BATTLE CREEK — Cedar Run Decoy Co. LLC aims to provide hunters with new ways to get back to the basics of waterfowling.
The startup grew out of the frustration owners Corey Lucas and Boyd Culver experienced in trying to find traditional gear — think hand-carved decoys common in their grandfathers’ generation — amid the motorized cheap plastic products frequently stocked at most sporting goods shops.
“We hunt and we spend a lot of time out there talking about how we can do things better and how some of the products we were using just weren’t working for us,” Lucas said. “We wondered why we couldn’t just simplify things, get back to the basics.”
As a result, the experienced hunters decided to team up and build their own products, at first for themselves and now for others hunting from the potholes of the prairies to the big waters of the Great Lakes region.
“We’ve got some really good ideas and the time is right,” Lucas said. “Right now, we’re trying to market to avid duck hunters that want to keep things for a long time and pass them on to future generations. We feel we don’t have to take up a large part of the market to be successful with that strategy.”
Decoys are traditionally used in waterfowl hunting by grouping a number of them in a “spread” around watery areas where ducks or geese like to congregate. Then, hunters hide nearby until birds head for the faux flock and fly within shooting range.
Many common plastic decoys are lightweight, cheap and do fairly well in the water, but they lack personality and don’t bear the test of time, according to Lucas.
“There’s something about hunting with hand-carved decoys that are unique to you that can’t be replicated. There are a lot of motorized decoys out there right now that they’ll stick up on these big tall pulls and try to outdo the guy next to them, and we just don’t think that’s the way people should be hunting,” he said.
With quality, wood-carved decoys, a hunter must revert to their skills as a caller — luring the waterfowl by imitating its sound — and the art that goes into a spread of decoys, he said.
According to Lucas, the traditional decoys will also stand up to the elements of nature and even the hunters themselves: While the plastic decoys are destroyed with a low-flying shot and must go into landfills as trash, wood and cork decoys survive to float another day.
“You’re going to have some holes in your cork, but it is still going to float and it just tells a story,” Lucas said. “All these war wounds that you see on these wooden and cork decoys are just a story.”
From concept to sale, Cedar Run designs its decoys with social responsibility in mind. The company uses discarded cork material from the wine industry, which is glued together into sheets to create the body of its birds. The cork is originally harvested from the “outer bark” of trees — a practice that keeps the tree alive after harvest.
The head of each bird is constructed from basswood, while the keel — a plank connected to the underside of the bird that allows for lifelike motion on the water — is made of red cedar.
Lucas carves and paints each decoy by hand.
“The part that really takes a lot of time for me is the painting. It’s typically two to three hours to paint a decoy,” he said. “I’ve done airbrushing, but I just don’t like it. For me, it kind of disconnects me from the piece, so I like to hand-paint everything. It takes a little bit longer but it’s more enjoyable.”
Lucas learned to handcraft decoys from Master Carver Willy McDonald of Barry County, a legendary teacher in the field and a past winner of the Michigan Heritage Award from Michigan State University for his work with decoys.
“Almost everyone in the decoy-carving world knows Willy,” Lucas said.
Since the company started in January and celebrated its official launch last month, coinciding with the second annual Lake Effect Waterfowl Festival hosted by the regional chapter of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association, Lucas and Culver have focused mainly on custom orders and keeping a low stock of decoys for trade and “pop-up” shows.
They’re also eyeing an economic opportunity since the average duck hunter spends between $600 and $1,500 annually on gear, according to Lucas.
“That’s a huge number in our eyes,” he said.
The company also makes branded gear, like hats and shirts, reclaimed wood cutting boards and knives designed for waterfowl hunters.
The business side of the company is mostly run by Culver, who also owns craft beer industry supplier Coldbreak Brewing LLC in Grand Rapids.
“He’s grown a successful business here in Michigan,” Lucas said. “We can utilize his skills as a businessman and my skills with waterfowl knowledge.”
Lucas, who also works in waterfowl conservation, said he became “obsessed” with the issue after those many hunting trips with Culver.
“At that time, I was going back to school for biology, so I ended up working my way through and getting to work for the waterfowl and wetlands specialists at the Michigan DNR in Lansing,” he said. “I took my passion for duck hunting all the way to the management level.”
The passion also helps explain why 5 percent of all sales at Cedar Run Decoy Co. will be donated to support waterfowl conservation, he said.
“I’m in this field and I see where there are gaps in funding,” he said. “I look at this business opportunity as potentially funding those types of projects.”
Waterfowl conservation in North America has long been funded by hunters. Massive losses of wetlands and suitable habitats contributed to the loss of tens of millions of birds over the last century. In the future, experts also say climate change will alter bird populations across the continent.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates more than 300 species will be driven to smaller spaces or forced to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years.
A report released last month by the USFWS estimated total populations at 38.9 million breeding ducks, 6 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 41.2 million, but 10 percent above the 64-year, long-term average.
The bill for protecting, restoring and reclaiming these habitats has almost entirely been funded by fees levied on waterfowl hunters since the 1930s. All waterfowl hunters must buy and carry an annual Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp — better known as a “duck stamp.”
“Hunters are footing a lot of the bill for properties that other people are enjoying as well,” Lucas said. “Whether it’s a wildlife sanctuary or the breeding area in the plains, they’re paying for that protection — and they should be.”
Since the duck stamp program launched in 1934, it has generated around $800 million to fund the protection of more than 5.7 million acres of waterfowl habitat, according to USFWS data.
“Sometimes that connection gets lost and people don’t realize that hunters do want to protect their recreation and want to see more birds,” he said. “When you go out there and see a flock of 10,000 birds over your head, that’s just fun.”