WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Waterfowl hunting season is a big deal this time of year. As ducks and geese get ready to head south, hunters head to their boats and blinds.
But a West St. Paul couple looks at ducks and geese a little differently. In their basement you will find countless decoys, some of which have sat on the water- others who’ve never left the shelf. The Southworth’s collection has taken on a life of its own.
“The sun is coming up and you are calling ducks. If they come into your rig or at least pass over to look you over, you know that you are doing something right,” John said.
It’s the time of year when hunters like him can’t help but smile. And while sitting in a duck boat is fun, it’s a different kind of hunting he really looks forward to. One that puts him on a wild goose chase … or a duck chase, depending on the bird.
And behind every chip, every crack, every scuff mark, there is a story behind that.
“There’s got to be. Some of the birds, a puppy chewed on the bills. Or on the tail,” John said.
In 1983, a friend brought a reluctant John to a duck decoy show. Once there, he didn’t want to leave.
“I went and I walked in and I was just wow,” John said. “And as I looked at these old decoys I thought, “Who made these? Where would he make them? When did he make them?’ And I just got the bug.”
He bought one and got a questioning look from his wife, JoAnne. But it wasn’t long before she was on the hunt too.
“I got the bug right after that when I started going to shows with him and stuff,” JoAnne said.
Today, the couple has a “duckload” of decoys — more than 500 to be exact — just in their basement.
“It’s his man cave,” JoAnne said. “You point to any one of these birds and he can tell you who made it, when they made it, where they are from. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of these decoys.”
With so much attention to detail, no two are the same. And like anything, they’ve evolved over time. His oldest were made in 1885.
“Canvasbacks, blue bills, black ducks, Redheads, it goes on and on,” John said.
They’re mostly wood, but some are made out of papier-mâché, cork, plastic or rubber. A lot of the decoys were made for hunting, but never saw the water. They’re more like works of art.
“That’s what makes it so interesting is that when you are out and about and looking for these things at these decoy shows, you don’t know what you are going to find,” John said.
Half the fun isn’t just the hunt, but what comes after. Once he buys a rare piece, John uses the initials or name on the decoy to learn about its creator.
“It’ll mention that maybe he was a cabinet maker or a carpenter and you kind of start putting two and two together and say this is the guy,” John said.
It’s not just the Southworths that get into this. There’s a club called the Minnesota Decoy Collector’s Association. It’s proof that birds of a feather really do flock together.
“We have members from Vermont, California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, they’re all over,” John said. “It’s folk art, its history. These are things that guys made so they made sure they could feed the family on Sunday afternoons. It’s just part of the hunt, and part of life.”
In case you were wondering, John also makes some of his own decoys.