A hunter headed into the darkness in a 17-foot boat, his pre-dawn navigation impaired by heavy fog. The hunter checked his compass heading then moved cautiously between two other boats that parted to allow him to proceed to his destination.
“The hunters in those boats are lost,” said Jerry Simmons. “They thought I knew the way, but I was going in another direction than they wanted to go. Once the fog lifts, they will find their way. But, by then, it may be too late for them to catch the dawn flight.”
Simmons is a 70-year-old retriever trainer who lives in Castle Hayne. He trains dogs for other hunters all year, but gets a break during the waterfowl-hunting season because most of his clients have taken their dogs home.
“It’s the only break from training I get all year,” he said. “I started training dogs because I loved hunting waterfowl. I had a regular job once, but when that came to an end, I started training dogs for a living.”
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Between morning and afternoon training sessions, or when he is waiting on a client, Simmons carves decoys. He began carving them when Jimmy Jordan, a friend who was a talented carver, died in 2013. He bought much of the equipment from Jordan’s widow – a carving bench, knives and power tools. He also bought cork from several sources as well as tupelo blanks for making bodies and heads.
“I used Jimmy’s patterns as well as patterns I got from Charles Godwin, a hunting buddy who made his own decoys when we were first starting hunting 50 years ago,” he said. “I wanted them to stand out, so I made them two inches bigger than the original patterns all the way around.”
Simmons painstakingly roughed out the shape of each decoy with power saws then did the final shaping with knives, rasps and sandpaper. Then he had to paint them to appear to be real ducks, which he said was as hard as the carving had been. The cork-bodied decoys have wood heads and keels. The tupelo decoys are hollow with a flat piece of wood for the base. They also have wood heads and keels.
“I made the tupelo decoys hollow to save weight,” he said. “A wooden decoy can weigh five pounds and a cork decoy weighs about three. I put a nickel with the year I made it inside each wooden decoy. If you shake it, you can hear the nickel rattle. Someday, someone may want to know the date. But, I like the cork decoys better because they ride the water more realistically and are a lot lighter.”
Simmons found his destination, which was a privately owned island he had permission to hunt in Pamlico Sound. While its owner had constructed a blind, Simmons elected to hunt from his boat, on which he had added a collapsible blind with a steel tubing frame and canvas sides. The sides were covered with grass mats to make it disappear against the grass and reeds along the shoreline.
He used the outboard’s exhaust fumes to gauge the wind direction. Then he set the decoys one by one. Each decoy was held in place by 3/8-inch nylon line knotted to a one-pound lead anchor. He had cast the anchors himself and even made the anchor mold.
“I am primarily hunting diving ducks today,” he said. “I have 36 scaup and canvasback decoys. I also have four swan decoys I made from canvas and wire with wooden bases. I have swan permit. Maybe I will get a shot at one.”
Last season, Simmons had finished carving only three duck decoys. They were mostly experimental as he tacked lead weights to various spots on their keels to give them proper balance. This day was the first time he set a complete spread of carved decoys, capping it off with three buffleheads and a drake goldeneye.
“I finally got the goldeneye’s head painted just right,” he said. “It’s a sort of blackish green, but not as green as the head of a drake mallard.”
Once his spread was set, Simmons anchored the boat, fore and aft. Then he set up the blind. Legal shooting time arrived at 6:43. Scattered shots from surrounding marshes eventually became as steady as a firefight.
He blamed the fog for the ducks he heard flying overhead not descending to his decoys. As daylight grew, a flock of lesser scaup decoyed and one fell. A green-winged teal was next to fall.
At one point, a dozen swans locked their wings, heading for the four swan decoys.
“Don’t move,” he hissed. “They are looking the decoys over.”
However, a boat motor moaned by. The swans began beating their wings again and headed away, soon swallowed up by the fog.
“It didn’t matter how many ducks I shot today,” he said. “I wanted to hunt over my own decoys and see if the ducks would work to them. Hand-carved decoys are at the very core of America’s waterfowl hunting history. They are our link to the past.”