Maintaining and Repairing Decoys

At the close of each season, hunters are left with the task of maintaining and repairing decoys. No matter how particular and cautious we are with our hunting equipment, the demands of waterfowling will take its toll on your gear. Now that turkey season has ended and next season is still a few months away, there are many ways to be productive in the off-season, and it is time to pull out all of your equipment and get everything ready for the upcoming hunting season. This is especially important for effectiveness and longevity of your decoys.

We’ve all had days when our worn-out, dirty, or damaged decoys took what should have been a great waterfowling day and turned it into a lost cause. Besides, if you want ducks and geese to cup their wings and drop into your decoys, they need to believe your decoys are live ducks. However, if your decoys are dirty, sinking, or have chipped or missing paint jobs, they certainly will not appear very convincing. Fortunately for hunters, repairing and maintaining decoys are simple tasks and much cheaper than replacing them. This is also a great way to spend those summer days, when it is too hot to do anything else.

Cleaning

If you watch live ducks, you never see a dirty bird. Waterfowl are meticulous about keeping their feathers clean, and they can quickly pick out any dirty fakes. We have all had birds lock-up on our spread just to pull away at the last minute. After a quick survey of your decoys, the only obvious culprit is a glob of mud stuck to the back of one of your imitators. To fully inspect and gauge the condition of your decoys, they need to be thoroughly cleaned. You cannot judge the paint or locate and repair holes, if your decoys are covered in dried mud and muck. To complete this task, all you need is clean water and a scrub brush. Carefully scrub away any dirt, vegetation, or other grime that tends to build up throughout the course of the hunting season. Using soap should be avoided, but if you have no other choice, diluted dishwashing liquid is as strong as you should use. Most detergents contain UV brighteners that will leave your decoys looking like bogus attempts at imitating real birds. However, the colorful portions of decoys, such as the head of a mallard drake, can benefit from a light coating of Armor All.

Repairing Damage

Every waterfowl hunter has had stray steel shot hit a decoy or two. If you are unlucky, you have that one hunting buddy that seems to always be able to shoot your decoys, no matter how impossible the shots might appear. Now is the time to fix any waterlogged blocks. Once your decoys have been cleaned, it is time to locate and repair any unfortunate holes or cracks from the previous season. A quick scan of the decoy will reveal any obvious signs of damage, and a quick shake of the decoy will tell you if there is any trapped water or any loose steel shot rattling around inside. If there is water inside, you can squeeze the decoy and look for water seeping out. To locate any not so obvious holes or cracks, completely submerged the decoy under water, squeeze the body, and watch for escaping air bubbles. Make sure to carefully inspect keel areas and seams for hidden cracks or separations, as well.

To begin draining any trapped water and repair any steel shot holes, drill out the pellet holes with a 1/8 inch drill bit, along with a drain hole drilled in the tail of the decoy. Next, hang up the decoy with the tail pointing down. This will allow the water to drain out. After the water has drained, high quality hot glue or clear silicone works great for filling the drilled holes. For a cracked decoy, epoxy works great. For the best results, lightly scuff the area with sandpaper to give the epoxy more bite to adhere and strengthen its bond. Once you have repaired any holes or cracks, you need to test your decoys. You need to find out before you use them, if you have successfully repaired them or if they still leak. If you still find leaks, repeat the previous steps until they are all repaired.

Painting

Live ducks and geese have bright, sharply colored feathers, and your decoys should reflect this same coloration. Dull, chipped, or missing decoy paint can quickly turn away any approaching waterfowl. Sure an all black decoy will draw in birds, but a detailed paint job can offer the final push to convince those pressured and leery birds. If your hunting areas are like mine, the number of hunters are far greater than the number of waterfowl. In these areas, I want all of the advantages I can get.

For a complete repaint, begin buy lightly scuffing the decoy with a wire brush and fine sandpaper to remove any loose or chipping paint. Next, you need to degrease and clean the decoy with a good plastic cleaner, such as 3M Automotive Plastic Cleaner. From here, you need to cover the decoy in a full coat of primer designed for plastics, such as Krylon Fusion. To finish out the paint job, you can add the details by using various colors of flat acrylic paints formulated for outdoor use. For a simple touch-up, the same flat acrylic paints can be used, but decoy specific paint kits are available from suppliers, like Mack’s Prairie Wings and Cabelas.

Flocking

For the ultimate in realism, you can flock key parts or an entire decoy. Flocking reduces glare and adds depth to the color scheme of a decoy. It is used in a wide range of industries, including model train landscapes, and kits are available from a number of companies, with some assembled specifically for decoys. Flocking is a simple process. You clean the decoy, apply the adhesive only to the areas you want to cover, and then dust the flocking media onto the wet adhesive. Once everything dries, the decoy is ready to use. Flocking has its advantages, but it has disadvantages too. Its added realism can help convince pressured, leery birds, but it can be easily knocked off, if you are hard on your decoys. You have to handle flocked decoys with a more gentle hand. If you simply toss them in a decoy bag or into the bottom of a boat, you are going to damage the flocking.

Rigging

Once your decoys have been cleaned, repaired, and repainted, it is time to inspect, repair, or replace the rigging. This may seem silly to some, but I am not a fan of watching expensive decoys float away because of damaged or lost rigging. Hunting waterfowl can leave your decoys with missing anchors, tangled or frayed lines, or no rigging at all.

For Texas Rigs and other similar set-ups, line crimps are cheap and easy to apply. If a crimp looks questionable, replace it. The same goes for a frayed, nicked, or worn line. For heavy monofilament Texas Rig lines, fraying is not much of an issue, but if you are hunting rocky or oyster-covered areas, nicks and wear can be disastrous to these rigs.

For those that use braided or twisted decoy cord, fraying is a bigger issue, but this is easily remedied by replacing the inexpensive cord or by using a high quality, tarred decoy cord. With corded rigging, you need to inspect every knot and retie any that show wear.

Do not forget to check your anchors. Egg sinkers are fairly resilient and do not require much maintenance. Strap weights can be easily cracked or broken. You need to replace any that are damaged. Other styles of anchors, like pyramid or no-roll anchors, offer similar durability as egg sinkers and typically do not require much maintenance.

Storage

After you have finished inspecting, maintaining, and repairing your decoys, you do not want all of your hard work to be pointless. Storing your decoys properly will protect their paint and prolong their usefulness. Proper decoy storage and avoiding temperature extremes will prevent warping and brittleness. They need to be stored in a secure and dry location. This will prevent the growth of mold and mildew, which negates your efforts to clean and repaint your decoys. They also need to be stored in a manner that will prevent them from becoming deformed. Simply throwing your decoys in a pile will cause them to become misshaped. To prevent his, you can store them in single layers on shelves, or you can hang them up by their rigging. Either technique will help prolong their usefulness.

If you devote a couple of hours to maintaining and repairing decoys, you will be ready for action when season arrives. You do not want opening day to be full of decoy problems. Also, maintaining and repairing decoys is a lot cheaper than replacing them. Not to mention, it is a productive way to pass the time, while you are counting down the days until you are in the field again.

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