Howard Harper looks down at his feet and furrows his eyebrows. “I’ve got to think about that for a minute, ” he says with a soft laugh. He pauses, then shrugs. “I can’t remember the first decoy I carved to tell you the truth, ” he admits. “But this is one of the first ones right here, ” he says, picking up a handsome blue-winged teal.
Harper turns the wooden duck over in his hands and rubs his thumb across the branded marking on its underbelly. “H. HARPER, ” it reads in burned-out block letters. “SPRINGHILL, ALA.”
It’s hard to blame Harper for his forgetfulness. After all, the retired pediatrician estimates he’s carved “several hundred” wooden duck decoys over the past 40 years or so, most of which he’s given away to friends or traded for other decoys. Today, the 74-year-old Harper stands before a wall-length bookcase in his Spring Hill living room, admiring dozens of ducks of all shapes and sizes. This small fragment of his collection contains decoys he’s both carved and accumulated over the years — mallards, wood ducks, pintails, teals, widgeons, a few doves, a couple of seagulls, a pelican. He gazes at them fondly.
“To look at all these decoys, you wonder how somebody can collect so many, ” he says with a warm smile.
Harper, a Mobile native, says his fascination with ducks and their wooden counterparts didn’t take shape until he finished medical school in Birmingham and moved back home to begin his pediatric residency at Mobile General Hospital (now USA Medical Center) in 1969. Around that time, the young doctor waded into the living waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and declared himself a duck hunter. For the next 10 years, Harper chased ducks from Grand Bay to the Mississippi Sound to the marshes of Louisiana.
“That’s what I did every fall, ” he remembers.
The story might have ended there, had it not been for a chance encounter in New Orleans around 1972 when, during a stroll through the French Quarter, Harper noticed a wooden duck decoy in a store window.
“I thought, ‘Dang, I’ve never seen anything look that good.’”
Harper had the mind to call up the carver of the decoy, a sign-painter-turned-decoy-carver named Roy LeGaux out of Slidell. LeGaux was kind enough to invite Harper to his home and familiarize the young Mobilian with the basics of duck carving.
“So that kind of introduced me to it, ” Harper says. “Then I just piddled with it for a long time.”
Without any carpentry training or pre-existing artistic ability to speak of (Harper maintains that a decoy is the only thing he can paint), the pediatrician sought out local carvers, picking their brains for advice and experimenting with his own techniques. As the years passed, the shotgun eventually gave way to the band saw.
“Duck hunting is a young man’s sport, ” Harper says. “Walking around the water with waders on or hip boots — it’s hard work. So the older I got, the less hunting I did.” Carving decoys, he explains, is a good way to stay in the hunt, without all the sweat and mud.
A New Hunt
A duck decoy is exactly what it sounds like — a man-made duck imitation used by hunters to lure in the real thing. While modern outdoorsmen prefer plastic decoys (as they’re lighter and more affordable), duck imitations were historically made from wood. Carvers like Harper, therefore, are part of a tradition stretching back to the early American settlers of the 18th century.
It all starts with a block of tupelo gum, which Harper describes as “not a real prized wood, ” but it’s an ideal choice for carvers. “It’s fairly light and doesn’t have a whole lot of knots, ” he explains. “It also has a good grain and doesn’t splinter off very easily.”
While generally referred to as “carving, ” Harper admits that most decoy-makers today have adopted power tools. (The most traditional carvers won’t go anywhere near a power outlet.) Harper uses a band saw to shape the bird’s rough form, but he does a lot of his fine shaping with a rotary tool he built himself out of an air conditioner motor and a sand drum. If he’s making a “working” decoy, one that could potentially be used on a hunt, he’ll hollow out the body to ensure the decoy floats. Harper does so by slicing off the bottom of the bird like a board and scraping out the body by hand or with a drill before reattaching the piece with nails and marine glue.
“I usually put a rock or a shell in it if I don’t forget, ” Harper says, rattling a hollow duck. This lets hunters know with certainty that a decoy is hollow and, therefore, will float. “I put a marble in a couple of ‘em, but they were so loud I had to quit. The kids would get ‘em and walk around the house shaking ‘em.”
At the height of his productivity, Harper could be working on six ducks at a time, but these days he’s a little more deliberate. He points out an unpainted duck that he’s “been fooling with for three or four months.” He says the next step, the painting, is the hardest (and perhaps the most important) part.
“That really makes the bird, ” Harper says. “You can be a so-so carver, but if you can paint, you can make it look really good.”
As for his decoy collecting, it’s fair to say that Harper is on a different type of duck hunt than the young man at Mobile General all those years ago.
“Now I don’t think about duck hunting at all, ” he says with a laugh. “But if I find a decoy, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.” Decoys, Harper says, are hard to find in Mobile, so he occasionally travels to auctions, sometimes as far away as Maryland and Chicago.
“It’s kind of a personal hobby, because nobody really sees [my decoys], except family. In fact, not too many people even know I collect.”
As for carving, Harper describes the hobby as a hunt for perfection.
“The more I did it, the better I got at it, ” he explains. “It was something that made me feel like, if I kept doing it, the next one I’d do better.”