Decoy Carving

Decoy carving on Core Sound, a tradition that has gone from the skiff to the mantle, from tool to art, continues to be an valued skill and treasured art for our communities.



From The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture:Volume 14

Charles Reagan Wilson, General Editor, Glenn Hinson and William Ferries, Volume Editors

University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Waterfowl decoys originated as handmade tools for subsistence living in the coastal regions of North America.  Archeological evidence suggests that American Indians made the first decoys.  European settlers were quick to adopt the practice, and soon were fashioning their own replicas of ducks and geese, carving wooden impersonators that lured waterfowl close to the fishermen-hunters’ guns.  These fowl—notably canvasback and teal, pintail and redhead, and Canada geese and Brant, depending on the location—provided winter food for settlements along the birds’ migratory flyways.  The use of decoys continues from the Pacific to the Mississippi and to the Atlantic Flyway, marking a time-honored connection between man and the wild.
Stretching over many generations, decoy making has evolved from utilitarian practice to sport to art.  Nowhere is this history more evident—or more treasured—than on the Mid-Atlantic coast.  Along the Atlantic Flyway, migrating birds travel from New Jersey down through the Susquehanna Flats of northern Maryland to the banks of the Chesapeake.  Further south, the birds’ migration continues to the Back Bay of Virginia, to Currituck Sound in northeastern North Carolina, along the Outer Banks to Core Sound, and—when winters are especially harsh—on to South Carolina.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, every coastal community along this flyway hosted carvers who made their living by fishing and hunting, and who created duck-lures as a way to help feed their families.  Over time, their carving skills developed into regional styles, determined in part by the waterfowl that frequented those particular areas, and in part by the legacy of master carvers who had grown up in these communities when hunting was an essential part of the culture.  Today that tradition continues with contemporary carvers whose styles range from recreating the working style decoys to wildlife art found in art galleries and museums.

Back in the day of working decoys, wherever the birds flew, the work of local carvers was there to lure them.  The decoys carved by Madison Mitchell, Mitchell Fulcher, brothers Steve and Lem Ward, and hundreds of others tell a story of hunting along these waterways when birds were so abundant that their silhouettes would darken the sky on a cold winter’s day.  At that time, decoys—like boats and nets—were everyday tools on which men relied to make a living. Decoy carving was a necessary and common skill, like mending net, laying out a boat, planting a garden, and building a house.  Older fishermen would carve when it was too stormy to go out on the water to fish, often using scraps of juniper from local boat builders or debris that had washed up on the shore.  They smoothed the decoys' rough edges with broken glass and covered them with boat paint.

These older carvers needed no guidebook to direct their knives or their brushes.  They based their patterns on the knowledge that came from hunting these birds all of their lives.  They knew how to color the feathers, how to shape the heads, and how to texture the often-recycled wood into the shape of each species of duck or goose.  And as they carved in sheds and on store porches, younger men watched and learned, while children played in the shavings and everyone listened to the elders’ stories of fishing, hunting, and shared experience.

These fishermen-hunters- (no man in that day filled just one role) would stack their decoys in yards and fish houses while waiting for the fall and winter seasons.  Then they would load the decoys into small skiffs, ready for the first cold wind and rush of fowl to the marshes and creeks.  In the early morning hours, they would set out rigs of wooden ducks (sometimes numbering up to 100) to float on their anchors and convince the fowl flying overhead of a safe landing and fertile feeding ground below.  If all went as planned, the migrating birds would land among the decoys, and hunters from duck blinds and sink boxes lying just outside the flock of decoys and ducks would gather another meal for their families.

This subsistence practice was transformed in the late 1800s, when growing numbers of northern hunters—in search of the South’s fabled waterfowl bounty—began traveling to the region with guns in hand.  Southern hunters increasingly found themselves acting as guides, caretakers, and decoy providers for these northerners.  Many families opened their homes to these traveling hunters, with women cooking for and tending to the visitors who came during the winter months.  Now hunting-related activity became a source of income and enjoyment; the same men who had carved for themselves began to carve for others, with locally made decoys selling for $1 each as recently as the mid-1900s.  Today the decoys from this era are the most treasured of all, perhaps a way for the collector (whether family member or sportsman) to retain a tie to that time when hunting was a truly family experience.

Today, the process of “decoying” waterfowl happens much as it always has, although the introduction of plastic decoys (much more practical, light and, inexpensive) has made the use of wooden ones increasingly rare; now only traditionalists continue to set out wooden decoys—either ones that they themselves have carved, or ones from the rigs of their fathers and grandfathers.  Yet while the practical value of wooden decoys has plummeted, their cultural value—as collectibles, and more importantly, as links to local heritage—has grown.  Now seen as far more than “just” tools, wooden decoys connect coastal dwellers to the past, the land, and a way of life while art collectors from around the world seek these carvings as works of art ranging from fine art sculpture to traditional folk art.  Together collecting decoys – whether as a connection to heritage or as a work of art – has become both hobby and business as part of the search for Americana grows.

This symbolic connection is particularly strong among those whose ancestors “lived” this tradition as hunters, guides, and fishermen.  For these coastal families, the “keeping of decoys” means far more than building a collection of sculptures made by unknown carvers.  Instead, decoys have become community heirlooms that tell deeply personal stories, pointing to broader coastal traditions of which the owners are still a part.  In many cases, they also serve as important points of connection for carvers who are carrying on this tradition to the next generation.

Today, this sense of place still runs deep among local families who see in these wooden symbols a shared heritage and “common bond.”  For them, as for Morehead City’s Joe Fulcher—a third-generation decoy carver and hunter—decoys are “my way of holding onto the past.

Karen Willis Amspacher

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

Joel Barber, Wild Fowl Decoys (1954)

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center, Harkers Island, N.C. (www.coresound.com

Joe Engers, The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys (1990)

Neal Conoley, Waterfowl Heritage: North Carolina Decoys and Gunning Lore (1982)

Harry M. Walsh, The Outlaw Gunner (1971)

Steve Ward, Closed for Business: The Complete Collection of Steve Ward’s Poetry (1992)Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury, Md. (www.wardmuseum.org)