Carving Out a Tradition
Handmade decoys define Delta's Illinois Prairie Chapter
Story and photos by Paul Wait, Delta Waterfowl Editor
SIMPLY BY WATCHING Pat Gregory brush paint on a shapely duck decoy, you can feel the history rooted in the grain of the wood.
Pat Gregory in his basement workshop.
In his hands, a block of white cedar becomes a sculpture first, and then a canvas. Every bird, from the trio of blue-winged teal perched high on a shelf in Gregory's garage to a buff ring-necked duck in the basement, is a piece of art.
But make no mistake about it: Gregory doesn't intend for any decoy he crafts to simply sit above a fireplace.
"I make decoys. I don't make waterfowl sculpture," he said. "I build them sturdy. They're decoys."
Home Run Hitter
Gregory began carving decoys in 1984. His father isn't a carver, nor was any living relative when he picked up his first wood-shaving tools.
The Bloomington, Ill., businessman was intrigued by a discovery when he delved into his family history. Gregory learned that his great-grandfather, George "Home Run" Barto, was a decoy carver of note in the 1890s. Barto, a semi-professional baseball player, made thousands of wooden decoys and also built duck calls.
"Collectors started to collect his (Barto's) decoys," Gregory said. "There's a family tradition — a legacy there. I felt it was important to go back and get that family history."
Barto was undoubtedly influenced by Charles Perdew, the most famous decoy carver and duck call maker in the Illinois River Valley, if not the United States.
In 1947, Barto taught a fellow named Artie Behmetuik how to make decoys. As Gregory's interest in taking up carving grew, he sought out Behmetuik.
"He taught me how to carve," Gregory said, with gratitude evident in his voice.
More importantly, Behmetuik helped rekindle a family tradition. He shared Barto's methods — and even patterns and tools — with Gregory.
"He shared that goodness with me," Gregory continued. "I want to share it with others, to pass it on. My reward is I get to see the legacy of decoy carving carry on."
Pat Gregory shapes, paints and stamps his decoy.
Gregory has a background in commercial art, certainly a handy attribute for a decoy maker. But like almost all carvers, his first attempts at making decoys were efforts to replicate the birds of his mentor.
"The plight of a decoy carver is to copy another carver," he explained. "That's historic. I copied grandpa's decoys. Grandpa copied Charlie Perdew. After a while, you're going to start making your own patterns."
Now, he makes 150 decoys a year. He sells birds to people throughout North America. His ducks have evolved, although like any artisan, he retains touches of early influences in the finished pieces.
"Even though I have drifted from grandpa's pattern, I still retain some of his style," Gregory said. "I comb my drakes to simulate vermiculation like he did. He favored white pine; I favor white pine. I still use his draw knives on every bird."
Gregory said every decoy maker develops a distinct style in time. For him, postures of the ducks he shapes are trademark Pat Gregory. On every decoy, he shaves the bills to give a pronounced upturn.
"It just gives them a little bit of a look," he said. "That look and posture and attitude is my signature. I'm at the point where people can look at my decoys at a show and pick them out."
Although he often has customer orders for specific species and poses, Gregory allows himself freedom to carve just about any position or bird that inspires him.
"I do my best work when I do what I want to do. I'll see a photo of a duck and then I have to make it."
As much as Gregory gains satisfaction from sending his handcrafted decoys to customers, an equal thrill is killing ducks over birds he made.
"It means a lot to me to hunt over my own decoys," Gregory said. "When ducks come into my decoys, it's the ultimate. It's just really gratifying."
He's a duck hunter first, carver second. Still, decoys play a critical role in his waterfowl season.
"I carve with purpose and intention," Gregory said. "As birds are moving through, I'm constantly adjusting my rig. Each year, I try to make six puddle ducks and six divers for it. I'm constantly replenishing my rig."
Gregory sometimes carves specialty decoys for specific hunts. For example, he has fashioned a few stunning harlequin decoys for an upcoming Pacific Flyway hunt.
Last fall, he hunted in New York with revered decoy maker Jim Schmiedlin. Gregory made a special ruddy duck — one of Schmiedlin's favorite species to carve — just for the hunt.
Teaching the Craft
Gregory is deeply involved in Delta Waterfowl, serving as a volunteer on the Illinois Prairie Chapter committee. His influence is evident: Four other committee members carve decoys, and every one of them has learned from Gregory.
Before Jim Williams started carving decoys in 2006, he'd never given the idea of making his own birds even a passing thought.
"I started hunting an area with a lot of divers, and I didn't have any diver decoys," Williams said. "Pat (Gregory) graciously offered me a dozen of his divers — six bluebills and six redheads — to use for the season. As you know, divers come in low. I felt pretty bad because I actually hit some of them with shot. I went back to him and was pretty long in the face when I had to tell him I had shot some of his decoys. When I told him that, he smiled and said, 'That's what they're for.'
"I said, 'Yeah, but you made these by hand. How can I fix it? How can I make it right?' Pat said, 'Well, you can carve your own.'"
At first, Williams rejected the idea that he could make even crude decoys that would float.
"I told Pat I didn't have any artistic ability, but he encouraged me," Williams said. "So I started carving decoys and I fell in love with it. That first year, I made a dozen bluebills, six canvasbacks and six redheads."
Gregory also introduced Williams to the decoy show circuit, and now, he rarely misses a chance to display his decoys.
"It's not about selling decoys as much as at it meeting other guys and extending your season. It's a brotherhood," Williams said.
Tim Speight was struggling to make working birds when he met Gregory in 2007.
"I tried doing it on my own, and didn't have much luck," Speight recalled. "Then, many years later, I ran across Pat Gregory. I asked Pat if he was able to show me some things I wasn't able to do on my own. He agreed. I got some cork and some basswood, and carved up a dozen blue-winged teal decoys. Pat, Jim Williams and I took our hand-carved teal decoys on a hunt and shot a limit of blue-winged teal over them. I was hooked from then on."
Speight doesn't sell decoys, although he enjoys swapping birds with other carvers.
"The decoys I make are just to shoot over," he said. "It's the tradition of making a tool with your own hands that you're able to throw in the water, and then shoot a duck over it — it's just a rush. It just adds another aspect of waterfowling. For me, when it's a bit slow during the hunt, it's so much more enjoyable to look out over handmade decoys."
Pat hunting over his bluebill, redhead and canvasback decoys.
Every carver has a bird or two in the rig that floats with added significance.
For Gregory, it might be an old warhorse of a Canada goose he carved long ago.
"It's my old battle ax and I can't get rid of it," Gregory said, glancing briefly at the bird resting on a garage shelf. "It's just my old steady. I've snapped the head off it three times and it's on its second keel. That thing has been everywhere with me."
No matter whether he's hunting big-water divers and pothole puddle ducks, Speight's spread isn't complete without a drake mallard Williams made for him.
"The previous dog I had was a big favorite with all the guys we hunt with. We lost her a few years ago," Speight explained. "I was interested in having her continue to hunt with me, so I asked Jim to make a special decoy for me."
Williams hollowed out a cavity in the wood, and then sealed ashes of the dog's remains inside.
"I like to say we put her heart into that decoy," Speight said. "She goes with on us on all of the hunts. I like to think she brings us good luck."
The Delta Connection
As you might expect, handmade duck decoys have become a centerpiece of Illinois Prairie Chapter events.
"Carving is a trademark of our chapter," Gregory said. "It brings us together. We carve decoys together and go to decoy shows together. We're trying to get youth engaged not only in waterfowling, but waterfowl-related activities."
The chapter is active in nesting structure programs and youth events, and recently hosted a sporting clays shooting fundraiser.
"Delta has been great," Williams said. "Our chapter is a very active chapter. We go to meetings, and there's not a time when a decoy doesn't show up. Carving decoys extends my duck season all year long. Instead of just duck hunting for 60 days, I get to do it all year long.
"The decoys are a tradition. It just adds another level of enjoyment to this sport we love. For us, decoy carving and Delta come together very nicely."
Paul Wait is editor of Delta Waterfowl.