Autumn Wings has served North American waterfowlers since 1996 and has gained the reputation for outstanding service and commitment to customer satisfaction in the waterfowler community. With a partnership with Ducks Unlimited as a preferred vendor and recognition in the Minnesota Duck Decoys book by Doug Lodermeier and on Twin Cities Public Television, our customers see us as a source to fulfill their needs in the areas of quality hand made duck decoys and waterfowl gifts and decor.

Autumn Wings Master Carver

Stan Balgaard is our master carver and the creative force behind Autumn Wings products. There is more to an effective duck decoy design than the replication of birds in the wild. Most carvers ultimate goal is to win a contest; Stan is not looking for prizes, his passion is to deceive ducks!

Stan Belgaard with Wings Set

Some of our contemporaries use a potpourri of carvers depending on price and availability. Autumn Wings duck decoys reflect the creative style of one man, much the same way as many of the storied early carving shops. Stan and I met at the landing of Lake Christina in west-central Minnesota. This was a memorable occasion for me since Stan was so generous with local hunting tips, had three small children in his duck boat and he used a wonderful set of handmade wooden duck decoys. I coveted those duck decoys!

Stan lives high on a hill overlooking the lake where he likes to observe the flights of waterfowl each spring and fall. He is a keen observer of wildlife, a skilled taxidermist and possesses the unique talent to bring life to blocks of wood. For my part, I didn’t have the money to purchase or the talent to create handmade duck decoyduck decoys of his caliber. Thus began our passionate search to create premium quality duck decoys. They had to have the appearance of hand-carved wooden duck decoys (like Stan’s), yet perform better, and be made affordable for everyday use.

Stan is striving to create the ultimate duck decoy, pleasant to hold and observe on the water yet deadly deceptive to waterfowl.

Blending Business Acumen and Wood-Crafting Skills to Produce Quality and Affordable Gunning Duck Decoys

by Steve Kufrin, as featured in the Minnesota Duck Decoys book by Doug Lodermeier

Like many other relationships, the men first met at the public landing on the edge of a large waterfowling lake. In the wee hours of an October 1996 morning, fast before sunrise, Stan Balgaard was situating three of his children in their hunting boat amid munchies, hot chocolate, shotgun, shells and the other accouterments necessary for youthful comfort and to stool a few divers. Also at the landing, awaiting his turn to float a boat, was Jim Burkett, who admitted he drooled upon seeing the wood decoys stacked in Balgaard’s boat. The men chewed before Balgaard set sail, but not before informing Burkett that he made his own decoys from wood and was a taxidermist.

Burkett, of course, figured he’d never again bump into Balgaard and his brood...unless he could collect a prime drake canvasback. By chance later that morning, Burkett harvested his can which Balgaard ??stuffed” for his wall. Fate? Perhaps. For sure, it was an opportunistic meeting for both, who since their morning at the public access have nurtured a relationship that???s developed into Autumn Wings: Decoys for Waterfowl Conservation.

“Our friendship started developing right from that point, because that gave us a reason to get back together,” Burkett remembered of the chance meeting. “Our families started visiting, our wives got to know each other and liked each other... things just fell into place.”

Autumn Wings now is a business partnership between Burkett and Balgaard. It provides gunnin’ decoys for waterfowlers who are willing to step up from plastic and spend a bit more money to purchase a rig of quality decoys unlike the copy-cat models found in catalogs and sporting goods stores. In their partnership, Burkett, 46, of Dayton, Minnesota, supplies the business acumen gained through years in the high-tech industry. Balgaard, 50, of rural Evansville, contributes skills he’s developed through farming, carpentry and a deep association with and knowledge of wood.

After graduating from Wayzata High School, Burkett left the University of Minnesota in 1976 with a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. Initially employed by General Mills in California, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from the State University of New York in 1979.

Balgaard, who made his first hunting decoy at about the age of 15, started carving hay balers and combines as a lad for his sandbox. After graduating from Ashby High School in 1969, he worked as a well driller for a year, then farmed with a brother for 15 years. Since leaving that operation, he’s been a full- time local residential carpenter; making decoys and other art from wood is a secondary occupation but an avocation he thoroughly enjoys.

“I started with my decoy carving cause dad loved to hunt ducks,” confessed Balgaard. “His favorite decoy was a wooden canvasback, which he just really admired, and so he always put it in the lead (of the decoy rig). A hen can I always thought I could carve. For the first decoy, I found one of dad’s cedar fence posts and cut the top off. I thought there was about 16 inches he didn’t need off the top of the post, so I cut that off, split that thing down the middle... that’s where I got my start. Of course, I wanted dad’s approval, so I brought that (completed decoy) in, put it on the kitchen table. Dad looked at it for a long while. He was a typical Norwegian – not a lot of words. But he was emotional – you could tell when he could feel things. Well, he looked at that and he said: ‘Not too bad!’ I knew when he said that much that it was pretty decent. So that was inspiring. Man, down to the shop I went.”

In the Beginning

Well-used Early Ringneck Pair made from furniture grade urethane. Autumn Wings no longer uses this method, however, the hunter or collector may still find one of these style decoys in service or on a shelf.

Balgaard, with initial assistance from other makers, designed the ringneck decoys for Autumn Wings, the first species offered by the company through the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. “The reason we started with ringbills is that Stan and I hunt in Minnesota and we both hunt a lot ringbills,” Burkett said of their marketing decision. “When we hunt divers, ringbills are our bread and butter duck. Since I hadn’t run across any ringbill decoys, I was taking bluebill decoys and re-painting them, but that really isn’t accurate for a ringneck. Since ringnecks are now the top diver in the bag (in Minnesota) and it’s usually within the top three in the state in the harvest, that’s the main reason we started with ringnecks.

“We started hunting with these ourselves before we even approached anyone else. In fact, we did four or five dozen prototypes, so we tried to put in some field experience. This is going back three or four seasons...and I’ve been real pleased with the durability of the decoys so far. Three and four years is a short time in the life of a decoy. We’re limited now only having the ringbills that we started with, but we’ll be adding the mallards this year, have them available this summer, and hopefully this fall hunters will be able to start to use them. There’s no question that mallards are the most requested decoys, the most popular decoy that hunters want to use, the number-one duck in the bag. Bluebills and canvasbacks are quite popular as well and decoys that we need to add to our line.”

“One of the things that makes this all the more fulfilling and interesting to me,” says Burkett, “is that working with these decoys is so different – it’s a distraction from day to day work. Hopefully it’s a new direction at some point in my career to get in the business world from a different angle. It’s something that I enjoy – tying the business into waterfowling and decoys and carving and so forth. Stan was probably thinking along the same lines, too. I think both of us find it intriguing to try to make a living out of this area. So, when he started talking, I think it was something we could immediately relate to and it just fell together.”

Defining Production

“What we’re really trying to achieve is a functional working decoy derived from the designs of Stan’s carving that can be produced in such a way that they’d be more affordable and more durable than what you can achieve through using regular hand-carved (wood) decoys,” explained Burkett. “I see that we’ve got the potential to branch out in other areas. The natural thing is decorative- type decoys that we could do. Along that line, we’ll probably start offering two grades of decoys pretty soon, one the premier grade that Stan would personally hand paint and probably be signed and personally worked on by the artist. That would be more of a keepsake, decorative type. Then a working grade decoy with a factory paint job based off the same design, and with Stan’s design inputs on the paint and the shape, but designed more for people to use in their hunting rigs.

“I’d like to see us do other products that originate with Stan’s carvings that we can put into production. I’m still intrigued by what we see on the wall in that flock of flying (taxidermied) cans. As a hunter, one of the things that thrills me is the moment of truth, when there’s a flock of cans in your decoys or you catch a glimpse of mallards in their formations and the movements of birds in the air. Artists’ capture that in paint. Carvers can capture flying birds, but you don’t see too many of them because they’re very difficult to produce and very time consuming. And to do more than one, to end up with a flock, is problematic.

“If Stan could do carvings of flying birds, maybe not full size...you could have a flock of cans boring by at high speed or mallards with cupped wings coming in, all with a nice paint job and that were artistically arranged to capture that interest, that moment (with the) birds flipping, whatever, that really gets hunters interested. I’m thinking that me, personally, I’d be interested to have an object like that on display. I’ve never seen anything like that, but I think it’s an idea that we’re gaining the production experience on how to do it cost-effectively. That really intrigues me. This market for decorative decoys and hunting decoys is limited, especially on the hunting side. There’s really only a small percentage of hunters – the elite, let’s say, or the very nostalgic – who are willing to pay more for the quality and the nostalgic feel of something along the lines of the traditional hand-carved wooden decoy.

Jim Burkett and Stan Balgaard, circa 2001, look over some early decoys.

“That really limits our market, for how can you compete with $3 or $5 polyethylene molded decoys which are going to serve the needs of 90% of the hunters. But I do think the demographics of duck hunters, from what I can gather, favor the high-grade hunting decoys a bit. There’s not a lot of growth in the number of duck hunters, but I think those that are there tend to appreciate it more over time – more of them appreciate it, more of them are into using fine equipment and getting the most out of their time cause we’re all limited in how much time we can be afield.

“Our society’s becoming more affluent, so you see more hunters with finer shotguns – older or antique double barrels add to your experience. These hunters spend a lot of money in having a good hunting spot...so they know they have a hunting spot. They have dogs that they get trained. The clothing...I think that the decoys can be all part of that, too, and I think there’s a growing number of hunters that want the best decoys that they can afford because they add to the whole experience. If you’re out hunting for four hours or eight hours, what are you staring at all the time? You’re staring at your spread of decoys and nature all around you. If you have nice, attractive decoys that look realistic, even if there aren’t a lot of ducks around, then the decoys add to the hunting experience.”

A Conservation Tool

Product enhancements is critical in Burkett’s hunting philosophy. Ethically, he feels, it make sense to purchase and hunt with realistic decoys – those with different poses, which don’t bob on the water, tip over or swing erratically in strong winds and which resemble as close to possible the species being hunted. By deploying realistic decoys to lure the ducks into closer range, fewer cripples result, vital to maintaining duck populations which are significantly affected by weather and habitat destruction during some seasons on the breeding grounds.

“This day and age you want to make all your shots count in terms of reducing crippling losses,” sums up Burkett. “If we can produce a product that gets birds in closer to hunters more frequently, to have more effective performance in terms of harvesting the birds, I think we’re also benefiting the resource at that point too. I can’t prove this, but I think by using high-quality decoys in your rig, that match the species that you’re hunting, where you get that recognition and a wild duck is going to be more comfortable to work in closer...if they’re not sure, they’re going to stay on the edge of the set, you’re going to be more likely to take a marginal shot and it’s going to more likely result in a cripple, which is a lost bird. I think that is the other driving force for us.

“From the conservation standpoint, anything we can do with our product to reduce the crippling losses of birds by making hunters more effective is also going to benefit the resource in the long run. It’s subtle, I admit that, but I think if you’re out there hunting enough you can really tell when a bird falls for your decoy spread. You know you’ve got him, that he’s almost going to land right in your lap.”

Autumn Wings - What’s New Today

by Doug Lodermeier

Today Autumn Wings no longer makes decoys from the urethane used in early production decoys. The process, while highly successful, became too labor and cost intensive to be marketable on a commercial basis. The fact that the early urethane decoys were a quality product is evidenced in the numbers still in service today and in those that show up on collector’s shelves in virtually mint condition except for a little in-use wear.

The search for a material which equaled the urethane led Autumn Wings to two materials long known to old-time decoy makers for durability and functionality – basswood and high density cork. Combined with quality touches such as hand-carved bodies with hand- brushed paints, these decoys are a nod to the traditional practices of the master craftsmen of yesteryear.

Two decoy lines in a wide array of species anchor the Autumn Wings product line. A gunning decoy, hand carved and brushed in oils, represents their wooden decoys. These are over-sized for ease of recognition by the ducks they mean to lure and feature a concave bottom for a more realistic ride than conventional flat bottom decoy designs. The decoys are finished with pine keels and carefully set quality glass eyes. Since these decoys are hand-made, no two decoys are exactly alike. Couple this with four different head poses and the result is a truly impressive and realistic rig.

The second style decoy in Autumn Wings line is the “Fatboy” cork body decoys. Made from a single piece of black cork and finished with a full size bottom board on the puddle duck line, these larger than life-size decoys make a statement on the water. Like the wood bodied line, these decoys are available in four natural looking head positions. The heads are hand-carved, hand-painted in oils using kiln dried basswood. And, like their counterparts, the heads are easy to change, thanks to the bolt head fastening system that runs up through the keel terminating at a threaded insert in the head.

Heads and replacement heads have become a large part of their offering. Originally the idea of wood replacement heads developed as a result of requests from hunters for upgrades to their Herter’s model 72 and Restle foam decoy rigs. These heads have also proved useful to do-it-yourself carvers and a growing number of hunting grade cork decoy shops around the country as a cost effective (yet quality) wood head. At this time Autumn Wings offers 65 styles of wood duck decoy heads, all hand carved and set with glass eyes. Both painted and unpainted versions are offered. The newest addition to the line is a series of three Canada goose poses, scheduled for introduction late in 2009.

Autumn Wings also offers other sundries needed by the waterfowler including a heavy-duty decoy bag, anchors and instructional DVDs. In addition, they have a “Gifts and Decor” line where one can find hand-carved miniature decoys, original classic sporting art and other gifts for the outdoorsman.

An exciting new concept from Autumn Wings and of great interest to the collector is the introduction of a new decoy line featuring the original works of Minnesota’s top carvers. They will launch this line with the work of Dave Taylor of Marshall, Minnesota, (please see Dave Taylor’s section in the Present Carvers section of this book) and also will produce a factory line based on his green-winged teal design.

Lastly, and not to be overlooked, is Autumn Wings continued commitment to wildlife. In their “Decoys for Conservation” program, a portion of all sales will be designated to a waterfowl conservation program of the customers choice. Autumn Wings continues to stay true to their mission of being makers of “Traditional Waterfowl Decoys for Hunters & Collectors” as well as “Benefiting Conservation.”