Squaw Lake, Minn. – When Minnesota’s duck season opens Sept. 21, hunters hunkered in darkness will wonder what the dawn will bring.
One thing is certain.
Bill Gombold will be hunting over one of the finest decoy spreads in Minnesota. Gombold, a noted waterfowl decoy restorer and painter, owns one of the state’s largest collections of duck hunting decoys, and he lives to see these blocks bobbing beyond his blind.
“Some say I have too many decoys, but I disagree,” said Gombold, as he surveyed the hundreds of decoys that roost on the far wall of his 48-foot-wide pole barn. “How can I have too many if I use them all? I am ready for every game species of waterfowl that flies over Minnesota, and that’s about two dozen.”
A law enforcement retiree living in northern Itasca County, Gombold, 65, has painted and restored decoys since he was 13. He began by spiffing up his dad’s Herter’s decoys at a desk in his Mendota Heights bedroom. Back then he painted and patched because he wanted his dad’s spread to look its absolute best. The work also eased the angst of waiting for the opener.
Today, Gombold routinely retreats to a paint bench in the loft of his log cabin. The loft overlooks a small lake in a deep forest. His work is purchased by Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, dedicated hunters throughout the Midwest and even hunters worldwide, because he paints for Autumn Wings, a Duluth retailer that ships custom decoys and decoy heads globally.
“I don’t paint the kind of finely detailed decoys that people place lovingly on a mantle,” Gombold said. “I paint decoys that look just right to the ducks above and hunters in blinds. One of the great joys of my life is looking over a beautiful spread of decoys. Who doesn’t want to look at decoys that ride the waves just right, catch the light just right and look perfectly natural?”
Gombold’s reputation as a consummate restorer is rooted in the reality that he transforms chipped, bruised and even brand spanking new decoys into birds that perform exceptionally well. Part of this is because of his restle coating process. Restle coating involves brushing a thin layer of glue onto the decoy then coating the sticky surface with finely ground walnut hulls. This sandlike surface armors the decoy and adds depth and nuance to the paint job that follows.
“Restle coating makes a decoy feel rough to the touch, which is good,” Gombold said. “It’s good because decoys with a 3-D surface don’t reflect and refract light the way flat surfaces do. The last thing you want are decoys that repel rather than attract ducks, and that can happen with a smooth surface.”
Greg Kvale, a die-hard waterfowl hunter from Baxter, Minn., is one of Gombold’s recent customers. Kvale owns dozens of plastic decoys, as well as some 100 Styrofoam decoys, most made by the Waseca-based Herter’s before it went bankrupt in the mid-1970s. Kvale acquired these vintage decoys throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, in part, because of their reputation for riding waves with unparalleled grace.
“My original Herter’s birds were at the point whereas much as I loved them I could hardly hunt them because of missing paint, dents, chips and chew holes from mice,” Kvale said. “So I called Bill and brought my birds to him. He’s an expert at getting the colors just right. Now that I have them back, I can’t wait to pitch them in the water.”
John Stieben also admires Gombold’s work. The owner of Autumn Wings, Stieben hires Gombold to paint master decoys used for mass production, custom decoys for clients in foreign countries and decoys auctioned at waterfowl fundraising events.
“He’s one of our go-to guys and an absolute duck nut,” said Stieben said. “Bill never stops talking about ducks. And I mean never.”
Gombold doesn’t disagree.
“Honestly, I am always talking about ducks because I spend most of the year painting and restoring ducks for people who, like me, love to talk about ducks and duck hunting,” he said. “In fact, I spend so much time working on other people’s decoys that I consciously have to carve out time to work on my own. This year I have given myself from Labor Day to the opener to get mine in shape.”
To a certain degree, Gombold’s decoys are always in shape. He maintains scores if not hundreds of decoys for every species that flies over Minnesota. All are organized by species, size and even anchor cord length.
“I have sets of decoys with short cords and long cords so that I am prepared for shallow water or deep water,” he said. “Seriously, who wants to be restringing all the time? It’s easier to be geared up for whatever migrates in or wherever you need to go.”
Gombold will rarely lift a brush during this duck season, but will often shoulder a shotgun. He frequently hunts in a blind near his cabin with his yellow Labrador retriever Lucee. As always this time of year, he is itchy to set spreads of early-season ducks, midseason migrants and late-season divers. The latter are his favorite because he loves to hunt in the cold.
Still, Gombold is looking forward to the season’s end, too. That is because he recently bought an old Herter’s mold so he can start making his own Styrofoam decoys that “like the originals should be some of the finest-riding ever.” Gombold doesn’t plan to produce a lot of decoys but looks forward to making them from start to finish.
“Hey, I am retired,” he said, noting that he has a general distaste for deadlines that interfere with hunting, fishing and kicking back to a little Led Zeppelin. “But I do think it will be fun to make and sell a limited number of decoys. I taught myself how to paint. Now I am going to teach myself how to make great decoys.”
Meanwhile, like tens of thousands of other Minnesota hunters, Gombold is waiting for the season to open a half-hour before sunrise Sept. 21.
“I live for ducks,” he said, “And the best way to hunt them is over decoys.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.
Drilling down on decoys
As deceits go, few have a longer history than the duck decoy.
North American hunters have deployed decoys for at least 2,000 years. The decoy solved the problem of getting an animal to fly or swim into the range of a net, snare, spear, arrow or gun. The earliest North American duck decoys were woven from reeds and grasses and colored with ash and other earthy materials. Wood was the dominant material during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, following periods of papier-mâché, cork and Styrofoam, most decoys are made from plastic via high-tech injection molding.
Setting a decoy spread is both art and science. On opening weekend, many Minnesota hunters will spread mallard, gadwall, wood duck and teal decoys, and perhaps a smattering of ringnecks. River hunters are often armed with wood duck decoys and perhaps a few Canada geese. When diving ducks become more prevalent, spreads shift toward redhead, bluebill, canvasback and goldeneye decoys.