Decoy Toys

Decoys can help improve shooting for solo dove hunters or large groups, especially when used in combination with other wild-bird imitations, such as crows. And they can be made cheaply.

My first dove decoys were made of cardboard and inspired by a bird watcher.

A neighbor lady had placed cutouts from a bird magazine on tree limbs around her feeder to attract songbirds — and it worked. On the ground beneath her feeder, she also placed a photograph of a mourning dove, pasted to a cardboard backing.

When I saw the way doves preened and postured before the imposter, a light bulb went off in the predatory part of my 13-year-old mind.

While I wasn’t aware of commercial dove decoys 37 years ago, I made cutouts from shirt-package cardboard, painted them with more-or-less correct colors from a “Venus Paradise Paint by Numbers” set, then wired them to tree limbs or to sticks jabbed into the ground.

Voila. Instant doves.

In the fields surrounding my home, I was a lone dove hunter. The vast expanses of wheat, soybean and corn stubble held hardly a hunter, except for opening days and Saturdays during the season’s first segment. I quickly learned decoys, when set up in areas that doves like to rest and feed, led to good shooting, no matter whether other hunters were around to keep the birds moving.

Today’s dove hunter has a smorgasbord of options when it comes to dove decoys compared to my first barely artistic but wildly successful attempts. Open any outdoor-supply catalog, and you’ll see many styles of dove decoys available from big-name duck-decoy manufacturers.

One of the most satisfied users of dove decoys is Eddie Evans, a Wilmington building contractor. An expert dove hunter, he uses decoys with a high degree of success during all season segments, from the opening salvo on a sweltering Labor Day afternoon to the bitter end on a frosty January dawn. His latest “toy” is a rotating-wing decoy called a Mojo Dove.

“I bought a Mojo Dove a couple of seasons back, and I really like it,” Evans said. “I’ve only used it with a remote control a few times because it seems to work better than leaving the wings spinning constantly as with the basic model.

“I think doves get used to moving decoys, just like ducks get used to spinning-wing duck decoys — once they associate the rotating wings with shotguns going off.

“But it sure is effective early in the season. Being able to shut the rotation off seems to make it look more natural. You can turn the wings on when doves are in view, then shut them off once they notice the decoys.”

Evans sets his spinning-wing device in the center of a spread of several dozen stationary decoys. He experimented with several different types and has his preferences.

“I use 40 to 45 decoys,” Evans said. “The more decoys you set out, the farther away doves can see them.

“The spinning-wing decoy creates motion that draws attention to the spread. Doves see the decoys on the ground and land right among them. Sometimes a dove will hover right above a decoy like it’s going to breed it or land on it, just like ducks do when they’re really fooled.”

The spinning-wing decoy is placed on an aluminum stake that presents it about 3 feet above the ground. Evans also elevates some of his other decoys.

“I find a dead tree limb out in the open and use a fishing rod to cast a sinker across it, then remove the sinker, tie the decoy to the line, and haul it up,” Evans said. “Doves don’t know that a dove hanging beneath a tree limb isn’t natural, and they come to it. But the real draw is on the ground.

“Doves sometimes land on the limb, but more often try to land among the spread on the ground. I also have cut small trees, placed decoys in them and stuck the trees into the ground. Another thing I have used is an aluminum T-pole that is commercially made. It telescopes like a golf ball retriever and gets the decoys way up there.”

Some dove hunters cast fishing lines across utility wires and draw their decoys up to them. However, power companies consider the practice trespassing. The practice is not only dangerous by posing the risk of electrocution but leads to shooting at power lines and can result in a decoy line tangled around a power cable.

Many hunters have found the option of erecting their own “utility lines” is effective and safe. In fields with overhead lines, a dove will land on fake lines. The advantage is that permanent poles with wires strung between them can be erected anywhere the hunter has permission and can be constructed to a lower, easier-to-reach height than “live” wires.

Grass and brush allowed to grow or cut and placed around the bases of fake utility poles create hiding places for hunters just as those around real poles — except the hunter has more control.

“I use the soft-foam decoys,” Evans said. “They’re light, and you can carry lots of them, but I like the hard-plastic decoys better. They take up more space and are heavier but set up more quickly because they don’t have to be re-shaped. And they look more realistic.”

Evans uses decoys that come with hard plastic stakes that are poked into the soil. He also uses decoys that have clothespin clips on the bases.

“I use the clips to set decoys on pokeberry bushes and corn stalks,” Evans said. “But I set up most of them on the ground. The hard-plastic decoys don’t blow over in the wind, but sometimes one of the dogs will knock them over. I set them back up if there’s a lull in the shooting, but most of the time it doesn’t matter to the doves if one or two are knocked over.”

Evans hunts with his Brittany spaniels, Tess and Maggie. He uses natural brush and weeds to hide them, and sometimes erects a portable fabric blind with metal stakes.

“Since there’s a lot of white on my dogs, it’s important to hide them, especially after the opening few days when doves get wary,” Evans said. “But seeing them retrieve the doves is more important to me than the shooting. I like to see them work.”

Evans said during opening weekend, decoys give him an advantage because they draw confused doves — looking for safety after they have been shot at and missed by other hunters — to his position. Later in the season, he can hunt a huge field without any other hunters present to keep the birds stirred up because the decoys attract doves looking for a meal.

“Decoys work best if they’re set up in a natural flyway or where the doves are wanting to feed,” Evans said. “Once you hunt a field a few times, you learn where there is a gap in the trees, where there are some dead limbs they like to land on before entering the field. Dips and rises in the terrain can also become flyways. You just have to be observant to find them.”

If not enough hunters can cover a large field, they can take advantage of a single spread of decoys, Evans said.

“If you find a flyway, say along a hedge row or an overgrown ditch that creates a natural shooting boundary between hunters, you can shoot as many as four hunters over one spread of decoys,” Evans said. “As long as the decoys are set up along a flyway, they draw doves in so everyone can have some shooting. The hunters must be spread out enough to prevent a shooting danger to one another, and they have to be sure not to shoot any low birds.”

Decoys have the advantage of slowing birds that come by for a look even if they don’t land. They also lure in large flocks.

“I have had flock after flock of over 50 doves try to land in the decoys,” Evans said. “Big flocks can be really low when they come in and first fly back out. You have to be careful with your shooting. But decoys also give you the advantage of making the doves come to where you want them. They help you avoid shooting toward other hunters’ positions, buildings or roads.”

Wind is seldom a factor when picking a spot to set up decoys. However, when there is a really strong wind, doves tend to decoy facing into the wind just like waterfowl.

“The sun is more important than the wind when you chose your set-up location,” Evans said. “You don’t want the sun in your eyes when you are trying to hit a dove. With decoys, there’s really no excuse for having to shoot into the sun because you decide where you want the doves to come.”

Not only are decoys effective on harvested fields, they are also effective when placed on top of standing sunflowers, sprouts in clear-cuts, at the edges of water holes and in field roads where they eat grit to aid in digestion.

“Even in a standing field of corn, cotton or soybeans, placing decoys in a farm road running through the field will get you some shooting,” Evans said. “Having a dog along helps you retrieve the birds if they fall in the standing crops. But if you shoot well enough, you can drop many of your birds right in the road as they come to the decoys. You just need to pick your shots.”

To get his decoys to his hunting area, Evans uses a camouflage-pattern duck-decoy bag with shoulder straps. Compared to duck decoys with their heavy weights, dove decoys weigh nearly nothing. The heaviest part of the gear is the spinning-wing decoy and its battery pack, which might weigh as much as one decoy. A fabric blind also fits into the decoy bag, along with a fishing rod, extra water and snacks for the dogs and a spare box of shells. A lightweight folding stool or a bucket with a padded lid completes his gunning outfit. A sling for his shotgun also comes in handy at times.

Decoys of other species also will attract doves to a spread. Crow and wood pigeon decoys can be used in the same manner as herons and other large marsh birds are used to attract attention to duck decoys.

“Sometimes we use crow decoys,” said Scott Morgan, one of Evans’ hunting partners. “They can really be effective because they stand out against the stubble so doves can see them a long way. Since they eat the same thing as doves, doves are attracted to them. I always set crow decoys off to the side of the dove decoys.”

Morgan sets two or three crow decoys 10 to 20 yards from his dove decoys.

Morgan has only been using decoys for dove hunting for about three seasons. After he saw what Evans was doing with his spread, he was hooked, and his yellow Lab, Sugar, had more doves to retrieve.

“Eddie’s spinning-wing decoy was really drawing in the doves one day,” Morgan said. “Once I saw it work, I had to have one. Crow decoys help enhance the draw of the other decoys because doves believe crows are wary, as long as doves think anything like humans. Crows won’t land anywhere near a hunter, so crow decoys are effective as confidence decoys.

“In my own spread, I use a wood pigeon decoy, made by Sportplast of Italy. The decoy was a gift from a friend who went gunning in England. It has removable feet with an integral standing base and a combination hanging hook and ground spike that stores inside the body.

“While I painted the decoy’s white markings with dull gray primer to make the decoy resemble a dove decoy, it not only attracts doves, it also attracts barnyard pigeons.

“Farmers don’t care for barnyard pigeons; they make for great shooting; and they taste good as well — especially when mixed in with a dove casserole, stew or potpie.”