At daybreak, from a vantage point half a mile away, it looked like nothing more than a typical Maine tidewater duck-hunting setup. The blind, fashioned from driftwood, kelp and seaweed, blended nicely into the lee shore of Lane's Island in a narrow arm of Casco Bay. Hiding inside the blind were George Soule, a decoy manufacturer of Freeport, Me.; Suzy, his American water spaniel; and two shooting friends. Gunning conditions were excellent. The tide was just beginning to ebb and, in the face of a building southeast wind, rafts of black ducks took off from the open water and headed up into the bay to seek shelter against the shore and to feed on eel-grass seeds and mussels. As the flocks of ducks whistled by high overhead, intent on reaching the brackish guzzles that drain into the bay, small bunches of fringe birds peeled off to look over Soule's cork decoys. White underwing feathers flashing against the cold gray sky, the birds descended rapidly, circled the decoys once and, coaxed in by Soule's seductive notes on a rosewood duck call, set their wings and hurtled down into shotgun range. In less than an hour Soule and his guests had their limits (two blacks each), and still the ducks were skidding into the decoys.
Just another good day for three hunters with a corner of the bay all to themselves? Not quite. There were at least half a dozen other hunters in equally unobtrusive and well-positioned blinds on both sides of Soule, as well as on several nearby islands. All of them had large, attractive decoy spreads. Yet not until Soule and his guests pulled out and headed back by boat to the mainland did any of the other hunters get a shot at a duck.
The secret of George Soule's success that morning was simply the presence of a stool of his own superducks—economy-size cork tollers at least half again as large as the black ducks they simulated. By all rights they should have frightened birds as cautious as black ducks clean out of the country. Instead, they drew them like magnets.
"Sometimes it gets to be downright criminal," says Soule, a short, soft-spoken man of 55 with squinty blue eyes, an unruly shock of gray hair and a sort of medium-rare down-East sense of humor. "You only need a small stool of these oversize tollers—most gunners call them magnums. I like to put a few floaters out in the water downwind of the blind and then add a nice bunch of stand-ups high and dry in the grass right in front of the blind. Everything about these decoys is big, and they sit much higher on the water than the real thing. But then everything is also in proportion. The secret is, the ducks can see them from farther away. There can be any number of other hunters nearby, but unless some of them are also using magnums or else have set out right smack in the middle of the only feeding hole in the entire bay, then we get all the ducks that have any inclination at all of decoying. It's sort of like being the Pied Piper of black ducks."
January 8, 1968
Compared with most other species of puddle, or shallow-feeding, ducks, the black is a rather drab, dusky-brown bird (the sexes are identical in color except that the legs of the adult male are a brighter red), and in the southern portion of its range, especially in Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, it tends to feed primarily on skunk grass and baitfish, which makes it anything but a delicacy on the table. Yet the black is the ranking bird, both in numbers and in hunters' preference, on the Atlantic Flyway. In New England, which is bypassed by the bulk of southward-migrating waterfowl species, the black is the duck, the "eatin' bird" (even coastal blacks seem to taste better up north) that gets men out of bed and into cold, wet tidewater blinds before dawn. Larger than most ducks, swift and strong in flight, it is unquestionably the shyest of all ducks and the most difficult to decoy. Not surprisingly, gunners have endowed it with almost supernatural powers over the years. Blacks, for example, are supposedly the only ducks with a sense of smell, capable of detecting and pinpointing the scent of man (or of his sandwiches, coffee, tobacco and his dog) even when flying upwind. There's more. Oldtime baymen swear that blacks can count and that they will always flare off from even numbers of decoys. Then there is the blacks' legendary long-distance vision. As one gunner put it: "A black can see a man from as far away as a man can see the moon."
Like many New England wildfowlers, George Soule has enjoyed a love affair with the black duck for a long time, and it was the cunning of the blacks on Casco Bay that forced him into the decoy business back in 1935. At the lime Soule was running a fly-tying business for L.L. Bean, Inc., the Freeport sporting-goods mail-order house, and on occasion he went gunning for ducks with the late L.L. himself. "Old L.L. had a ragtag set of round-bottom wooden tollers that skittered, bobbed and pitched like seagoing rocking horses in the slightest chop," Soule recalls. "Once the opening-day barrage was over, and with it the age of innocence for the birds working the bay, all those little decoys did was flare the blacks. And L.L.'s old smokepole, a great heavy 12-gauge Remington automatic fitted with a nine-shot extension magazine, didn't help much either."
After one particularly frustrating morning on the bay, Soule drove to Portland, scrounged up some old insulation cork from two abandoned refrigeration trucks, and made a dozen black-duck decoys in his basement. "They were pretty crude," Soule admits, "but they had flat bottoms and keels, and they acted pretty natural on the water. The first time we shot over them we got a bunch of blacks, and L.L. was so impressed that he offered to find a spot in his catalog for cork decoys if I would make them. So I guess you might say I got my start in a duck blind. And don't listen to my friends. It's not true that I've been living in a duck blind ever since. Anyway, it's all in the pursuit of pure decoy research."
With L.L.'s approval, Soule and several helpers began turning out cork decoys on the second floor of Bean's factory-store. Soule has since branched out on his own to a rambling wooden "factory" overlooking Casco Bay, where he annually turns out some 10,000 hunting tollers—blacks, mallards, whistlers, pintails, scaup and canvasbacks, as well as brant and Canada geese—and 5,000 hand-painted decorative decoys for collectors and gift shops. "A lawyer from Portsmouth, N.H. came in to Bean's one day and asked me to make him some oversize tollers to use on Merrymeeting Bay," Soule recalls. "It wasn't a new idea, really. Goose shooters have always used big tollers, and we were already making coastal decoys which are a bit larger than average. But this lawyer wanted something even bigger. Merrymeeting Bay has always been gummed up with gunners, and he figured on outdecoying them. So I made him up 12 magnum blacks. They were so huge—21 inches long and 10 inches wide—that I really didn't hold out much hope for them. I never heard from that lawyer again, but the following season Ransom Kelley, who guides duck hunters on Merrymeeting, called me up. He wanted several dozen magnums right away. He was pretty excited, too. He explained that this lawyer was decoying all the blacks on the bay. The ducks were flighting downriver, passing up everyone else's stool and sailing right into the lawyer's magnums. What made it so humiliating was that the lawyer and his friends would limit out every day on the dawn flight and then retire to the camp porch to drink coffee and watch the blacks continue to pour into their big tollers."
Since duck hunters are fanatic traditionalists, Soule's magnums have not exactly caught fire. But more New England coastal gunners are switching over every year, and Soule filled orders for some 6,000 magnum blacks in 1967. L.L. Bean, which handles 35% of Soule's hunting tollers, is moving them well, and some of their customers in Texas—naturally—are using Soule's magnum mallards with great success.
Why do magnums work so well? "It's not just that ducks can see them easier," says Soule. "Frankly, I think they give the ducks more confidence. When we used to shoot over standard-size tollers, the blacks would repeatedly circle them. Maybe we'd get one bunch out of five in close enough to shoot at. But when we switched to magnums we started getting three or four of every five bunches to swing the stool, and most times they circled only once and then came right in."
The most exciting magnums of all are Soule's brand new "stand-ups," which are used in conjunction with oversize floating decoys. They may well revolutionize the art of coastal black-duck shooting. Soule got the idea for them two years ago on a bitter December day. "The blacks were moving pretty good," he remembers, "but the bay was full of floating ice and my tollers were taking a beating. So I pulled them up on the grass, and, the next thing I knew, I had blacks trying to get in the blind with me. They would land out in the water, of course, but not until after they had swung in close to the blind to look over those high and dry tollers. It dawned on me right then. Blacks like to get out on the shore and feed, preen or doze, especially in nasty weather. So I carved out a set of shore magnums with removable dowel legs and they worked right off. They stand out like beacons on the marsh as long as the grass is naturally low or else flattened out by killing frosts, and, although no one has tried it yet, I'm betting that they'll be deadly for the shooter with a coffin blind buried out on a sandspit, or even in corn or wheat fields where birds are feeding."
Soule makes two kinds of stand-up black decoys (he plans to turn out some mallards soon): a feeder, with neck and head stretched out, that tips over so its bill rests on the ground, and a regular that simply stands there looking relaxed. Like all his decoys, Soule's stand-ups are made of dense, buoyant cork imported from Portugal. They are sprayed with a flat, no-shine paint and touched up with the appropriate field marks—blue wing patch and olive bill—by hand. Because they must show more body bulk than floating decoys, they are made from two sections of cork cemented together. Although there is no such thing as too many decoys for coastal shooting, five feeders, two regulars and maybe a sleeper (a floating magnum that lies down on the grass), along with seven floaters set out in the water downwind of the blind, make an excellent stool for Casco Bay. The same should hold true for other tidewater areas. The blacks tend to swing into the wind, fly over the floaters and drop into the water right in front of the stand-ups—in easy shotgun range.
At 6:30 on a bitter-cold morning last season George Soule checked the wind gauge on his dining-room wall and noted with satisfaction that a storm front was moving in. He pulled on his patched waders, a long camouflage parka and a duck-billed cap to hide his face, loaded two wicker baskets of magnum blacks in his aluminum boat and set out for the lee shore of Lane's Island. By sunrise he was hunkered down in the blind admiring his tollers. "Now that's the kind of spread that will sell an educated black," he said. "Some gunners like to use a confidence decoy—usually a sagacious old herring gull—to make their spread look more realistic. I'd rather rely on these magnums and my duck call." Soule's call is a Turpin made in Louisiana, and, once one hears him chirp into it, one wonders why he needs decoys at all. Soule admits that anyone who learns how to call blacks will get a lot more action. He makes a raucous comeback call (four loud quacks of varying pitch) to get the ducks started, and then mixes it with low, muted reedy quacks and the garrulous feeding chuckle until the ducks are in range. But Soule is quick to point out that all the calling in the world won't put blacks in the pan if the decoys don't look just right to them.
"It's a strange thing about some gunners," Soule says. "A lot of them have fancy shotguns, expensive boats and motors, retrievers trained by professionals and maybe even memberships in private duck clubs. Yet in an age when ducks are getting smarter all the time, a lot of these men blanch at the idea of putting out $200 or so for a good set of big tollers. Instead they head for the marshes with a bagful of cheap, shiny plastic decoys. A lot of them even use Clorox bottles painted black or laundry bags dyed and stuffed with grass or even mounds of mud stuck out in the grass. They just can't expect the same kind of shooting.
"Anyway, it's bad enough on those bluebird days when nothing is flying but marlinspikes [mergansers]. It's worse when conditions are perfect, except that the blacks sail along a mile high without so much as a courteous glance at your tollers. At such times, we hunt partridge in the puckerbrush behind the blind, or dig a mess of soft-shell clams on the mud flats and steam them up. Or we just sit in the blind, talking to the dog and looking out at the tollers. You can't tell me a duck hunter is enjoying himself when he has to stare out at Clorox bottles, laundry bags or mud patties."