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How to Carve a Hunting Decoy
By Willy McDonald

The Hunting Decoy - Part 1

Years ago, our Waterfowl hunting forefathers were faced with the same pre-season preparations that modern day hunters are faced with today, namely, making sure that all the tools and equipment needed for successful waterfowl are in good working order. Duck blinds were built, boats and motors (if they had one) were checked, shotguns were fired to test the best shell, dogs were tuned up on retrieving skills, and decoys were repaired, repainted, or purchased.

Needless to say the tools used for waterfowling have seen vast improvements over the years, and, for the most part, the changes have been for the best. I must admit that I would rather motor the three miles to my favorite hunting spot as opposed to pulling on the oars that distance. Many of the tradition bearers in waterfowling thought nothing of rowing three times that far and back again at the end of the day. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking, consider that they probably had a heavy wooden boat loaded with wooden decoys, a dog, guns, a hunting partner and a variety of hunting equipment. I wonder how they would react to a 16-foot aluminum boat with a 65 horsepower motor, a lightweight collapsible duck blind complete with dog ramp, and a rig of 6 dozen magnum plastic decoys.

I suspect the old-time waterfowler would be impressed with all of the modern equipment until it came time to put out the decoys. For the most part, modern day production decoys all look the same. They are molded with the same straight-ahead look. The old timers learned a long time ago that the decoy was probably the most important communication link between them and the waterfowl in the sky. Therefore, a decoy had to do more than portray a species likeness. It had to represent attitude as well. By setting out decoys displaying various attitudes, a hunters rig could depict a sociable place for food and rest. The duck call was great as an attention-getter, but the decoy spread was the better tool to give incoming birds the confidence to land.

A few years ago, I had occasion to hunt over a set of Ken Krum mallard decoys. Krum who turned 85 years young this summer, was a 1995 Michigan Heritage Award winner as a tradition bearer in decoy carving. I questioned Krum about the fact that no two decoys in his set looked alike. He said it was his observation that feeding Mallards display various attitudes ranging from quiet to aggressive. His goal was to duplicate the flock.

The advantage of a hand- carved rig of decoys becomes obvious at this point. What is not obvious is the qualifications of a good hunting decoy. Fortunately for the waterfowling and carving world, many examples of the true hunting decoy are available today as historical markers and teaching aids. It is important to note that decoys of the past were carved for the hunt, not for the judge of a decoy contest. The blue ribbon awarded in days past was a "bird in the hand" and then on the table.

Let's examine some of the characteristics that make up a good hunting decoy. First and foremost, the decoy must represent the species being hunted. I call it duplicating the field identification of the bird. This incorporates shape, coloration and attitude. At this point, we have to add durability to the decoy design, and then make sure the whole thing floats properly. While floating, the decoy must have the ability to self-right, point into the wind, and have the facility for attachment to the anchor line. A functional keel needs to be added. The final category for a good hunting decoy is simplicity in form and paint. This simplicity allows for easy duplication and repair.

Duplicating the field ID combines several aspects of the live bird. Achieving proper shape is always a major goal and plays an important in species portrayal, especially if certain anatomical areas are accentuated. Mergansers, Ringnecks, Woodducks and Canvasbacks are good candidates for exaggeration. Cartooning various attitudes common to the species also brings life to the set and eliminates the straight-ahead cloned look that is prominent in production decoys.

As important as the aspects are to the decoy, coloration is still the dominant drawing card for a good working decoy. For instance, exaggeration of white areas in a decoys color scheme is especially effective in attracting flying birds. In coming birds are looking for there own kind, and must make a land or not land decision quickly. Coloration is the determining factor that sets the wings. It is important to add that decoying birds do not have the time to assess detail. When it comes to hunting, elaborate probably do not have an advantage over simple decoys. However, if you have the time and expertise to make them fancy, so be it. Your hunting partners will be impressed, but I doubt they will be able to help you repaint the decoys when the time comes.

Durability and flotation go hand in hand, and in most instances are connected to the wood or material being used for construction. For example, decoys carved out of cedar are resistant to moisture decay but are often very heavy. Many carvers solve the weight problem by hollowing the decoy, but are then faced with a new problem of having the decoy sink if it crack or is accidentally shot. Wooden decoys that are hollow are also very sensitive to temperature extremes. These problems suggest that other mediums should be considered for working decoys. After all, the decoy must stand up to the rigors of everyday hunting. I will be dealing with all aspects of construction, painting, durability, keel design and floatation of a hunting decoy in a forthcoming carving demonstration, which will appear in the spring 1999 issue of Wildfowl carving.

The "true" hunting decoy is our carving heritage. We would not have the shows, competitions, collections and museums if it were not for the hand-carved hunting decoy. As long as there is hunting, the special feeling of pride and accomplishment will always be there for the waterfowler that carves and hunts over his or her own carved decoys. A hunting decoy success is ultimately judged by the live bird. The decoy that is hunted over creates history for itself, memories for its creator, and a legacy for both. The waterfowling tradition goes on.

Winter 1999 Wildfowl Carving Magazine

Part TwoPart Three  | Part Four

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