Monday, September 17, 2012

Shorebird Hunting

Nope, it's not legal, and you shouldn't do it. But I'm sure you and the rest of everyone who has pulled up on a flock of golden plovers has always wondered...what do they taste like? Not only do I wonder what they taste like, I've also wondered how did they really shoot them. We've all either seen a picture, read the "horror" stories of mass market killings, or have seen an old shorebird decoy and been a little bit curious. Well, curiosity kills the kittens, and it might eventually take my own life, but in the meantime, I'm enjoying my curiosity streak. I've made it clear and obvious that I've collected decoys fro a little while now - but only seriously for about the past couple of years. But as I research these decoys and attempt to attach some type of provenance to them, I learn about a whole lot of other stuff that opens more doors and questions.

Not too long ago, I was poking about and stumble upon a fishbox full of flattie shorebird decoys. In fact, it happened about two months ago. Collecting shorebird decoys is a tough and expensive hobby. If you want the good ones -those where the maker goes by any name other than "unknown" - You'll pay the big bucks. Even a quality North Carolina shorebird decoy starts at around two grand. the John Fulcher's from Currituck are, well, very expensive. North Carolina is most recognized for their "flatty" shorebirds - artfully cut out silhouettes with wire legs and bills. They're no Thomas Gelston, but Thomas Gelston was probably a lonely old man if he had time to make those pretty decoys. North Carolina's decoys are hardened old warhorses. Made from simple stuff, in simple ways, in a simple time. Yeah, anyway, I found a bucket of them - and I'm a duck decoy man - but I was curious enough to pay $10 for the box to see if I had actually stumbled on anything. And maybe I did.

Yep, that's probably all I'll ever know. I've got a carver/collector/great friend who does a good job of telling me whether or not  made a good decision or not - and I love to hear it. He's been better at telling me when I've gotten something bad, though. I think that has more to do with what I acquire, though. But he likes all decoys, just like I do, for their form, their history, and for their magical evolution to treasured piece of art. I hate to put them in the art category, though. But anyway, the shorebirds I found  that day have sent me over 600 miles in my Jeep. And we're gong 300 miles more this week in search of answers or more questions.

Still, it's on each one of these trips where I stumble on to new answers to old questions and yes, more new questions. Below are the things that I have learned from the half dozen people who have looked at my shorebirds and entertained my questions:
A prominent North Carolina Judge shot shorebirds well after it was outlawed...but he did that in the 50's and is long gone now. He also made his own decoys...which are cool looking!
The loop in NC flatty decoys' legs are meant to keep the decoy from twisting and spinning in the sand.
Cecil Midgett did not make all flatty shorebirds.
Hunters typically put out 12-28 decoys when hunting them.
Summer was a fun time to shoot them...but spring was good, as was September.
Some were hunted on the beachside, while some where only hunted on the soundside.
Mosquito larvae in a "manmade" watering hole on the beach was just like pouring corn out for ducks.

Well, anyway, in all of my research, I got to meet an interesting dude. One who shot shorebirds back when it is acceptable. He's 97 years old, and he's actually quite renowned. We had a good talk, and he liked the shorebirds, but he certainly didn't make them, nor did he know who made them. But we talked about his first hunt, how they prepared shorebirds, where they got the wood from to make decoys, where the legs and bills came from, how they set up blinds, and how they toted them back to the house when they had a "mess" of them - and I even asked what a "mess" was.

Either way, I'll share some of what I learned, but I do encourage everybody to do their own research. Buy an old decoy and buy a good one. But buy what you like. Don't buy to many...anyway, here's the facts that came from a genuine old shorebird hunter. And if you don't see the freaking historical significance of talking to a man who MARKET HUNTED then you're missing out on the big picture. Sure, anyone is capable of going out and shooting ducks over more plastic ducks, but it'll do you some good to give a hoot. Here you go:
Willets taste fishy
Curlews could be dressed like chickens
His first hunt was on the beach, not the soundside. That's a way to start...
Morning - early morning - was the best, but it is for everything, right?
Yellowlegs were the best eating.
Building a curtain blind on the shoals for brant shooting was hard, but very worth it.
The Gull Shoal Club hated their wooden decoys, and therefore chose to "get rid of a bunch for those herters"...
The dowels for the shorebird decoy legs were cut sticks from the juniper or holly trees - whatever was nearby.

I learned a lot more and since I didn't record the conversation, I'll forget some of it. Either way, it was a conversation that literally covered 4 generations of waterfowl hunting in North Carolina. I saw decoys that spanned longer than that - and yeah, I came home with one, too!

Most importantly - we're all part off the present in this sport. One day, we'll be a part of it's past, and it's up to each one of us what legacy we leave behind. As a whole, many  view the market days as evil. Some see it as  cool. I see it as a time when men did what they could to take care of themselves and their 8 kids. The Lord gave them dominion over the creatures. They were just like us - they got a rise out of the sunrise. They loved to see ducks fly and they loved to see them fall. But they were honest and hardworking. Market hunting was dangerous and hard. But I bet it was fun...

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