Old Duck Decoys






As I mentioned in the last post, we’ve got a bit of a garage cleanup going on around here these days. It’s always kind of fun digging into the old stuff that got tucked away year ago, you never know what you might find.

Take for example these old duck decoys that I found yesterday while cleaning up the garage. These are old an old fashioned style, made from cork, with crudely carved wooden heads, the bodies glued or screwed to pieces of plywood.

Apparently in years past, cork duck and goose decoys were kind of high tech for the time. The cork was easier to carve than wood, and the natural dark brown color of the cork, coupled with the inherent flat finish, made them particularly effective decoys for hunting black ducks and didn’t require painting.

The cork made great floatation, and it was remarkably strong given the typical hard weather conditions in which the decoys were used. Salt water, rain and snow storms, freezing temps high winds, all the conditions that made for good duck hunting.

I’m not sure where these particular decoys came from. At one time I had quite a few duck and Canada Goose decoys, both cork and the newer, much lighter plastic molded decoys most often used today.

Decoys are considered an art form in some circles. Decoy makers, particularly those decoy makers from the Chesapeake Bay region have become considered artists as rightly so. Some of their finely crafted ducks and geese, have become highly collectible, particularly the ones made and actually used for duck hunting.

Depending on where you are from, duck and geese decoys can be called “tollers” or “blocks” or “dekes” decoys and likely other names depending on your particular region. We usually referred to ours as tollers.

Many of the original decoy makers signed their names on the bottom of their decoys, not because of any artistic legacy, but because lost decoys could be recovered easily, and if you were hunting with several hunters, it was not unusual for decoys to become entangled or mixed with another hunter’s set. Having your name on the bottom made it easier to sort out which decoy belonged to which hunter. In fact, we usually write our names on the bottom of our plastic decoys that we use today.

It’s important to note that the truly original duck decoys are long gone with the passing of time. Native North American hunters would take bunches of eel grass, which is also dark brown in winter, soak it in water, form it into the shape of a duck or goose, and sit them on the ice where they would freeze into the shape of a duck. It’s a method of tolling ducks that is still being used today in some hunting circles.

In those days, it was careful placement of the decoys that mattered instead of fancy decoys with hand painted feathers and glass eyes.

As ducks are often most active moving around in early morning and late afternoon evening, low light conditions made the eel grass decoys look exactly like a flock of ducks snuggled around an opening in the ice. To ducks flying overhead, if the situation was set up correctly by a well hidden hunter, the ducks would be enticed to join their comrades on the ice.

I have used the frozen eel grass method for decoying ducks and found it to be effective and quite easy. There’s no need to drag bags of decoys with you, and once frozen, they will stay in position a long time depending on the weather around your duck blind. Another thing I noticed about the marsh grass decoys was that a few loose pieces of eel grass twitched by the wind on the back of the dekes, gave them some movement and made them appear very life like indeed.

Well I don’t imagine my old cork duck tollers are going to toll in anymore ducks. I suspect they will end up either as a conversation piece at the camp, or in someones collection.

On the other hand, with luck, maybe someday they will end up in the water, doing their job during a dawn snowstorm over a marsh, with the wind blowing them back and forth on the end of their anchor lines, and a flock of real black ducks coming in to land among them…..

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