Hunters spend hours making duck decoys

Friday, April 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:21 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sweat pours from the wrinkled brow of Ric Mayer. A painter’s mask covers his mouth and graying beard, but the saturated mask does little to hide his perspiration. He works hunched over the corner of a table, his left arm stabilizing a piece of cork while his right arm moves back and forth shaping his masterpiece.

Mayer isn’t sculpting a Roman god. He’s replicating a duck.

Mayer was one of 18 hunters who filled an empty garage at the Charles A. Green Conservation Area last February to learn how to sculpt a duck decoy.

The Saturday class was one of many skills workshops offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Other “how-to” MDC workshops have covered canoeing, shotgun shooting, and map and compass reading.

Crafting a cork decoy used to be a time-consuming but necessary part of being a duck hunter. But these days the cork decoy has gone the way of typewriters and Beta VCRs as the nearly 6-pound replicas have been replaced by cheaper and lighter decoys made of molded plastic. The decoys are placed in the water by hunters to attract other ducks.

Creating a cork duck decoy takes roughly six hours. Hunters can choose between two types of ducks. Puddle ducks, which include mallards, pintails and gadwalls, are very common in Missouri. They like shallow water and feed by putting their heads below the water and tipping their legs up in the air.

Diving ducks dive below the water to feed and include buffleheads, bluebills and goldeneyes.

Mayer’s sweat is saturating his black shirt under his apron. The area surrounding his feet is covered in tiny pieces of shaved cork. Mayer stops to look around the room and gauge his friends’ progress and then moves to the back of the room to check out an example of a finished product.

After a few moments of inspection, he moves back to his corner of the table, flips his block of cork and continues grating.

The first step in crafting the decoys is smoothing and shaping a block of cork. The hunters at the MDC workshop are supplied with blocks of cork ranging in size from 7-by-14 inches for a puddle duck to 8-by-12-inch blocks for a diver duck.

The blocks for Saturday’s workshop are originally from Portugal and are supplied to the MDC through domestic distributors. Jeff Cockerham, an Outreach and Education supervisor for the MDC, says it’s hard to get a block through traditional means.

“You can’t go down to Home Depot and expect to get a piece of cork,” Cockerham tells the hunters. “You have to order that.”

The hunters follow chalk lines on the block as they saw and grate the sides off their blocks until they take on the shape of ducks.

“I’m thinking mallard,” Mayer says as he points to his piece of cork, which looks like a football at this point. “That’s what I’m trying for.”

The second step is securing a head to the cork. A hole is drilled, and a dowel rod is glued into the body and head. For the first time, the decoy looks like a duck — albeit a nondescript brown duck with no eyes or features.

Mayer removes his mask to reveal a smile. He and a friend share a laugh as their ducks’ heads are facing each other—it’s as if they’re inspecting each other’s craftsmanship.

After the glue has dried, some craftsmen fill the holes in the body and around the head with putty to give the decoy a smooth, rounded look. Cockerham says putty is used if there is a gouge or a big hole in the cork, but the coarse look is more traditional.

Next, a wooden keel is secured to the bottom of the decoy to ensure that it will stay upright when placed in the water. The keel is attached with glue and rods, and a hole is drilled through the 2-foot-by-2-foot board at a 45-degree angle to attach string to the decoy so the hunter will be able to pull it in.

After the glue dries, Cockerham suggests spraying the decoy with Kilz to seal it and then leaving it outside to dry.

Once dry, it’s time to paint the decoy. Colors depend on the species of duck a hunter is trying to replicate.

After the paint dries, Cockerham’s personal preference is to wipe the decoy down with Armor All to replicate the natural sheen of a duck’s coat.

Mayer’s mallard decoy is his first, but certainly not his last. He plans to order supplies and make several more in the fall.

“I mean, they’re cool,” Mayer says. “It’s hunting (in the) traditional method.”

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