MELROSE, Minn. — The best duck hunting may be tucked away in memory, not in central Minnesota marshes.
But the Carstenses are duck hunters who still enjoy the hunt, even if waterfowl numbers have tapered off. They could find better hunting elsewhere, maybe even in the Dakotas.
Tradition draws Jim Carstens and his family back to their hunting camp near Sunburg every fall. Tradition shapes the fiberglass duck boats he makes at Carstens Industries. Tradition keeps those boats in production.
To central Minnesotans, Carstens Industries may be synonymous with duck boats. But duck boats are a small part of the Melrose business. The company also produces fiberglass parts or finished products for industrial, agricultural and recreational use. The hulls and decks Carstens Industries makes for Warrior Boats, which moved to Melrose a few years ago, is a big part of its business today.
Carstens Industries produces 500 duck boats in an average year. Over the past 35 years, Jim Carstens estimated the business has donated 240 boats to conservation organizations such as the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl Association and Pheasants Forever. The MWA in February inducted Carstens Industries into its Minnesota Waterfowl Hall of Fame.
“If you think about the impact they’ve had on the waterfowlers here in Minnesota, they’ve been such strong supporters of conservation causes,” said Brad Nylin, executive director of the 2,800-member organization.
The business category is new this year. The Hall of Fame started in 2010; it’s housed in the Hopkins headquarters. The nomination recognized Carstens Industries’ five duck boat models, each designed to navigate different conditions, from cattail-filled marshes to bigger waters.
“We were duck hunters looking to make something a little nicer for ourselves,” Jim Carstens, 57, said before a recent tour of the Main Street operation. That field experience informed duck boat design.
“You understand what needs to work in the field. Getting through bulrushes. How it should look and feel,” Carstens said. “You do it because you enjoy it.”
Donating boats may help conservation organizations preserve habitat, even if that habitat doesn’t support as much waterfowl as it once did. Getting more people interested in hunting is another matter.
Over the past six years, Minnesota duck stamp sales have hovered around 90,000. To compare, state duck stamp sales averaged 140,000 in the 1970s.
Howard Carstens started Fiberglass Engineering in 1973 near Wyoming, Minn. Two years later, he designed the Puddler, a lightweight version of the classic wooden Shell Boat Co. design upon which it’s based.
It remains the most popular — and least expensive — of the boats, which range from the $640 10-foot Puddler to the $1,635 14-foot, 4-inch Canvasback. The business consolidated operations in Melrose and in 1978 took the family name.
Jim Carstens took over the company in 1997. Howard, 82, still comes in to work every day and still likes seeing the duck boats he designed go by on Interstate 94 as waterfowlers head out to hunt.
Since the company was founded its boat designs have improved a bit — a fixed seat is now movable, for example — and Carstens Industries modified designs that were part of an early 1980s acquisition.
Longtime St. Cloud waterfowler Tom Kowal, 66, semiretired from the mechanical service industry, started hunting out of a Puddler in the mid-1980s. He later acquired a Pintail and still uses both.
Kowal praised the boats’ durability. He leaves one under a tarp at his hunting spot over the winter.
Kowal, who sticks to smaller waters in Minnesota and South Dakota, said either model allows him to hunker down in the cattails, keeping a low profile with his golden retriever, Sota. He finds room in either boat for the dog, a dozen decoys and a shell bag. Once he’s situated, Kowal runs poles through holes in the bow and stern made to steady the boat.
Jim Carstens estimated the company sells 60 percent of its duck boats to Minnesota customers. That’s due in part to the fact that freight costs make shipping duck boats much farther cost-prohibitive. They're bulky and difficult to deliver without a scratch or two.
Meanwhile, the parts and products Carstens Industries’ 22 employees produce for other customers are sometimes shipped to various locations all around the world.
A finished Pintail sits in a room that contains, among other things, parts for a livestock cooling system and walk-in bathtub shells. Elsewhere in the room, a giant, lemon-shaped lemonade stand rests near a skull-topped ticket booth and a giant pumpkin.
While the Warrior Boats components are shiny-smooth, a buffing of the mold with a scouring pad leaves the duck boats with the desired matte surface.
Carstens draws from nature to produce the camouflage pattern. The handles at either end of the boat are door handles.
Using a hand-held roller in one alcove on the production floor, a worker methodically flattened the layer of fiberglass he’d just applied to a duck boat in production. That done, he picked up the nozzle that combined fiberglass and resin, and he applied another layer.
Fiberglass is made from the inside out. So the mold is waxed, painted black and then green (in the case of duck boats), and then laminate is added. When the pieces come out of the mold, they're riveted together, the edges eventually smoothed and hidden by trim.
Start to finish, it takes about eight hours to make a duck boat. The finished product, Carstens said, appeals to hunters who don’t want to spend a lot of time working on their duck boats.
“It’s a duck hunting enthusiast,” he said. We’ve got them (customers) from lawyers to construction workers. You’ve got a love for the sport.“