December 10, 2012
Two hours 'til daybreak. Reach down in the truck bed, find the big black plastic feet in your flashlight beam. Push your left arm through and slide three full-bodies up it, and grab two more with the right arm. Step into the darkness of the cornfield, anxious for what dawn will bring. Hey, I think I just heard birds€¦
The word "icon" gets thrown around a lot these days, but an entire generation of goose hunters have grown up carrying Art Ladehoff's Big Foot Decoys into the field and learned to love the sport because of the success they experienced. Art invented the full-bodied decoy, and to this day, a truckload of Big Foot decoys are a status symbol in goose country that says two things: "I'm serious about this, and committed to my sport."
Art grew up hunting the Mississippi River near Clinton, Iowa, in the dangerous scull boat era. His father was in fact hunting on a river island near the family cabin when the great Armistice Day storm struck in 1940. After quitting college, Art went to work in the family construction business before launching a do-it-yourself business selling home decoy mold kits (Decoys Unlimited) that ran for decades. Hunters would bake their own dekes in the kitchen oven (early on) or boil them in water (later on, using expandable polystyrene).
And talk about timing. Art hunted back when getting a single goose meant as much to a guy as a gobbler does to a spring turkey hunter. It made the newspaper, in fact. Out of pure desire for good decoys, Ladehoff invented his full-bodies just as the U.S. goose population exploded, launching in 1985, a time before "all these electronic gadgets squirting water and vibrating and spinning wings, that are changing the landscape of duck hunting," as he puts it.
He has a few other opinions, too, and a great life story, still working hard at HQ in Clinton with eight or so tight-knit family members. We caught up with him recently for a few questions.
Skip Knowles: You developed Big Foot after a moment of clarity in the marsh with legendary river rat Irvin Faur, the kind of man from which no creature was safe. Were you surprised they worked so well?
Art Ladehoff: No. By that time I knew there wasn't anything to buy that would suit me as a goose hunter. We hunted Missouri before there were geese on every park, golf course and cemetery, back when a goose was really a prize. One day (in 1980) Faur and I were hauling loads of shells and silhouettes across muddy fields after some late-season geese and he said to me, "You know, we'd be better off if we had a dozen really good decoys that really looked like a goose. You ought to be able to make us a dozen."
We decided to get some, and we didn't give a crap what they cost because we were only going to buy a dozen, but found out the only decoys out there were really bad and were back-ordered for months. When ours first came out, I had good customers out around Chesapeake Bay, the only place with really good goose hunting. I made some and gave them to the Ducks Unlimited committees in their area, but that failed because most guys going to those dinners were not hunters, just people with lots of money.
Then a sports shop in Maryland ordered some and put them on the sidewalks. They called and said the decoys were causing problems with crowds and could they get some more? There was just nothing else to buy that was worth a damn. Because of the way Irv and I hunted I thought they had to be collapsible, but in time I began to realize guys didn't give a crap about that. They wanted durable.
SK: I first shot over your decoys in the early '90s and killed a bunch of geese over them in Canada 20-something years later. How many have you sold?
AL: I have no idea! We started in '85, and what's really unbelievable is that basically nothing has changed. You can get a Big Foot made in 1989 and it's still as good as anything out there today. All decoys work — the thing that sets us apart is you still have them 10 years later. They look good and they last good and are easy to use. That's because the guy that designed them was a damned old goose hunter.
We work really hard at making stuff that doesn't fall apart. When I started they told me it was difficult to paint (the plastic), but they should have said it was impossible.
SK: Did you know this was going to be so huge?
AL: It got way bigger than I expected in just a few years. You've got to realize, back then if somebody reported a pair of geese on a creek in the west part of the county you would take off right away and crawl on your belly an hour to get a shot at that goose. The goose supply exploded about the right time for us. The first year we struggled to make 1,200, a huge pile to me. In a few years we were at 30,000 to 40,000. We still hand-paint them. Tim Presley in Peoria, Ill. (the renowned Presley's Outdoors), bought a semi-load of decoys from me years ago, the first customer to do so.
SK: You broke ice on the big river as a kid, and us modern hunters have so much fancy gear. Have we gotten soft?
AL: I don't think so. Why create hardship if you don't need to? Now you got a nice suburban with a heater that works and a nice trailer, you know, so what the hell. Hunters are tough as ever, but they're just as tough as they have to be. They don't have to put up with that level of discomfort. I remember as a little kid my feet got so cold I thought they would never thaw out.
SK: Goals? Regrets? What is a perfect day for you now?
AL: A perfect day is feeling good, seeing the sun come up and being free to do what you want to do. I spend a lot of attention on a black Labrador. I've had one after the other since 1972. Rosie is 9 now, and when she's gone I'll get another one. I've had four Rosies and a Kate and a Maggie. And hey, I got my kids around me, they do all the real work and force me to design stuff from time to time.