Duck lover and artist becomes duck decoy expert

September 22, 2013 at 09:50 AM

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — You cannot enter Jim Riis' home without immediately sensing his passion for waterfowl.

And it goes beyond the collection of duck stamps going back to 1934 hanging proudly on his living room wall. A glance around reveals a bird enthusiast's dream flock: canvasbacks, northern shovelers and ruddy ducks — just to name a few — full of color and life nest together side by side on his shelves.

What makes it even more impressive is that Riis has painstakingly carved and assembled this eclectic roost of dabbling and diving birds. For more than 40 years he has been a practitioner of what he calls an original American folk art: crafting decoys.

Born and raised in Pierre, Riis has always had a fascination for birds and ducks in particular. The central stretch of the Missouri River is the perfect place for the waterfowl enthusiast and hunter because it's in the central flyway for many species, he told the Capital Journal ( ).

Riis spent most of his career as a Missouri River Fisheries Program administrator with the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks, and most of his personal life in Pierre, with a few decade-long detours in Alaska and Webster.

It was during his time in Webster that he first began collecting antique decoys with his wife, Jeanne. The area was known for its wetlands, ducks and an unusually high amount of antique decoys floating around. And somewhere along the way — he can't recall exactly when or why — he made the leap from collector to carver. But the transition was undoubtedly influenced by his surroundings.

"I think those neat areas of South Dakota played a large role," he said.

Decoys have been an art form since at least the 1900s, Riis said. His favorites are those made by the Ward brothers — whom he called the "fathers of decorative decoys" — in 1936. Today, originals from that era have become valuable collector's items. In April he attended a decoy show in Chicago where some models were going for more than $100,000.

Since becoming a decoy maker himself, Riis has made his home a shrine to his hobby and passion. Redheads, blue-bills, golden eyes, even a Canada goose and swan fill up shelving space. For some variety there are handcrafted terns, plovers and even a crow. Historic decoys, some more than a century old, share that space, along with lining the mantelpiece and sitting above the back door.

Judging from the sheer amount of wooden fowl sticking out of every corner, one could assume the hobby is for Riis' own benefit. However, he assures that plenty of people, including a good number of repeat customers, buy his lifelike birds to display on their mantelpieces.

"I have people who own more of my decoys than I do," he said.

Of course, Riis has perfected his style by constantly creating decoys during the past four decades. Just how many waterfowl he's carved during that time is a difficult to count. He originally put the figure in the hundreds, but, upon reflection, realized that if he can turn out 10 in a sitting and if he has several such spurts of activity a year, the number could easily reach into the thousands.

It's during the frigid winter or scorching summer days that he seems to be the most productive, retreating to his basement workshop to escape the weather by indulging in his hobby.

Crafting a quality decoy all starts with the right wood. Riis prefers one of three types: pine, bass wood and white cedar. Cedar, also consequently the name of his Labrador retriever, is his favorite. It's lightweight, never rots and has a good grain and feel to it.

Just finding his preferred wood is a journey in and of itself. It requires driving a pickup truck to International Falls in northern Minnesota to find a sawmill that will sell him 8- or 6-foot-long planks of his chosen wood. Each plank will eventually become roughly six decoys, depending on the bird he's trying to mimic.

His technique for fashioning the ducks can be described as old fashioned. After cutting the blocks to the appropriate size, the only two tools he uses is a rasp and an old draw knife, which still bears his grandfather's initials of "CM."

It may be quaint, but it gets the job done. In fact, in the last 40-plus years he's only had to sharpen the draw knife once.

How long a decoy takes depends on the bird to be mimicked and how detailed it will be. Riis figures if he got up in the morning and started working on a bird at 8 a.m., he could have it completely fashioned by the end of the day. Of course, shaping and gluing on the head, adding eyes, color and other details obviously adds a lot more time to the clock.

"I could spend 40 hours burning feathers on them," Riis said.

In his early years, Riis used to do a lot of that burning and detail. But recently he has favored a more traditional, minimalistic sort of look. The decision is not completely about style. Sandpapering is something of hazard as he has developed an allergy to wood dust. But, whatever the reason, it's become his own approach to the art.

"Once you develop your own style, you won't copy anyone else," he said.

Riis still counts it as a point of pride that his work was good enough that Spencer Vaa, a former state waterfowl biologist now living in Brookings, has asked for a dozen of his birds.

The key to making a good decoy is making sure it's light and floats right — he'll sometimes add keels to the bottom to achieve the right buoyancy. You also have to know your birds, really watch them to get down their shape, color and the way they sit in the water, he says in the voice of someone who has evidently done just that.

It's a passion he's has kindled somewhat in his family. During their last visit two of his grandsons help him paint a batch of decoys and now, in lieu of normal presents, they've asked him for a duck and coot, respectively.

"It's important to pass this tradition on of waterfowling," Riis summed up succinctly.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.