The craft of carving decoy ducks migrates to Idaho
On a hot summer day in Kuna, Idaho, Tom Matus prepares for the chilly days of October, when waterfowl hunting season begins and he can test fly his decoy ducks in the wild. Brimming with stacks of cork and wooden decoy ducks, it’s clear that many hours are spent in the workshop refining his craft.
“Take a square piece of wood and sketch on it, remove what's not bird, and to put your own vision into the wood, chip by chip, and then stroke by stroke with the brush; [it] is an amazing feeling to see it come to life,” Matus said.
Originally from Connecticut, Matus brought his tradition to Idaho 26 years ago.
“Coming to Idaho, there really were no decoy carvers in the Pacific Northwest compared to the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Currituck Sound.”
His father carved ducks, as did most men in his hometown where a long tradition of waterfowling is alive and well.
“I duck hunted and I just thought that's what everybody did, cut down the telephone pole, cut it in half and make a decoy,” he said. The naturally waterproof cedar telephone poles made an inexpensive duck decoy for a young boy.
Native Americans in North America have been making decoy ducks and other waterfowl from grasses, reeds, cattails and other natural materials for thousands of years. American colonists followed, carving ducks to help with hunting.
In Idaho, Matus learned to make decoys using white pine and other locally harvested woods. He built models of more than 40 species of waterfowl and created a community of carvers and hunters, who now join him in the shop and out in the field.
“And you'll find me here, there and everywhere on the Snake [River] following waterfowl,” he said.
One of Matus’ community of hunters, Justin Seelig of Kuna, often works with him in the shop and completed an apprenticeship with the master carver in 2021 offered through the Idaho Commission on the Arts. He’s been carving duck decoys for two and a half years.
“I'm years ahead of where I would be if I didn't meet Tom,” said Seelig.
The two live just down the street from each other, a convenient distance to maintain their habit of carving and painting, seeking input and inspiration from each other. They’re driven, constantly practicing their techniques and testing the birds on the river each hunting season.
Matus, visibly giddy, thinks ahead to the fun times with friends and the excitement of the hunt.
“Part of the passion of waterfowl hunting is the experience being out and actually luring the birds over the decoys you create. That's just a gratification to see them come in and land.”
Matus generously teaches his craft and has fostered five apprentices over the years, guiding them through all the steps and choices a carver follows to make a great decoy. To him, it’s an all-encompassing way of life.
“I think about being a carver as a sketch artist, an ornithologist, a sculptor, a boat builder, a craftsman, a painter, a salesman and accounts receivable, because it's many, many hats that you have to wear to become good.”
Each wooden bird poses uniquely, painted with detailed, organic markings created through careful study and practice. Matus opens drawer after drawer of bird sketches and plans that he translates into 3D sculpture, functional in the water.
“The style of decoy really changes whether it's a round bottom, whether it's a heavy keel bird, whether it's wide and flat so it floats well,” he explains.
Matus fills a utility sink and sets a few of the ducks into the water. He dunks each bird to the bottom of the basin but a piece of wood doesn’t sink easily, especially a well-designed decoy duck. A large piece of wood attached to the bird’s belly functions as a weight, keeping the head upright and influencing how far above or below the surface the bird sits.
The decoy plops back above the surface in a few seconds.
“Set the bird in the water and it self-rights and it floats naturally,” explained Matus.
Carvers enter their creations into contests where judges critique how well the decoys imitate their real counterparts, from the feather markings to the way they swim. Each aspect affects the success and therefore the value of the lure.
“You've got to do buoyancy tests. If you don't keel the bird right, it's going to float different,” Seelig said.
Seelig lists the variables a carver considers while crafting a buoyant model. Buoyancy changes depending on the species you are carving, as well as the position of the bird: whether it's nestling in its own breast feathers, preening or looking ahead.
The two not only consider the actual technology of making a thing float, but the physiology that differentiates real birds in the wild.
“Diver ducks are going to have their tail closer to the water. Puddle ducks are going to sit a little more breast heavy,” said Seelig.
Learning all of the fine points requires diligence, but also a willingness to let go when a carving has taken a wrong turn, to start over and invest more time even when you’ve failed.
“Removing the wood in a negative fashion to get to what the finished product is isn't always easy,” Matus said, who learned this craft as a boy and knows the dedication needed to carve quickly and precisely.
As Matus works with his mentee, he’s watched Seelig become friends with feelings of frustration, eventually those setbacks evolve into acceptance that stumbles are part of evolving skills.
“You take a little too much off and then you're like, ‘Oh, cool, this is going to be good for the burn pile.’ And you have a lot of time and energy invested into that, and sometimes it just doesn't work out,” Seelig said.
A tall gray bandsaw with a bright red guide post ushers the beginning of the process to pare down the wood. “We use the biggest tools for removing what we need to remove until we get down to the nitty gritty with the detail work,” said Seelig.
Matus, an educator at every opportunity, lines up a series of duck heads, showing the development of the decoy, a physical infographic of the process. The heads range from a woodblock with marker mapping, to an angular and cartoonish silhouette, then a roughly chipped surface, and also a refined and smooth one. Beady eyes peer out from the final green brow, just above a golden, matte-finished bill.
At each step the carver has an opportunity to use traditional, low tech hand tools, gouges, knives, spokeshaves, rasps or more modern rotary electric tools that allow the carvers to quickly remove large parts of the wood.
Seelig embraces the traditional methods and the more experience he gains as a decoy maker, the more hours he puts in. He gladly spends spare moments absorbed with the craft, sawing rough cuts, carving, shaving, hollowing, filing, sanding, then chipping feather texture to the wood, painting and blending colors.
“Any traditional art you have to put in your time to be good at it,” he said. “There's no skipping steps. You just can't do it without learning the process, learning, you know, even the history.”
Traditions evolve and decoy carving evolved from colonial times into a component of a very lucrative duck hunting market that led to mass exploitation of migratory birds. Eventually, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was put into place to limit the number of birds hunters could kill to protect dwindling populations.
Seelig and Matus acknowledge the past but are grateful for a change that preserves the animal communities they gain so much from. The two share a reverence for the animals, almost paying homage to ducks through the great lengths they go to mimic and hunt them.
Throughout the year anticipation builds as the hunters plot and plan for the fall trek onto the Snake River, prime duck habitat. Each duck carved brings them closer to the real thing.
Interacting with the ducks and existing in the elements, supersedes the thrill of shooting the birds.
“And we actually probably put more time in birdwatching than we do bird hunting. Some of my best hunts, I've never pulled the trigger,” said Matus.
Seelig expresses gratitude for the lifestyle that brings him so much meaning, “Why do you breathe? You have to do it to live, you know? It's just that's it.” The art gives him purpose, “To really be enthralled with it, to really have that passion for it that I do.”
Both of the carvers describe passion as a muscle they must flex daily to maintain a high level of skill.
“Life always gets in the way, but there's always time that you can find,” Seelig said.
The relationships they’ve developed seem to bring them the most happiness and satisfaction.
Matus has won the World Championship in Shooting Rig and his six Gunning Pairs Championships from the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, but he believes teaching the craft to the next generation are of equal importance to those accolades.
“My decoys will be part of my legacy, and part of my other legacy is to pass it to Justin,” he said.
This piece was produced for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.