decoys in four to five inches of sheet water with no problem.
Why it made the cut
Dive Bomb (DB) silhouettes are lightweight, extremely realistic, inexpensive, and effective. Can’t ask for more out of a decoy.
- Constructed of tough corrugated plastic material – Think political signs!
- Powder coated steel stakes
- High resolution true-to-life photo imagery
- Four pounds per dozen
- Textured finish
- Light weight allows ‘fowlers to carry dozens into the field
- Can be used in uber-shallow water where floaters won’t … float
- Lightning quick set up and retrieval
- Box style stake top makes for easy pick up
- Mobile hunters can carry a figurative TON of decoys; huge spreads possible
- Dry field or shallow water use only limits application
- Psychological aspect involved with two-dimensional spreads
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Dive Bomb has become a household name among modern waterfowl hunters, especially the field goose hunters who have flat gone ga-ga over these ‘new’ silhouette decoys. Silhouettes are anything but new, having been in use for decades; however, ’fowlers are now discovering – Rediscovering? – the effectiveness of flats/skinnies on ducks. And that’s where DB M1 mallard silhouettes come into their own.
Like all DB silhouettes, the M1 Mallards look great. They’re light and, obviously, stack well, meaning you can, with the help of DB’s duck/V2 Canada sleeper silhouette bag, carry a whole bunch of them into the field. Myself, I’m using the M1s to beef up shallow (4” – 6”) water floater spreads in green fields, or more often, in tidal marshes at low slack when it’s impossible to run keeled floaters. Oh, and the square handle (box style) stake. Love it (!), as it makes picking up said bunch of flats stupid quick and easy.
Is there a downside to silhouettes? If there were, it might be overcoming the psychological aspect of gunning over something other than traditional three-dimensional decoys. Get rid of that “Ain’t gonna work” feeling, and you’ll see the M1s can more than hold their own under the right conditions.
Best non-mallard floater decoy
Why it made the cut
You want soft-to-the-touch realism from a decoy without breaking the bank? That’s Greenhead Gear’s Fully-Flocked (FFD) Gadwalls.
- Electro-static flocking stays where it should…on the decoy
- Decent price point ($99 per 6)
- Variety of natural body postures and positions
- Swivel head drakes
- Exceptional feather detail; no glare, even in harsh sunlight
- Gadwalls (non-mallards) present something different to pressured birds
- Visually accurate representation of grey ducks at rest
- Keel features ‘short tie’ keeper notch on leading edge
- Dependable anchor point
- Swivel style heads on drakes can separate unintentionally
- Currently tough to find in stock
- Flocking does require a bit more care/maintenance/handling
I was, I’ll be honest, skeptical about the visual benefits, per se, of fully flocked (FFD) duck decoys; however, upon seeing Greenhead Gear’s FFD gadwall—well, let’s just say I became a believer, and that to the point where today I’m setting FFD mallard floaters, full-body mallards (drake heads only), and pintails in my day-to-day spread.
So, first, the downside. Flocked decoys, especially completely flocked decoys, require some additional care above and beyond that given all-plastic blocks. Keep ’em clean—cold clear water, NO SOAP, and a bristle brush works—and show ’em a little care afield, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Other than that, they’re great. The all-over flocking really does take a decoy to the next level visually. Sure, it may be to ‘hook’ me, the fisherman, but if that’s it, I’m sold. And I like gadwalls. I like the way they sound. I like the way they work a spread, when they work a spread. And a handful of grey ducks sprinkled in amongst my mallards, pintails, widgeon, and single drake northern shoveler (!!) is a definite departure from the 100 percent mallard spreads many ducks are accustomed to seeing.
Best diver decoy
Why it made the cut
Diver decoys need to be tough and highly visible. Tanglefree’s Flight Canvasback are all that, and more.
- Foam-filled decoys
- Self-righting weight keels
- Brilliant colors
- 2-to-1 drake-to-hen ratio
- Natural body postures
- High relief feather detail
- Large size offers improved long-distance visibility on big water
- Foam filling provides pellet protection
- Six-pack includes more drakes (4) than hens (2)
- Sleeper and rester postures lend realism
- Price tag ($170/dozen) might seem a tad high to some
- Heavy, but the majority are transported by boat, so…
The year was 1972, and a little California-based father/son company had just bounced onto the ’fowling radar with a single product – a no-tangle…Tanglefree!…decoy line and a lead anchor system that would, like Kleenex for any tissue and Xerox for any copy machine, serve as THE name for decoy cord, regardless of who made it, for decades to come. Today, Cory Foskett and the folks at Tanglefree still make that line, along with a lengthy list of other ’fowling products, including decoys.
Where Foskett and Tanglefree excel, perhaps, is in the diver realm; that is, with their canvasbacks, redheads, and bluebills. How tough? Think M1A1 Abrams tank tough, and you’re starting to appreciate Tanglefree’s divers. Foam-filled, these divers can – and often do – take a pounding. Perfectly positioned weighted keels ensure a smooth natural ride, even in rough water, while what I’ll call the ‘high-vis’ colors on the drakes truly POP against the oft-dark surface conditions. Rig ’em individual, or on 40” droppers for long-lines; either way, these are the cat’s meow.
How I Made My Picks
Let me put it this way. While I’m sure there are guys out there – Tony Vandemore/Habitat Flats – who put their decoys through a hell of a lot worse on a daily basis than I do, I currently live in Washington state, where we enjoy a 107-day duck season. And of those 107 days, I’ll hunt three-quarters of them. Hard.
I take care of my gear – I really do – but I don’t baby it. My decoys get banged up on everything imaginable. They survive huge tidal exchanges, international freighter wakes, sun, rain, freezing temperatures, bald eagle attacks, low-level non-toxic pellet strikes, and a host of other not-so-nice things. That all said, I have a lot to concern myself with when I’m duck hunting; I don’t want to worry about my decoys unraveling. So these are the elements I took into consideration when I put the above list together –
Native American ’fowlers fooled ducks with oblong-shaped blobs of mud with a forked stick resembling a duck’s head ‘n neck. I don’t want my decoys to look like blobs of mud. I want them to look as real as possible. The right colors. The right mix of iridescence and matte finish. I want a variety of body postures per dozen. Size. Shape. Silhouette on the water. Bottom line – I want them to look like ducks. Real, live ducks.
This isn’t fine china. These are hunks of plastic that are going to be abused. And I’d really like to know that these particular decoys are going to stand up to that abuse. Paint won’t erode. Keels won’t break off. They won’t crack or immediately fade. They won’t become brittle when the bottom falls out of the thermometer. Anchor attachment points won’t rip out. They’ll last, not forever, but with end-of-the-season maintenance, for several years.
I hate – No, I abhor – feeble means of anchoring a decoy to the bottom. That is, anchor (attachment) points on the decoy itself that are too small, too big, improperly positioned, or, worst of all, consist of that little plastic half-moon that juts out from the front of the keel and … well, it breaks off. Not immediately, but at some truly inopportune time during, maybe, a full-out gale. Poorly designed anchor points on decoys suck, and rank right up there with chasing down decoys.
Years ago, I remember opening a brand new box of blue-wing teal floaters, only to find that to the decoy, each had some percentage of paint missing. Oh, it was there…in the bottom of the shipping box. Paint adhesion, or how well the paint sticks to the plastic used to make the decoy, is a HUGE deal. Any manufacturer worth his/her salt will make a point of explaining just how well the paint sticks to their decoys, and why it does that. Face value, in part, but it never hurts to – again – do your homework.
Durability (Abuse Rating)
The overall quality of a duck decoy is the combination of several factors, one of which is durability, or as I like to call it, a decoy’s abuse rating. Decoys are meant to be used, and quite often that use isn’t pretty. It’s muddy. It’s rocky. It’s bottom of the boat beating around. Some can take it; some can’t, but it’s definitely worth a close eyeball.
Cliché? Probably. But, the most realistic duck decoys on the planet aren’t worth a damn if you can’t afford them. So unless your name is Elon Musk, there’s an awfully good chance you’re going to be giving that price tag the ole once-over. That’s what I did here, and gave a ‘heads up’ if and when sticker shock seemed likely; still, price is all relative in this age of $1,100 chest waders and $13/bullet shotshells. Get what you can afford.
Q – How much should a dozen duck decoys cost?
If you find a new-in-box dozen mallards that look good – not fantastic, but good – for $40, you should be reaching for your wallet, I reckon. More realistic is a price tag per dozen mallards of – ballpark – $100. Though as low as $80 and as high as $150 is common. Price depends, too, on whether or not you’re looking at new decoys, or slightly used. Garage sale mallards may cost $2 each, a call-your-buddies bargain, especially if they’re in a condition where they can be immediately used. The moral of this story is – Shopping around never hurts.
Q – Are six duck decoys enough to be successful?
Six decoys CAN be enough, if you’re on a little body of water where the ducks want to be. Given this scenario, two decoys may be plenty. How many decoys you’re going to use depends on different things. Puddle ducks, e.g. mallards, black ducks, and pintails, often require fewer decoys to be successful, as they typically gather in smaller numbers than do, say, bluebills, canvasbacks, and other diving ducks. Here, decoys numbers equal what you’re hunting, and where. Rule of thumb.
Q – What should I look for in a ‘good’ duck decoy?
This one’s simple – Does it look like a duck? Is the body shape right? Is it in a natural relaxed posture? Is it the right size? Colors? Give it a whack. Does it appear rugged and durable? Can you easily and securely attach an anchor line clip to the keel? Is the keel rigid, or does it flex, meaning it might be relatively short-lived and a trouble spot? And once again, does it look…yep…like a real duck?
There are a lot of companies producing duck decoys nowadays. Most of them are good. Some are exceptional, while others are okay. Most of these decoys will, on any given day, fool a mallard or two, but there’s a hell of a lot more to consistently decoying ducks than merely buying a dozen Brand ‘X’ mallards and tossing ’em out willy-nilly. Decoys – the physical decoys themselves – are just the beginning. A part of the puzzle.
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