Deception: A cruel word for many aspects of life, but one more fondly looked upon when researching the history of waterfowl hunting. To achieve deception, early hunters crafted lures or fakes that would ultimately deceive passing waterfowl into believing that a floating raft of statues was in fact friend rather than foe. In the beginning these decoys were simplistic, hand-woven floating imitations that to the modern eye resemble something seen at a craft bazaar rather than in the duck blind. Since then, decoys have transitioned from woven reeds to hand-rasped wood, then to lathe-turned wood, and now into injection-molded replicas that can fool even the keenest eye. While this transition has taken more than a hundred years, decoys are certainly the singular key component to the revolutionizing of modern waterfowl hunting.
At the roots of waterfowl hunting, the need for decoys was clear. Without blackpowder weaponry, Native American hunters learned that using decoys to bring birds into range often made their efforts more successful. By using their natural abilities to turn grasses and reeds into lifelike fakes, now, instead of attempting to stalk into birds that would often spook before a reasonable opportunity, ducks could be lured into range for their bows, hands or nets. This allowed for better success and made hunting ducks a more plausible means to gather food that wasn’t available otherwise.
After the colonization of America, the popularity of duck hunting continued to grow. Following the lead of Native American hunters, new settlers with wood-crafting abilities began making lifelike wooden decoys complete with artistic species-specific paint patterns. These decoys quickly became a hot commodity to the wealthiest of hunters that couldn’t be bothered to make them themselves, and in the mid to late 1800s, carvers started to become recognized for their abilities.
As the word spread about these individuals making decoys for sale, the first commercial aspect of decoy carving was born. Now, decoy makers carved not only for their own personal use, but also for other members of a hunt club, friends, and even small stores that would sell their handmade decoys as a means to support their family. By the end of the 1800s, nearly every populated region of North America had individuals carving decoys for sale. Even though their tooling was minimal, decoys by the likes of Thomas Chambers on Lake St. Clair, the Holly family on the Chesapeake Bay, or Elmer Crowell in Massachusetts possessed a quality that is hard to match even with the better substrates and paints available today. They were not just making a functioning piece of hunting equipment — they were crafting works of art.
With the popularity of purchasing decoys from skilled individuals rather than carving your own came the ability for manufacturing to get involved at an industrial level. These early decoy factories including Peterson, Dodge, Mason, et al., all begin producing decoys on a lathe or other commercial type of equipment. Their decoys, while commercial in nature, combined modern tooling with artistic finishing touches to make decoys that were cheaper and easier to make while maintaining a lifelike and desirable look. No longer did hunters need to get on a waiting list to purchase birds — they could now buy them directly from a factory that was churning out decoys at a rapid pace to keep up with demand.
While decoys were always an important part of hunting success, it was typically in small doses — until the market gunning era of the late 1800s, when large decoy spreads really began to shine. For market hunters, getting as many ducks as they could each day was imperative. To aid in taking as many ducks as possible, hunters would deploy large rafts of fakes away from the water’s edge to lure birds into their rig. When the ducks would amass in good numbers and become content with the rest of the raft, hunters would utilize sneak boats or punts to slip into range. While the birds surely saw the hunters coming, safety in numbers caused them to hold tightly. Once in range, hunters would use multi-barrel shotguns or punt guns to shoot into the flock, sometimes taking more than 100 birds in one volley. They would then collect their birds and sell them at market. With the king of ducks, the canvasback, fetching close to $5 at upscale restaurants, a savvy hunter could turn a month’s worth of work into a year’s worth of riches. The worth of decoys was now truly embodied and engrained into the future of waterfowl hunting, and the theory of large spreads was born.
As decoy production continued into the mid-20th century, it wasn’t long until wooden or cork blocks would begin to be challenged by the likes of decoys made from other more modern materials like paper mache and then plastics. After World War II and sparked by the loss of all their wooden decoy-making equipment, Victor Animal Trap Company began making decoys out of a paper mache material before moving onto a harder, more durable plastic. Following suit, other companies began making similar decoys, with many abandoning their wood decoy production, thus transforming the commercial decoy industry into a more high-tech operation. Now decoys were being made thin-shelled and were not only cheaper to make but also lighter to carry. While some hunters still preferred wooden decoys and a few commercial operations tried to keep the trade alive, by the 1970s most all true commercial wooden decoy operations were long out of business. All that remained were individual carvers who produced decoys on what could be considered a commercial level, but in much smaller quantities. The evolution to plastic, cheap decoys was in full swing.
Looking forward to the modern decoys of today, manufacturers are now producing decoys that are essentially a mirror image of the real thing, minus the downy feathers. Using high-tech injection-molding techniques, decoys are being produced to replicate the exact details of a skilled artist’s hand-carved block, complete with every feather, contour and shape present. They are truly doppelgangers that fool not only the ducks, but also the hunters that use them. Over the last 10 years alone, decoys have evolved drastically right before our very eyes. The introduction of flocking, UV paints and multiple body postures are only a few of the most notable changes that have literally happened in about a decade. We owe this change to an increased demand in a healthy hunting market that demands the best, but at a reasonable cost.
The real question pertaining to decoys is what makes them effective. Is it necessity to have them painted and carved to be an exact replica, or is a basic shape and paint style enough? If you look through the history of waterfowl hunting and hold some of the earliest decoys, it’s easy to see that many of them looked cartoonish and essentially nothing like the real thing. That being said, despite their unrealistic appearance, they also worked. We can certainly justify that new decoys need to look more realistic due to the evolvement of the species, but those thoughts can also be thwarted by reality when plastic jugs painted black lure in unsuspecting fowl. Is it shelf appeal or performance that makes one decoy better than another? That question is surely one left to duck blind arguments and will spark a hundred different reactions from a hundred different people.
In addition to commercial manufacturers, there are still individuals that enjoy handcrafting decoys as a way to make their living. While many hunters look at a wooden decoy and assume it is for a collector, that isn’t always the case for those who buy them. For hunters like myself, adding a few each season can slowly transform a throw-away spread into one that I will pass down to my son. With the higher cost divided over many years, their longevity eventually offsets the cost, and many could consider it an investment. While I certainly still own plastics, the mix of old and new styles is an eclectic reminder of our heritage and the evolution of the single most important component of waterfowl hunting — the decoy.