Long Island is arguably the home of waterfowl decoy carving. The most lasting legacy of the region’s centuries old market gunning era was the gradual evolution of decoy carving from the hacking out of rough-shod hunks of wood and cork to the more crafted shapes that have become one of the most recognizable forms of American folk-art.
It’s fitting, then, that as the skills of some of the most talented decoy carvers from around the country—still crafting their decoys primarily for use in the field—were first put on display collectively here on Long Island in 1923. And it is equally fitting that this year’s Long Island Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show, this Saturday, will honor the history of what would become known as the U.S. National Decoy Show and some of the Northeast’s great waterfowl decoy carvers of yesteryear.
This weekend’s show is hosted by the Long Island Decoy Collectors’ Association and will be held at the IBEW Union Hall on the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, off exit 55 on the LIE. The show runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is a paltry $6.
The theme this year focuses
on the history of the U.S. National Decoy Show, which was held from 1964 to 1994 and, in its heyday, was the largest and most prestigious carving competition of its kind. More than 1,500 carvings from around the country and the Canadian provinces were entered in the show annually during the 1980s.
The display honoring the show’s history was coordinated by former Ducks Unlimited Regional Director Craig Kessler and will showcase more than 50 carvings that won ribbons in the show over the years, including the carvings of such local sharpies as Capt. Ed Clarke from Shelter Island, Fred Muhs from Hampton Bays, Bob Hand from Sag Harbor and Richard LaFountain from East Hampton. The show will also feature a mini-theme, Al McCormick Corner, a remembrance of one of the region’s most prolific carvers and the professor who taught many of the next generation the craft of carving.
The nation’s first ever decoy carving competition was held in Bellport in 1923, pitting the skill of carvers who may not have previously been aware of each other’s work against each other. Contests were held only intermittently in the 1930s and 1940s and in New York City in the late 1940s. In 1964 the Great South Bay Waterfowlers Association picked up the ball and organized a carving contest, initially dubbed the Long Island Decoy Contest, later changed to the “U.S. National.” Proceeds from the show went to Ducks Unlimited to fund waterfowl habitat restoration projects.
In 1966 Al “Mr. Decoy” McCormick set up his workbench and tools on the floor of the show and began demonstrating for attendees the mechanics of how he carved his famous cork decoys.
Initially the competition judged working stool, rugged cork and wood decoys meant to be stuffed into burlap sacks and knocked around in duck boats. Eventually though, the details carvers began adding to their decoys, from meticulous paint jobs to raised feather carvings, began to get too delicate to be used in the field and “floating decorative” decoys became the main focus of the most talented carvers, and soon dominated the competitive shows. Now carvings exhibit such intricate details as eyelids, tongues, textured feathers and even feet.
On display at the show will be some of Mr. McCormick’s tools, partial carvings and some of the wood components he used to add detail to his cork decoys. Whether you’re an avid decoy collector or just a hunter with an appreciation for our region’s rich waterfowling past, the show should be a great window into our hunting history.
Lord knows the cod fishing isn’t so hot that it is worth skipping the show for. There’s mackerel stacked up about 12 miles south of Shinnecock. If the ocean is flat, filling the cans with them should be an easy task.
If you do choose the water over the LIE, catch ’em up. See you out there.