Waterfowler's rig is rooted in Vineyard's past
There is no practical reason for a modern duck hunter to rely on decoys carved from wood. Outdoor catalogs offer light, inexpensive, and easily replaced plastic models that will fool an unsuspecting duck into shotgun range.
But the sport of waterfowling is not necessarily about the purely practical pursuits of life. If it were, Aaron Beck would not spend many hours fashioning a block of wood into a lifelike figure of a mallard, bluebill, or any of the other species of duck found along Martha's Vineyard's shoreline.
He would not look forward to windy, rainy weather - the fouler the better - and rising well before the sun does on a winter morning. Or sitting for hours in a saltmarsh scanning the sky for a recognizable wing beat.
Photos by Danielle Zerbonne
A carpenter by trade, a gunner - to use an early American term - at heart, Aaron lives in a small cottage he rents off South Road in Chilmark that he shares with his hunting partner, a three-year old black Labrador named Uncas. An adjoining unheated shed provides him with storage and work space as spare as his lifestyle.
I visited Aaron in November just prior to the start of the winter duck hunting season. It was warm and sunny, what duck hunters refer to as a bluebird day; great for lounging and talking about ducks but not the preferred nasty weather that gets the birds flying. Inside the shed strings of hand-made wooden eiders, scoters, and bluebills sat arranged neatly in canvas bags on the floor.
It was a scene rooted in the Vineyard past and one that resonates with the 28-year-old Dartmouth graduate and student of early American history.
Martha's Vineyard has a rich waterfowling tradition that is increasingly obscured by changes to Martha's Vineyard's cultural and physical landscapes. But more than a century ago wealthy seasonal residents of the day built duck blinds rather than luxurious houses along the coves and points of Martha's Vineyard's south shore salt ponds.
A number of clubs were set up exclusively for the purpose of duck hunting such as the Watcha Club in 1903 and the Tisbury Pond Club in 1912, to name just two. In 1979 the three remaining members of the Tisbury Pond club gave to The Trustees of Reservations the property that is now the Long Point Wildlife Refuge and enjoyed by so many.
Aaron grew up in Farmington, Connecticut in a family of non-hunters, unconnected to the waterfowling traditions he so appreciates. Despite his suburban surroundings he wanted to hunt birds ever since he could remember, he said.
In his senior year of college Aaron got the opportunity to go duck hunting for the first time. He cajoled an invitation from one of his father's law partners after he found out the man was a duck hunter.
Aaron shot a mallard and a goose on a river. Although he was grateful for the opportunity, the morning lacked the classic elements that he finds add richness to his experience. "That hunt did not involve decoys, it did not involve calls, a blind or a dog," he said. "It wasn't what I had in mind, but it was a start."
It was also the start of an interest in carving his own decoys. But it was not until he graduated from Dartmouth in 2003 that he was free to actively pursue duck hunting.
He went to work building houses with friends from college in Charleston, South Carolina. "I basically fell into carpentry because I've always enjoyed working with my hands and there is a freedom that facilitates outdoor pursuits," he said, echoing a notion embraced by Island carpenters present and past that hunting (and one could add fishing) is an important factor when determining a work schedule.
A carpentry job working on the house of his employer brought Aaron to Martha's Vineyard about three years ago. Duck hunting kept him here. "The whole rural lifestyle I think works here," said Aaron. "There's not a lot to do at night but go to bed early so it's easy to get up early."
Aaron bought a dog and named it Uncas for one of the major Indian characters in "The Last of the Mohicans," the classic novel by James Fenimore Cooper, published in 1826. "It struck me as a good name for a handsome black Lab, and evoked my Connecticut roots and love of American history," he said.
Last spring he went to work for the South Mountain Company, well-known for building fine houses. It is rewarding to work with skilled craftsmen who take pride in their work, he said.
The measure of any craftsman is reflected in the tools of his trade. One look at Aaron's hunting rig reflects his singular dedication to the tradition and art of gunning.
A Barnegat Bay Sneakbox, a low-profile seaworthy boat originally designed in the early 1800s for the tidal marshes of New Jersey provides access to hunting spots and easy transportation for decoys.
Legendary outdoor writer Worth Mathewson in his classic book, "Big December Canvasbacks," described the sneakbox as perhaps the best waterfowl boat of all time and without a doubt "the best looking."
Aaron shoots an over-under 12-gauge Browning shotgun that most hunters would consider too fine to expose to the elements and the shaking of a dripping Lab in the confines of a duck boat, but the classic feel and aesthetics trump those practical concerns.
He often hunts alone. Hunting with other people who lack his level of commitment often requires compromises. When that results in missing the all important start of legal shooting time one half hour before dawn because a companion arrived at the boat ramp late, well it is easier to rely for companionship on an enthusiastic Lab.
A rich heritage
Aaron's decoy rig reflects the variety of waterfowl found on the Vineyard. Asked about his favorite duck he finds it difficult to name one species. "I used to be totally enamored of black ducks, they are very classy, but now I'd rather shoot a drake mallard," he said. "Eiders are cool. They are unique, they are ugly, they are a very traditional New England gunning target and they are here in abundance."
Aaron eats everything he shoots. It is a value his mother, a non-hunter, imparted. "That was definitely one thing my mom did teach me. If I did kill something it had to be used, eaten."
Many modern decoy carvers are in the business of turning out works of art that they expect would never float on water. The carver who sets out to make a working decoy must think about more than looks. Placement of the lead weight affixed to the bottom of the bird can be just as critical as the turn of the head.
Aaron draws inspiration by looking at the creations of modern and historic carvers. "It is not enough to catch a static moment, you need to capture a sense of the duck to make it work," he said.
He carves with hunting as a purpose. In that sense he shares a bond with Vineyard carvers of the past.
The decoy carvers of an earlier generation were hunters who used their wood carving skills to put food on the table. They understood well the attitude of the ducks they wanted to capture in wood.
The late Stan Murphy, noted Island artist, muralist, and decoy collector, wrote about many of Martha's Vineyard's finest decoy carvers in his gem of a book "Martha's Vineyard Decoys" (David R. Godine, 1978). These were men like Henry Keyes Chadwick and Benjamin D. Smith who carved decoys that now sell for thousands of dollars at auction and their lesser-known but very skilled contemporaries.
Some of their best working decoys, many pockmarked by errant shot, now rest comfortably on mantles and in museum display cases far removed from the icy waters that gave them birth.
Mr. Murphy wrote that the Vineyard farmer-fisherman of their era knew how to improvise and turned to carving decoys with one purpose in mind, to attract a live bird: "Unlike the modern contest-carver, he wasn't attempting to impress his neighbor with his craft; he was out to con a living duck, or brant or goose or shorebird."
In the conclusion of his book, Mr. Murphy, who died in July 2003, said of the old decoys: "They were made only to toll the birds, not to leave for posterity the evidence of man's ability to create from common materials things of truth and occasional great beauty."
Those decoys are long retired and the Vineyard has changed since the sight of shotguns resting outside the door of Alley's General store in West Tisbury was not that unusual. But duck hunters still prowl the Vineyard marshes.
Occasionally, a duck hunter will sheepishly admit that he attempted to sneak up on, or "jump" ducks resting in a small pothole only to discover that they were decoys set out by a nearby well-secluded hunter.
Aaron finds a compliment in the notion of a duck hunter wanting to shoot at his spread. "If you carve them yourself and someone sneaks up on your decoys, that's pretty gratifying," he said.