How I came to own the
I am the son of a navy
chaplain, a Presbyterian minister…my father was also a duck hunting fool.
In 1963 I shoot my first duck-a
drake mallard- from a boat hide along the edge of the Santee- Cooper River
outside of Charleston, SC. That single act pretty much ruint' me
forever. At least some would say so. Being that my dad is military we move
around a lot. Every 2-3 years the family uproots then resettles. Part of the
resettling process is learning where to hunt near our new home. Any navy
base is on the water and if you have water, you’ve got ducks. All we have to
do is find ducks we can access. My dad isn’t above using his status as
a preacher to get at the fowl.
Dad learns to hunt amidst
the marshes of the Great South Bay on Long Island, NY. As a result, in
later years, he is partial to shooting black ducks and scaup;
staples of the Long Island sounds. One would be well advised not to
get between the preacher and a decoying black duck.
My brothers and sister
don’t care much for duck hunting, but I am crazed for it. Consequently,
from the age of eight, my dad and I are fairly inseparable gunning buddies.
Throughout our moves, I am blessed to explore myriads of marshes,
little known backwaters and bays. In particular, I have memories of the
areas around Charleston, SC, Northeastern NC, Southern VA, coastal NJ,
Newport, RI, Long Island Sound in New York, the Horicon marshes in Wi. and Lake Erie layout shooting just above Chicago, IL. Since
1978, however I’ve settled very comfortably into my life here in
A brief sidebar at this
point will explain how I end up in the situation I am now in- how I end
up owning the prettiest marsh in North Carolina.
As an offshoot of my dad’s
love of duck hunting he also begins collecting decoys before it is
popular to do so. Any family trip includes a visit to one or several crusty old
carver’s, gunner’s or collector’s houses. The family
is usually required to wait in the car while my dad talks and trades, but I
exercise my status as gunning buddy to get at least a peak at the decoys and
decoy makers of a bygone era.
I find myself in the shops
of and speak to the likes of the Ward brothers in Chrisfield, MD. I also meet Hurly
Conklin, all the Jobses, T.J. Hooker, the Veasy clan, Erleen Snow, the
Waterfields, the Brunets, Bill Mackey, Dr. Starr and Bud Ward, to name just
a few. Also, and just as important, I’ve held the carvings of all the great
decoy masters from the Mississippi eastward. Crowell’s, Hudson’s, Lincolns,
Wards, Masons too numerous to mention, Dudley’s, Cobb's, Verity’s, Shourdes',
Elliston’s and Perdue’s. I’ve also fondled the unidentified regional
master's decoysfrom Monhegan Island scoters to hollow little gems from the Delaware
River. The folksy Carolina clunkers, Susquehanna flats factory runoffs, pretty painted
brilliantly preserved Mississippi blocks and ingeniously designed New
England beauties have shaped my views of the classic decoy. In the sense of
gunning history I have been truly blessed.
Anyway. The man who
founds Outer Banks Waterfowl (OBW) did so around 1965. His name is Jimmy
Curling and he is a native Outer Banker. In the summers he is the mate
for boat builder and Captain, Bobby Sullivan. In the winter, Jimmy is the
boss and Bobby the helper for duck guiding. On the second to last day of
the 1977 season Jimmy has a boating mishap and drowns as he is returning
to the marsh to pick up the day’s hunting charter and return them to shore.
As one of Jimmy’s best
gunning buddies, his family calls my dad right away. At the funeral my
dad learns that they are going to sell Jimmy’s marsh in Oregon Inlet,
called Herring Shoal Island. The marsh is located across from a small bay
to the south of the Bodie Island Refuge and lighthouse, and is just a bit to the north of
the expansive Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Jimmy’s marsh covers an
area of approximately 85 acres, and when you factor out all the creeks and
ponds, encompasses 44 acres of actual land and sports five maintained
gunning sites. The marsh sits right in the freaking center of twenty five
miles worth of refuges.
When my dad returns home
from the funeral (He is stationed at Great Lakes, IL), he realizes he
has a very small window of opportunity. I remember my dad coming up to me
and asking my opinion. He doesn’t have much money, but he does own one
of the country’s larger decoy collections. The pivotal question we
answer is this, “Would we rather look at the birds on the shelves in our
house, or the birds in the air over Herring Shoal Island?”
dad makes the call that night. A wealthy buddy has been after my dad
to sell him the collection for years. Dad simply tells the collector
that this is his chance. If he can find a suitcase, fill it with cash,
and make it to our house by the following evening, my dad might be disposed
to negotiate the sale of some decoys. Two days later we own a most
Vern takes control of OBW there isn’t much to work with. He does own the
marsh, which is very good, but there is virtually no client base. Jimmy,
for lack of a better term, was organizationally challenged. He had a
logbook, which at first sounds good, but the only information it has is last
names, the number of men gunning and how much they owe. That is all
the information Jimmy ever needs because all of Jimmy’s clientele come out
of his summer fishing charters. Addresses, Jimmy doesn’t need no stinken
addresses! If they want to hunt, then they’d best get a hold of Jimmy
themselves and of course, they always had.
About this time, Vern is
diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a result of being Agent Oranged during
his tour in Vietnam while serving with the marines. Despite the
inconvenience of an aggressive regimen of
chemotherapy, Vern sets out to run a guide service. The first year is
pretty much a wash. Allied with 2 young guides and a list of names to use as backups, all
pretty well starve that first year. During the previous summers fishing
season all of the old clients learn of Jimmy’s demise and due to Vern’s
non-native status shift their business to other captains from the fishing
fleet. Business is good for them. Not so much for Vern and company.
The following summer,
Vernon resorts to advertising. Ducks Unlimited brings in, by far, the most
clients. Numerous other periodicals and print media are explored and
utilized. Many hunts are ‘comped’ to outdoor writers in a bid to
bolster a now burgeoning mailing list. By the ’80-81 gunning season ,
- the year after I graduate college with a Biology/philosophy double major.
degrees could a duck guide have?!) Outer Banks Waterfowl, Inc. is a
No one advertises
nationally for waterfowling on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in conjunction
with access to Currituck County immediately to our north. Vern wheels and deals
and eventually consolidates several smaller guide services. The
calls come in and the days of starving through duck season are in the
past. The 80-81 season is also the best in terms of ducks harvested up
until these last few seasons some thirty years later. The
2010\11 season is our new best year ever for total harvest. Before that
the early eighties are the good old days.
is little room for me in the guide rotation that first year out of school.
Vern has himself and another guide working our marsh daily. Besides. Vern
has a more pressing need that season. A duck plucker. Nobody
the job. I have moved back home and haven’t gotten a job yet. “Hey boys,
meet the new duck plucker!” That year i am everybody's bitch.
the two and a half years since Vern takes over OBW, Inc., he has succeded in
getting the business humming. Twenty to 30 gunners per day, two men to
a guide and the guide sits with you all day. That’s a max of 45 men in
the marshes per day! The scene at the hotel each pre-dawn is
fascinating. Dogs, cammo, boots and boats virtually explode into the
hotel's parking lot , then disperse like a smoke grenade at an out of
control rock concert. Caravans group then head out until,
eventually, there is nothing left but a parking lot devoid of everything but
the preacher, his Chesapeak retreiver dog and a duck boat. He'll sit around with another cup
of coffee and talk to the night clerk long enough for any phone calls to
report broken down outboards to reach him. Barring that he’ll slide out and
find himself a spot to hunt a few hours by himself.
That first year out of
school we reach the thousand duck threshold before the season is even
half over! Fowl, weather and clients all cooperate. I can’t
start cleaning the fowl until the gunners return each evening so my work
begins well after dark. All birds gathered that evening need to be
cleaned, packaged and returned to the hotel coolers prior to the time the
hunters may need to embark the following morning. That first year I am
pulling two to four all-nighters per week over the duration of the gunning
season. The up-side? $20-30.00/hour cash. The downside.
Duck lice and too tired to do much gunning myself. Even though I am the owner’s son, believe me when I
tell you, I have started at the bottom and aim to work my way up.
The benefit of starting
out as duck-plucker is that I am there to greet the gunners each evening.
I get the stories of the day first, all the hits and the muffed shots- those
rare situations that last a lifetime on the back shelves of a waterfowler’s
mind. It is wonderful being totally immersed in ducking and goosing.
The other benefit to a
duck-plucker is the magic of watching the gunning reverend work his crowds.
The need is to organize the next day’s hunt each evening prior and the
process starts at 7PM. If he can, he meets everybody in the hotel’s
bar, where a little noise and excitement is expected and encouraged. All
money due is collected prior to your first day’s hunt. That
lesson I learn early on! The hunters who have gone out that day are
showered and cleaned up by then and those arriving that day are raring to
go. All are having drinks .Over there is an older two-man group. Over there
is a 12 man group from
Michigan just showing up. On the other side of the bar is an eight-man
group of police officers from Pittsburgh, PA talking to a group of seven
podiatrists who - having brought their wives along - are left with only one vehicle. On the other side of the coin Vern has
a list of all the guides, their limitations and the geographic areas each
guide may work.
Everybody wants to buy
the Reverend a drink and hear a few duck stories. Pretty much he delivers.
Around 10:30PM everything is pretty well lined up as Vern shakes hands with
the elderly two-man group. When told where they’re going to hunt the next day
and for what you can see them stiffen noticeably. “No, we’re not going to
hunt Currituck. We’re here to hunt divers. That’s all we want. Divers.
Preferably cans.” Monkey wrenched- totally! Vern hustles off to rearrange
all the magic he has just spent the last three or so hours creating.
Oncology if a patient lives five years past diagnosis,
they get to call him cured. It's good for morale . Yea . A survivor. Vern passes six months past that date.
It's in the early spring, with a full load of memories fresh from the
previous fowling season. He spends only the last 10 days in the hospital and that
is good. Nothing personal but cancer in conjunction with hospitals sucks.
take over the guide service full time in the ’85-86 season. For four years
I run the business full bore until one evening I hear myself apologizing in
advance.“Tomorrow’s going to be slow, but I promise you’ll get this or that the next
day. He’s the hot guide with the hot blind.” I feel a bit
like a pirate as I say it. What's that say about tomorrow's hunt?
client kind of flinches and gives me a bit of a look. At first I put
it off on him as being, ‘one of those difficult hunters.’ The next day
in the blind, during one of those slow times of the day, I start thinking. " I have
worse guides and filler guides; Hmmm. I wouldn't want to pay
good money to gun with bad guides. Hmmm. I'm not doing anybody any favors by
hooking them up with substandard guides and\or equipment."
Soon thereafter I embark
in a house-cleaning . I weed out just about everybody , but that doesn't work
out so great either. I sometimes need to book eight men to get my own two
man group for the day. Hmmm. Slowly but surely-over the years- the
fates have brought excellent guides into our lives. Every year ,Ellen and I
say "No more. We're not getting any bigger. We're not hiring any new guy's.
Then one of my guys brings one of his buddies over . And we get to talking.
Then the next thing you know.... Essentially . If I'm jealous of his gunning
areas and equipment after I've met a potential new guide and he loves being
out in the wildness we'll figure a way to work him into the rotation. I've
got certain clients that I use to scout my new guys. That, and we still live
on a very small island.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that what the guide service has
evolved into is a beautiful thing. The guides get that it's a team effort.
How can you not when you've just spent the day with men who are telling
stories about hunts, guides and retrievers from two and three decades past?
We all keep an eye on each other. We shoot lots more fowl and have lots more fun. And on
no occasion do I look in the mirror and see a pirate looking back, nor do I
ever feel the need to apologize in advance.