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Decoy carver gives wood a lifelike touch

Joel Huener of Middle River, Minn., shows off this detailed brown trout carving that replicates the largest brown trout he's caught on a fly. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 1 / 7
Huener explains the dentist-chair-turned-carving table he inherited from a DNR colleague. (Photo/Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)2 / 7
A work in progress, the roughed-out head of a duck decoy, along with the keel and body, await further work by woodcarver Joel Huener of Middle River, Minn. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 3 / 7
Joel Huener carves at the table where he also does most of his painting in the kitchen of his home near Middle River, Minn. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 4 / 7
Many of Joel Huener's working duck decoys bear the marks of years of use. Huener, of Middle River, Minn., carves most of the decoys he uses for duck hunting. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)5 / 7
Joel Huener of Middle River, Minn., shows one of his carvings that remains a work in progress. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 6 / 7
Joel Huener's carving creations include as this sandhill crane head, which sits among hand-carved working duck decoys on the mantel of the fireplace in his home near Middle River, Minn. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 7 / 7

MIDDLE RIVER, Minn.—Joel Huener says he's always been "kind of a rabid do-it-yourselfer," a trait that also rubbed off on his hunting and fishing.

"I tie flies, I make rods and I load my own ammo," says Huener, 61, a wildlife biologist and manager of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area. "I see something and think, 'Well, I could do that.' And sometimes I can and sometimes more successfully than others."

Woodcarving, though, is Huener's passion. Especially duck decoys. He figures he's carved dozens, if not hundreds, of decoys over the years and takes particular pleasure in hunting over them.

They're works of art, but Huener describes them as "working decoys." There's something about coaxing a duck to land in a spread of hand-carved decoys, he says.

"I remember the first time I carved a traditional cork-bodied black duck," Huener said. "The first time I hunted over it, I killed a drake black duck.

"Would he have come into plastic mallard decoys? I'm sure he would have. But the fact was, I was floating a black duck decoy out there, and so that was kind of a red letter day."

Natural progression

Huener says he did some whittling as a kid growing up in central Wisconsin but got away from it during high school and college.

"And then, about the time I graduated from college, my folks bought a new house that had a mantel, and it just looked like it needed a decoy," Huener said. "And I thought, 'Well, I'm not going to pay for one; I can make one.' "

So that's what he did.

"That was kind of fun, so I got some books on it and then just kind of self-taught myself," he said. "I got really into decorative carving and doing some occasional working birds. And now, it's kind of flipped the other way, and I do more working birds than anything else."

Some of his working birds have been floating more than 30 seasons, Huener says. They show the mud, the wear and tear, of years in the marsh.

Many have stories behind them, such as the canvasback decoy that holds the ashes of Huener's previous Lab.

That way, he still hunts with her and can relive and enjoy the memories from their many trips afield.

Types of wood

Huener uses basswood for decorative decoys, saying the wood has a fine grain that takes detail fairly well. For working decoys, he generally carves the heads out of basswood and the bodies out of northern white cedar, hollowing out the centers and weighting the carvings so they're self-righting in the water.

Huener says he inherited a sizeable amount of basswood and cedar from Gordy Forester, a Department of Natural Resources colleague and "kindred spirit" carver who died in February 2014. "Gordy wood," he calls it. Forester also willed Huener several tools, including a carving table he fashioned from a dentist chair.

Unlike his detail birds, Huener says he often carves his working birds to appear larger than life, exaggerating the features of a particular species, such as the high forehead of a redhead or the crest of a ring-necked duck.

He'll carve the birds in various poses, such as eating, sleeping or preening.

"When you're a carver, you can animate them and put them in different poses so they don't all look alike," Huener said. "A lot of times, what I'll hunt over will be contented birds that look sleepy."

Sleepy birds, the thinking goes, are birds that feel safe.

"Does it matter to the birds? Probably not, but it makes a difference to me," Huener said. "Whether the ducks really appreciate that or not is wide open to debate."

Finding inspiration

Huener uses acrylic paint on most of his carvings, which are rich in the intricate details that give ducks and his other creations their natural beauty. The Internet is a great source for finding duck photographs or poses to use as references, he says.

"I've got a file of plans and profiles that I've used over time," he said. "If you're going to do this kind of work, you've got to be willing to at least draw what you think you need to do for outlines and where things are. I draw a lot right on the decoys as I'm carving."

Huener's daughter, Sarah, put together a website with photos of his decoys and other carvings. Besides ducks, he's carved fish, muskie lures, shorebirds, ruffed grouse, small mammals and moose.

Huener says he hasn't kept track of how much time he spends on a particular carving.

"For me, it's a way to wind down," he said. "When I was doing detailed birds and sometimes fish, where I do all the scales and everything, I'd do maybe two pieces a year. With decoys, I'm just doing it in my spare time. I might get to do one a month if I'm really cranking, and if I get busy on other things, then I may slack off some."

Living in northwest Minnesota, Huener says he's too far away from major decoy competitions, which tend to be on the east or west coasts. He's taken carvings to the International Woodcarvers Festival in Lake Bronson, Minn., where he's won Best of Show awards, and entered a decoy carving event in February 2016 that coincided with the Minnesota Waterfowl Symposium in Bloomington, Minn. He keeps track of winning entries from competitions around the country through a publication that highlights the events.

"It gets the creative juices flowing to see what other people are doing and what level of work is out there," Huener said. "It just kind of inspires you to do better."

Always a hobby

Huener will take orders for carvings, but for now, at least, it remains a hobby he can do in his spare time, sometimes at night in front of the TV or in the corner of the garage where he keeps his carving table and other tools.

Prices vary, depending on the amount of detail and species featured in the carving, Huener says.

"It seems like a fair number of the birds that I work on anymore end up going for retirement gifts," he said. "And then, it seems like you're constantly asked to do a contribution, whether it's The Wildlife Society or Ducks Unlimited or something like that. And I've donated some birds, and with others, I'll give them a break on price, that sort of thing."

Someday, perhaps when he retires, Huener says he'd like to have a bigger shop for pursuing his hobby.

"You can't be duck hunting year-round, so this is something to tinker with during the offseason," Huener said. "Even on a pistol-hot duck shoot, there's still a lot of time when you're not actively calling and shooting birds, and so you can sit back and enjoy how your birds look.

"It's just kind of a point of pride to hunt over an all-wooden spread."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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