“When used as decoys on the shooting grounds, the birds are placed according to the habits of the birds on such grounds,” Bruette wrote. “Generally the ducks [hens] are tethered by a ring around the neck or a cord attached by a loop or preferably a rawhide device around the leg between the hock and ankle. The drakes are left loose to swim about freely. They will not leave the ducks [hens]. Sometimes they circle or make short flights in the air, and attract passing ducks.”
Long-time waterfowl hunter Ralph Kohler of Tekamah started hunting with his uncles on the Missouri River in the years when live decoys were still legal. He recalled they would use about 35 English call ducks. This, of course, was in the years before the Missouri was channelized and still laced with sprawling sandbars.
“The hens had a harness on 'em, with a strap, and you tied them,” Kohler recalled in a 1989 interview. “The drakes, you just turned them loose. They'd stay right there. They'd just swim around. You know on still days, when it was sunshiny, those drakes would kind of get in a ball, ball up and of course [with] the current on the river, you'd watch 'em, and pretty soon they'd be floating down and they'd be a nodding. Pretty soon they'd wake up and they'd be down there a hundred yards. And, boy, boom, back up they'd come [to the hens].”
[Advertisment on left: Leg and neck tethers sold by the Patent Decoy Duck Collar Co., Little Rock, Arkansas. ] Devices to tether live decoys were varied and widely advertised in sporting magazines and catalogs in the early-1900s. Basically they were of three types: those attached to the bird’s leg, those placed around the bird’s neck, and harnesses fitted over the bird’s body. Each type had advocates. Harnesses were said to be least apt to injure the live decoy but some hunters believed they restricted their movements, making them less effective at attracting passing wild birds.
Leg and neck rings were made of leather or cord with different designs that tightened when pulled against; and there were metal rings, some coated with rubber, that snapped around the birds’ leg or neck. Swivels were almost always used somewhere on the tether so the bird would not twist or knot the line and become tangled. As with the tether, anchor weights were often homemade of lead or concrete. Some writers recommended using as much as a pound of weight for each bird. Such archaic hunting impedimenta are now much in demand by collectors. Several years ago a lighthouse-shaped, cast iron live decoy anchor with six, fold-down prongs that when deployed would dig into the bottom of river or marsh, sold on eBay for $315. Similarly, a box of one dozen Patent Decoy Collar Company “collars or leg bands,” the type with a hard rubber over a wire and attached to a swivel, sold for $565. But as often as not, tethers were homemade. [Advertisement below: Bill Darton leather leg strap holder advertisement. Field and Stream, November 1925.]
“We made a [leather] harness for 'em,” Rudy Fick, who grew up hunting the Missouri River near Blair and was a state game warden in the late-1930s and early-1940s, recalled in a 1987 interview. “We had a little old iron ring [on the harness] and made a trot line, just like a trot line, with a lot of little snaps on it, that's the way I had mine, and iron stakes, you could drag one end and the other end would hold. I used to go up there all alone and set out 50 live decoys.”
On the Platte River, or the Missouri River of old, live decoys were staked out in shallow water far enough apart their tethers would not become entangled. Some hunters allowed their birds only two- or three-foot long cords, while others, probably those using fewer birds, allowed 12- to 15-foot cords, giving the birds enough line to paddle about and splash, attracting the attention of passing flocks of wild birds. Deploying live decoys in deeper waters was more complicated.
“In many waters, as has already been stated, it is desirable to provide the live decoys with a stool to rest on,” wrote George Bird Grinnell, in his 1901 classic wildfowling book, American Duck Shooting. “This consists of a long leg—sharp pointed, to be thrust down into the mud—supporting on the upper end a table six or eight inches in diameter, to which the duck may resort after it is tired of being in the water, and on which it can stand, cleanse its feathers and dry off. While a duck, if it is free, can rest on the water for a long time without inconvenience, one that is tethered is likely soon to get wet and chilled, and may become sick.” Grinnell recommended similar, but larger, stools for call geese. “As soon as the bird has been put out it begins to bathe,” he wrote, “and for a time is busily engaged in dunking, shaking itself and swimming about, so far as its strap will permit. After it tires of this, it is likely to swim up to the table, climb on it and stand there preening itself.”
[Advertisment to the left: Wm. E. Pratt call bird tether advertisement, Field and Stream, November 1928.] Providing roosting stools in a Sandhills marsh or Missouri River oxbow, where water depth and muck depth on the bottom varied, made the use of resting stools impractical. That, perhaps in part, is why live decoys were most often employed on shallow rivers like the Platte and Missouri. Obviously there are other explanations. Competition between hunters was probably not so keen in the Sandhills, and hunters there were able to secure all the ducks they wanted by jump-shooting or pass-shooting and so saw little need for decoys of any type, wooden or alive. Waterfowl hunters coming to the Sandhills lake country from elsewhere probably found the complications of transporting live decoys not worth the effort. That does not mean live decoys were never used in Sandhills lakes and marshes.
“In their 1982, self-published book, Meat in the Pot, Charles and Anoma Hoffmeister (Charles dictated most of the book’s content into a tape recorder and Anoma assembled it into book form), Charles told of using his call geese while hunting on Crescent Lake in the western Sandhills. Lakes in the western Sandhills are often alkaline, Crescent Lake being one of them, hence have shorelines with sparse or no shoreline vegetation and hard sandy bottoms rather than mucky bottoms as found elsewhere in the region. [Advertisment to the right:Patent Decoy duck collar advertisement. National Sportsmen, October 1930.]
“One tremendous flight of geese flies across my memory,” Charles recalled. He was hunting with Forrest Hunnel of Oshkosh who he had hunted with before along the North Platte River. “Forrest and I had been hunting on Crescent Lake a couple of days and saw a number of swan but few geese. It was the first year  we were limited to a 30 day season and 10 live decoys.
“Our set was out on a sandbar running about 300 yards into the lake on the southeast corner which necessitated carrying the live decoys out together with all our other equipment which became quite a chore. We made a hollow in the sand and put a waterproof canvas in to lie on. [W.A. Gibbs & Son leg holder advertisement. Field and Stream, October 1927]
“The third morning we were back early and the lake had rafts of geese on it that flew in continuously. I know we didn’t see less than 10,000 geese. Our 10 decoys out on the point seemed insignificant but we did get a few geese. [Advertisment to the right: W.A. Gibbs & Son leg holder advertisement. Field and Stream, October 1927]