Celebrating an old duck decoy and its place in the rushes of recollection

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
I asked Dick Brown to come back and pose with the decoy

Sometimes it isn't the thing itself that matters as much as it is the person who owned the thing.

Whatever that thing is.

Let’s say it is a rod and reel. I have an old Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 casting reel with a monster of a fiberglass rod that belonged to former state Game, Fish & Parks Secretary Jack Merwin. He used the rig up on Lake Oahe to cast plugs for big northern pike, and caught more than his share.

I don’t use that outfit much. But I sure like having it, and thinking about Merwin and his agency leadership in projects that transformed outdoor recreation in South Dakota. You know, stuff like Missouri River boat ramp development and construction of the Blue Dog Lake State Fish Hatchery near Waubay.

I also have an 1100 Remington 12 gauge owned by my former father-in-law, Keith Keltgen, and a heavy old Ruger Red Label over-under 12 owned by my cousin, Tom Woster. I use both of those guns quite a bit. And I sure like having them, and thinking about Keith and Tom and the times I shared outdoors with both of them.

There are other things around my house with meaning beyond function. They include a pair of fly fishing outfits that Chuck Post dropped off 20 years or so ago before he left his job as information-education director for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department and headed for another life in Florida. Before that, though, he had a lot to do with developing a GF&P public-information system that still educates, inspires and informs.

One of Chuck's old fly outfits is a South Bend Finalist reel with matching rod. The other is a Garcia Mitchell 752 reel with Berkley rod. I’ve never changed the line on either. It wouldn’t seem right, somehow.

I’ve got plenty of newer, better fly-fishing gear. But I take Chuck’s old outfits out every couple of years and wave them around over hopeful waters, just to feel the limber weight of the past. I also like squeezing the cork handles that were held so many years ago by a now-far-away friend I stay in touch with on Facebook.

Oh, then there’s the Vit Glodo, a wooden duck call made by Herter’s a half century or so ago. It was a gift from my buddy Keith Wintersteen a few years back. The call itself is cool enough, but it gets better. Before the call belonged to Keith it belonged to his wife’s grandpa, Herbie, about whom many stories have been passed from Keith to me over steaming Thermos cups in stream-side blinds and during midday lunches on favored bass dams.

When anchored by a tangible object of someone's affections (and of your own), such stories can keep a person — even one you never met  — alive in the imagination. And Herbie will live on in mine for as long as I do.

I also have an old bamboo fly rod that belonged to Herbie. Wintersteen gave it to me during a delightfully irreverent ceremony before a group of pheasant hunters at Nick and Mary Jo Nemec’s farm near Holabird. It was a Sunday morning close to my 60th birthday, and also the day of our annual Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.

Nick and I began the hunt in 2007, hoping to bring people of different and sometimes hateful political persuasions together in friendship. Invitees are expected to set differences aside to celebrate the rattling rush of flushing pheasants, the brisk edge of a South Dakota autumn day and the shared reward of Mary Jo’s scrumptious chili.

I’ve never fished with the bamboo rod, but I like to think I might someday. And I only blow the Vit Glodo call a few times a year, usually while snuggled up alone against a blood-red bank of Spearfish Shale somewhere along Crow Creek, watching my decoys drift in the current and hoping for a mallard drake to arrive.

And now, on top of all this, there is this old duck decoy, which landed on my front step Wednesday morning, in a box.

It’s a well-weathered, well-traveled Carry Lite mallard drake, cracked and patched and puttied and sealed, missing an eye on the right side and hung — in the way old duck decoys are meant to be hung — with a tangled length of twine tied to a rusty pipe joint that served for a generation  and more to anchor the decoy against the wind and waves of countless waterfowl haunts.

Its duck-tricking existence began about the same time I did, or maybe a year or two earlier.

“It’s got to be circa 1947 to 1952 that the that bunch of Carry Lite decoys was originally bought,” says Dick Brown, a Dell Rapids native now living near Custer. “It was somewhere in that time frame when Dad started using them.”

The “Dad” in the story was Ellsworth Brown. Most likely, you’ve never heard of him. Most people haven’t, not anymore. But Ellsworth Brown was a prominent voice in and for the outdoors in South Dakota in the 1950s, the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Ellsworth served as the president of the Dell Rapids Sportsmen’s Club and also the South Dakota Wildlife Federation. He led those organizations in pushing for public access and wildlife conservation and more places for regular South Dakotans to go to hunt and fish.

Ellsworth was a man who mattered in the outdoors when I got to know him and write stories about him in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the first of which was published almost 40 years ago. I got to know his son, Dick, too, beginning a relationship that has endured along with the decoy I just received.

Like his dad, Dick went on to do things of substance, in the business community in Sioux Falls, as a civic leader, a state legislator, a state Game, Fish & Parks Commission member and as a hunter, angler, hiker and biker. His biggest accomplishment, however, was charming a bright young woman from Illinois into marriage. More on Sue in a moment.

Ellsworth Brown died in late May of 1995, just a couple of weeks short of his 83rd birthday and just a few months after I wrote my last story about him. It was a column, actually, published in the Sunday Argus Leader on February 5th. Ellsworth didn't mention his old decoys in the column, but he did mention the H&R single-shot .410 he got when he was 9 years old, and how it wasn't long before the expectation was that he could take out five shells and bring back four birds."It was a good gun," Ellsworth asserted. "It still is."

My guess at the time was he could still hit with it. I'm pretty sure I was right.

But Ellsworth's accomplishments went far beyond a sharp shooting eye. And they live on across the face of South Dakota's outdoors, along with the memories they produced. Some of those memories involve Ellsworth’s Carry Lite decoy flock, including the one that has recently settled in among the rushes of recollection at my place.

“We used those decoys hunting all over around Dells, Colton, Colman, all those sloughs, up to Lake Thompson, which was a gigantic slough back then,” says Dick. “And we used them around the Chester area at the Chester slough and around Buffalo Trading post west of Sioux Falls.”

All of which adds to the value of the decoy — a value that accrues in the bottom-line economy of the heart. It matters not just to have a thing and to know who used it, but also where and how it was used. In this case, the thing was used with love for the outdoors and for friends and, especially, Brown family members in meaningful places like Lake Thompson, the massive marsh that deepened and spread into a sprawling walleye lake with the high-water years of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When I was in college at South Dakota State during the 1970s, Lake Thompson was still the “gigantic slough” Dick Brown remembers.  I hunted there, not all that many years after the decoy I now possess bobbed and weaved on the water in front of Ellsworth Brown and his kids.

I like knowing that. I like it a lot.

And I was thrilled by the decoy’s arrival Wednesday afternoon, in part just because it’s a cool old decoy, in part because it was used by a man I knew and liked and wrote about and in part because it was dropped off by my friend, Dick, and his wife, Sue.

I’ve written about Dick a number of times over the years, and about Sue a couple of times. I wrote about them both on this blog last fall, describing their life together and how it was changed — and not — by tests revealing that Sue’s metastatic breast cancer was beyond treatment.

There has always been an energy about Dick that was smoothed and directed by Sue’s aura of calm. And nothing about the cancer has changed that. They’ve been together more than half a century, partners in life and love and jobs that always included deep involvement in community development.

They thought they had retired when they moved to their place in the forest on Rocky Road near Custer, to be near family, especially grandkids. But instead they finished their professional careers together by seeking, winning and splitting one development director’s job with the South Dakota Parks & Wildlife Foundation.

In that they were indefatigable, and effective. Their work helped in raising money and developing the new Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City, a new visitor’s center in Custer State Park and the new Blood Run State Park near Sioux Falls, among so many other projects of note and worth.

Now they live each day fully at their beautiful place in the forest, with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in a country home just over the hill. They have a fish pond just beyond their yard that entertains the grandkids and raises mallard broods each year. And they get around the Black Hills, and beyond, keeping still-full schedules that are driven by a diversity of friends and an eclectic agenda.

Which can include a stop at a friend’s house, to leave a box full of memories on the front step.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.