BRAINERD, MINN. - For many years, a friend and I hunted in Manitoba. During those hunts, we lured geese -- Canadas and snows -- into shotgun range by deploying a large number of decoys, usually in harvested grain fields. Through midday, we hiked the aspen "bluffs" behind our dogs hoping to flush a grouse or two. By late afternoon, we were usually snuggled into a patch of bulrushes overlooking a spread of duck decoys bobbing on blue water.
The trips north were gear-intensive. We would stuff my van with three dogs in portable kennels, goose decoys, duck decoys, blinds, waders and all the other necessary waterfowling paraphernalia -- in addition to various upland bird hunting essentials. Most of the decoys -- bags and bags of them -- were strapped inside an aluminum johnboat that was secured upright to a rack atop the van. The fully loaded vehicle always garnered odd stares from passersby.
One year while traveling through southern Manitoba, we encountered high winds. The johnboat filled with decoys tied to the top of the van acted as a sail, and keeping the vehicle between the white lines was difficult. At noon, we stopped for lunch at Oak Hammock Marsh, a sprawling waterfowl refuge north of Winnipeg. Soon, a gentleman carrying an arm full of goose decoys approached.
"These must be yours," the man said. "I'm not sure if I got them all. I was picking them off the road every so often, hoping I'd catch up to the owners."
The decoys were indeed ours. I climbed atop the van and upon inspection I found the gusty wind had split a decoy bag at a seam, and one by one the faux geese had become airborne, eventually landing won the road or in the ditch.
I thought of that incident last week as I readied my waterfowl hunting gear for the Saturday's Minnesota duck opener. My old bulky decoys have now been replaced by the latest inflatable decoys manufactured by Cherokee Sports. The decoys, when deflated, compress into amazingly small packages. Had my friend and I employed the inflatable decoys during our trips to Manitoba, we could have avoided the boatload of bulky decoys atop the van, and the daily chore of climbing up and down to load and unload them. We could have squeezed bags and bags of the inflatable decoys into every nook and cranny inside the van.
Not only are these newest inflatable decoys functional, but they are amazingly lifelike, too. The decoys are printed with an actual photo of a live duck. As a wildlife photographer, I appreciate the realism since I use the decoys not just for hunting -- where one needs only to lure ducks within shotgun range, roughly 40 yards -- but also for attracting ducks into camera range, a distance measured in feet, not yards.
Brett Fulcher, founder and chief operating manager of Tennessee-based Cherokee Sports, started the company in 1993 when he introduced an archery target repair kit. Eleven years ago, Fulcher developed the first photo-printed inflatable decoy. Now, Cherokee Sports manufactures lifelike decoys depicting wild turkeys, deer, doves and most of the popular species of ducks and geese, along with other innovative hunting products. The company's slogan is "Solutions for the Sportsman."
"A lot of company owners have trouble answering the question why they started their business," Fulcher said. "I started this business because, as a hunter and angler all my life, I was always looking for a better way. For example, lugging heavy decoys into remote areas took more time than the actual hunt."
I've used Cherokee Sports' photo-printed inflatable decoys for several years and I'm amazed at their ruggedness. Even in freezing weather, the decoys stand up to all the abuse a waterfowl hunter can dish out. The plastic material is tough and the color printing is durable. Only once did a decoy leak air, and that was quickly remedied by the repair kit that comes with each box of decoys.
The latest inflatable decoys introduced by Cherokee Sports are called Fusion, and they feature a molded head. They are available at Cabela's, or online at www.cherokee-sports.com. The cost is about $32 for a half-dozen.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors photographer and columnist, lives near Brainerd.