Hunter carries on tradition of making canvas swan decoys

CorrespondentJanuary 22, 2014 

— There is something special about a gift created by hand. On Christmas morning, Jerry Simmons’ daughter, Katie, received a gift that made her so happy, she cried.

“I gave my son, Jerry, his son, Brett and my daughter Katie and her husband Jason Swain full-sized canvas swan decoys and gave all four of my grandchildren miniature decoys,” said Jerry Simmons.

Over decades, the 66-year-old hunting dog trainer in Rocky Point acquired the talents and tools to make decoys out of wood and cork to pass time between hunting seasons training sessions. He also makes them for another reason.

“I’ve trained dogs for hunters in their teens and 20s,” he said. “I like showing them how to make decoys to pass on the tradition.”

Simmons began making canvas decoys when his friend, Jimmy Jordan, died last August. Simmons said Jordan donated swan decoys to the Clinton Ducks Unlimited chapter for its fund-raising banquet every year.

“We hunted geese together from pit blinds for more than 20 years,” he said. “Jimmy retired from teaching and made decoys as a hobby. Two hunters would dig a pit in a man’s field. Two other hunters would set the decoys. After were done hunting, we picked up the decoys and filled in the pit. It looked like we were never there.”

Jordan cut blocks of tupelo wood from stumps and dried it for carving decoys. Tupelo is lightweight, with interlocking grain that resists splitting and is soft enough to shape easily. But the canvas decoy was created due to scarcity of materials along the Outer Banks. Even wood like tupelo was unobtainable in salty sounds.

“I’ve always heard it called the Currituck canvas decoy,” Simmons said. “Hunters made decoys using what they had, and this type of decoy probably originated around the 1930s. They had communication wire. They also had wood and sails from shipwrecks.”

Simmons obtained some of Jordan’s materials and went to work on his first decoy, a Canada goose. He gave it to his daughter for her birthday.

He kept the swan decoys secret until Christmas morning. He said it took three days to complete each full-sized swan from scratch. Jordan had started making two of the frames, so Simmons completed them in half that time.

“I begin with a piece of tupelo 1 1/2 inches, 16 inches wide and 24 inches long,” he said. “I cut an oval for the base. Then, I cut a silhouette body and attach it to the base with screws. I use a 2-inch thick piece for head and neck, and after that is finished, I attach it to the front of the body silhouette with a bolt extend through the bottom.”

Of all the steps, shaping the head takes the most time – an entire day. Every piece is cut to rough dimensions with a band saw and then shaped with rasps and carving knives.

“Then I add 1/8-inch galvanized wires for the frame for the canvas,” he said. “On original decoys, wire was also used to form the frame’s sides. But for making the sides, I used Nylon or cotton string. Old-timers didn’t want to waste wood, and they didn’t have power saws to shape it.”

Simmons bends seven wires for the upright frame, which stand up like the hoop supportsof a Conestoga wagon. He bends the ends at 90-degree angles and hammers them into the sides of the wooden base.

“Then I tie the wires together, starting with a square knot at the front, wrapping it around each wire and tying another square knot on the rear. There are six strings, three on each side.”

Next the wooden base, silhouette and head are sealed with several coats of paint. Simmons brushes paint on exterior surfaces and uses aerosol paints for areas inside the wire framework. Then he adds the canvas.

“I use lightweight cotton duck,” he said. “I cut a 44-inch-by-24-inch piece and stretch it over the frame. I staple it across the bottom and lap it together at the tail where I sew it together. I tack it at several points along the bottom to help it keep its shape. It doesn’t have to be tight, just snug, because the final coat of paint tightens it.”

A 66-inch long, 3-inch wide canvas strip is folded and tacked along the sides of the base with two, alternating rows of brass tacks spaced 2 inches apart. Alternating the tack rows keeps the canvas from bunching, the wood from splitting, and creates an eye-catching pattern.

All surfaces receive two coats of white, oil-based paint. The bill is painted black and black glass eyes are added. The final touch is painting a yellow patch on each side of the bill.

While they are works of folk art, Simmons said he made the decoys for hunting.

“Jerry and I have swan tags this year,” he said. “I told everyone to hunt with their decoys before they put them up. Hunting with them adds memories to their beauty.”

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