Wildfowling magazine - wildfowling waterfowling duck hunting goose shooting
Decoy Tune-ups 101
by Fred Jagow

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Well, for most of us the wildfowling season has ended. Our shotguns have been cleaned and put away, our gear has been checked and stowed, and our decoys placed in their sacks and shoved into the back of the shed or garage somewhere.

As waterfowlers, we now have a lot of "down time" until the next season starts. Some of us look forward to other pursuits, such as hunting predators, rabbits, or wood pigeon, or getting ready for fishing season. But for the serious wildfowler, it is a long time between seasons.
If your like me, you probably try and find waterfowl associated tasks to do during the off season: carving decoys, training the new lab puppy, practicing calling, trap or sporting clays shooting, reloading steel or bismuth shotshells.....all help to keep us "in-touch" with our hobby when we can't actively participate.

We also mend and replace our gear in the off season. Boots and waders are patched, hides made, coats are checked for ripped zippers and loose buttons, and leaky boats are mended. Yet through all this, the one item of a waterfowler's kit that seems to be neglected the most (and is probably one of the most important) are his decoys. They are generally thrown in the corner somewhere and forgotten until a week or two before the new season begins. Over the years I have seen some decoy spreads that looked absolutely HORRIBLE! Chipped paint, no paint, poor repainting jobs that used the wrong colors or glossy paints, "submarine" ducks that were half submerged after an hour or two on the water, decoys that listed badly to one side, decoys that were in big "blobs" because the decoy lines were all tangled....the list goes on and on. Now is the time to take care of these problems and get your decoy spread in order.

Properly caring for one's decoy spread need not be a costly endeavor in either time or money. As a matter of fact, by properly caring for your decoys you can make them last longer and save yourself a few pounds; money that can be spent elsewhere on shotshells, new clothing, or a dram or two after the hunt.

The most common problem with older decoys is that the paint jobs, over time, usually wear away to nothing. This is not a difficult problem to fix, but there are a few things that one needs to remember. The first is that only flat paints should be used in repainting decoys. The best paints that I have found for this chore are the enamel paints used by military modelers. The same flat gray, green, and brown used to paint a model tank or airplane work just as well on decoys. The first step in repainting decoys is to make sure that they are free of dirt, chipped paint, and other debris. You can get a bucket of sudsy water and a scrub brush and do this, but an easier and more thorough way is to get an old dog cage and a power washer. Place the decoys in the dog cage and give them a good hosing with the power washer, then set them aside to dry. Once dry, you are ready for step two, which is to give the bare plastic areas a good coating of primer.

For light "touch up" work a small brush can be utilized. For larger jobs, an aerosol can of spray paint can be used, as can a modeler's airbrush. The airbrush costs around $20 and can paint the decoys with a nice, thin, even coat of a primary color, and maximize the amount of paint you bought. After you have coated the decoy with it's basic color, you can then dry brush the feathering details in. Dry brushing is the process of taking just a small amount of paint on the tips of the bristles and brushing it on the decoy lightly. I usually dab a small amount of paint on the tip of the brush, dab it on a dry surface a couple of times, then paint he decoy. This technique is not difficult to master, although it does take a little bit of practice and patience. If the feathers are molded into the plastic, so much the better. Simply drag the brush across the highlighted feathers....the paint will stick to the raised areas and you are essentially done!

Matching colors for species usually isn't that difficult if you have a decent selection to choose from. Being a shade or two off doesn't matter too much. Sometimes you might have to mix a little black or white with your primary color to get the right shade that you need; remember: it takes just a wee bit of black or white paint to change a shade.

I mentioned that one should use nothing but flat paints when painting decoys. There is one exception to this rule....the eyes. A dab of gloss black on a mallard decoy's eyes help bring it to life and make it look more realistic.

Another problem with decoys is are holes caused by errant shotgun pellets. This usually happens due to low flying birds or cripples swimming away through the decoys. If the pellets penetrate below the water line, the decoy does an imitation of a U-boat! Hunt wildfowl long enough, and you will end up with a few decoys that rattle. Sometimes water finds it's way into the decoy and freezes when the decoy is on it's side. Then when the decoy is place in the marsh, it lists badly to one side.

Finding holes in decoys is relatively easy. Simply place the decoy in a tub of water and squeeze it gently. Air will come out the holes, and a stream of bubbles is the give away. Remove the decoy from the tub, dry it off, and mark the spot of the leak with a felt tip marker.

There are a few ways to mend these holes. The first is to simply heat the end of a small screwdriver and when it is sufficiently hot, place it on the hole and gently press for a few seconds. This will melt the plastic around the hole and seal it. This method is usually best with small holes. For bigger holes, another method is to squeeze the decoy slightly to express some air, and then take and place a small drop of waterproof glue or seam sealer (calk) over the hole. Once the material is on the hole, release the tension on the decoy and the movement of air into the body of the decoy will draw some of the material in as well. When it dries, the hole will be sealed. Simply sand off any excess and paint with the proper color.

Finally, another method that is good is the "expandable foam" method. This one is a little more costly, but it is more permanent and will give you a decoy that is probably better than the original you bought. To do it, you need to get one of those aerosol cans of spray foam insulation; the kind that are used for inserting insulation into the walls of your house with a small tube. They are usually available at home improvement shops and hardware stores. Simply drill two small holes in the decoy, one in the head and one in the bottom. Insert the tube into the bottom of the decoy and fill it until you see foam come out the hole in the head. Let the foam harden and then cut or sand away the excess and touch up these areas with a little paint. In addition to fixing any pellet holes, this method is also good to use for decoys that are made of a stiffer, brittle plastic that cracks under stress. It will help stabilize the crack and make the decoy buoyant. In addition, all decoys treated with this method are now "shot proof", as the foam insulating material takes the place of the air inside the decoy. Now it won't sink like the Titanic if hit by a few stray pellets when that low flying group of teal buzzes your spread.

This is also a good time to check your decoy lines as well. Make sure that the knots connecting the anchors and decoy to the line are secure. Even man made products, like tangle-free, are susceptible to breaking where bends and knots are concerned, and should be checked carefully and replaced as necessary. There is nothing more heart breaking than to spend time painting and repairing decoys, only to watch one or two drift out with the tide or swim away with the current due to a faulty anchor line.

I bought my first dozen decoys in 1978 for $1 each at a local department store. Twenty five years later, I am still hunting with 10 of those original 12 decoys. They have seen many repainting jobs over the years, and a couple rattle with some stray pellets. Seeing as how it would cost me $6 apiece to replace those decoys today, I think I have saved a tide sum of money by keeping them maintained over the years. Besides that, those 10 decoys are starting to seem like old hunting buddies!

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