Vintage wooden decoys are now considered to be folk art, but more primitive dekes were used before man ever hand-carved a canvasback from a block of wood.
The art of decoying goes back to the prehistoric ages. In 1924, museum workers discovered a Paiute Indian storage pit in a Nevada cave. Under several layers of mats, they found 11 remarkably detailed decoys made or rushes, painted and feathered to resemble canvasback drakes. The relics had been in the cave almost 2,000 years. The extremely arid climate kept the decoys in excellent condition.
Chances are good the Quapaw Indians were the first true duck hunters of our Midwest region, using their mouths much like the Cree Indians of Canada or even live ducks or geese like the East Coast Market Hunters. It should be noted that the Quapaw Indians would place stuffed ducks on their heads, swim underwater to a floating duck, then grab its legs and pull it under the surface to drown.
Indians learned to use mud, reeds and crude wooden blocks. Cree Indians in Saskatchewan still use these primitive decoys. Later, white hunters started nailing goose or duck skins to blocks of wood.
Market hunters from the 1870s to 1900 had the best decoys, live ducks or geese, swimming where their weighted or tied-down legs would allow while quacking or honking. This practice is illegal today.
Members of duck hunting clubs from the beginning of the 1900s didn’t like crude decoys, so a market was born for wooden decoys that could be laid out in strings for fooling ducks. These decoys were built to sit up straight in the water and float. Artistic painting completed the decoy that looked like any number of ducks or geese. Today some are worth considerable amounts of money.
The late Steve and Lem Ward of Crisfield, Maryland, were likely the first to take decoy carving to unheard of dollar levels. Both were barbers by trade who needed extra money in hard times. The brothers started carving wooden decoys for hunting and eventually collecting in 1916 and stopped in the 1960s. Many of both untrained artist’s decoys are worth over $100,000 and occasionally two or three times that.
Modern Day Decoy Carvers
Vintage hunting days continued a tradition of carving wooden duck, swan and goose decoys that has become stronger as the years progress.
Joey Jobes, of Havre De Grace, Maryland, inherited his father’s ability to carve out wooden decoys. He started carving decoys in 1973 at age 7. This talent is second nature for the entire family.
“Carving a duck head from a block is not difficult,” Jobes said. “You just cut everything off that doesn’t look like a duck. My family wakes up and starts carving half asleep. This is what we have done all of our lives. Occasionally someone walks in our shop and says they would like to be like us. That always makes us feel good to hear that here. There have been many excellent decoy carvers from Maryland.”
This tradition has carried through the years and some compete in carving competitions while others like Jobes only sells his decoys for hunting or decorative displays. His remarkable art work on each duck may very well make his decoys highly collectible in future years – like the Ward brothers.
“I carve decoys and have established my own touch, including the paint, and how the head and body are shaped,” Jobes said. “We make gunning decoys. A hunter in Texas recently bought seven gadwall decoys for his hunting set.”
Collectors throughout the world own Jobes decoys too, including as far away as Indonesia, England, France and many other countries, including the United States.
“Decoys never depreciate in value,” Jobes said. “Buying custom decoys is better than putting money in the stock market. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I feel I have no competition.”
Top decoy collectors can determine certain decoy carvers from the Havre De Grace area or other regions from certain paint patterns and other details. Every artist has their own style, like a signature. Hunters love Jobes decoys while many collect them because of their unique paint patterns.
Jobes and company make their own brushes and design brushes for other carvers too. He may take a $50 brush and cut most of the hair off, allowing the creation of their feathering pattern on each decoy. He has at least $20,000 in brushes and makes their own carving or draw knives, too.
“Most of the knives are made out of old-fashioned German steel straight razors,” Jobes said. “We use a buffing wheel to sharpen our knives with a fine buffing compound.”
Jobes, his father and two brothers occasionally work on decoy projects together, creating a special design or special edition version. The family prefers to only work on special projects while maintaining their own shops.
Today Jobes decoys sell for $70 to $100. But prices will soon go up because of rising costs in paint and other materials. He once paid $1.50 for a gallon of paint thinner. The price is now $9.00. Japan colors in burnt sienna and yellows have all gone up in prices. He buys five or six gallons of paint each month. But Jobes is not trying to make a lot of money, just enough to survive.
“I never want to become a millionaire, I want to die with no money and do what I want to do,” Jobes said. “This sometimes becomes a job and I try to avoid that. I like setting my own hours and working when I want to. Sometimes I get up at 4 a.m. to fish with my family and sometimes I sleep until 11 a.m. I like the freedom that decoy carving provides.”
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.