The flagpole sways, and the wind rips the small-craft warning into shreds. The sea is an insane lather of whitecaps. Far to the east of Long Island Sound, the red edge of the sun slides over the horizon, flashing bolts of fire on the windowpanes of houses along the coast. Four miles out lies the granite-block seawall, slick with onionskin ice. The temperature is below 30°, and the forecast calls for continuing northwest winds. It is a time and place for normal persons to avoid, but Donal O'Brien Jr. arrives at the launching ramp with his boat, peers at the distant seawall and exclaims, "Gee. I can hardly wait to get out there!"
O'Brien is a duck hunter, a fanatic duck hunter. He loves ducks with such passion that a nephew calls him Uncle Duck. His decoy collection is one of the best in the country, and he himself is a superb amateur decoy maker whose carvings have won a number of best-in-shows at national and world championships. He is an excellent shot, and he trains tough, willing retrievers. A black Lab that he raised and sold, Why-gin Cork's Coot, has twice won the National Open Retriever Championship. For O'Brien, ducks have a magic that other creatures lack. When he shoots one, he does not toss it aside but smooths the feathers in admiration. When his wife and four children are asleep in their house in New Canaan, Conn. and the snow lies thick on the ground, O'Brien likes to slip out of the house to look at the birds in the moonlight.
By profession, O'Brien is a lawyer, a partner in a Wall Street law firm. "It's great to be able to come home from the office on a Friday night and know that at 4:30 Saturday morning I'm going to be getting up to shoot on the Sound," he says. "Duck hunting is very physical and very basic to me. I like the whole thing, feeling the cold, picking up the decoys, and when I am home on Sunday and think about what I did on Saturday, I'm revitalized and prepared to go back to the office to be civilized for five days." For a good part of the season. O'Brien risks his life getting revitalized for the office.
Shooting from the seawalls in the Sound ranks among the most dangerous pastimes known to American sportsmen. Some hunters get badly frostbitten, and others just disappear. Shooting off the coast of Maine can be risky, but usually there is a lobsterman or a fisherman around. In November, December and January, the Sound is a vast, blank piece of water exposed to the wind and waves with only ducks—and duck shooters—on the move; the sailors and fishermen have retired to the fireside. It is a hard trip out to the icy rocks, and one misstep into the chilling water can mean death, but for O'Brien the seawalls hold an unmatchable spell, although he admits, "I have a ball of fear in my stomach every time I go out."
September 26, 1971
A couple of years ago O'Brien and a friend. Bob Johnson, embarked at dawn for the four-mile run to one of the walls. The weather was rough, but they made the trip safely. With O'Brien bouncing up and down in the 16-foot outboard, Johnson clambered onto the rocks. He reached for an oar held by O'Brien to pull the boat in close but a swell rocked the boat and Johnson slipped into 60 feet of water. When he spluttered to the surface, O'Brien grabbed him by the scruff of the parka and pulled him into the boat. "It was freezing cold, about 10°," O'Brien recalls, "and I think Bob went into shock. He couldn't function. He was lying on the bottom of the boat. I told him to put his boots up in the air to drain the water. But he didn't have the strength."
O'Brien gunned the boat back to the ramp. He threw over the anchor, jumped out, ran ashore, got into his car and drove the trailer into the water. He climbed back into the boat, pulled in the anchor, started the engine and ran the boat straight up onto the trailer. He then got into the car and pulled the boat ashore, where he got Johnson out of it and out of his clothes. "I took my clothes off and gave them to him," O'Brien says. "I was left with long Johns and hip boots."
O'Brien took Johnson to a diner where he downed four or live cups of coffee. "He was absolutely gray and shaking," says O'Brien. "At nine o'clock we went into a package store, me in my long Johns and hip boots, and Bob all dressed up and walking like Frankenstein. The guy in the liquor store literally thought something was going to happen to him. He was scuttling along the walls, and I remember saying, 'Don't worry, we're not going to harm you, we're not going to rob your store, we're duck hunters, and this guy fell in.' We got a bottle of brandy, Bob drank it, and at 12 o'clock we were back on the wall, shooting."
Now 37, O'Brien was born in New York City. He became interested in ducks when he was five, and by the time he was 10 and began shooting with his father, he could identify every duck he saw. He even picked his prep school—Hotchkiss—and his colleges—Williams and the University of Virginia—for the hunting and fishing to be found around them. While in law school, O'Brien, who had a fondness for painting but no time, seriously started carving decoys because he could whittle away at a head between classes.
"The first thing I do in making a decoy is to draw the duck I have in mind," O'Brien says. "I'm working on a black duck now, and I decided I wanted a low head. I sketch to scale, and I may make 20 or 30 sketches, all freehand, and usually without a model in front of me. When I get something that appeals to me, I'll cut it out for my pattern." When all goes well, it takes O'Brien about half a day to make a shooting decoy and two days for a contest bird.
In 1966 O'Brien entered his first contest, the U.S. National on Long Island. He won best-in-show in the amateur decorative miniature class, an award he has won on two subsequent occasions. He prefers, however, to concentrate on the working-decoy division, the division in which there is the most competition. He was the U.S. National amateur champion in working decoys in 1969 and regained the title this year. In addition, he has won best-in-shows in 1969 and 1970 in the Maine contest and, this past June, in the first world championship, he won best-in-show in the working-decoy class and in the class for working-decoy pairs. Decoy contests are like dog shows in which classes are judged and the winners compete for best-in-show, and along the line O'Brien has won dozens of bests-in-class.
O'Brien also brings a most practiced eye to decoy collecting. The art of decoy making is uniquely American, which is one of the attractions to O'Brien. "I get hooked on things that are purely American," he says.
The classic period of decoy making began in the mid-19th century with the advent of the breech-loading shotgun. In those days there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of waterfowl and an expanding and hungry populace. The period ended, says Historian William J. Mackey Jr., a friend of O'Brien's and author of American Bird Decoys, with the passage in 1918 of the Migratory Bird Treaty, which put a stop to market hunting. Perhaps the finest decoys were carved by Albert Laing and his followers of the Stratford, Conn. school. To O'Brien, Laing, who died in 1886, was "a Michelangelo," and O'Brien's collection includes a number of gems by Laing, among them: a black, a canvasback, a sleeping broadbill and a drake whistler in a tuck-head position.
O'Brien also has a number of decoys by Benjamin Holmes, Shang Wheeler, who died in 1949, and other members of the Stratford school. "The Stratford decoy tends to be a little bit oversized," says O'Brien, "always hollow, except for the cork bird, with the head its finest feature. The head is very realistic, tends to be quite puffy in the cheek and always has considerable detail in the bill. It's a sleek bird, not cluttered up. There is no wing carving, no feather carving. There is usually a crease down the back separating the wings, and in the cork bird the tail is frequently inlaid. Stratford decoys catch the overall impression of ducks. They're full-bodied, tapering to a flat bottom. They're not round like Jersey decoys. The Stratford birds had to take rough weather and big seas, and a dew-drop weight was normally used instead of a keel. I consider myself in the Stratford school, though a lot of my decoys are made with keels."
A friend, Tom Marshall, a former fieldman for Ducks Unlimited, admires O'Brien's carvings but deplores the keels as unnecessary. In turn, O'Brien is dismayed at Marshall's continued use of a number of original Shang Wheeler decoys in his working rig. In a voice somewhat reminiscent of Titus Moody's, Marshall says, "Shang made 'em to hunt over, not look at."
O'Brien's collection is very strong on New England shorebirds, especially decoys from Nantucket. "From a collecting standpoint, I enjoy the shorebirds more than the ducks," he says. The gem of the shorebird collection is a set of six Eskimo curlews that O'Brien acquired several years ago from a friend who is a seventh-generation Nantucketer. Now believed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew was avidly hunted on Nantucket during the 19th century. All told, O'Brien's decoy collection, displayed in a special room built onto his house, numbers perhaps 600 birds. It includes decoys from Connecticut, Chesapeake Bay (some of these are by Lee Dudley—"one of the greats"), Cape Cod, Maine, and Long Island. The collection is genuinely staggering to see. O'Brien first met Kenny Gleason, one of his hunting companions, when Gleason happened to come to the house to fix the phone. "When Gleason saw the decoys," O'Brien says, "we couldn't get him out of the house.
"There's a tremendous excitement in decoy collecting," O'Brien says. "There's a whole mystique to it. I never forget where good decoys are. Once I was on a trip up to Maine, and I stopped for gas. There was a sporting-goods store across the street, and in the window there were a number of Maine decoys, including a couple of mergansers. They were just like Tiffany jewels. I went in to talk—I use a soft approach, and this may cost me at times—but the owner wouldn't sell. I made two or three trips, all the way to Maine, but the owner still wouldn't sell. Last fall I put 60 decoys in my car, good decoys, and drove up to Maine. It took me 20 minutes to put all 60 on the floor, and after I finished I said to the owner, 'Now you suggest a trade.' He stepped back, looked and finally said, 'Oh, you win.' We made a trade. I got the mergansers, and he got three very good birds in return."
O'Brien's year begins the first week in October when he goes to New Brunswick, to shoot black duck and teal. In mid-October the season opens in Connecticut, and he begins shooting surface feeders—blacks, mallards, teal and widgeon—in marshes and on the Sound. His working rig generally consists of 36 absolutely stunning black ducks that he carved himself. Hunting inland marshes, he will use as few as two or three decoys because the clever blacks would be wary of a large rig in a small area. "I try to simulate the wild-duck situation," O'Brien says. Also, more things can go wrong with a big set in the marshes.
"When the inland water freezes over," O'Brien continues, "the ducks start to use the open water. Then I work with a fairly large rig of two to three dozen. You're trying to attract birds from a long distance. When we shoot from the seawalls where the birds feed on the rocks, I try to have a few decoys right close in. Some of these will be feeding decoys with the bills in the water. There will be other decoys 20 or 30 yards out, in a dew-drop shape. I try to leave something open in the middle, though that's not important for the black duck, which can land on a dime. Finally, I'll have some stringers or liners out of range. Three or four of my black ducks have high necks. They're watch birds. Few of the commercial decoys have high necks, but you watch blacks. There will always be a few with high necks. That's an alert bird, and I'll usually have a couple out in the middle of the rig, and the last high-neck bird will have a comfortable low-neck bird in front of him."
To O'Brien, the black duck is a marvelous bird. "They're the wariest," he says, "and you tend to be happier with fewer. They're very coordinated in the air and seem much more in control of what they're doing than the broadbill or canvasback."
When the first half of the split season closes in Connecticut in late October, O'Brien hunts for grouse and woodcock. In early December he begins duck hunting again. By now weather conditions have made the Sound perilous, and the best shooting is when the water is at its icy worst.
Late in January, O'Brien and his friends do most of their shooting from lieout boats anchored a few hundred yards from the lee shore where they try to hold steady in the calmer sea. "We'll put out a lot of broadbill decoys," he says. "The last day of last season, we put out about 100. Broadbill are very sociable birds—they like a lot of company. A very good setup is shaped like a fishhook. You follow the shank of the hook, come around to the barb and extenuate the barb.
"One of the great sights is the broadbill coming in. They'll come in quite high, and they'll see the rig. They'll spill the wind right out of their wings. They come down incredibly fast, and the next thing you know they're boring right in at you and landing right there in the hollow of the hook. All you see is black. The black head and the black chest. We let them come until they're not going to want to come anymore. Then we sit up and these birds go into a flare, and they really are moving. All of a sudden they turn from black into a tremendous pattern of black and white, and if the sun's out, they're really beautiful."
When the broadbill season ends on Jan. 31, O'Brien is depressed, though his wife Katie, he admits, "really has had her fill of it." But February and March are not lost time. In those months O'Brien does most of his serious contest carving for the U.S. National, which is held in mid-March. He spends hours studying his heads, going so far as to put them on the dashboard of his car so that he can study details on the drive to and from his office. "Another reason I drive to New York is so I can look out the window and watch the ducks," he says. "Even along the Harlem River by the Columbia boathouse, I see canvasback, broadbill and black duck."
In April, O'Brien forgets about ducks momentarily when he starts trout fishing. He has his own trout stream on his property and for a number of years he was entranced with the idea of breaking the world record for brook trout. But come summer, when O'Brien and his family vacation on Nantucket, he gets back to his carving, making decoy heads on the beach when the stripers and blues aren't hitting.
In September, O'Brien is busy getting ready for duck hunting. As befits a hunter of his ardor, he usually has several retrievers about the house. He trains them himself, but during the summer he may ship a dog off to a professional trainer for polishing. In the 1960s O'Brien competed in retriever field trials, and although he did well, it simply took too much time from real shooting.
O'Brien's passion for ducks has not gone unnoticed at his law firm. In a skit at the office party last Christmas, a young associate played the part of O'Brien dressed up in hunting clothes. O'Brien didn't complain. In fact, he wasn't around at the time; he was off on a duck hunt in Texas.