The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 19, 2012

Decoy carver adapts and wins

John Cross
The Free Press

— To compete in the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Competition held each April on the banks of historic Chesapeake Bay at Ocean City, Md., is to be in some pretty rarefied atmosphere.

Named after Lem and Steve Ward, historic baymen and prolific decoy makers during the late 1800s, the annual competition attracts some of the best wildfowl carvers in the world.

And it quickly became clear to Dave Jackson of rural Mankato when he first traveled to the event several years ago to compete that he still had some things to learn.

“I’d entered a pair of wood ducks in the hunting decoy division,” he said.

Understandingly, as working decoys, the counterfeit versions have to resemble the real McCoys. And his pair fared pretty well, at least until they got tossed into the drink.

Holding true to working decoy’s purpose, the entries are judged as they float in the real world environment of  wind-swept Chesapeake Bay.

“During the judging, I looked at one of my wood ducks and it had begun to list terribly,” Jackson said. “It was embarrassing after the competition when I had to pick it up.”

Closer inspection revealed the glue he had used to fuse the body shells and which claimed to be waterproof turned out to be no match for the bay’s saltwater environment. A seam had split in the hollow duck body, allowing it to flood with water.

“I use a 3M marine glue now — the same stuff they use on boats,” he said. “When you use that, it won’t come apart.”

Jackson took up the hobby of decoy carving 20 years ago for something to do after he retired and his recent success at the 42nd staging of the prestigious competition suggests he has come a long way from that leaking wood duck.

Last month, he took a second place in the novice class of the Decorative Life-size Floating Waterfowl Division with an exquisitely detailed red-breasted merganser, right down to a minnow with delicate fins dangling from its bill.

“The fins on that minnow were a challenge,” he said. “First I tried thin copper ... too thick. I was laying awake at midnight and thought, ‘Maybe the stuff a toothpaste tube is made of if I could get paint to stick to it.’” After a little experimentation, it proved to be the perfect solution to give the illusion of transparent, flexible fins.

Of course, the merganser, with its carved feathers and detailed paint, is artwork destined for the mantle.

But in Jackson’s and many carver’s minds, the real challenge of the Ward Worlds is to be found in the Hunting Division, where creations are judged less on detail than on their ability to do what decoys are supposed to do — lure waterfowl into shotgun range.

In a world of working decoys, exquisite detail and delicate carvings are trumped by stylized features and practicality.

They must right themselves in the water, have sturdy features and durable paints, yet have enough minimalist detail to represent a particular waterfowl species.

“If you’re a hunter, you don’t want decoys upside down when you toss them out,” he said. “Decoys have to right themselves immediately on the water.” And of course, delicate features and paints wouldn’t fare particularly well in the real rough-and-tumble world of waterfowl hunting.

And they still have to look convincing on the water. Thus at the Ward World Competition, hunting entries are scrutinized by judges from a floating platform as the entries bob on storied Chesapeake Bay.

Jackson entered a pair of coot, admittedly an unglamorous species, in the Gunning Pair Division, Confidence Bird Category. “Confidence birds are those species that a duck might see that tell them it is safe to land — blue herons, geese, coots, sea gulls,” he explained.

His entry garnered a first place in the Best of Species and a second in Best of Category.

In spite of his recent success, Jackson still figures he’s only “an average carver.” “When you go the Worlds and you see some of those creations — well, my work pales by comparison,” he said.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at Follow him on Twitter @jcross_photo.